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He Zhiyi: On Innovation

According to historical records, Chengtang, the founding emperor of the Shang Dynasty carved an aphorism on his bathtub: “If you make one improvement one day, then you should make improvement every day, and never stop.” Each time Chengtang has the bath, he would remind himself of considering the issue of how to make “improvement”. It is easy to find that how much the Chinese emperor 3,600 years ago valued the innovation. Nowadays, the leaders of China proposed the requirement to build an innovative country, making the word “innovation” increasingly hot in China.

What is innovation? Is it a sort of result, or a kind of capability, or a type of habit, or a pattern of culture?
Schumpeter raised the famous innovation theory 1912. In the context of market economy, innovation mainly refers to the capability of technology industrialization and product marketization, the capability of converting technological invention into economic value. According to a related research report, China ranks the 23rd in innovation capability among 34 countries; in the two well-known innovation ranking lists, China ranks respectively the 21st and 50th. From the perspective of technology industrialization and product marketization, China’s innovation capacity is not high.
But I don’t think the Chinese nation is a nation lacking the innovation capability. According to the history, innovation refers to not only technology innovation and economic valuation of the technology, but also refers to the comprehensive capability of innovation, such as culture innovation, art innovation, thought innovation, social system innovation and of course there are also the technology innovation and product innovation. If we broaden the concept of innovation and extend the period up to 500 years, 1000 years, 2000 years or even 3000 years, is China an innovative country? The first Dean of the former Peking University, W. A. P. Martin, also known as Ding Weiliang, said in 1901 that actually China had undergone lots of innovations in the history, but most of them were not known by the West. As a nation with civilization of thousands of years and a nation always leading in the forefront of the world, China is surely of the innovation capability. From the historical perspective, the fundamental innovation of a nation is the innovation of script and literature. The year of creation of China’s oracle bond script is not confirmed yet but the inscriptions already found are dated to the year 1300 BC. The earliest record of German is the 5th century BC, that of English is the 5th century AD and that of Russian is the 10th century AD. If we take poetry as the symbol of the script maturity, then Chinese got mature by the 8th century AD, the era of Li Bai and Du Fu. For English, it is until the Shakespeare (1564-1616) era; for German, it is the Heine (1797-1856) era; and for Russian, it is the Pushkin (1799-1837) era.
How is the innovation capability of the Chinese nation? The ancient literature, arithmetic, astronomy, bronze wares, iron wares, typography, gunpowder, compass, chinaware, silk cloth, traditional Chinese pharmacy, and traditional Chinese medicine etc, are all independent innovations of the Chinese nation; the feudal prime minister system, the feudal system of prefectures and counties, family system, imperial examination system, system of state-owned enterprises, water conservancy, bridge engineering, and road transportation (postal relay station) etc, are all also independent innovations of the Chinese nation.Moreover, China was always ready to be copied and studied by others at that time.
Of course, a nation with a long history may sometimes value the past more than the present due to extensive innovations in the past. A nation with an underdeveloped economy may have to follow others in the current world. But still, small defects cannot obscure great virtues. In the open and modern international community, when we find something new before us, the best way is to learn; and when we are at the forefront and we have nothing to copy, then we must make innovation.
In my opinion, there are three levels of innovation: fundamental innovation, supporting innovation and application innovation. Fundamental innovation refers to culture innovation, social system innovation and major science theory innovation; supporting innovation refers to technology innovation, industry innovation and organization innovation; application innovation refers to product innovation, market innovation, business mode innovation and management innovation etc. Culture innovation and system innovation is the most fundamental. Take the reform and opening up of China for example, without the transformation of the concepts, thoughts and the basic social system, it is impossible to make any other innovation.
In the second thirty years of the reform and opening up, if China forms the innovation cultural values deeply rooted in the people, if China can make exploration of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, if China can lead in the forefront in science and technology, and if China can establish the supporting innovation and application innovation system based on the above three fundamental innovations, China will undoubtedly become a permanently innovative country able to stand against the test of history and time..
In conclusion, let us wish our great nation to make constant innovation and changes depending on the civilization of thousands of years!

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