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Given the Chinese putatively invented gun powder, why did they not become the 'superpower' of today?

I understand that China became an isolationist country after Zhang He died. But, given how feudally disposed China was internally, how is it they never managed to refine their inventions to me more militarily effective?

After centuries of fighting with themselves, the Mongols and the like, one would have thought the Chinese would surely have been the first to utilise gun powder the way Anglo-Saxons did. How is it we 'barbarians' took their (?) invention and, through innovation, became the more technologically advanced race? Where on this path of technological evolution did China grind to a seeming halt and why?

It just seems incongruous to me that, having already dabbled with gun powder based, projectile weapons themselves, that they wouldn't have gone the next few steps.

Closing Statement from Sablcious Faux

So, after the responses and some research, I've come to the conclusion that it was RELIGION that was probably the single, most influencing factor in China not capitalising on all its inventions, colonising the world and this conversation not being typed in Mandarin characters. I should have know- if something undefined hamstrings human development, Occam's Razor dictates it will likely be, or have something to do with. religion!

See here - - for a précis of why this is. Incidentally, it took a documentary produced nigh on 40 years ago for me to find an answer as definitive as this.

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    Jul 30 2013: because they didn't invent the free market.
  • Jul 30 2013: Four inventions from ancient China:Compass technology,papermaking technology,type printing technology, gun power technology.

    What caused China now a country hardly with innovation?It is a profound dissertation to keep thinking,reflecting...China has long history culture...

    I think it is far to talk about invention in what militarily issue in China.China just try to improve military defense,improve military technology to avoid left behind the most developed countries.

    China's prosperity depends on all over the world and vice versa.It is hardly for chinese people come back to four inventions era.If we could,It does need one thousands years to go...I think my wild prediction maybe not enough long time.

    But because China did have the prosperous inventing era,history once,So It will be an event one day...Lol..The one day guess needed a long time.

    Anyway the world needn't worry about China's inventing era again,because there is Confucius thoughts as the fundamental values of life in their bodies.
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    Jul 30 2013: There is a PBS documentary on how the west overcame the east, but sorry I can’t find it.

    I don’t recall the details, but in the 15th century China had a great fleet of ships but instead of using them for trade or warfare, they sailed around collecting tribute/treasure for the emperor. And then after the death of an emperor, the new emperor isolated China, so bye-bye fleet and the rest is history.
    • Jul 30 2013: That's good reading. But, a quote I'd like to highlight:

      "In addition, the threat of a new Mongol invasion drew military investment away from the expensive maintenance of the treasure fleets."

      Again, this incongruity between the need for innovation and the lack thereof is evident. If the Chinese already had gun powder and Mongol threat was still deemed imminent by the Confucians, how is it that the natural progression to firearms did not eventuate?
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        Jul 30 2013: How is it that the natural progression to firearms did not eventuate?

        How is it that car's rearview mirrors don’t have a curve so blind spots would be eliminate?
        Sometime people with the power to make change just don’t make the connection.
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    Jul 30 2013: Expansion was never a motivation for China's leaders. They had plenty of real estate and natural resources. The ability to control an explosion held limited value for them. European leaders considered the ability to control the launch of lethal projectiles to be a distinct advantage when soliciting surrender from neighboring nations. Expansion of borders by applying superior military force was the driving force behind the development and application of gunpowder.
  • Jul 30 2013: China exerts their power unprecedantly these days. Theyir status is on a par with that of U.S (G2). Those factors could be a enormous statistical number of population, or some kind of military power and invention which ancient China had made and developed.
  • Jul 30 2013: Naybe this just shows the futility of conquest. The English won the Battle of Crecy with longbows. The Chinese were perfectly happy at home. The French King's italian mercanaries would have been happier surviving in Italy, etc.
  • Jul 30 2013: But, this very "fighting amongst themselves", one would have thought would have given them impetus for faster militaristic innovation; as it's suggested it did for Anglo-Saxon cultures. Yet, it did not. Could it be that the notion of mechanised warfare was hamstrung by the affinity for more fanciful means of warfare- the hand-to-hand combat / martial arts centric philosophies which the people are now famous for? That is, scientific innovation was passed up for fisty-cuffs and hand-wielded weapons as a result of some stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of the fight arts that they held in such high esteem at the time?

    One could even draw parallels with the topic du jour of cyber industrial espionage and pilfering of commercial secrets (over autonomous innovation) with this past apparent missed opportunity. Could this imply some inherent inability by the people to innovate technology, while still being adept at invention per se. NB: When you consider how old the Chinese culture is, perhaps these inventions historically credited to the people aren't 'that' startling, anyway.

    Because when one considers how exploited the people became by the capitalist West and then the racist Japanese imperialists, this stagnation in innovation, with respect to the nation's potential armipotence, really did cost the Chinese people dearly. Moreover, the world would likely be a very different-looking place today had the Chinese colonised as the British and Spanish did.
  • Jul 29 2013: A combination of fighting amongst themselves (though to be honest that didn't stop the Europeans), the relative ineffectiveness of early gunpowder weapons (up until the musket, they were only truly useful for sapping and psychological effect, and more dangerous to the user than the target), and the lack of a profitable, short term target for their conquests.
    The Romans for example, drew their borders according to what was profitable to conquer, and what was not (which is why for example, they never captured Scotland despite having capacity to do so).

    It doesn't help that the technology spread, and by around the 1400's, even the distant Europeans were using it. For some reason or another, the Europeans actually began improving on the gunpowder weapons faster than the Chinese did (maybe because Europe had even more infighting, and more of a motivation to develop enhanced weapons). That musket I mentioned earlier is a European design, and actually made its way back east on the ships of traders.

    Its fair to assume Chinese culture also had a pretty significant impact on the 'why' of it, though you'd need someone who knows more about it than I to answer that. Perhaps they were so focused on what happened in China that conquering the rest of the world didn't seem important.

    After all, its hard enough to manage an empire that size without modern transportation and radio, why enlarge it further?
  • Jul 29 2013: At first this seems correct. But the dubious progress that the western nations made in exploration of the world and the use of gunpowder is due to different way the two cultures looked at the world. Firstly, in China rockets and the like which used gunpowder were more ceremonial in nature and so no one thought of them in a different way. Secondly China had fought wars, both internally to some degree and with the Mongols but they continued to exist as a single country relatively safe by itself on its own and in its borders. Europe on the other hand was a continent made up of feuding nations and principalities which also shared a wide extent of ocean. The development of improved ship building and navigation allowed the exploration of new "worlds". These worlds, e.g. north America, south America, Africa etc then became the new centres around which the European powers fought over by pure exploitation of the resources to be found there. The Chinese also launched exploratory missions in the 15th century with several fleets of ships. They made many discoveries but these discoveries, e.g. discovering the west coat of America, were not supported by the Chinese government who chose to isolate themselves, maybe in an attempt to remain pure instead of possible intermixing with other societies. I would say it was mainly a cultural attitude which made the difference plus the constant pressure that European states experienced which made the difference.