This chapter has argued that technological literacy in China manifests a more positive appreciation of technology than is often the case in the developed world. Such an appreciation is evident even in traditional Chinese philosophy, where practical affairs receive more attention than in premodern Western philosophy. Moreover, there is a tradition of scholars actually writing about technics that is much older and more pronounced than in the West. It is this that helps explain what Needham has described as the unequaled technical inventiveness in China for more than two thousand years until roughly 1500. Since the foundation of the new China (1949 to the present), first Marxist theory and then the Reform and Opening Up movement have revived and intensified the Chinese appreciation of technology. Technology in China is seen as fundamentally good because it both reduces the burden of human labor and increases human productivity. This is an assessment of which the more technologically developed West should not totally lose sight. Nevertheless, although in China today the many unintended consequences of technological development have not yet overwhelmed positive assessments, such experiences as environmental pollution are beginning to stimulate some qualifications.
In addition, there are three key ideas that, although not examined in the present chapter, have been central influences on Chinese technological literacy and would thus deserve careful attention in a more extended discussion. First, there is the absence of a creator god (or, more positively, the sense of the material world as self-subsisting). There is nothing like the almighty or supreme God or Allah, as found in Western thought, who creates the whole world, including human beings, out of nothing. On the contrary, in Chinese thought, although creation and destruction go on in the world (in cyclical patterns), the world as a whole cannot itself be created. The sages, or rather human beings, create all things according to universal principles. Second, there is the emphasis on practice (and the primacy of practical or political affairs in human life), which has been discussed to some extent. On the one hand, this involves the promotion of “practical rationality.” As Li Zehou has written, “human rationality in ancient China . . . tended toward practical research that would help people obtain useful knowledge for their lives” (Kim, 2012, p. 282). On the other hand, a practice orientation in the Chinese context places an emphasis not just on economic values such as high efficiency, increased profits, and reduced costs but also on social goods such as familial bonding, shared prosperity, and a peaceful life for the people. Finally, there is a concern for harmony between heaven and earth (i.e., of human beings with the larger world in which they live). Humans and nature are considered as a whole, and a harmonious relationship between the parts (humans) and the whole (heaven or nature) is always the focus of thinking— specifically, attempting to achieve tian ren he yi (the unity of the heaven and humans). The future of a distinctive Chinese technological literacy can be expected to involve the further development of these three key ideas against the historical and philosophical background that has been sketched here.