China Beat Archive


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May 30, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 30, 2008 Pierre Fuller. Used by permission.


China has shown a “dismayingly cavalier attitude toward the well-being of its people,” a British journalist turned pop historian determined recently in the pages of the New York Times. The Chinese, he explained, long ago handed over science – and by extension earthquake resistant engineering – to “the West,” leaving “themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week.” The thrust of this piece by Simon Winchester (which simultaneously appeared in the International Herald Tribune and evidently stems from his latest books, The Man Who Loved China (2008), on Joseph Needham, the chronicler of the history of Chinese science, and A Crack in the Edge of the World(2005), on the San Francisco quake of 1906) was China’s fall in the sixteenth century from mankind’s technological pioneer to a “culture that turned its back on its remarkable and glittering history” and “became impoverished, backward and prey to the caprices of nature.”

On the face of it, this bestselling author is right to point out that China has a long way to go with quake-resistant construction. The fact that Sichuan, until recently China’s biggest province by population, is a mountainous area where landslides and cracked dams exacerbate such disasters does not help. But by asking why China has not kept pace with “America” on this, Winchester forgets that Western advances in this regard are remarkably recent. San Francisco, as he well knows, was reduced to a pancake in 1906. And I don’t know what he means by today’s “America” (trend-setting San Francisco? or the trailer home communities across the country that fly like poker cards from every tornado?) but the University of California from which I am writing started retro-fitting its buildings just in the last few decades. Winchester must then mean China is a few decades behind, but he makes it sound like centuries.