Silkworms. Photo: iStock

The China Central Television program National Treasure is located at a busy intellectual crossroads where are mixed popular culture, a theory of economic/social development, and current Chinese national policy issues, including the question of China as a world leader.

This is not a promotion for the television production: Indeed, we think the show’s producers may not themselves realize the rich mélange of implications that emerge from their presentation of archeological findings combined with implied political, economic and social history. Intended or not, there is an important implicit lesson for modern China.

What the West calls the “Industrial Revolution” is a hidden issue raised by National Treasure. Westerners have a popular belief that their countries were more technically advanced than was China at the time of this “revolution” in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The standard story is that, for example, prior to the boom in cotton-yarn output allowed by the “spinning frame” and “carding machine” invented by Englishman Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92), the UK economic world was rural and agrarian, with many productions going on “at home,” conducted by local, undercapitalized, semi-skilled artisans. Output was small, markets were limited and technical change was slow.

The revolution was a consequence of steam engines, inventions like Arkwright’s, improvements in iron and steel production, railroads, banking innovations and new marketing strategies. The result was mass production, leading to the appearance of England’s “dark, satanic mills,” big cities and, after a while, a consumer society quite unlike the past.

The quality of the goods produced was no better than needed, the social and moral conditions of the working class were less than ideal, the semi-feudal social hierarchy of lord, villager, priest, farmer, and guildsman was replaced with employer versus employee, and villages were sometimes deserted and other times assimilated into urban conglomerations.

Gradually a middle class emerged, where abundant but commonplace consumer goods, healthier living conditions, advances in medicine, improved education and better housing became generally available to almost all.

The historical situation in China was not less advanced, but quite different. There, a master-apprentice system, typified by secretive methods, limited markets, high-quality output, technical excellence, elite buyers, small quantities, elegant rites and cosseted, ritualized traditions controlling methods of production and distribution, all influenced by ancient traditions, complex cultural habits, and “good manners” emerging from the long-lived and deeply “conservative” (in the sense of having respect for the past) life-long traditions of the Chinese people gave rise to a unique, but highly advanced, collection of industrial practices and routines.

This alternative Chinese approach to industrial production, or rather to the production of a sophisticated product – textiles, for example – is seen in the story of silk production, narrated below. As the reader will see, while Arkwright’s ideas allowed the creation of thousands of yards of cheap cotton cloth, almost 9,000 years prior to this industrial revolution, unknown Chinese masters were producing silk. Four thousand years before Arkwright, elegant Chinese empresses wore gauzy silk gowns quite literally fit to be seen and appreciated by kings.

The technical prowess of China, and the cultural and social machinery that metaphorically brought it to market, resulted in technical achievements that were, in contrast with the West, far ahead in time, and much superior in intrinsic quality

In short, the technical prowess of China, and the cultural and social machinery that metaphorically brought it to market, resulted in technical achievements that were, in contrast with the West, far ahead in time, much superior in intrinsic quality, quite limited in quantity, shrouded in secrecy, and measured in small numbers for producers, consumers, total output and sometimes created by techniques lost in time.

The artisan masters and apprentices who fashioned these exquisite artifacts had deep technical knowledge, but they did not have powered machinery or methods of mass production, and so their output was never on the scale of Arkwright’s yarn factory. But the quality and longevity of the artifacts remaining, found in archeological digs and displayed on National Treasure, along with their great current value, gives ample evidence of the excellence, refinement, sophistication, and robustness of the artifacts themselves.

The Chinese artifacts remain interesting, beautiful, valuable and sometimes technically mysterious, even when they are thousands of years old. They are collected by connoisseurs who preserve their value. They are almost venerated by visitors to museums, and they were given pride of place in the palaces of emperors, generals, and cognoscenti.

The lesson, or at least the story we tell, inspired by National Treasure involves China’s habit of secret-keeping, China’s fierce pride in accomplishment, China’s record of innovation and China’s current place in advancing the future progress of the human race.

National Treasure celebrates the history of technical, organizational and scientific discoveries, innovations, applications and breakthroughs made by Chinese persons who lived in ancient China thousands of years ago, but whose contributions shape today’s larger world. Watching it instills a needed special kind of national pride in the individual accomplishments, personal triumphs and singular contributions made in China to the march of human progress. That pride is a necessary antidote to the inaccurate Western myth of China’s “less developed” nature.

A map of technology

Scholars have unearthed an early map of China, called A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, painted by Wang Ximeng (1096–1119). The man who produced it for his emperor, Huizong of Song, who wished to know the extent of his empire, was only 18 years of age at the time he painted the picture/map. It is an exquisite example of the mapmaker’s art, both beautiful and amazing in its ability to show a bird’s eye view of the entire extent of his ruler’s domain.

Chinese “technology” as seen in Wang’s map shows that a unity of thought and awareness permeated Chinese society as a consequence of or at least along with the production of surprisingly advanced materials.

The map was a consequence of the intersection of a great many skills, technical accomplishments, and scientific learning. At the human level, each of the many players involved in the mapmaking project had an interactive, cooperative and holistic understanding of the entire project.

The emperor himself, not merely a customer for the final product, helped the 18-year-old artist in the overall design and provided the project’s goal – to lay out for all to see the extent of the ruler’s domain – as well as financing. There was no other market, no other map buyer.

An important element is the unique nature of the map. It is one of a kind. It is a singular triumph of a vast enterprise, undertaken by a throng of technicians, artists, organizers, and experts of all kinds.

The map itself poetically captures not just detailed geography, including shapes for lakes and courses for rivers, but the act of a simple fisherman casting his net and as well the simple dwellings of the villagers.

The paints used, made with crushed jewels and applied to a 10-meter-long stretch of the finest silk, required the help of dozens of artisans, apprentices, and generations of sophisticated background learning in mining, textiles, preservation technologies.

In short, it was a holistic product, wherein all the players understand themselves to be part of a grand design, with a super-additive national purpose.

But the CCTV show does not follow up on all its own implications and sometimes unaddressed questions. Our essay will refine the presentation: China’s cultural habit of “keeping secrets” is not emphasized in the television show, yet that habit has something to do with both Chinese leadership and failed development. We use two stories, one for pottery and one for silk, to illustrate our argument.

The TV production does a particularly fine job of literally depicting the archeological artifacts that are the surviving evidence of the first examples, found in China, of some of humankind’s first steps on the road to civilization. Our alternative narrative of China’s economic and technical history emphasizes the importance of assigning individual “authorship”, whenever possible, to the fathers, the elders, the long-dead geniuses to whom we owe a debt of thanks.

Another way of putting the point is to say we do not wish to give sole praise to the long-ago emperors, priests, military leaders or political figures who, in most standard histories, are given pride of place when discussions are conducted concerning their moments in time.

The secret of porcelain

Chinese porcelain was first developed during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). It was made in the Shangyu area in what is now Zhejiang province, south of the Yangtze River. The secret of its production was not known in Europe until the 18th century. But the form taken by the secret inside China is important to us.

The maker’s name was known to the final “buyer/customers” in the market (the emperor, courtiers, and elites), and indeed was stamped on the underside of each vase made. But the process by which the object itself was made – the clay, the temperature, the creation of the translucence – was known only to the maker, his apprentices, and his descendants.

For outsiders, the process was near-magic – keeping it so was thought to be in the national interest, or at least in the interest of the emperor. His kingdom is thereby known as a place of technical wonders.

There is a town near Beijing called Jingdeng Zheng where ceramics have been made since ancient times, with stamps on the bottom of each vase. The purpose of the stamp was to identify the maker. Badly made vases might cost the maker his head, so says the legend that describes the intensity, indeed ferocity, of the emperor’s practical interest.

The porcelain story and the silk story we are about to tell help us to understand a problem about economic history: China was way ahead of the West in terms of technical achievements and industrial knowledge. It held that lead for thousands of years, and in some case, the knowledge itself was kept unique to the Chinese economy for millennia. Yet by the time of the Industrial Revolution, the West seemed suddenly to catch up with, even surpass, China’s long lead.

We say the explanation is the following collection of Chinese practices: Early inventors and artisans who followed them were few in number and kept their “brands” as secret as is today’s formula for Coca-Cola. (Coke’s way of doing things is not typical of the rest of the West, as we will show).

The line of persons who know the secrets is narrow, and so secrets can be lost if the chain is broken. The customers who buy the innovative products know not the production secrets, but the names and location of the artisan/producers.

There is no widespread market among the common folk for these special products. Ceremonial bronze caldrons were burial goods interred with only the top people, and bronze pots and pans were not part of the cookware in ordinary kitchens.

In the West, copyrights, patents and secret formulas (Coke is the exception) did not protect the movement, for example of print technology from Gutenberg’s Bibles (AD 1450) printed on long-lived rag paper and available only in cathedral pulpits to, in only a few years, commonly available day-old mass-market newspapers (the Western world’s first newspaper was Relation, in Germany in 1605) used to wrap fish.

The Western markets for new products quickly evolved to serve the general public, and technical secrets were hard to keep. Also, inventors and idea men were public figures, independent of their customers. New ideas quickly became old, as once-technical information quickly became part of common understanding.

The secret of silk

Chinese silk was produced in Neolithic (New Stone Age) times. We call it Stone Age, but obviously China had moved past stone, and was arraying its women, according to the legend about her, notably the wife of the Yellow Emperor, named Lady His-Ling-Shih, Goddess of Silk, in silken gowns in 3000 BC. She is said to have “tamed” the silkworm, and invented the loom. What is certain is the existence of the 3000 BC radio-carbon-dated collection of ribbons, threads and textile fragments dug up in Qianshanyang, Zhejiang province.

Other archeological finds exist; dating from 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, there is an ivory cup with an incised depiction of a silkworm. Even earlier dates, perhaps to 9,000 years in the past, are assigned to diggings along the Yangtze River, where scholars found remains of silk thread, fabric, and spinning tools.

Silk technology was kept secret. That is important to the argument we make in this essay. Keep in mind that in the West, as “recently” as the time of 70 BC Rome, Pliny the Historian (whose masters were able to wear silk garments obtained because of China’s “invention” of the economic and social institution known as the Silk Road) wrote in his Natural History that “silk is obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water.” In fact, to get from the “state of nature” where wild worms eventually are “tamed” as silk producers is a daunting process.

The “secret formula” was, metaphorically, a multi-volume text. The moths that give rise to the worms must be made flightless, their eggs (1,000 eggs weigh 1 gram) must be collected and kept in a controlled environment (temperature must be moderated by “keepers,” beginning at 18 degrees Celsius, rising to 25 degrees).

After hatching, the worms are fed chopped mulberry leaves every half-hour, night and day, all the while protected from loud sounds and unpleasant odors (they don’t like the smell of human sweat) until they have stored enough fat to spin their cocoon.

The cocoons are heated to kill the worm, soaked in water, and the 800-to-900-meter-long filament is drawn out, spun together with seven or eight other filaments into a thread, which is then loomed into fabric.

Imagine how many years, how many brilliant silk-makers, and how much observation, analysis and experiment went into the process. The entire “equation” was kept secret for thousands of years.

What a multifaceted secret. What an immense achievement. What a source for national pride. What a model for future builders of tomorrow’s China. What a model of leadership and imagination. You might or might not want to call it Stone Age technology. Whatever it is called, the technique was not known in the West until the time of the Emperor Justinian (AD 482-565, Byzantium), whose agents managed to smuggle silkworms and silk-production knowledge out of China.

Justinian’s agents only carried away existing knowledge; they made no independent discovery. Yet the West was eventually able, despite an 8,000-year development gap, to take over silk production. During most of the 20th century China not only did not dominate the market, but cheaper substitutes developed in the slow-to-learn West reduced silk to a small part of the world fabric market.

Only in the 1980s, by way of a doubling of production in China and Japan, and increased world demand for luxury products, did those two Asian nations recover 50% of world silk output.

We place great emphasis on the secret-keeping, and as well on the trio of human players involved in the silk process: the original innovators who long ago made basic discoveries, the long timeline of later masters and apprentices who kept the process alive but secret, even key information secret from the rest of China, and finally the emperor, court, priests and elites who comprised the narrow, powerful, well-financed customer class, final buyers of the unique-to-China silken textiles.

The human trio, and the cultural habits and rules that dictated their partly hidden “production function,” contributed to Chinese national interest, and added to the reputation and welfare of the emperor and the Chinese elite.

Where are we going with this essay? Our purpose is to combine several components into a single narrative: the National Treasure show, our analysis of it and the larger issue of China’s economic history of development, and China’s road forward.

China’s intangible cultural heritage is, in a metaphorical way of speaking, personified in the inspiring story of the imagination, insight, innovative spirit, scientific leadership, intellectual discipline and achieved excellence of the men and women whose discoveries brought about modern civilization

We also pursue the same goal as we suspect motivates the creators of the television show, and as well occupies the full attention of all those persons who wish well for China’s sense of respect for itself and its accomplishments.

China’s intangible cultural heritage is, in a metaphorical way of speaking, personified in the inspiring story of the imagination, insight, innovative spirit, scientific leadership, intellectual discipline and achieved excellence of the men and women whose discoveries brought about modern civilization. National pride, self-respect, ambition to carry forward the torch of enlightenment for the benefit of all mankind are all advanced and enhanced by the story of China’s command over the chaos that was the wild state of nature state of nature prior to humankind’s taming of it.

So our first goal is to reassure our audience of the historical support for the pride they feel in their cultural heritage.

Another purpose is to compare the Eastern with the Western styles of technical initiation, development, preservation and future motivation.

In ancient times, China was well served by a tradition of keeping technical secrets, producing innovative products in small, artisanal markets serving an elite class of privileged customer/kings who demanded high quality and cared little for wide dissemination of ideas, goods or information. China’s lead sustained itself for millennia. But the Western alternative of mass production, good-enough products, celebrity innovators independent of political regulation, featuring big private rewards for innovators and salesmen, has allowed the alternative society to challenge and even overtake China’s seemingly unbeatable lead.

One of our good friends (from the UK) characterized our essay as saying “China is terrific: it would be even more terrific if it was more like us!”  They have it wrong. We do not mean to say China, in the face of current Western predominance, should or must change its way of doing things. Quite the contrary. We do say that remnants of China’s ancient technical tradition – in particular the leadership shown by the state as final consumer of a large part of the most sophisticated products of engineering and science – might yet serve China well, as for example in the conquest of space (think about human settlements on Mars), which might prove to be the most important accomplishment of the human race during the coming millennium.

On the other hand, the Western way of doing things does spread technical knowledge more generally among the people, it does produce great quantities of goods and services that are just good enough if not exemplary and if not the first of their kind. Western innovators need not depend on the state as chief consumer, and Western inventors may become celebrities without the need for political approval. Western scientists may get financial support and “social legitimacy” as long as they please the masses, without need for elite support, financial or social.

National Treasure did a good job enforcing and encouraging appreciation for China’s intangible cultural heritage. It is more than a story about ancient times. It is not an antiquarian plea for the resurrection of old ideas and old techniques. But if one impact of the show is to give political and popular opinion support for adding resources, including human resources such as university programs devoted to study of the past, then the final result will be more than money.

China’s sense of worth, its standing in the eyes of the world and in its own self-regard and national dignity will advance. On the practical side, more Chinese innovators will be motivated to action. If national production takes the old form of master and apprentice, where secrets are kept and product excellence is more valued than is market penetration, perhaps innovations will be more advanced and elegant.

In any case, knowing more about how the Chinese were so much ahead of the rest of the world for such a long time should make them more thoughtful as they consider their future path to renewed greatness. Such healthy pride does not lead to a fall, it ignites a bright light that leads the way ahead.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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