Thursday, September 4, 2008

History of science and technology in China

The history of science and technology in China is both long and rich with many contributions to science and technology. In antiquity, independently of Greek philosophers and other civilizations, ancient philosophers made significant advances in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. The first recorded observations of comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae were made in China. Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and were also practiced.

Among the earliest were the abacus, the "shadow clock," and the first flying machines such as kites and Kongming lanterns. The ''four Great Inventions of ancient China'': the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing, were among the most important technological advances, only known in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. The Tang Dynasty in particular, was a time of great innovation. Much of the early Western work in the history of science in China was done by Joseph Needham.

Early technological achievements

Derived from Taoist philosophy, one of the oldest longstanding contributions of the ancient Chinese are in Traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and . The practice of acupuncture can be traced back as far as the 1st millennium BC and some scientists believe that there is evidence that practices similar to acupuncture were used in Eurasia during the early Bronze Age.

The ancient Chinese also invented counting and time-keeping devices, which facilitated mathematical and astronomical observations. Shadow clocks, the forerunners of the sundial, first appeared in China about 4,000 years ago, while the abacus was invented in China sometime between 1000 BC and 500 BC. Using these the Chinese were able to record observations, documenting the first solar eclipse in 2137 BC, and making the first recording of any planetary grouping in 500 BC. The Qin Dynasty also developed the crossbow, which later became the mainstream weapon in Europe. Several remains of crossbows have been found among the soldiers of the Terracotta Army in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang.

The Eastern Han Dynasty scholar and astronomer Zhang Heng invented the first water-powered rotating armillary sphere , and catalogued 2500 stars and over 100 constellations. In 132, he invented the , called the "''Houfeng Didong Yi''" . According to the ''History of Later Han Dynasty'' , this seismograph was an urn-like instrument, which would drop one of eight balls to indicate when and in which direction an earthquake had occurred. designed mechanical chain pumps to irrigate palatial gardens, However, Ma Jun's most impressive invention was the South Pointing Chariot, a complex mechanical device that acted as a mechanical compass vehicle. It incorporated the use of a in order to apply equal amount of torque to wheels rotating at different speeds, a device that is found in all modern automobiles.

were invented in China almost 2,000 years ago. Pin-pointing the development of the compass can be difficult: the magnetic attraction of a needle is attested by the ''Louen-heng'', composed between AD 20 and 100, although the first undisputed magnetized needles in Chinese literature appear in 1086.

By AD 300, Ge Hong, an of the , conclusively recorded the chemical reactions caused when saltpetre, pine resin and charcoal were heated together, in ''Book of the Master of the Preservations of Solidarity''. Another early record of gunpowder, a Chinese book from ''c''. 850 AD, indicates that gunpowder was a byproduct of Taoist efforts to develop an :

"Some have heated together sulfur, realgar and with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down."

These four discoveries had an enormous impact on the development of Chinese civilization and a far-ranging global impact. Gunpowder, for example, spread to the Arabs in the 13th century and thence to Europe. According to Francis Bacon, writing in ''Novum Organum'':

One of the most important military treatises of all Chinese history was the ''Huo Long Jing'' written by Jiao Yu in the 14th century. For gunpowder weapons, it outlined the use of fire arrows and rockets, fire lances and firearms, land mines and naval mines, bombards and cannons, along with different compositions of gunpowder, including 'magic gunpowder', 'poisonous gunpowder', and 'blinding and burning gunpowder' .

For the 11th century invention of ceramic movable type printing by Bi Sheng , it was enhanced by the wooden movable type of in 1298 and the bronze metal movable type of Hua Sui in 1490.

Middle Ages

Among the scientific accomplishments of early China were matches, s, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the horse collar, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the sluice gate, and the pound lock. The Tang Dynasty in particular was a time of great innovation. Chinese illustrations were more realistic than in Byzantine manuscripts, Trade flourished both within China and overseas, and the encouragement of technology allowed the mints at Kaifeng and Hangzhou to gradually increase in production.


During the early half of the Song Dynasty , the study of archaeology developed out of the antiquarian interests of the and their desire to revive the use of ancient vessels in state rituals and ceremonies. This and the belief that ancient vessels were products of 'sages' and not common people was criticized by Shen Kuo, who took an approach to archaeology, incorporating his archaeological findings into studies on metallurgy, optics, astronomy, geometry, and ancient . In accordance with the beliefs of the later Leopold von Ranke , some Song gentry—such as Zhao Mingcheng —supported the primacy of contemporaneous archaeological finds of ancient inscriptions over historical works written after the fact, which they contested to be unreliable in regards to the former evidence. Hong Mai used ancient Han Dynasty era vessels to debunk what he found to be fallacious descriptions of Han vessels in the ''Bogutu'' archaeological catalogue compiled during the latter half of . Shen also wrote that since petrified bamboos were found underground in a dry northern climate zone where they had never been known to grow, climates naturally shifted geographically over time.

Mongol transmission

rule under the Yuan Dynasty saw technological advances from an economic perspective, with the first mass production of paper banknotes by Kublai Khan in the 13th century. William of Rubruck, an ambassador to the Mongols in 1254-1255, a personal friend of Roger Bacon, is also often designated as a possible intermediary in the transmission of gunpowder know-how between the East and the West. The compass is often said to have been introduced by the Master of the Knights Templar Pierre de Montaigu between 1219 to 1223, from one of his travels to visit the Mongols in Persia.

and intermingled under Mongol. Muslim astronomers worked in the Chinese astronomical bureau established by Kublai Khan, while some Chinese astronomers also worked at the .

Theory and hypothesis

As Toby E. Huff notes, pre-modern Chinese science developed precariously without solid scientific theory, while there was a lacking of consistent systemic treatment in comparison to contemporaneous European works such as the ''Concordance and Discordant Canons'' by of Bologna . This drawback to Chinese science was lamented even by the mathematician Yang Hui , who criticized earlier mathematicians such as Li Chunfeng who were content with using methods without working out their theoretical origins or principle, stating:

The men of old changed the name of their methods from problem to problem, so that as no specific explanation was given, there is no way of telling their theoretical origin or basis.

Despite this, Chinese thinkers of the Middle Ages proposed some hypotheses which are in accordance with modern principles of science. Yang Hui provided theoretical proof for the proposition that the complements of the parallelograms which are about the diameter of any given parallelogram are equal to one another. Shen believed that rays of sunlight refracted before reaching the surface of the earth, hence the appearance of the observed sun from earth did not match its exact location. Shen supported and expanded upon beliefs earlier proposed by Han Dynasty scholars such as Jing Fang and Zhang Heng that lunar eclipse occurs when the earth obstructs the sunlight traveling towards the moon, a solar eclipse is the moon's obstruction of sunlight reaching earth, the moon is spherical like a ball and not flat like a disc, and moonlight is merely sunlight reflected from the moon's surface. Shen also explained that the observance of a full moon occurred when the sun's light was slanting at a certain degree and that cresent proved that the moon was spherical, using a metaphor of observing different angles of a silver ball with white powder thrown onto one side. It should be noted that, although the Chinese accepted the idea of spherical-shaped heavenly bodies, the concept of a spherical earth was not accepted in Chinese thought until the works of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and Chinese astronomer Xu Guangqi in the early 17th century.


There were noted advances in Traditional Chinese medicine during the Middle Ages. of the Tang Dynasty commissioned the scholarly compilation of a ''materia medica'' in 657 that documented 833 medicinal substances taken from stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits, and cereal crops. In his ''Bencao Tujing'' , the scholar-official Su Song not only systematically categorized and according to their pharmaceutical uses, but he also took an interest in zoology. For example, Su made systematic descriptions of animal species and the environmental regions they could be found, such as the freshwater crab ''Eriocher sinensis'' found in the Huai River running through Anhui, in waterways near , as well as reservoirs and marshes of Hebei.

Horology and clockworks

Although the ''Bencao Tujing'' was an important pharmaceutical work of the age, Su Song is perhaps better known for his work in horology. His book ''Xinyi Xiangfayao'' documented the intricate mechanics of his in Kaifeng. This included the use of an and world's first known chain drive to power the rotating armillary sphere crowning the top as well as the 133 clock jack figurines positioned on a rotating wheel that by banging drums, clashing gongs, striking bells, and holding plaques with special announcements appearing from open-and-close shutter windows. While it had been Zhang Heng who applied the first motive power to the armillary sphere via hydraulics in 125 CE, it was Yi Xing in 725 CE who first applied an escapement mechanism to a water-powered celestial globe and stiking clock. The early Song Dynasty horologist Zhang Sixun employed in his astronomical clock because there were complaints that water would freeze too easily in the clepsydra tanks during winter.

Magnetism and metallurgy

Shen Kuo's written work of 1088 also contains the first written description of the magnetic needle compass, the first description in China of experiments with camera obscura, the invention of movable type printing by the artisan Bi Sheng , a method of repeated forging of cast iron under a cold blast similar to the modern Bessemer process, and the mathematical basis for spherical trigonometry that would later be mastered by the astronomer and engineer Guo Shoujing . While using a sighting tube of improved width to correct the position of the polestar , Shen discovered the concept of true north and magnetic declination towards the North Magnetic Pole, a concept which would aid navigators in the years to come.

In addition to the method similar to the Bessemer process mentioned above, there were other notable advancements in Chinese metallurgy during the Middle Ages. During the 11th century, the growth of the iron industry caused vast deforestation due to the use of charcoal in the smelting process. To remedy the problem of deforestation, the Song Chinese discovered how to produce from bituminous coal as a substitute for charcoal.


Qin Jiushao was the first to introduce the into Chinese mathematics. Before this innovation, blank spaces were used instead of zeros in the system of counting rods. Pascal's triangle was first illustrated in China by Yang Hui in his book ''Xiangjie Jiuzhang Suanfa'' , although it was described earlier around 1100 by Jia Xian. Although the ''Introduction to Computational Studies'' written by Zhu Shijie in 1299 contained nothing new in Chinese algebra, it had a great impact on the development of Japanese mathematics.

Alchemy and Daoism

In their pursuit for an elixir of life and desire to create gold from various mixtures of materials, s became heavily associated with alchemy. Joseph Needham labeled their pursuits as proto-scientific rather than merely pseudoscience.

Experimentation with various materials and ingredients in China during the middle period led to the discovery of many ointments, creams, and other mixtures with practical uses. In a 9th century Arab work ''Kitāb al-Khawāss al Kabīr'', there are numerous products listed that were native to China, including waterproof and dust-repelling cream or varnish for clothes and weapons, a , varnish, or cream that protected leather items, a completely fire-proof cement for glass and porcelain, recipes for , a waterproof cream for the silk garments of underwater divers, and a cream specifically used for polishing mirrors.

Gunpowder warfare

The significant change that distinguished Medieval warfare to early Modern warfare was the use of gunpowder weaponry in battle. from Dunhuang portrays the first artistic depiction of a fire lance, a prototype of the gun. The ''Wujing Zongyao'' military manuscript of 1044 listed the first known written formulas for gunpowder, meant for light-weight bombs lobbed from catapults or thrown down from defenders behind city walls. By the 13th century, the iron-cased bomb shell, hand cannon, land mine, and rocket were developed. As evidenced by the ''Huolongjing'' of Jiao Yu and Liu Ji, by the 14th century the Chinese had developed the heavy cannon, hollow and gunpowder-packed , the with a booster rocket, the naval mine and wheellock mechanism to ignite trains of fuses.

Jesuit activity in China

The Jesuit China missions of the 16th and 17th centuries introduced Western science and astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. One modern historian writes that in late Ming courts, the Jesuits were "regarded as impressive especially for their knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography." The Society of Jesus introduced, according to Thomas Woods, "a substantial body of scientific knowledge and a vast array of mental tools for understanding the physical universe, including the Euclidean geometry that made planetary motion comprehensible."}}

Conversely, the Jesuits were very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge to Europe. Confucius's works were translated into European languages through the agency of Jesuit scholars stationned in China. Matteo Ricci started to report on the thoughts of Confucius, and Father Prospero Intorcetta published the life and works of Confucius into Latin in 1687. It is thought that such works had considerable importance on European thinkers of the period, particularly among the Deists and other philosophical groups of the who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity.

The French physiocrat Fran&, founder of modern economics, and a forerunner of Adam Smith was in his lifetime known as "the European Confucius". The doctrine and even the name of "Laissez-faire" may have been inspired by the Chinese concept of Wu wei. Goethe, was known as "the Confucius of Weimar".

Scientific and technological stagnation

One question that has been the subject of debate among historians has been why China did not develop a scientific revolution and why Chinese technology fell behind that of Europe. Many hypotheses have been proposed ranging from the cultural to the political and economic. Nathan Sivin has argued that China indeed had a scientific revolution in the 17th century and that we are still far from understanding the scientific revolutions of the West and China in all their political, economic and social ramifications. John K. Fairbank argued that the Chinese political system was hostile to scientific progress.

Needham argued, and most scholars agreed, that cultural factors prevented these Chinese achievements from developing into what could be called "science". It was the religious and philosophical framework of the Chinese intellectuals which made them unable to believe in the ideas of laws of nature:

Similar grounds have been found for questioning much of the philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine, which, derived mainly from Taoist philosophy, reflects the classical Chinese belief that individual human experiences express causative principles effective in the environment at all scales. Because its theory predates use of the scientific method, it has received various criticisms based on scientific thinking. Even though there are physically verifiable anatomical or histological bases for the existence of acupuncture points or , for instance skin conductance measurements show increases at the predicted points , philosopher Robert Todd Carroll, a member of the Skeptics Society, deemed acupuncture a pseudoscience because it "confuse metaphysical claims with empirical claims".: matter how it is done, scientific research can never demonstrate that unblocking chi by acupuncture or any other means is effective against any disease. Chi is defined as being undetectable by the methods of empirical science.

More recent historians have questioned political and cultural explanations and have put greater focus on economic causes. Mark Elvin's high level equilibrium trap is one well-known example of this line of thought. It argues that the Chinese population was large enough, workers cheap enough, and agrarian productivity high enough to not require mechanization : thousands of Chinese workers were perfectly able to quickly perform any needed task. Other events such as Haijin, the Opium Wars and the resulting hate of European influence prevented China from undergoing an Industrial Revolution; copying Europe's progress on a large scale would be impossible for a lengthy period of time. Political instability under Cixi rule , the Republican wars , the Sino-Japanese War , the Communist/Nationalist War as well as the later Cultural Revolution isolated China at the most critical times. Kenneth Pomeranz has made the argument that the substantial resources taken from the New World to Europe made the crucial difference between European and Chinese development.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond postulates that the lack of geographic barriers in much of China led to a single government without competition. At the whim of a ruler who disliked new inventions, technology could be stifled for half a century or more. In contrast, Europe's barriers of the Pyrennes, the Alps, and the various defensible peninsulas and islands led to smaller countries in constant competition with each other. If a ruler chose to ignore a scientific advancement , his more-advanced neighbors would soon usurp his throne.

People's Republic of China

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, China reorganized its science establishment along Soviet lines. Since 1975, science and technology was one of the Four Modernizations, and its high-speed development was declared essential to all national economic development by Deng Xiaoping. Major breakthroughs occurred in the 1980s in nuclear weapons, satellite launching and recovery, superconductivity, high-yield hybrid rice. Policy formulation at top levels had put emphasis on the application of science to industry and foreign technology transfer.

Since the 21st century, science and technology in the People's Republic of China has been growing rapidly. As the People's Republic of China becomes better connected to the global economy, the government has placed more emphasis on science and technology. This has led to increases in funding, improved scientific structure, and more money for research. These factors have led to advancements in agriculture, medicine, genetics, and global change.

Further reading

* Bennett, A. A., ''John Fryer: The Introduction of Western Science and Technology into Nineteenth-Century China'' - 2 vols. .

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