medicine, “theory” and practice were never separated. But, as Huff has noted, medicine was the exception.38 In engineering, mechanics, chemistry, mining, and agriculture, the savansand the fabricans in China were as far or further apart as they ever were in Europe.39 It is perhaps telling that while a considerable number of Chinese techniques in one form or another found their way to the West, there are few instances of Chinese useful knowledge (not to mention science proper) being adopted by the West.
Another “test” of what might have happened to non-Europeans in the absence of Western technology is the history of Tokugawa Japan. Here, too, the natural experiment is seriously flawed, because their best efforts notwithstanding, Japan was not entirely closed to western influences. All the same, the idea that they would have been entirely stagnant and hopelessly poverty-stricken in the absence of the West is convincingly refuted by modern research. Material culture on the eve of Commodore Perry’s visit was not stagnant and, by many measures, not obviously inferior. It was just different. The Japanese had no guns, brick homes, metal flatware, coal, or railroads, ate no beef and drank no beer. But they were far more efficient in using the fuel and raw materials they had, and the quality of their food, public sanitation, housing, and personal care implied a level of physical health and life expectancy that was equal to the very best Europe could show in 1850. Moreover, Hanley has argued that this was an economy that grew substantially in the eighteenth century, continuing into the early Meiji years.40 This was certainly an economy capable of growth, but could it ever have been a knowledge-based growth like Western Europe without the infusion of European knowledge?
To return to the previous example, would the Orient have invented electrical telegraphy if the West had not? As is well known, the Chinese in the Song period had discovered magnetism and developed a floating needle that served as a compass. They had figured out some fairly advanced properties of magnetism such as magnetic declination (the error term in the compass due to the difference between the magnetic North pole and the geographical north of the planet), known as early as the ninth century A.D., and magnetic remanence (acquisition of magnetic properties due to cooling), known in the 11th century. Yet the understanding of electricity seems to have eluded them, let alone the
38Sivin, “Science and Medicine,” Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, 1993.
39Needham points out that the Greek distinction between theory and practice, the former suitable to a gentleman and the latter not, has a precise equivalent in the Chinese distinction between hsüeh and shu. Cf. Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1969, p. 142.
40Hanley, Everyday Things, pp. 17-19. She rightfullypoints out that the income comparisons by Angus Maddison and others that show that in 1870 Japan’s per capita GNP was just a quarter of the UK is deeply flawed because the two economies were consuming largely non-overlapping baskets.