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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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Chapter 4

Chinese Technology

FRANCESCA BRAY

In this brief essay I address two issues: how concepts of technology in its modern sense have affected the experience of being Chinese and how technological practices and meanings in China might inflect our own ways of thinking about technology.

In the Novum organum of 1620, Francis Bacon noted that “Printing, gunpowder and the compass have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world … in so much that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries” (1.129). Karl Marx, in his Economic Notebooks of 1861–3, put it slightly differently: they were “the three great inventions which ushered in bourgeois society. Gunpowder blew up the knightly class, the compass discovered the world market and founded the colonies, and the printing press was the instrument of Protestantism and the regeneration of science” (Marx 1861). In his encylopedic research on science and technology in pre-modern China, Joseph Needham documented the Chinese origins of all these technologies but was then faced with the challenge of explaining why they failed to transform Chinese society as they had revolutionized the West. Until recently both Chinese and Western ideas about technology in China were routinely framed in terms of the so-called “Needham question”: Given that China surpassed Europe in many technical domains until well into the medieval period, why did imperial ...

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