"Roleigh, please read, "The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention" by Robert Temple
Miguel, I plan on taking your advice and reading that book. Thanks for the recommendation. I know a little about China though, my wife is Chinese and I've been there 10 times."
Although I haven't read Temple's books (there were three huge volumes) they do lead to the question Roleigh raised -why did the Chinese never take it any further? There was a book published last year that tried to link Chinese science to the Renaissance (apparently a Chinese fleet got to Venice and everything that followed was them copying Chinese science - so why are the Italian waterwheels still vertical, not horizontal?) but the book had sketchy evidence for any of its claims, particularly the presence of the fleet. The truth is that a lot of things simply developed independently in different parts of the world at different times - like convergent evolution in the natuaral world.
Looking forward, and picking up on Ben's points, I think that China's biggest advantage over Japan in the next few centuries will be an apparent history of rationality: when I first moved to Japan I was always puzzled by the times when Japanese practice would head in different directions to what you would expect in a Western society - I mean outwardly it looked familiar but in practice it wasn't. This was demonstrated in the attitude of petty bureaucrats - what they said went, no matter how senseless. The worst thing you could say to them was "why?". As a lawyer what I noticed was that there was no apparent administrative law (no mandamus and no ability to demand an explanation for a decision) and judicial decisions often just didn't seem to be logical but seemed to have social rationales. My theory was that rationality in Western society, as reflected in our laws, arose from the Enlightenment (and, apparently, Socrates and others before then). But Japan never had the Enlightenment - they adopted civil law from the Germans and French, but not the entire cultural baggage those laws were founded in. So to that extent Japan's adopted laws exist in a type of cultural vacuum. Japan has never been about logic - just power and social accommodatation (not harmony but the resolution of conflict). Japan's historical administrative class were hereditary soldiers. In contrast, as I understand it, the Chinese administrative class (the "Mandarins") were selected by examination and learnt some form of formal logic. It's noticeable that even now in China dissent by students and intellectuals is tolerated, to a degree (the Tianneman square protesters were students and intellectuals), whilst dissent by the proletariat is ruthlessly suppressed. In Japan if an issue is too big to deal with they just ignore it - the prime example is earthquakes in Tokyo (in Australia, I alwys used to think that if we built the world's largest city on some of the biggest, most active fault lines on the planet we'd take some precautions - refuges, hardened water and communications etc etc - but after Black Saturday, when it became clear that the Victorian government had ignored all warnings and common sense and hadn't required houses in the most bushfire prone part of the world to be fire-resistant, apparently because their building industry cronies had told them it would add hugely to the expense of housing, and the point was that the government were trying to move people out of Melbourne to ease the housing crisis to avoid political oblivion - I no longer think so.)