A (Short) Reading List On China, Innovation, And Perception

In light of President-elect Donald Trump’s purposeful or inadvertent dismissal of more than 30-years of American foreign policy, I wanted to recommend two books. One is about the nuance of America’s foreign policy toward China, beginning at its infancy, and the other is about innovation, perception, and a man who liked to be naked.

Let’s start with the naked guy. I’m talking about Joseph Needham, a brilliant and eccentric scientists who stumbled his way into China, and history, not because of his scientific prowess but because of his fondness for women. Needham had a near photographic memory, spoke more languages than most cars have cylinders, and was married to a brilliant scientist who accepted his womanizing.

His mistress for most of his life was a Chinese women who taught him Mandarin and led him to serve, at the behest of the British government during and after WWII, as a sort of scientific goodwill ambassador.

In short, Joseph Needham went to China and upended decades, if not centuries, of perceptions about China’s backwardness and the West’s innovative domination.

He discovered China had, by more years than anyone could’ve imagined, beaten the West to produce:

  • Asbestos woven into cloth
  • The first dated and printed book
  • Gunpowder
  • Handguns
  • Paper money

China’s pace of innovation was astounding.

“Depending on the way the arithmetic is done — and considering only the most intellectually fertile phase of China’s history, between the Han and Ming dynasties — Needham pointed out that in every century the Chinese dreamed up nearly fifteen new scientific ideas — a pace of inventiveness unmatched by the world’s other great ancient civilizations, including the Greeks. The nature of the inventions was remarkable enough, Needham wrote; but the rate at which they came was like nowhere else on earth, and like no other time in history.”

So writes Simon Winchester in “The Man Who Loved China,” a book about Joseph Needham and his quest to tell the world about China’s productivity. Needham documented that productivity in a series of books entitled, “Science and Civilisation in China.” He had a fall from grace for his support of communism and Mao.

What’s fascinating is, for how long had we (the West) assumed our inherent innovative advantage over the East? Decades, if not centuries. What other misconceptions might we hold toward China? And they toward us?

Given the distance and historical gap between our cultures, likely a lot.

That much and more comes out in the other, much more subtle book I’m recommending, “On China,” by Henry Kissinger. He played a leading role, under President Nixon, of restoring ties between America and China.

He’s still strengthening those ties. Writing about the policy shift President-elect Trump prompted by accepting a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen the NYT wrote the following on Friday:

Kissinger wrote “On China” in 2011 after decades of being an interlocutor between China and America. As detailed in the review of on China by The New York Times, Kissinger notes the stark difference in worldview and time horizon of the two world powers.

China’s history stretches back centuries, and Chinese leaders usually see themselves (or at least are seen as by their people) demigods who rule not just China but the world. Their board-game of choice is called “Go” and its endless encirclement echoes in China’s foreign policy: It’s patient, tries to pit its enemies against each other, and looks for small, strategic blows rather than knock-out punches.

Americans (and the West) by contrast love Chess, a game where the entire goal is to get to a place to deliver a knock-out punch. Our foreign policy has been both like Go and Chess at different times in history. Which game do we think President-elect Trump would excel at?

Recommended reading about China:

  • “The Man Who Loved China,” by Simon Winchester
  • “On China,” by Henry Kissinger
  • China Is Trying To Give A Credit Rating To All Its Citizens — WSJ 11/28/2016
  • A Chinese Billionaire Is Buying Hollywood — WSJ 12/1/2016
  • Mo Yan (“Don’t Speak” in English) is a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese author. His books “Red Sorghum” and “The Garlic Ballads” first got me interested in China. Read the opening pages for free here of “Red Sorghum” and imagine instead of him describing China he were describing a wheat field in Kansas. Beautiful…
  • Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine,” by Yang Jisheng. It chronicles Mao’s rise to power and how, as a result of his policies, millions starved. The books is banned in China.
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