Stephen Davies on “the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century”

I have recently been reading The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies. Its subtitle is “The Nature and Origins of Modernity”. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to think about why the “modernity” that the world now enjoys happened where it did and when it did.

In particular, Davies asks, why did modernity not happen sooner? As he reveals in his chapter entitled “Song China and the Ming Restoration”, modernity very nearly did happen, several centuries earlier, in China. He describes, in the section entitled “Was Song China Close to Being a ‘Modern Economy’?” (pp. 81-85), how very close indeed China got to leading the world out of Malthusian economic stagnation:

Faced with this kind of evidence, a number of historians have argued that Song China was in fact the world’s first ‘modern’ economy and society and that had it continued we would now be speaking of the transition to modernity in the fourteenth century rather than the nineteenth. Certainly, by a number of measures Song China was as developed as mid eighteenth century Europe. Not only that but it displayed several of the distinctive features of modernity outlined in the first chapter, and the direction of development seemed to be for these ‘modern’ features to become more marked rather than less. What though were the modern aspects of China under the Song that have so caught the imagination of subsequent authors?

In the first place, Song China had rapid, even ‘explosive’ population growth. World population as a whole grew throughout the medieval warm period but the growth in China was much more rapid than that found elsewhere. By 1190, China’s population had reached at least seventy three million: seventy years later it had arrived at the hundred million mark. China’s population more than doubled between 960 and 1100. (It had remained stable at roughly fifty million for the previous six hundred years.) As a contrast, world population grew from about two hundred and fifty million to three hundred and thirty million between 960 and the later thirteenth century, an increase of thirty-two per cent. As in the contemporary modern world this process of population growth, which took place throughout the Song dynasty, accelerated as time went on and the rate of increase seems to have been at its most rapid during the last years of the dynasty, in the thirteenth century.

Moreover, this rise in population was exceeded by the rise in output of both agriculture and manufacture, both of which showed again a rising rate of productivity increase as the years went by. So for example, the level of iron output in 1078 mentioned earlier represented a six-fold increase from 806, in the last years of the Tang. In Shanxi in the 1040s annual production of iron amounted to some sixty tonnes per annum but by the 1110s this had risen to three hundred and sixty tonnes per year. This means that what we have in Song China, from at least the eleventh century, is modern style intensive growth, in contrast to the pattern of broadly extensive growth found elsewhere.

This went along with a ‘commercial revolution’ every bit as dramatic as that of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. By 1200, all of the institutions of the kind of market economy found in Europe in 1800 were already present in China. These included large firms and partnerships with tradable stock and a whole range of sophisticated financial and banking institutions and instruments. The Song economy had a wide range of forms and varieties of business venture from large government monopolies to major private firms, often organised into confederations, and an enormous range of small private businesses engaged in all kinds of productive activity, including an expanding range of services for the urban population of the empire. Much of the production was decentralised and performed in households or small workshops with the goods being sold to professional middlemen or brokers who in turn sold the products to merchants who distributed and sold them using the dense internal trade network or exported them in exchange for foreign products.

Perhaps most significantly, the changes in agriculture made possible by the legal reforms of Song Taizu meant that there was a clear movement of population from the countryside to the cities and of labour from agriculture to manufacturing. Our best estimate is that by the later twelfth century, between six and seven and a half per cent of the population of Song China lived in cities with a population of over one hundred thousand with a similar proportion living in smaller urban centres, which would make it clearly the most urbanised society on the planet at that time. The capital before 1127, Kaifeng, had a population of over a million, as did Hangzhou, which became the capital after that year. What is really striking is the rate of urbanisation. Kaifeng grew from half a million in 1021 to over a million by 1100. Hangzhou went from four hundred thousand inhabitants in late twelfth century to over a million by 1270. Moreover, urbanisation on this scale was not just a feature of the capital. Guangzhou, Chinas major seaport at this time reached a population of half a million by 1120 and the inland city ofJiankang had a population of two hundred thousand at the same time.

In contrast to the cities of Tang China, which had been mainly centres of administration, these were primarily commercial centres, even if they also housed the imperial court. In contrast to the Tang period when there were a limited number of strictly regulated markets, Song cities had markets and retail establishments on all of their main streets as well as huge commercial markets, which were only lightly regulated. There were also large covered entertainment complexes known as pleasure grounds where games and entertainments would be available until the early hours of the morning. One prominent feature of urban life under the Song was clubs and associations of all kinds. Patricia Ebrey for example cites a document of 1235 that mentions the West Lake Poetry Club, the Buddhist Tea Society, the Physical Fitness Club, the Anglers’ Club, the Occult Club, the Plants and Fruits Club, the Antique Collectors’ Club, the Horse-Lovers’ Club, and the Refined Music Society – all of these in Hangzhou.

Song China also saw the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century. As well as the innovations already mentioned in maritime technology the period saw the invention of the dry dock for repairing ships and of paddle powered vessels for use as tugs or in warfare. Block printing was invented in the eleventh century and movable type printing in the thirteenth – in this case borrowed from the Koreans. There were important refinements and inventions in the area of mechanical devices, particularly the use of belt drives and complex toothed gears. One important element of technological progress in China at this time, in marked contrast to other periods, was openness to and adoption of innovations made elsewhere. As well as the examples of movable type, and the superior varieties of rice imported from Annam, the most dramatic case was that of the windmill, invented in the Middle East and then adopted by the Chinese in the early thirteenth century. Notably, the Chinese did not simply take up the Middle Eastern technology but adapted and improved it.

Perhaps most striking was the increasing use of complex machinery in textile manufacturing. As early as the twelfth century devices were invented for the mechanical spinning of silk, which could be powered by men, animals or waterwheels. The text describing this machine stated that with its thirty-two spindles it could spin about sixty kilos of thread per day. It was very similar in design to the water frame of Richard Arkwright, which plays such a prominent part in most accounts of the Industrial Revolution. The missing ingredient was rollers to draw out the thread as it was being spun but this kind of device was known to the Chinese at the time in the form of the cotton gin, for removing seeds from raw cotton. So far as we know cotton spinning was never mechanised in this way, but its use as a fabric only became common at the end of the Song period.

Alongside technological innovation were intimations of scientific investigation. The key figures here were polymaths, similar to Renaissance figures such as Leonardo, who combined empirical experimentation and investigation with scientific speculation, typically in a wide range of fields and areas of knowledge. The most famous was Shen Kuo (1031-1095) who published much of his ideas and findings in a collection of essays known as the Dream Pool Jottings, covering topics as diverse as mathematics, geology, economics, medicine, and engineering. As this shows, Song China saw investigation and discovery in a range of areas of knowledge, the most notable being mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine (including forensic medicine), and optics (where there seems to have been borrowing from the Arabs).

This was linked to important developments in philosophy and abstract thought. The key here was the ideas of Neo-Confucian philosophers, above all Chu-Hsi (1130-1200). He argued that an essential part of the process of self-perfection (a key idea in Confucianism) was the investigation of ‘material things’, that is empirical enquiry. What we can see here are early intimations of the idea of scientific method, which were as well developed in thirteenth century China as they would be in seventeenth century Europe. As in Europe some four to five hundred years later, there was a mixture of philosophical speculation, magic, empirical investigation, and practical (often commercial) endeavour all mixed together into a single intellectual and physical exercise.

There were also distinctively ‘modern’ developments in the structure of government and in social structure and hierarchy. The change here was a very clear movement from a hereditary elite to a more meritocratic one. Reforms to the examination system by which government officials were recruited made the process much more open and Significantly increased the size of the pool of applicants. By the later years of the dynasty in the early thirteenth century, the number of candidates taking the exams was eleven times what it had been in the early eleventh century and the number who passed was five times what it had been under the Tang. However, the number of government posts hardly increased at all. The result was the appearance of a class of degree holders who formed the local elite, but Were not actual holders of government office. Their Confucian training led them to see themselves as moral leaders of society through the force of example as much as administration. The reforms to the system also meant that it was now rare for the status of being a degree holder to persist in the one family for more than three generations. Despite the way in which educated Confucians tended to look down on soldiers and merchants both commerce and the military also provided routes for upward social mobility. The result of all this was to make society much more socially mobile and to make status increasingly non-heritable, as well as increasing income (as opposed to status) inequality.

The government of Song China was, like that of earlier dynasties, organised on a departmental basis. The main innovation, already mentioned, was the creation of a council of ministers with a deliberative as well as an administrative role and a Prime Minister (the actual title was First Privy Councillor) who headed the administration. The most famous holder of this office was Wang An Shih (1021-1086) who began a major series of reforms between 1069 and 1074. These reforms proved very divisive and led to the appearance of two factions, one known as the New Policies Group that supported them and another, led by another scholar-politician Sima Guang (1019-1086) that opposed them. This division persisted throughout the remainder of the dynasty’s history and so a form of elite party politics came into being, based on this division between reformers and conservatives, which reflected intellectual debates within Confucianism. Song government had a distinctly modern flavour, as it was not household or clan based and operated through a professional bureaucracy. Among its particularly modern elements were several agencies to monitor and assess public opinion, each one using a different method of doing this.

Davies also speaks about his book in this video lecture.

An historic weather forecast

I have no idea what it was like storming a Normandy beach, on June 6th 1944. I also don’t really know how they do weather forecasting, but in recent years, because of being an amateur photoer, I have acquired a profound respect for those who do know, and who do this for a living.

So, my D-Day blog posting does not feature warriors. I instead focus on this man:

That’s Group Captain James Stagg, Allied Supreme Commander Eisenhower’s D-Day weather man. Stagg it was who advised Ike that the landings should be postponed by twenty four hours, to avoid filthy weather on June 5th 1944 and to take advantage of what Stagg believed would be an interlude of surprisingly good weather on June 6th 1944. Stagg’s advice was taken. To say that “the rest is history” would be to suggest that Stagg’s superbly accurate forecast was not itself history. It very much was.

Such is the internet and such are modern times that if you now do an internet search for “James Stagg”, you get more pictures of the actor and writer David Haig than you do of Stagg himself. This is because Haig recently wrote a play, called Pressure, about the above-described historic episode, and then himself played the part of Stagg in his own play.

James Stagg, and WW2 weather forecasting in general, deserved and deserve to be made much of, so I don’t blame either Google or David Haig for the odd result of this particular internet search. In particular, on the image front, it seems very likely that quite a few more photos were taken of Haig playing Stagg than were ever taken of Stagg himself.

Recently purchased books

Photoed just now:

Although, I should say that I didn’t actually purchase Kristian Niemietz’s book about
Socialism. I tried to buy it, at a recent IEA event, but they wouldn’t take my money and just gave me a copy. It’s very good.

Excerpt from We Now Know, here. Could have downloaded a pdf of the whole thing. But, don’t like pdfs. Prefer books.

There are more that I didn’t include. E.g. one by fake-antiques architect Quinlan Terry that is too wide. (Fake architectural antiques are a good thing. The world now needs more of this. Terry does them very well.)

Memo to self: A habit I must cultivate better is the ability to read a book, while seated in front of my computer, concentrating on the former and ignoring the latter. The internet is just too damn interesting. But books are extremely interesting also, and I love to read them. Or at least: I love to have read them.

I love Amazon. I miss remainder shops.

What have Patrick Crozier and I been doing right with our podcasts?

For quite some while now, ever since August (I think it must have been) 2017, when we talked about World War 1, Patrick Crozier and I have been doing a podcast every few weeks or so.

Here is where to find them all, that first one in the series about WW1 being

But what has anyone besides us been making of these podcasts? That’s if anyone has actually been listening to them.

Anyone besides me. I find it very helpful to record interesting thoughts, and in particular big questions, in this “public” form. Questions like: Why did the rulers of Britain decide that Britain should plunge into World War 1, in the horribly destructive and self-destructive (as it turned out) way that they did? And why, having discovered how destructive the war was becoming, did all those engaged in it not put a stop to it? What the hell were they thinking? I want to remember such questions until I have something approximating to answers.

But that’s just me. I’m terrible at note-taking. Oh, I take notes, but later I can’t even read the damn things, let alone store them in a way that enables me to get back to them. On the other hand, I love to have places, in something resembling “public”, where I can shove notes, and where others can, at least in theory, help me improve on them and flesh them out, or correct them when they’re wrong. Instead of me just forgetting everything.

Once I know other people just might be noticing what I have said or written, I find I can pay attention to it also. Books, these are things I can remember that I own and keep worrying away at, not least because they have big words written on them which I can see on my walls. My own thoughts, scribbled on scraps of paper, forget about it. As in: I forget about it.

All of that being part of why I so like blogging, and also doing these podcasts with Patrick.

But that’s just me. That’s why I like listening to these podcasts. Why would anyone else want to listen to them? I don’t know, but I’d love if if someone else were to listen to some of these podcasts, like them, and then tell us why.

This was why I was so pleased when someone else recently did say they’d been listening to these podcasts, and say that he did like them.

In a comment thread attached to this First Official Posting here, and in among a lot of jibber-jabber about comment approval and RSS feeds and suchlike, “Rob” (and I know who that is) mentioned that if I and Michael Jennings (the man who set up and is still helping me with this new blog of mine) were ever to do any more podcasts, he, Rob, would listen to them. I replied that Patrick Crozier and I had been doing some podcasts. A bit of a while later, Rob said this:

I have listened to the croziervision podcasts and like them too.

Big moment. Our very first positive feedback. Someone who took no part in these conversations nevertheless liked listening to them.

My question to Rob, no disrespect at all intended, is: Why? What have we been doing right? I’d genuinely like to know. Because then we can tell other people why Rob liked listening to these podcasts, and a few further people might like the sound of them, and tune in also, and then like the actual sound of them. A comment on this from Rob might even accomplish this automatically.

Three birds and a clock

When I was a kid, “Air Forces Memorial” meant this building which looks out over Runnymede, and which was only a walk away from where we lived.

But there are, of course, several RAF Memorials in London, and here is a photo I often try to take but seldom do very well with, of the eagle which perches on this memorial:

This eagle usually comes out blurry, with only the trees behind coming out well. All that reflected light off the gold of the eagle seems to frazzle the brain of my camera. But not on the Monday before last.

The above photo was taken from the other side of the river, with maximum zoom. Swivel to the left a bit and you see this even more famous item, which is now, as already noted, smothered in scaffolding:

I especially like the pile of staircases on the left of the scaffolding.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Peak Remembrance?

Yesterday, I went on a shopping expedition which involved boarding a train at Charing Cross, which I planned to reach by going first to St James’s Park tube.

The first of the photos below (1.1) is of a taxi, parked close to where I live, with some sort of poppy related advert on it. I like to photo taxis covered in adverts. Temporariness, the passing London scene, will get more interesting as the years pass, blah blah.

Then, in Strutton Ground, just this side of Victoria Street, I encountered two besuited gentlemen wearing military berets and medals. I photoed them both, with their permission, and I post one of these photos here (1.2), also with their permission. Sadly, the other photo didn’t come out properly.

It was only at this point that I realised that, the following day (i.e. today) being Remembrance Sunday and what’s more the exact one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice of November 1918, London in the Westminster Abbey area would already be awash with Remembrance Sunday photo-ops. My shopping could wait a while, and I turned right down Victoria Street.

The seven other photos below mostly involve small wooden crosses and dead autumn leaves – autumn 2018 arrived at Peak Dead Leaf yesterday – but they also include another poppy related advert, this time on a the side of a bus (3.3), which I photoed in Parliament Square:

Sadly, the plasticated documents referring to “British Nuclear Test Veterans” (2.1) were insufficiently plasticated to resist the effects of the rain. It began to rain some more when I was arriving at Charing Cross station and it did not stop for several hours, so I’m guessing these lists suffered further rain damage. It’s odd how little sadnesses like this stick in your mind, in amongst the bigger sadnesses being remembered.

The autumn-leaves-among-crosses photos, all taken outside Westminster Abbey, are but a few of a million such that must have been taken over this weekend, in London and in many other places. Is it proper to include two mere advert photos, even if they are poppy related adverts, in such poetically symbolic and dignified company? I chose to do this because one of the things I find most interesting about these Remembrance remembrances is that, as each year of them passes, they don’t seem to be getting any smaller. People still want remember all this stuff, even though all the veterans of World War 1 are now gone. Hence the adverts. If the adverts didn’t get results, they’d not be worth their cost.

As to why these remembrances continue to be remembered, and by such huge numbers of people, year after year, I think one reason is that each political tribe and faction can each put their own spin on the sad events being remembered, but in the privacy of their own minds. For some political partisans, these ceremonies and symbols are a chance to wallow in the pageantry of patriotism. For others, they are an opportunity to rebuke such nationalists, for stirring up the kinds of hostility that might provoke a repeat of the sad events being remembered. “Patriotism” and “nationalism” being the words used to salute, or to denounce, the exact same sentiments. But declaring red poppies to be a warning that the defence budget should be increased, or that they are anti-Trump and anti-Brexit symbols that Trump supporters and Brexiteers have no right to wear, would be too vulgar and partisan, so on the whole this kind of vulgarity and partisanship is not indulged in, not out loud.

The phenomenon of the political meeting where all present hear the same words but where each understands them to mean different things – I’m thinking of such words as “Britain”, “freedom”, “democracy” and “common sense” – has long fascinated me. Remembrance ceremonies remind me, on a larger scale, of such meetings. I attended many such little political meetings myself before I decided that mainstream politics was not for me, and switched to libertarianism, where meanings are spelt out and arguments are had rather than avoided.

For less obsessively political people, Remembrance ceremonies and symbols are simply an opportunity to reflect on the sadness of history in general, and in particular the sadness of the premature deaths of beloved ancestors – or, perhaps worse – hardly known-about ancestors. We can at least all agree that premature death, in whatever circumstances, is a sad thing to contemplate. And until young men entirely cease from dying in wars, Remembrance Sunday will continue to be, among other things, a meaningfully up-to-date event.

And so, year after year, these ceremonies continue. Will this year’s anniversary come to be regarded as Peak Remembrance? We shall see.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Unfixable Twitter

This makes sense:

There are three separate things the larger Twitter user base demands from the company:

– the ability to send messages out to the entire world

– the ability to interact with fellow users

– the ability to send messages without the fear of toxic responses

The problem is it’s basically impossible to guarantee all three at once. Call it the “Twitter impossibility theorem,” to ape Kenneth Arrow. You can have an open Twitter, you can have an interactive Twitter, and you can have a troll-free Twitter, but it is basically impossible to have all three. One of the demands must be dropped.

Twitter reminds me of that fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide, which jumps into your ear and translates all the languages of the gallaxy into your language, which started wars because it meant that everyone could understand what you had said, and hate it, and be understood by you hating it.

Twitter doesn’t translate, but it connects the hitherto unconnected.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The performing horses of Warwick Castle: Nice legs – shame about the faces

Over the summer, a friend of mine was performing in a show at Warwick Castle about the Wars of the Roses. And early last August a gang of her friends and family went there to see this, me among them. It was a great show, albeit wall-to-wall Tudor propaganda, and a great day out.

Warwick Castle is quite a place, being one of Britain’s busiest visitor attractions. It’s No 9 on this list.

I of course took a ton of photos, and in particular I photoed the horses in this show, the crucial supporting actors, you might say. The stage was out of doors, of course, and long and thin, the audience on each side being invited to support each side in the wars. Long and thin meant that the horses had room to do lots of galloping.

None of the photos I took were ideal, but quite a few were okay, if okay means you get an idea of what this show was like:

The basic problem, I now realise, is that the horse heads were at the same level as the audience on the opposite side to my side. As Bruce the Real Photographer is fond of saying, when photoing people, you start by getting the background right. And I guess he’d say the same of horses. Well, this time, for these horses, I’m afraid I didn’t.

So it was a case of nice legs, shame about the faces. (That link is to a pop song from my youth, the chorus of which glued itself to my brain for ever. I particularly like the bit where they sing: “Shame about the boat race”.)

I recommend the show’s own Real Photographer, for better photos, potted biogs of the leading historic characters, and a little bit about the enterprise that did this show.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog