Chinese Encyclopedia Was Burned to Protect Monopolies Granted by Emperor

(p. 262) As with Tudor England, government monopoly of patronage meant control. Virtually all copies of the seventeenth–century Chinese encyclopedia, the T’ien Kung K’ai-wu or Exploitation of the Works of Nature, which included illustrations of everything from hydraulics to metallurgy, were destroyed because, according to Joseph Needham, much of the material touched on industries that had been granted monopoly status by the Qing emperors: “The absence of political competition did not mean that technological progress could not take place, but it did mean that one decision-(p. 263)maker [i.e. the Emperor] could deal it a mortal blow.” It is therefore no surprise that a high percentage of both the inventions and inventors we associate with China from the time of the Han Dynasty to the Qings were government sponsored and employed.

Another liability of a strong central government is that it is, well, strong. Europe’s fragmented system of sovereign states made it possible for innovative minds such as Paracelsus, Leibniz. Rousseau, and Voltaire to “shop” for more congenial places whenever they skated too close to heretical or otherwise challenging notions; in China, one had to travel a thousand miles to a place where the empire’s writ ran not.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.
(Note: italics and bracketed words in original.)

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