August 21, 2007

Seek knowledge, even if it is in China

Filed under: China,culture,politics — Kim @ 11:03 am

In an interesting article called Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement, the wonderfully named Pervez Hoodbhoy (professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, for 34 years) wrote

one-eighth of the Qur’an is a call for Muslims to seek Allah’s signs in the universe and hence science is a spiritual as well as a temporal duty for Muslims. Perhaps the most widely used argument one hears is that the Prophet Muhammad had exhorted his followers to “seek knowledge even if it is in China,” which implies that a Muslim is duty-bound to search for secular knowledge.

Now, modern China comes across to me as a thoroughly atheistic and unspiritual place. But in this quotation it seems that China was already being singled out by Muhammad as a singularly secular country, and also perhaps as a country completely alien to and unreceptive to Islam. After all, there is absolutely no way in the world you are ever going to persuade the Chinese to give up pork.

As I said, the modern Chinese Weltanschauung seems to me to be solidly a-religious and most of the young Chinese I speak to claim they base their main beliefs about the world on science…and that, for me, is a big big positive for China. I was brought up as a Christian but I really can’t understand how anyone intelligent can seriously believe in it, or in Islam, or Hinduism, or whatever fairy story. More mature and complex strains such as Buddhism and Taoism seem to me more like philosophies than religions.

Anyways, China’s worship of science seems to be paying dividends and China is doing reasonably well these days in the global science and technology competition. According to the UN’s intellectual property agency the number of requests for patents in China grew by 33% in 2005 compared with the previous year, which gave it the world’s third highest number behind Japan and the United States.

But knowledge, and having a grasp of the existential and epistemological complexities of the modern world, is not just about swotting up your periodic table or coming up with patents.

As Pervy Hoodboy goes on to argue

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes—a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

Good luck to him. He certainly has a fight on his hands, as this recent (12 April 2007) warning to Quaid-i-Azam University’s female students and faculty from the head of the government-funded mosque-cum-seminary shows:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. . . . Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports. . . . Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

Nice man. I’d like to invite him over for tea and castration one day. At least, I am guessing that nothing short of lopping off his gonads would calm his fevered sexual fantasies and cure him of his fear and loathing of his own writhing libido.

But I digress. What I was finkin is that on Pervy’s wish list we have the noble aims of

Rejecting absolute belief in authority.
Respecting cultural and personal freedoms.
Elbowing out rigid orthodoxy.
Bringing in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

So what would the modern seeker after knowledge find if they were to look to China for a model that included the above?

Move on, move on! Nothing to see here!

Apart from the obvious and well known censorship, human rights violations, and authoritarianism by the government, there is still too much groupthink and not enough creativity in the culture at large here. My own personal bugbear about Chinese educational conformity is as a left-hander. Chinese teachers…will you please stop forcing left-handers to write with their right hands! I was in an exam hall the other day with a couple of hundred students and it creeped me out that not one of them wrote left-handed.

The lack of a Nobel prize winner (who isn’t exiled or expat) is said to give some Chinese a “Nobel complex”, but it’s pretty obvious why there’s a lack, and it’s not just because Mao closed all the universities during the Cultural Revolution. When speaking at Beijing’s 101 middle school, 2005 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Dr Barry Marshall, made the point well when he encouraged Chinese students to “question everything” they learn in school and evaluate information for themselves.

So, yes, seek knowledge even if you are in China.

And the last word goes to this dude, a sparky Chinese American (predictably enough his blog is blocked in China) who I found when I did a search for Chinese Nobel Laureates. Funnily enough, I also discovered that he once wrote a provocative little post called The Arab Contribution to Civilization: Nothing Lately and looking back on that article he said

when I said that Islam was holding back scientific progress, it applies equally to the Chinese government. It applied as well to the Soviets in the past era. Religion or Governments that deny freedom and liberty just do not create anything. They can steal it, or buy it, but they cannot create it.


  1. I literally had to use a dictionary TWICE while reading your post. And I’m a CELTA-trained English teacher! Wow. The folks over at Peking Duck would love you. 😉

    Comment by canrun — August 22, 2007 @ 6:28 am

  2. Well Mr canrun…let me guess, you had to look up Weltanschauung and epistemology? I hope you didn’t have to look up your gonads, so to speak.

    Anyway, I feel most erudite now 😉

    What has happened to the Peking Duck btw? There’s been no quacking over at that site for a good long while.

    Comment by Kim — August 22, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Kim, you’re quickly becoming my favourite read in our little blogosphere!

    Oddly enough the name of that guy’s domain – Planck’s Constant – makes a whole lot more sense to me now that I’ve finally cracked The Universe and Dr. Einstein, one of the books that accompanied me on my journey over here several years ago.

    Comment by The Humanaught — August 23, 2007 @ 2:45 am

  4. “What has happened to the Peking Duck btw?”

    It sucks and is full of self-righteous, humorless wankers.

    Comment by canrun — August 23, 2007 @ 6:48 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.