Why Did China Not Industrialize First?

China had an early and strong lead over Europe economically and scientifically, yet industrialization and modern science began in Europe.

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The Great Wall of China

Deficiencies in Agriculture and Workforce Utilization in the Roman Empire

One of these practical inventions of the early middle ages was the heavy plough. The Romans in contrast only had access to the ard or scratch plough.

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An ard plough similar in function to that used by Romans.
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The usage of water wheels exploded in the Middle Ages.

The Factors Hindering the Industrialization of China

The Roman Empire had a number of short comings and weaknesses not apparent if one merely studied the technology utilized by the Romans or the arts and literature they produced. Likewise merely iterating the great number of inventions produced by ancient China fails to give an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of China, relative to Europe.

  1. Political Unity. Europe was a patchwork of states while China was one large Empire. While seemingly a strength, this proved a significant weakness in the long term.
  2. Writing Systems. The Chinese way of writing became a major issue when the printing press got developed.
  3. Glass. History books and articles will often talk at length about how desirable Chinese porcelain was in the West, yet forget to mention that the Chinese had not mastered the art of fine glass making, unlike the Europeans. This had major repercussions in many scientific and technological areas.
  4. Mechanical Clocks. Accurate measurement of time is crucial for ocean navigation and scientific measurements. This is an area Europeans got an early advantage without China recognizing the importance of clocks.
  5. Astronomy. All the way back to Greek Astronomer Ptolemy, Europeans have been concerned with creating mechanistic models of how the solar system and universe works. There was no similar Chinese effort to derive laws of planetary motions. This had consequences for the development of modern science.

Unfavorable Geography and Climate for Water Transport

I would like to elaborate more on the story on water based transport in my previous post, in particular to relation between England and China. England did not merely have and advantage in terms of pure geometry of the landmass but also in the climate.

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A hourse could pull a canal boat with 30 tons of cargo or a carriage with 3 tons of cargo. A 10x advantage to water transport.

Water Power and Its Limits in China

Industrialization relies on the substitution of human labour with inanimate sources of power such as wind, water or steam. The steam engine has perhaps an outsized role in the normal story telling. The early stages of industrialization was dominated by wind and water power.

The Hidden Cost of Political Unity

Lets talk about the difference between European and Chinese political unity and what the advantages and disadvantags are of a large unified empire is.

  • Standardization across large geographic area
  • Larger armies which can more easily defeat invaders
  • Internal peace, which promotes trade and prosperity

Chinese Logograms and the Printing Press

A popular misconception is that Gutenberg invented the printing press. Somewhat similar to how people believe Edison invented the light bulb or James Watt invented the steam engine. What Edison, Gutenberg and James Watt all did was to take existing technology and improve it to such an extent that it radically altered the course of an industry. They made an existing technology practical and available to the masses. The same was the case for the printing press and Gutenberg.

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With woodblock printing a whole book page was carved out of wood. Ink was applied and the woodblock pressed onto paper. Naturally this was time consuming as there was no ability to reuse carvings for different pages.
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With movable type, a carved character could be reused on different pages, avoiding the need to carve the whole book page from scratch.
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Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press


Glass making originated in Egypt and later spread to Europe. While China was often early with most inventions, compared to Europe, this was an area were China was a late comer. Glass making started late, and further development got abandoned. Part of the reason for this was the far more advance state of Chinese porcelain.

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Microscope designed by english scientist Robert Hooke, a contemporary of dutch Antony Van Leeuwenhoek
  1. Dry compass. Old compasses were floating in liquid. This was impractical. With a dry compass, the needle is placed behind a glass. If not for the glass the needle would have easily fallen out.
  2. Telescope, for locating land and other ships.

Mechanical Clocks and Astronomy

While Chinese astronomers in many regards made more accurate and detailed observations of the night sky, than Europeans, they did not attempt to organize this knowledge into any sort of theory for the motions of the sun, moon and planets.


That China failed to industrialize and Britain did, could in essence be summed up as a consequence of geography, climate and historical accidents.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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