Many are the answers, with different people holding different opinions.
My view is: because before the 16th century, China lacked foreign enemies who were culturally superior and also militarily more powerful than it.
For example, the Mongols conquered China by force in the 13th century and the country went through the Yuan dynasty, but due to their (Mongol) cultural inferiority, they ended up being immersed in Chinese culture instead. In contrast, Europe, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century to the year 1500, entered the “Dark Age” of knowledge.” At that time, civilization(al) achievements in philosophy, mathematics and other natural sciences of ancient Greece were more transferred to Islamic countries.
The Europeans noticed this and went to Spain and other places to study Islamic culture as early as the 11th and 12th centuries, recognizing the greatness of ancient Greek mathematics and natural sciences as their foundations, and after the end of the 13th century, the Renaissance in Italy and the resurgence of ancient Roman technological power led to the flourishing of European science and technology. Accordingly, I believe that the influence of other outstanding civilizations and cultures was pivotal to the development of new cultures and civilizations.
Around the time of the Opium War of 1840-1842, some European countries, led by Britain, had a civilization that surpassed China and Japan in terms of scientific and technological power, and also possessed strong military power, and they began to exert constant pressure on China. In the 16th century, Catholicism was introduced to Japan, but the Japanese, seeing the powerful force hidden behind it, prohibited its spread in their homeland.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Japan implemented a “closed country, no foreign contact” policy, barely permitting the Dutch in Nagasaki for trading. That is to say, while pursuing a policy of closing the country to outsiders, Japan continued to track the progress of European science and technology through Nagasaki. This exchange with the Netherlands greatly increased Japanese interest in modern science and technology, and in 1868, when the Meiji Restoration was implemented, Japan showed a full-scale opening of the country and rapidly introduced science and technology from Western Europe until now.
One of the reasons for the rapid improvement of Japanese science and technology was that Nagasaki was used as a window to fully understand the development of science and technology in Western Europe since the time of the “lock-up era”. In 1953, Professor Yukawa established the Institute of Fundamental Physics at the University of Tokyo, which was open to students and researchers from all universities and research institutes in Japan, and through which they could conduct collaborative research. The Institute of Fundamental Physics. Because of this foundation, Hideki Yukawa won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the meson (particle, in physics); in 1965, Shinichiro Asaaga won the prize for his discovery of the renormalization theory.
This Institute of Fundamental Physics has produced a large number of researchers, including me. Its success led to the establishment of several research institutes in Japan that could be jointly used, such as the Institute of Cosmic Rays, and has produced researchers in many fields. This initiative has become the driving force behind Japan’s crop of Nobel Prize winners.
Let’s take a look at the trends in the number of scientific and technical papers. Starting in the 1980s, the number of papers in Japan grew rapidly, jumping to the second place in the world after the United States in 1989. The number of times a paper has been cited by others is one of the objective criteria for evaluating papers. The overall number of citations for papers published by Japanese research institutes and universities, etc., also increased dramatically to the point where they could compete with countries in Western Europe, and around 2000, the University of Tokyo jumped to the number one position in the world in physics, which I, as a former president, used to be ecstatic about.
In the 1980s, Japan established the policy of “building the country through science and technology”, and in 1995 formulated the “Basic Law on Science and Technology.” According to this law, a “Science and Technology Plan” has been formulated every five years starting in 1996, accompanied by a national budget. Against this backdrop, many Japanese Nobel Prize winners have emerged in the fields of physics, chemistry, and biomedicine.
On a personal note, it is worth mentioning that during my stay in the United States, I had a close relationship with two Chinese giants of physics, Mr. Chen Ning Yang and Mr. Zheng Dao Li. These two physicists, were awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their prediction of the law of cosmic non-conservation in weak interactions. This shows that the Chinese have remarkable strengths. In recent years, the number of Chinese scientific and technical papers has increased dramatically, surpassing Japan to take the 2nd place in the world in 2008, and then surpassing the United States to jump to the first place in the world in 2019. Chinese papers, whose citations also rank among the highest, surpassed the momentum of Japan from the 1990s to 2008.
From the awards of Mr. Chen-Ning Yang and Mr. Zheng-Dao Li, and from the increase of Chinese scientific and technical papers and the number of citations in the last 15 years, I firmly believe that Chinese scientists will continue to win Nobel Prizes in various fields in the future. The Chinese have been an excellent people since ancient times, and they are now ushering in an excellent era of opportunity to vigorously promote modern science and technology.
I hope that young researchers in China will fully realize the current advantages of China, work hard, display ambition and face up to difficulties. I hope that in the field you like, you can thoroughly investigate the problems you are interested in and explore fundamental problems. In particular, you must study basic problems. Once you apply yourself to them, you will have immense merit.
The combined number of scientific and technical papers from China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and other East Asian countries has already exceeded that of the United States, and also exceeded that of the European Union plus the United Kingdom. In terms of science and technology, it has ushered in the “East Asian Era”, and I am extremely happy about it. I hope that the young people of China will be able to show their skills and work together with the young people of East Asian countries for the future development of science and technology.
(The author is the former president of the University of Tokyo and former Japanese Minister of Education)