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I blame China's old examination system. For centuries upon centuries, nothing about that exam changed--it was all about knowing the classics and being able to write poetry and essays, with the eight-legged essay being the worst. The rigid format allowed for no creativity and new ideas; instead, scholars simply copied the style of the ancients, but it became empty over time. There was also no focus on sciences or technology. Instead of specialists in charge of the army, China had the equivalent of PhDs in literature--not that they're not smart, but they simply don't belong there. There was also too much theorizing and not enough practice. Not only that, but family connections were also playing too much of a role in getting people a place in the government. |
This situation left China stagnant and complacent. By the late Qing, the dynasty was weakening anyway, and the rest of the world knocking on China's doors only worsened things. Instead of humbling themselves to the possibility that changes were necessary and other countries had risen to become equal to or greater than them in power, they tried to keep up the old ways like the treaty system and refused to accept that they were no longer the world's greatest power.
Enter Opium Wars, Sino-Japanese Wars, an embarrassing series of treaties, the downfall of the dynastic system... things briefly looked up for a while in the 1910s, and then the country began to disintegrate into civil war. Ever since then, China's had to play catch-up with the rest of the world. It's an enormous group of setbacks to overcome, but I think eventually they will be overcome. It'll be harder for China than, say, Japan, simply because China is so huge, and reaching the agrarian/peasant population is hard... still, I have hope for China.