Antiquated Glory

It can be said that the present world is largely eurocentric. During the age of empire, nearly every country in Southeast Asia was colonized by a European power, with the claim that “a temporary period of political dependence or tutelage was necessary in order for ‘uncivilized’ societies to advance to the point where they were capable of sustaining liberal institutions and self-government”. Thanks to the colonial era, there was a spread of European institutions and culture, the effects of which have lasted until the present day. Glamour of the past

Granted, there were other reasons for colonization such as “to expand territory, to seek mercantilist profit, to import cheap raw materials, and to extract precious metals”, but the idea of colonization is also “linked with the idea that the way of life of the colonizers are better than that of the colonized”; in other words, the Europeans viewed Asians’ way of life as inferior to their own.

I find it extremely ironic, however, that Asian societies were viewed by the Europeans as “uncivilized” (what would one call the Holocaust, now?), when the Asians have contributed much to various fields such as mathematics and science, and even things in our everyday lives that we take completely for granted. (For the sake of narrowing down the field, I will be dealing with Indian and Chinese inventions - prior to 1500 CE, of course - in particular.) 

First consider something as simple as the buttons on a basic collared shirt. They came from India (the earliest known button was found in the city of Mohenjo-daro of the Indus Valley Civilization and is around 5000 years old), but their initial function was to serve as an ornament more than anything else.

Market Scale & Weights

The Indians also invented something most of us take for granted: the concept of zero. It’s hard to imagine a world without zero, but the Roman and Egyptians did not have this concept, and the Babylonians only had a mark to indicate the absence of number. In about the year 650 CE, Brahmagupta “was the first to formalize arithmetic operations using zero” by dotting underneath numbers (sunya or kha) to indicate as such.

Moving on to China to something else so ubiquitous in our daily lives: paper. Papyrus was cheap to produce, but was extremely delicate and prone to both wetness and dryness (and was thus easily perishable). It was allegedly a eunuch named Cai Lun who invented paper in 105 CE in China, created from the “bark from mulberry trees and plant fibre, pounded into pulp, then dried and matted into sheets”. It was inexpensive to produce, was lightweight, could be carried around, yet was strong and words could be printed with relative ease. Needless to say, paper quickly overtook bamboo and silk to become the main medium of transmission of the written word.

However, it was only in the Song dynasty that paper became used for currency. The Chinese had always used bronze and copper coins as currency; there was a hole in the center of the coin so that many of them could be stringed together. For everyday life bronze and copper coins worked just fine, but when it came to dealing with large amounts the combined weight of so manys strings of coins could be extremely burdensome, especially for traders who had to travel long distances.

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So the merchants in the Tang dynasty “began issuing promissory notes in lieu of the often scarce and always burdensome strings of iron or copper cash” (Keay, “Reconfiguring the Empire 755-1005”, Five Dynasties or Ten Kingdoms). When the Song dynasty came about they picked up this practice, whereby the authorities “awarded a small set of shops a monopoly on the issuing of these certificates of deposit”, which was later taken over by the government and became the first instance of government-issued paper money, which is admittedly much more practical.

Speaking of practicality, consider the compass. In the past this was vital to navigation so that travellers could tell which was north and which was south. National Geographic states:

As early as 2,000 years ago, Chinese scientists may have known that rubbing an iron bar (such as a needle) with a naturally occurring magnet, called a lodestone, would temporarily magnetize the needle so that it would point north and south.   

The Chinese also recognized that the magnetic compass could be used in navigation, and by the 11th and 12th centuries they had already created compasses for navigation. This practice was picked up by the Europeans in the late 12th century and has probably proved invaluable in seafaring.

One more important invention I would like to highlight in particular is the seismometer, which is defined by Dictionary.com as “a seismograph equipped for measuring the direction, intensity, and duration of earthquakes by measuring the actual movement of the ground”. A Chinese astronomer and mathematician named Zhang Heng invented what he called an “earthquake weathercock” in 132 CE, and, while it couldn’t predict an earthquake, it could notify authorities that an earthquake had taken place, and so help could be promptly dispatched:

The seismometer … was an urn with some type of pendulum apparatus contained within it. We don't know the exact mechanics because they were lost in history. The pendulum was extremely sensitive to vibration. When it swung it released a ball from the mouth of one of eight dragons and the ball fell into the mouth of a patiently waiting frog. The loud clang that resulted notified attendants of some sort of seismological event. It is said that one day the ball fell but people in the court felt nothing. A few days later a runner arrived from a village 400 miles away to inform the Emperor that his area had been devastated by an earthquake.

Museum d'Histoire Naturelle - Toulouse

The Chinese also produced silk, tea and gunpowder, and the Indians cotton textiles for clothing and complex hydraulic engineering (among others). Granted, things like paper and paper money are common, everyday goods - things taken for granted and overlooked - but I feel that that is what makes them all the more important.

One dictionary definition of "uncivilized" is "(of a place or people) not socially, culturally, or morally advanced", but I feel that it is not quite right to think of Asia as "not advanced". While the West may have come up with big ideas like Newton's law of gravitation and Einstein's theory of relativity, they are really only used in-depth by scientists and mathematicians, and not by the layman, while Asians have been able to come up with so many things we still use in our daily lives today (so, how are those inventions, created so long ago and still relevant today, not advanced during their times?). Besides, every culture at that time would still have aspects that would be viewed by other cultures as "barbaric" or "uncivilized", so that is not to say that the Europeans were completely free of "uncivilized" aspects anyway.