The Ancient Imagination Behind China’s AI Ambition

Political, religious and science fiction stories hundreds of years old form the basis of China’s rapid growth in artificial intelligence technology.

Jennifer Bourne is the director of fellowships at the Berggruen Institute and an associate editor of Noema Magazine.

Artificial intelligence is a modern technology, but in both the West and the East the aspiration for inventing autonomous tools and robots that can think for themselves can be traced back to ancient times. Adrienne Mayor, a historian of science at Stanford, has noted that in ancient Greece, there were myths about tools that helped men become godlike, such as the legendary inventor Daedalus who fabricated wings for himself and his son to escape from prison. 

Similar myths and stories are to be found in China too, where aspirations for advanced robots also appeared thousands of years ago. In a tale that appears in the Taoist text “Liezi,” which is attributed to the 5th-century BCE philosopher Lie Yukou, a technician named Yan Shi made a humanlike robot that could dance and sing and even dared to flirt with the king’s concubines. The king, angry and fearful, ordered the robot to be dismantled. 

In the Three Kingdoms era (220-280), a politician named Zhuge Liang invented a “fully automated” wheelbarrow (the translation from the Chinese is roughly “wooden ox”) that could reportedly carry over 200 pounds of food supplies and walk 20 miles a day without needing any fuel or manpower. Later, Zhang Zhuo, a scholar who died around 730, wrote a story about a robot that was obedient, polite and could pour wine for guests at parties. In the same collection of stories, Zhang also mentioned a robot monk who wandered around town, asking for alms and bowing to those who gave him something. And in “Extensive Records of the Taiping Era,” published in 978, a technician called Ma Daifeng is said to have invented a robot maid who did household chores for her master.

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Imaginative narratives of intelligent robots or autonomous tools can be found throughout agriculture-dominated ancient China, where wealth flowed from a higher capacity for labor. So, stories reflect ancient people’s desire to get more artificial hands on deck, and to free themselves from intensive farm work.

A turning point, or rather an awakening moment, came in 1842. The illusion of the Middle Kingdom leading the world in science and technology was crushed when China was defeated during the first Opium War and forced to open its borders to Western imperialists. Constant warfare and slow technological development turned popular imagination toward ideas about China’s transformation and rejuvenation. Some leading Chinese intellectuals chose to write science fiction to emancipate people’s minds and to illustrate a future China that could defeat Western countries with imaginary advanced technologies. 

Liang Qichao, one of the most important politicians and ideologists of contemporary China, wrote what could be called the first genuine Chinese sci-fi story, “The Future of New China,” in 1902. Liang imagined that China would become a world power in 1962. The book describes in detail how a political reform movement reorganized and revitalized the country. Later, during the Japanese invasion of China, the author Gu Junzheng wrote “The Dream of Peace,” which is about a magical radio wave that could change people’s minds from loving an invading army to hating and fighting the interlopers. 


After the unification of the country and the founding of communist China in 1949, AI remained an imagined and distant idea, not a concrete scientific goal. Influenced by the Soviet Union, AI was considered a pseudo-science, a poisonous product of capitalism and revisionism, and thus harshly criticized in China in the 1950s and 60s. Then came the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when most intellectual work ground to a complete halt. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s when China finally started to reform and open up that the development of AI started to take off. Since then, China has made great strides to catch up with its Western rivals. The government has issued supportive policies, provided funding and sent students abroad to learn at Western universities. The Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (CAAI) was founded in 1981 to support efforts to separate AI from pseudoscience and sci-fi. 

In 1984, Deng Xiaoping issued a directive that children should learn computing technology from an early age. In 1986, intelligent computing, robots and information processing were added to the government’s technology development plan for the first time. A year later, Tsinghua University published a reference book on AI, the first of its kind in China. Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese students ventured out to Western universities to study new technologies; they were expected to return to China after the completion of their studies to foster AI development at home. 

Since the turn of the 21st century, China has made even more rapid progress in AI development and applications. In 2017, China’s state council issued an ambitious policy blueprint calling for the nation to become “the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2030. Also that year, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence accepted nearly as many papers from China as the U.S. for its annual conference, and Chinese researchers had become so integral to the organization that it had to change the date of the conference to avoid conflicting with Chinese new year celebrations. 

Although China is still mainly in a catching-up phase in terms of AI development, it has emerged as a leader in certain AI applications like facial recognition and contact tracing. Such applications are widely adopted in sectors like healthcare, finance, public security, schools and hotels. During the coronavirus outbreak, for example, AI-driven contact tracing and medical applications played a key role in China’s speedy recovery from the pandemic. 

The journey to catch up from science fiction to actual AI development is not unique to China. Recently I talked with Maya Ganesh, a Berggruen Institute fellow and doctoral candidate at Germany’s Leuphana University, who found through her AI metaphors project that some African and South Asian countries share similar narratives toward their AI development. She said that India and South Africa, for example, hope to leverage AI and big data to “reset the future” in the quest to catch up with the West. 

China missed previous industrial revolutions that drove development in other countries, and as a result resorted to imaginative narratives and alternative realities where China could catch up or already had. But not this time. China has made full use of the opportunities offered by the information technology revolution and turned imagination to realization in AI development. This has greatly boosted China’s confidence and in some ways rejuvenated the nation. But without adequate laws and regulations, such accomplishments can be used to erode personal privacy and freedom.

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