In China before the late 1980s, history remained a risky occupation. In a consciously totalitarian society, reinterpretation of the past is an essential means of control. Any issue may become politically charged, any position ideologically incorrect. Although such threats have largely abated, intellectuals who grew up earlier have not forgotten that they were periodically terrorised in public, and that periods of calm have regularly been succeeded by new terrors. This is not the sort of atmosphere that encourages methodological innovation.
Authors aware of the risks and sincerely eager to be correct, even when there were no government bans or party persecutions, have to some extent censored hemselves,
shunning risks in subject matter and interpretation. At the same time, high officials who aim to build national pride have tended to support history only to the extent that specialists can identify discoveries or inventions that appeared first in China. Such exercises fight with its own weapons the Western parochialism that believed the Chinese mentally incapable of technical priorities. Thanks to the work of Needham and others, that parochialism has become less assertive, but few Chinese policy-makers are aware of the change. It is unlikely that ?leaders? would stop exerting pressure to claim technological priorities even if they knew that who did what first has ceased to be what the history of technology is about.
A scholarly tradition that explicates texts without much conscious interpretation, historians mostly trained as scientists or physicians and thus inclined toward positivism, recognition and praise awarded mainly for claiming scientific priorities, and self-censorship to avoid being linked to the ?bourgeois liberalism? of colleagues abroad have all conspired to inhibit qualitative change proportionate to quantitative growth. This picture has begun to change over the past decade as economics has taken the helm. Pride has come increasingly to depend on wealth, and campaigns against ?spiritual pollution? have begun fading into the featureless past. But it will be some time before iconoclasm becomes nothing more than an intellectual issue. At the same time, many colleagues in China consider the system in crisis, because it has become practically impossible to recruit first-rate graduate students. Exceptional university graduates want a high income quickly.
Needham, Joseph. Biology and Biological Technology : Medicine.
West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2000. p 20.
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