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How the Tang Dynasty shapes China tech

Pragmatism and state-led influences have deep roots

| China
An artificial intelligence-themed poster during the Appliance and Electronics World Expo in Shanghai on Mar. 23: Chinese AI often used to highlight the country's growing tech prowess.   © VCG/Getty Images

Nina Xiang is the founder of China Money Network, a media platform tracking China's venture and tech sectors. She is author of "Red AI: Victories and Warnings from China's Rise in Artificial Intelligence."

When it comes to tech development, Chinese companies are said to be best at the application phase, taking steps one through to 100. Western companies tend to excel at making the breakthroughs, or moving from zero to one.

Take artificial intelligence. After a computer go program developed by Google's DeepMind beat five-time world champion Lee Sedol in 2016, the technology behind the landmark win was quickly utilized by hundreds of Chinese companies for practical applications ranging from public security to health care. It led to a golden age of Chinese AI, a sector often used to highlight China's growing tech prowess.

But the ancient history behind China's technology sector suggests that there may be deeper roots for this pragmatism, and for the state's central role in tech development. Throughout China's history, technology has been viewed as a practical tool to serve the greater purpose of maintaining good governance. Technology has always been organized by the state, managed by officials, and stayed well within its bounds as a governing device.

This was achieved via personal, institutional and philosophical arrangements. On the personal level, China's intellectual class regarded their greatest purpose in life as helping the monarch better manage state affairs. The classic Confucian phrase "to improve oneself, preside over one's family, govern one's nation and bring order to the world" sums up the ultimate life goal for many Chinese intellectuals. Rituals such as reading classic literature and excelling in the imperial examination system ensured personal pursuits were kept in line with state objectives.

Lee Sedol reviews the match against Google's AI program AlphaGo during the Google DeepMind Challenge Match in March 2016 in Seoul.   © Google/Getty Images

And there existed rigid institutional arrangements for China's ancient scientific efforts. Science and technology were strictly viewed through the governance lens. They were relevant so long as they were applicable to the economy and people's livelihoods. All science and technology work related to governance was organized and managed by corresponding official institutions, and government officials were appointed to preside over their affairs.

For example, during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), arithmetic was one of six scholarship bureaus established by the central government. Separate bureaus to study disciplines including medicine, calendar calculations and astronomy were arranged by the state. These bureaus were staffed by officials, who were also mathematicians, astronomers and doctors. They were either appointed by the emperor, recommended by ministers or selected from top performers in the imperial examinations. These scientist officials were reviewed and assessed by higher authorities periodically to determine demotions or promotions.

Lastly, ancient China's worldview and religion made rigorous scientific research about nature less relevant at the philosophical level. The theory of yin and yang and the theory of the five elements were universally applicable to all things in a general, vague and mystical manner. The prevalence of Confucianism and Taoism emphasized heaven-human harmony and social order hierarchy. The concepts of heaven and Tao were considered too complex to be comprehended by mere mortals. This solidified the focus on technology's practical aspects and lessened the importance of scientific theories.

As such, ancient Chinese scientific and technological development was decidedly pragmatic -- a stark contrast to the ancient Greek attitude of favoring pure thought while disregarding utility. Chinese scientists mostly studied areas closely linked to state affairs such as agriculture, astronomy, arithmetic and medicine, making their greatest achievements in these areas. China is home to countless ancient innovations such as bridge building, irrigation systems, wooden architecture, the planting machine, paper making and printing.

This helps to explain why Western-style scientific theories never took hold in China. Place an inquiring mind into the rigid personal, institutional and philosophical environment of ancient China, and it is no wonder that Chinese astronomer Seng Yixin was able to calculate a portion of the Earth's meridian. But that rigid environment is also the reason why calculating the whole length of the meridian or hypothesizing the shape of the Earth would have been a step too far; or why Chinese astronomers were great at making automatic astronomical clocks but did not try to establish a theoretical model of the solar system; or why Chinese engineers were able to build irrigation systems lasting millenniums but never asked the deeper question of why or wondered about gravity.

China has of course been fully absorbed into the modern scientific community of the 21st century. But some of the aforementioned factors may continue influencing the Chinese tech sector on a subconscious level. On both personal and institutional levels, Chinese tech entrepreneurs still exhibit strong pragmatism. While Silicon Valley startups are considered mission-driven, Chinese startups are more market-driven.

China's state still plays important roles in tech development, from setting policies to deploying research funds to financing startups. While Western tech companies eye the consumer as the ultimate stakeholder, the Chinese state holds a key point of prominence for its companies.

This means changing the pragmatic culture and mindset will take time. That said, the historical makeup of China's tech traditions is very much complementary to Western methodologies. This provides a greater opportunity for cooperation, and not a reason for rivalry.

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