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But is China really so far behind? Between 1981 and 2003, it churned out a 20-fold increase in research papers published in scientific journals, according to this month's issue of Nature. The Chinese have already leapfrogged into the wireless age, and who knows about tomorrow? It would be foolhardy to underestimate the folks who invented the compass, paper, gunpowder and printing.
In the Tang era, foreigners flocked to China because the country was on the cutting edge of high technology. Its craftsmen had perfected the hard, white porcelain that gave China its enduring English name. It used paper money when other countries didn't even have paper. Baghdad cracked China's paper-making monopoly only when it captured some artisans conscripted into the Tang army and forced them to give up the secret.
As for cultural exports, Tang China sent its written characters to Japan and Korea. From the sixth to eight century, Kyoto modelled its whole artistic output on the Tang. China also transmitted a Sinicized version of Buddhism to its neighbours. (It had in turn imported the religion from India.)
For the moment, China is embracing the outside world and its influences, just like in Tang times. It's hiring the best foreign architects, building the world's only magnetic-levitation train with German technology, and hosting the next Summer Olympics. In January, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera will open in Shanghai.
Disinclined to wait for the West to learn Chinese, select kindergartens are immersing toddlers in English. Some universities have gone all-English in textbooks and lectures. At the multiplex cinema at Beijing's Oriental Plaza, many customers opt to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in its original language. (“When you want to dominate a country, the first thing you do is learn the language,” said Mr. Jewison, the filmmaker. “The French-Canadian priests of a hundred years ago could all speak Cree and Ojibwa.”)
Beijing's youth continue to look outside China for their concept of cool, copying their counterparts in other Asian countries, who in turn have stolen the look from the West. In Shanghai, they dye their hair orange and platinum. Young women apply South Korean false eyelashes, one lash at a time, with a kind of black Krazy Glue.
But China does have a je ne sais quoi appeal in Europe. This year, the French festooned the Eiffel Tower with sparkling red lights and silk lanterns to celebrate the Chinese New Year. It's impossible to imagine them draping it in bunting for the Fourth of July.
Whenever China has absorbed foreign cultures in the past, it has always transformed them, both within and for re-export abroad.
“Right now we ape Western musicians, but we will have our own music soon,” said Zhou Min, whose Beijing hair salon is frequented by Russian and Iraqi traders.
With globalization and the Internet, it may only be a matter of time before English-speaking kids in Etobicoke or East Vancouver embrace some as yet unforeseen Chinese fashion.