Why China Missed Its Big Chance

When Father Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuit missionaries visited Beijing in 1601, they brought two clocks of Italian design as gifts for the Emperor Wan Li. The larger of the two astounded his courtiers, Ricci later wrote, because it was "a work the like of which had never been seen, nor heard in Chinese history."

In fact, as historian Daniel J. Boorstin recounted in The Discoverers, 500 years earlier a civil servant named Su Sung had built a remarkably accurate astronomical clock for his Emperor. But when a new ruler was crowned in 1094, officials, according to custom, decreed that...

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