The urbanity, the culture, and the power of China under the early Tang rulers are in so vivid a contrast with the decay, disorder, and divisions of the Western world, as at once to raise some of the most interesting questions in the history of civilization. Why did not China keep this great lead she had won by her rapid return to unity and order? Why does she not to this day dominate the world culturally and politically?
For a long time she certainly did keep ahead. It is only a thousand years later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the discovery of America, the spread of printed books and education in the West, and the dawn of modern scientific discovery, that we can say with confidence that the Western world began to pull ahead of China. Under the Tang rule, her greatest period, and then again under the artistic but rather decadent Sung dynasty (960-1279), and again during the period of the cultured Mings (1358-1644), China presented a spectacle of prosperity, happiness, and artistic activity far in front of any contemporary state. And seeing that she achieved so much, why did she not achieve more? Chinese shipping was upon the seas, and there was a considerable overseas trade during that time. Why did the Chinese never discover America or Australia? There was much isolated observation, ingenuity, and invention. The Chinese knew of gunpowder in the sixth century, they used coal and gas heating centuries before these things were used in Europe; their bridge-building, their hydraulic engineering was admirable; the knowledge of materials shown in their enamel and lacquer ware is very great. Why did they never organize the system of record
- It is doubtful if the Chinese knew of the mariner's compass. Hirth, Ancient History of China, p. 126 sqq., comes to the conclusion, after a careful examination of all data, that, although it is probable something like the compass was known in high antiquity, the knowledge of it was lost for a long time afterwards, until, in the Middle Ages, it reappears as an instrument in the hands of geomancers (people who selected favourable sites for graves, etc). The earliest unmistakable mention of its use as a guide to mariners occurs in a work of the 12th century and refers to its use on foreign ships trading between China and Sumatra. Hirth is rather inclined to assume that Arab travellers may have seen it in the hands of Chinese geomancers and applied its use to navigation, so that it was afterwards brought back by them to China as the "mariner's compass."—J. J. L. D.