Why Have Asians Not Dominated?
High intelligence may not be enough.
It is now generally accepted among serious students of intelligence that Asians have the highest average IQs of any racial group. As Richard Lynn has reported in his comprehensive study, IQ and Global Inequality, East Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, have average IQs in the range of 105 to 108. This clearly exceeds the averages Prof. Lynn has found for the 29 European countries, which range from 92 to 102 (for a review of IQ and Global Inequality see “Survival of the Fittest,” AR, June 2007). The question therefore arises, why have Asians not dominated — economically, culturally, and politically?
Before addressing this question directly, it is necessary to debunk a number of Western myths about China in order correctly to assess Asian achievement. There is, of course, more to Asia than China, but its population represents the great majority of East Asians, and throughout most historical periods, it has been the center of East Asian cultural achievement.
To the extent that Westerners think about China’s place in history they see it as having been a unified state with a single culture and language and a continuous history that stretches back thousands of years. They also think of it as having always been culturally and technologically ahead of the West until relatively recently. Joseph Needham, for example, propagates this myth in his monumental Science and Civilization in China.
In fact, the history of China has been as politically messy and fractured as that of Europe. The country was not even nominally unified until the third century BC — under the short-lived Chin dynasty (221-207 BC) — and has spent more than half the time since then split between competing dynasties or under foreign rule. Examples are the period of warlords in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties from 960-1126, and rule by Mongols (1279-1368) and Manchus (1644-1912). Even during times of supposed unification, the control the emperor could exercise was very little compared to that possible in a modern, industrial state.
As for China’s presumed cultural unity, there is not a single language understood throughout China. The division between Cantonese and Mandarin is reasonably well known in the West, but there are other fault lines. The former leader Deng Xiaoping spoke with such a heavy accent and dialect that his daughter interpreted for him when he spoke in public. There is not even a single, standard written language.
China is far from being a unified racial/ethnic entity. It contains within its borders approximately 100 million people who are members of minority groups. It makes no more sense to speak of China as a continuous state or single civilisation than it does to speak of Europe as a continuous state or single civilization.
Nor is there a special antiquity to Chinese achievements. In the use of metals, the Chinese were no earlier than the peoples of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and were certainly later when it came to agriculture and writing.
Even in antiquity, China was not always more culturally advanced than Europe. The Cretans and Mycenaeans had sophisticated cultures that predated classical Greece, and the achievements of the Greeks and Romans were immense. China cannot be said to have been ahead of these
To take an example from a later period, today there exist few Chinese buildings predating the Ming era (1368-1644). Before that time, most Chinese buildings were made of wood. China has nothing to compare with the great stone buildings of the European and Mediterranean ancient world, the magnificent castles, abbeys, cathedrals, and churches of the European mediaeval period, and the amazing architectural diversity of modern Europe. Construction of Notre Dame began in Paris in 1163 and the cathedral was largely completed by 1250. There is nothing from China of this period that demonstrates anything like the same level of both intricacy and magnificence.
It is true that before the modern period (say 1500 AD), the Chinese made a number of discoveries before Europe but the opposite is also true. The Chinese made paper, mixed gunpowder, and had the compass first, but Europe was first with the Archimedean screw.
Even when China invented something earlier, Europeans sometimes produced it later independently. The classic example is moveable type. China and Korea had moveable type many centuries before Gutenberg, but there is no evidence Gutenberg was influenced by Asian examples. Movable type quickly became widespread in Europe but was never popular in China. This is probably because written European languages are based on an alphabet with few characters while Chinese is written with thousands of ideograms, each of which requires its own block of type. In any case, since 1700 at the latest, European technology has completely outpaced that of China.
It’s impressive ...
There is far more to civilization than technology, of course, but China falls well short of Europe in social science, philosophy, art, and political organization as well. Throughout their history the Chinese have been very inventive when it comes to practical solutions to particular problems but did not develop theories from practical solutions that offered general explanations of the world. In this sense, China never developed anything that could be called science.
It is also noteworthy that although the Chinese produced many important inventions, they often failed to develop them substantially. When Europeans began to make regular contact with China in the seventeenth century, their guns were far superior to those of the Chinese, even though it was Chinese who had invented gunpowder many centuries previously. The Chinese record of innovation sometimes gives the impression that an invention was made to amuse or to serve the interests of a powerful person rather than to establish an industry or change society.
Lord George Macartney, who headed the first official British diplomatic mission to China in 1793-4, noted that the Chinese seemed to have invented things and then “applied them solely to the purpose wanted, and to never have thought of improving or extending them further.”
... but it’s not Notre Dame.
Adam Smith wrote about China in The Wealth of Nations:
“China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have long been stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry and populousness, almost in the same terms in which they are described by travellers in the present times.”
Perhaps this stationary quality reflected a deep-seated arrogance among Chinese rulers, who viewed any kind of innovation with suspicion. Traditionally, the Chinese elites were contemptuous of other peoples, routinely treating them as subordinates. Lord Macartney’s presents to the Emperor in 1794 were counted as tribute rather than gifts, and the British envoy constantly noticed what we would now call a monstrous superiority complex. When he offered the Chinese products of the early Industrial Revolution, the equivalent of which were unknown in China, they often refused to show any interest in them. This is not an attitude conducive to progress.
Philosophy as we would understand it in the West, that is, analytical thought examining the nature of reality with, in theory at least, an absence of ideological baggage, is virtually absent from Chinese history. Traditional Chinese philosophy never divorced itself entirely from religion and was mainly concerned with how society should be ordered. Its primary purpose was social control, and it is more a series of maxims than an exercise in philosophical enquiry. The let-everything-be-challenged method found intermittently in Western philosophy from at least the sixth century BC appears foreign to the Chinese. Interestingly, the Chinese were great compilers of what we would call encyclopaedias. They delighted in recording what was already known or thought, but had little interest in investigating what was not known or might be thought.
Chinese art and fashion show a similar resistance to change. Look at contemporary depictions of Chinese from 1000 AD. They look hardly any different from the Chinese of 1800. Chinese art shows a similar stability over the same period, being for the most part heavily constrained by convention. Where there is deviation from academic artistic discipline it is mainly found in periods where foreign invaders gained power, most noticeably under the Mongol emperors who imported foreign craftsmen and artists. Chinese fashions and art are like those of ancient Egypt, which show a remarkable stability over several thousand years. This is the opposite of the European cultural experience.
Politically, the Chinese never really moved beyond the state of warlordism or of believing in an absolute ruler who was a god or a man directly in touch with gods. There were attempts to introduce more rational and less absolute forms of government, but these were short lived. Confucianism tried to lay down moral rules for rulers, but that was about the limit of any real attempt to restrain emperors by anything short of violence. Ideas about constitutions restricting what government may do, representative government, or direct democracy never arose in Chinese society. In the West, the ideal of individual political participation dates back to the Greeks, and is present in Europe in the Middle Ages. It is completely absent in China.
The Mandarin system and appointment by examination, which started as early as the 7th century AD, are often proposed as evidence of superior Chinese political organization, but were they really superior to that of the Roman Empire, which predated it by centuries? Was Chinese bureaucracy more impressive than that of the Catholic Church at the height of its power? It is possible to describe the Mandarin system more as a way to control and categorize than as a system designed to meet a particular need, such as political rule or the management of assets.
In Chinese history it is also hard to find organizations that perform civic social functions but that are not part of the formal political structure. Examples in the West would be charities, clubs, the co-operative movement, and trade unions. Chinese life has traditionally revolved around the family, while the government provides all forms of larger social organization.
Before the Maoist revolution, China never attempted to go beyond a society of a small elite with immense wealth that left the vast majority in abject penury. There is no Chinese tradition of doubting the justice or legitimacy of such a society. When Europeans began to gain first-hand experience of China from the 17th century onwards, it was common to remark on the tremendous disparities of wealth. As Macartney noted, “[E]very year vast numbers [of Chinese] perish of hunger and cold. The summers are so warm that the common sort go almost naked, and the winter is so rigorous that the mortality is very great from the want of clothing and shelter.”
There was nothing that resembled the corporate charitable concern for the poor found within the Catholic Church, let alone a formal legal obligation to the needy, such as the English Poor Law of 1601. And even after what was supposed to be an egalitarian revolution, for many years the Communist party did nothing more than appropriate to itself the advantages of the Mandarinate but under a different name.
What is Missing?
Why did China never make the jump from trial-and-error technology to true science? Why did it show so little interest in analytical philosophy? Why did it never develop a political system more sophisticated than that of the god-Emperor? Why was the idea of political participation, so widespread in Europe in both the ancient and the late mediaeval world, absent in China? Why was there no civil society?
Could it be that sufficiently propitious circumstances never arose to drive Asians beyond a certain point, that Europe surged ahead by luck rather than any innate difference? This is improbable because China has been a sophisticated society for several thousand years.
The above critique of the myth of Chinese cultural superiority may carry within it suggestions of why Asians have not achieved cultural supremacy. IQ may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for that advance. First, however, it is important to note that IQ is not of a piece. Although the average Asian IQ is higher than the white IQ overall, it is not higher in all respects. Asians score substantially higher than whites on non-verbal tests but lower than whites on verbal tests. They score particularly well on spatial tests.
This IQ profile may be associated with the Asian adherence to an ideographic form of writing. If one set a genius and a dullard the task of developing a writing system, the genius would come up with an alphabet and the dullard some form of pictorial representation. The genius would see that an alphabet was a more economical and powerful means of representation because it required only a small number of symbols. The dullard would merely keep adding to the number of pictures. Of course the Chinese went far beyond crude pictograms, but by retaining a pictorial system they ended up with a form of writing that requires several thousand characters.
In the 15th century, the Koreans invented an alphabet called Hangul, but this was in imitation of alphabets invented by others. It may be that East Asians failed to develop an alphabet on their own because of their leaning towards the visual and the spatial.
The greater Asian aptitude on non-verbal tests and lower ability on verbal tests can also be interpreted as meaning that Asians are adapted to solving what I would call bounded problems. These are problems that have clear boundaries, such as how to build a canal or how to care for silkworms, rather than problems without boundaries, such as inquiring about the nature of the good, the purpose of life, or what constitutes art.
At the same time, IQ is hardly the only measure by which the races differ, and both J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn have written about racial differences in personality. Although intelligence is the best studied and most accurately measured mental trait, there are also reasonably well developed measures of many other traits. Compared to whites, Asians are more cautious, less impulsive, less aggressive, less sociable, less psychopathic, and have lower self-regard (the same can be said about whites compared to blacks). Though they have not been studied as extensively as intelligence, racial differences on these scales are so consistent that it makes almost as much sense to speak of a race or group’s “average personality” as it does to speak of its average IQ.
Asians also have lower levels of testosterone compared to whites (who have less testosterone than blacks), and testosterone is closely associated with aggressiveness, risk-taking, and criminality.
These differences support the conclusion that the Asian personality is less enquiring or adventurous than that of the Caucasian, less verbal or sociable, and more conformist and submissive. This is not the type of personality that — despite an advantage in average IQ — pushes a society towards the achievements that characterize the West: developing an industrial revolution from scratch, creating modern science, giving birth to analytical philosophy, and evolving many varied forms of political life that value the contribution of the individual.
When they are a minority in high-IQ, Western societies, Asians tend to fill technical posts that favor higher IQs, or engage in business, much of which is conducted within their own group. They make relatively little headway in areas that require the highest level of “people skills,” such as politics or advocacy groups. They are excellent accountants, computer technicians, and engineers — these are professions in which their natural abilities blossom — but they do not distinguish themselves in professions that require verbal gifts and gregariousness: politician, comedian, lawyer.
Asians also tend to show very little antisocial behavior. Their crime rates are low, and they rarely portray themselves as victims of racism or demand race-based privileges (though see last month’s cover story, “Asian Race Consciousness”). This tendency to follow the rules and not to call attention to themselves either as a group or as individuals seems to fit the Asian personality.
What has been the Asian record since industrialization? Asians have had the invaluable example of European industry, science, and general cultural heritage, and have made much better use of it than any other non-Western racial group. However, their record is patchy. Japan has been able to duplicate the technology of the West but has not been able to surpass it. In the 1970s, many Americans feared Japan would dominate it economically and financially, but just as it seemed to pull abreast of the West, it began to stagnate and has shown little growth since the 1980s.
China has not been able to bridge the oceanic gulf in wealth and sophistication between its coastal cities and the vast Chinese interior. No Asian society has achieved much success in fundamental scientific discovery or technological innovation that goes beyond the adaptation of what has been invented or discovered elsewhere. Nor, despite the large populations of Asians living in advanced European societies, can we find front-rank scientists in proportion to their numbers. In the social sciences their contributions are practically invisible. This lack of top-level achievement is particularly striking given that Asians have higher incomes than whites, go farther in school, and start more businesses.
Asians have adopted Western culture as well as Western technology. The Japanese, in particular, are famous for imitating both high and low white culture, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Asian Harry Potter fans are among the most frenzied in the world. The sites on Prince Edward Island associated with the children’s book series about Anne of Green Gables attract as many Japanese as they do Americans or Canadians. Asians have enthusiastically copied the architecture of the West and have even been willing to tear down many fine examples of indigenous architecture.
There is no equivalent of Asian mass culture entering white societies. The most that can be found are periodic outbreaks of the use of oriental art and motifs by European designers.
This willingness to imitate might seem odd in view of the traditionally static nature of Asian societies. Perhaps it could be ascribed to the feelings of inferiority that arose when Asians faced the power of the industrialized West. In China’s case it might arise from a sense of humiliation because of European quasi-colonialism in the 19th century. Many Chinese would say they are modernizing only now because they were held back by white control and manipulation, but this does not fit with the facts. China had centuries during which it could have pulled ahead of the West, and European meddling effectively ended in 1949.
In any case, to copy culture as well as technology shows a strange lack of ambition. Why not do something whites have never done?
ne could argue that imitation comes more naturally in conformist, less individualistic societies. Or rather, it may be natural to imitate certain aspects of life but not others. Asians do not show an appetite for imitating social structures. The Japanese and South Koreans may have formally adopted systems of elective government from European examples, but traditional social relations remain strong. Those countries accept practices that in the West would be considered straightforward bribery, and voters are greatly influenced by collective loyalties. As for China, the Communist elite have managed to retain control while allowing some economic freedom. They have certainly avoided democratization, and the government continues openly to manipulate the law.
Japan’s imitation of the West is especially striking, given its earlier suspicions. After some 16th and 17th century experience with European merchants and priests, in the 1630s it took the dramatic step of sealing the country off from all but the most limited European contact. This self-imposed isolation lasted more than two centuries until Commodore Matthew Perry forced trade on the Japanese in 1853.
A new elite ideology then emerged that saw imitation of certain aspects of Western countries as the best way to compete with them. This new ideology was accepted by the people with astonishing readiness despite the earlier policy of isolation. Why did this transition take place so easily? Most probably because of an average personality that is unusually susceptible to authority.
One of the most striking examples of both the remarkable ability and remarkable limitedness of Asians is the history of the Chinese admiral Zheng He. From 1405 to 1433 he commanded a series of seven extraordinary voyages throughout South East Asia and to such places as India, Ceylon, the Arabian peninsula, and even East Africa. The admiral’s largest ships were enormous, six-masted junks estimated to have been 100 yards or more long, and he travelled with tens of thousands of men and hundreds of vessels. His ships were many times larger than anything afloat in the West, and if the Chinese had devoted themselves to sea power, they would certainly have dominated trade and could have discovered and colonized the Americas.
However, there was a change of emperor, and the new regime had no interest in exploration. Zheng He died on the last voyage, and the emperor ordered the fleet burned. That was the end of China as a maritime power.
In the hands of the West, sea power dramatically changed history. In the hands of the Chinese, it was a means to satisfy a fleeting curiosity about foreigners. China had unsurpassed technology, but did not have the spirit to turn that technology into world or even regional dominance.
Despite their higher average IQ, Asians have failed to become the culturally dominant race probably because innate personality traits work against them. Compared to Europeans, they are passive, unquestioning, and lacking in initiative. The next 50 years will probably see a continuing rise in the economic and military power of China, but if history is any guide, this rise in power will not be matched by innovation, and China’s cultural contributions will remain insignificant. AR
Mr. Henderson is a history and politics graduate whose career was divided between the public and private sectors. He is now retired and lives in Britain.