The Emperor’s New Clocks

Twice a day, the Hall of Ancestor Worship comes alive. Located within Beijing’s Forbidden City, this was where the emperors of China’s last two dynasties once burned incense and performed sacred rituals to honor the Sons of Heaven that came before them. Today, the hall is home to some of the most intricate and ingenious mechanical timepieces ever created. The clock faces themselves convey expert craftsmanship, but it’s the impossibly complex mechanical functions embedded in the clocks’ structures that draw large crowds for the morning and afternoon performances.

As the seconds tick by, a metal bird darts around a gold cage. Painted wooden lotus flowers open and close their petals, revealing a tiny Buddhist god deep in meditation. A delicately carved elephant lifts its trunk up and down while pulling a miniature carriage in circles. A robotic Chinese figure dressed in the coat of a European scholar uses an ink brush to write out a Chinese aphorism on a miniature scroll, with the robot’s own handwriting modeled on the calligraphy of the Chinese emperor who commissioned the piece.

It’s a dazzling display, a reminder of the timeless nature of true craftsmanship. Jesuit missionaries brought many of the clocks to China as part of “clock diplomacy,” an attempt by Jesuits to charm their way into the imperial court through gifts of advanced European technology. The Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong emperor was particularly fond of the clocks, and British manufacturers soon began producing clocks to fit the tastes of the Son of Heaven. Many of the clocks on display at the Hall of Ancestor Worship were the handiwork of Europe’s finest artisanal workshops of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These workshops produced an unparalleled combination of artistry, design, and functional engineering. It’s a particular alchemy of expertise that feels familiar to many in Silicon Valley today.

While working as the founding president of Google China, I would bring visiting delegations of Google executives here to see the clocks in person. But I didn’t do it so they could revel in the genius of their European ancestors. I did it because upon closer inspection, one discovers that many of the finest specimens of European craftsmanship were created in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, which was then called Canton.

After European clocks won the favor of the Chinese emperor, local workshops sprang up all over China to study and recreate the Western imports. In the southern port cities where Westerners came to trade, China’s best craftspeople took apart the ingenious European devices, examining each interlocking piece and design flourish. They mastered the basics and began producing clocks that were near-exact replicas of the European models. From there, the artisans took the underlying principles of clock-building and began constructing timepieces that embodied Chinese designs and cultural traditions: animated Silk Road caravans, lifelike scenes from the streets of Beijing, and the quiet equanimity of Buddhist sutras. These workshops eventually began producing clocks that rivaled or even exceeded the craftsmanship coming out of Europe, all while weaving in an authentically Chinese sensibility.

The Hall of the Ancestors dates back to the Ming Dynasty, and the story of China’s own copycat clockmakers played out hundreds of years in the past. But the same cultural currents continue to flow into the present day. As we watched these mechanical marvels twirl and chime, I worried that those currents would soon sweep away the master craftspeople of the twenty-first century who stood all around me.

In my next post, I look at how copycat tendencies also spur innovation. In the meantime, I welcome your comments. What do you feel about craftsmanship honed in replication that leads to innovation? Chinese craftsmen soon rivaled or outdid their European counterparts in the making of complicated timepieces. Where do you see China out-crafting Western technologies? Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Sep 04, 2018 in All Posts China Innovations AI & China