China’s Corruption Problem: Qin Jiushao, Poisoner, Mathematician
The Western press has made much of the imagined significance of the affair of Bo Xilai, claiming that his behavior threatens the Chinese government, that China (unlike us!) is in the grip of corrupt officials and that its days are numbered. A quick glance back at a Bo Xilai-style official from earlier times would have reminded journalists that such corruption is hardly new.
There’s a character from China’s past whom I really like: Qin Jiushao (秦九韶). A high official, he was an extremely competent administrator and at the same time cruel, brutal, ruthless, greedy, and massively corrupt–retiring with a huge fortune that he’d robbed from the government and the Chinese people.
Why do I like old Jiushao? Well, he was also one of China’s greatest mathematicians, and he solved problems that were still baffling European mathematicians in the 19th century. But Jiushao lived long before Bo Xilai. From 1202–1261, to be exact.
He was born Qin Jiushao Ziyang, Sichuan, his family was from Shandong, and his reputation as a mathematician is particularly remarkable as Mr. Qin did not devote his life to mathematics. In fact, he found it pretty boring–compared to the fun of ripping people off and poisoning those who got in his way!
Qin’s reputation as a mathematician lies in the Shùshū Jiǔzhāng (“Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections”), issued in 1247. The treatise covered matters that ranged from indeterminate analysis to military matters and surveying. In the treatise, Qin included a version of the Chinese remainder theorem, which used algorithms to solve problems. In geometry, he discovered “Qin Jiushao’s formula” in finding the area of a triangle with given length of three sides. This is the same as Heron’s formula, discovered earlier.
Qin recorded the earliest explanation of how Chinese calendar experts calculated astronomical data according to the timing of the winter solstice. Among his accomplishments are introducing techniques for solving arbitrary order algebraic equations (a numerical algorithm based on Horner’s method), finding sums of arithmetic series, and solving linear systems. He also introduced the use of the zero symbol in Chinese mathematics.
After he completed his work on mathematics he went into politics. He was boastful, corrupt, accused of bribery and of poisoning his enemies, so several times he was relieved of his duties and put in ‘suspension’. Because competent officials were as hard to find then as they are now, so he always Despite all efforts to contain and discipline him he managed to become very wealthy. In contrast to many ancient mathematicians, he was not a wise man and became bored quickly with math, which may be why he focused so little of his life on its study.
So the next time you hear doom-sayers talking about “corruption in China” remember that the present government is probably the most honest in China’s history–as we can tell by its consistently beneficial results for all Chinese.