Let me hide beneath the skirts of Adam Smith, who praised
the British tax system's efficiency: "the people of France...
it is generally acknowledged, are much more oppressed by taxes
than the people of Great Britain," and yet: "in 1775
and 1766, the whole revenue paid into the treasury of France,
according to the best, though, I acknowledge, very imperfect
accounts which I could get... [was] not the half of what might
have been expected, had the people contributed in the same proportion...
as... Great Britain."
And yet he observed that: "The practice of [running up
large debts during wartime and then consolidating the post-war
indebtedness into long-term bonds] has gradually enfeebled every
state which has adopted it. The Italian republicks seem to have
begun it.... Spain seems to have learned the practice from the
Italian republicks, and (its taxes being probably less judicious
than theirs) it has, in proportion to its natural strength, been
still more enfeebled.... France... languishes under an oppressive
load.... The republic of the United Provinces [of the Netherlands]
is as much enfeebled by its debts as either Genoa or Venice."
And he concluded by asking the rhetorical question: "Is
it likely that in Great Britain alone a practice, which has brought
either weakness or desolation into every other country, should
prove altogether innocent?"
>Janet Abu-Lughod, "Before European Hegemony: The
World System A.D.
>1250-1350", pp 323-324:
>In the past, before western scholars had sufficient information
>China's achievements in science and technology, it was commonly
>Europe's eventual triumph in the world arena was the result
of her unique
>scientific and technological inventiveness. and, conversely,
>Orientals, although perhaps "clever,". had never
been able to sustain a
>scientific revolution. The voluminous investigations of Needham
>than corrected this error. We now have much fuller documentation
>contributions to medicine and physiology, physics, and mathematics,
>as their more practical applications in technology.
>According to Sivin, Needham did not go far enough; he stopped
>admitting that, by Sung times, China had had a true scientific
>"revolution," a position strongly argued by Chinese
scholars. Whether or
>not the term "scientific revolution" is justified,
there can be no doubt
>that in late medieval times the level of Chinese technical
>exceeded the Middle East, which, in turn, had outstripped
Europe for many
>centuries. Space permits only a few examples here: paper
and printing, iron
>and weaponry (including guns, cannons, and bombs), shipbuilding
>navigational techniques, as well as two primary manufactured
I found this passage from David Landes's _Revolution in Time_
to be an interesting take on these issues:
From David S. Landes, Revolution in Time (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1983).
In the year 1086 of our era, the boy emperor of China, or
more probably his ministers, ordered an examination of the astronomical
devices inherited from previous reigns and the construction of
an astronomical clock that should surpass anytht had been built
before. He chose for this task a certain Su Sung, an experienced
diplomat and administrator with scientific interests. Su Sung
gathered a team of officials, technicians, and craftsmen, naming
as designer and superintendent of construction a certain Han
Kung-lien, then "a minor official in the Ministry of Personnel."
(In china there was no horological profession, and talent was
to be found in unexpected places.) Two years later a working
wooden model was finished; two years more, and the metal parts
of the great clock were cast in bronze; four more years (1094)
and the "explanatory monograph" was ready for presentation
to the emperor, and presumably the clock with it.
Su Sung's clock... was one of the marvels of the age. It was
designed to reproduce the movements of the "three luminaries"--sun,
moon, and (selected) stars--which were crucial to Chinese calendrical
calculation and astrological divination. It did this by means
of an observational armillary sphere--that is, an assemblage
of rings representing the paths of these bodies as they presented
themselves to an observer on earth--and a demonstrational celestial
globe, each rotating on a polar axis and appropriately inclined
to the horizon.... The whole mechanism, which must have weighed
tons and occupied a tower about forty feet high, was powered
by a water wheel designed to turn intermittently at a stable
...Why did science originate in Europe and not in China, which
seemed so much readier for it? The question is the more pertinent
because horology is only one of several areas in which the technology
of medieval China was ahead of that of Europe: it was China,
after all, that gave us paper, gunpowder, movable type, porcelain,
and other important and ingenious topics. Recall in this regard
the wonderment of Marco Polo, who was no country bumpkin but
a citizen of Europe's greatest trading city....
... On balance... there seems every reason to believe that
the Su Sung clock could perform well on a day-to-day basis--certainly
far better than the early mechanical clocks that made their appearance
in Europe almost two hundred years later. How it did over longer
periods, we do not know.... The model of the Su Sung clock nonw
standing in the Time Museum in Rockford has not kept a stable
rate, partly for mechanical reasons, partly perhaps as a result
of temperature problems.
It is probably this difference between short run and long
that accounts for the contradictory reports that have come down
to us. The Chinese boasted of their peak performances, yet also
commemorated their failures. The records seem to show that none
of their great clocks kept good time over a long period; indeed,
none of them lasted. The annalists report these disappointments
in matter-of-fact declarative prose--reflecting perhaps the Chinese
temperament and good annalistic manners, but also the functional
Given the calendrical-astrological objectives of these clockwork
astraria, an accurate rate was desirable but not necessary...
What does it matter if the timing of the winter solstice is off
by an hour, several hours, or even a day? A great deal in principle;
indeed, the very legitimacy of the emperor rested on the harmony
of his decisions and actions with the patterns of the cosmos.
In practice, though, there was room for error, so long as it
was not patent. If the astronomers found an anomaly, the armillary
sphere could be adjusted and the calendar corrected. The important
thing was the appearance of knowledge, duly certified to the
ruler by the court astronomers and proclaimed by him to the people.
The criterion, in other words, was political rather than scientific.
The astronomers understood that only too well: we are told that
in the tenth century the representatives of the two imperial
observatories, which were supposed to arrive at results independently
and check them against each other, used to compare and reconcile
their data in advance. They did not even bother to use their
instruments to make observations, but rather copied out the positions
from the tables of ephemerides. "Everyone knew about it,
yet no one thought it strange."
One hundred years later this collusion was still taking place.
When the new astronomer-imperial learned of , he had some of
the astronomers exposed and punished, but to no avail: "The
deceptions continued as before."
Su Sung himself ran into this problem in the course of his diplomatic
career. He was charged with an embassy to the Liao kingdom in
the north.... His task was to bring a gift to the Liao emperor,
whose birhday chanced to fall on the winter solstice. But the
Chinese calendar had the winter solstice a day early, so that
when Su Sung brought his gift to the Liao court, the officials
were at first unwilling to accpet it. This is the story as the
Chinese memorialist Yeh Meng-te (c. 1130) tells it:
As the barbarians had no restrictions on
astronomical and calendrical study, their
experts in these subjects were generally
better, and in fact their calendar was
correct.... Of course Su Sung was unable
to accept it, but he calmly engaged in
wide-ranging discussion on calendrical
science, quoting many authorities, which
puzzled the barbarians who all listened
with surprise and appreciation. Finally
he said that after all the discrepancy
was a small matter, for a difference of
only a quarter of an hour would make a
difference of one day if the solstice
occurred around midnight.... The barbarians
had no answer to this, so he was allowed
to carry out his mission. But when he
returned home he reported to the Emperor
Shen Tsung, who was very pleased at his
success and at once asked which of the
calendars was right. Su Sung told him the
truth, with the result that the officials
of the astronomical bureau were all punished
Consider now the implications of the Yeh Meng-te account.
"The barbarians," he writes, "had no restrictions
on astronomical and calendrical study"; hence, "their
experts in these subjects were generally better" than the
Chinese--this, mind you, without the help of wonder clocks. In
China the calendar was a perquisite of sovereignty, like the
right to mint coins. Knowledge of the right time and season was
power, for it was this knowledge that governed both the acts
of everyday life and decisions of state. Each emperor inaugurated
his reign with the promulgation of this calendar, often different
from the one that had preceded it. His court astronomers were
the only persons who were permitted in principle to use timekeeping
and astronomical instruments or to engage in astronomical study.
His time was China's time.
In effect, this was a reserved and secret domain. There was
no marketplace of ideas, no diffusion or exchange of knowledge,
no continuing and growing pool of skills or information--hence
a very uneven transmission of knowledge from one generation to
the next.... Under the circumstances we can understand the repeated
lapse of knowledge over long periods, so that each great clockmaker
had to search in old records for the forgotten secrets of earlier
reigns.... These were not stupid people--they just did not make
astronomical clocks very often....
One last comment about the annalist's account of Su Sung's
mission; he writes that Su Sung... "clamly engaged in wide-ranging
discussions on calendrical science, quoting many authorities,
which puzzled the barbarians..."... Now it is hard to say...
what exactly puzzled the so-called barbarians, but one thing
that may have puzzled them was the recourse to authority rather
than to evidence. Reference to authority may have been decisive
in the monopolistic astronomy of China; it was no doubt less
effective in a competitive, emulatory context; and it must surely
have inhibited curiosity, originality, and observation.
It also promoted the corruption of science by factional politics.
A memorial by court official Wang Fu written only a generation
after Su Sung, at a time when Su Sung's clock was presumably
still working, treats the subject of astronomical water clocks
without any mention of Su Sung. [Joseph] Needham suggests that
partisanship is the explanation: "Su Sung's clockwork was
associated with the Confucian Conservatives--Wang Fu was one
of the Taoistic Reformers." When these came to power in
1094, a "committee of investigation" was established
to scrutinize the court's astronomical instruments, and the very
existence of Su Sung's clock was placed in jeopardy.
Is that the way to run an observatory?
Is that the way to treat a clock?