Science and Technology

  By Preobrazhenskoe, 01 February 2007; Revised
  Category: East Asia: China

The earliest sign of higher civilization in China was its Bronze Age, which began around 2100-2000 BCE when the smelting mixture of copper and tin in fiery kilns, once used exclusively for firing clay pottery in the Neolithic period, became a widespread practice throughout the ancient settlements of the Yellow River region of north-central China. By 1600 BCE China’s first formal kingdom arose, ruled over by the Shang Dynasty. By roughly 1500 BCE large-scale production in intricate bronze-ware vessels and bronze weaponry began, and Ebrey, Walthall, and Palais asserts that, “Shang bronze making required a large labor force to mine, refine, and transport copper, tin, and lead ores…to achieve the high degree of precision and standardization evident from surviving bronze vessels, there must have been considerable division of labor,” (17). Shang kings and elite aristocrats used highly-decorative bronze vessels for a slew of different ceremonial rituals of religious divination, thus the need for overseeing skillful production brought about the need for employing large amounts of hard-laborers, skilled artisans and craftsmen, and official managers to oversee the entire process to its finish. With increased amounts of bronze available, bronze technology also found practical use in arming troops for battle with improved weaponry, including “bronze-tipped spears and dagger-axes…bronze was also used for the fittings of the spoke-wheeled chariots that came into use around 1200 BCE,” (Ebrey, 14). With reinforced bronze fittings of the spoke-wheeled chariots, the application of chariots in battle proved invaluable to the tactics of increased mobility on the battlefield and provided military officers with a highly “mobile station from which they could supervise their troops,” (Ebrey 14). Bronze technology also allowed the innovation of the bronze-trigger mechanism of the 5th century crossbow, “invented in the southern state of Chu…[it] allowed a foot soldier to shoot farther than a horseman carrying a light bow,” (Ebrey, 29). In essence, the early religious need for mass production of bronze vessels sparked not only a calling for a more complex social stratification within society, but also allowed its armed forces to be equipped with better bronze weaponry and technology like bronze-trigger crossbows. Guided by large teams of charioteers (later superseded by cavalry-based armies, enhanced further by the 4th century north-Chinese invention of the stirrup) with bronze spoke-wheeled chariots, bronze technology was essential to China’s early military success and survival amongst surrounding hostile foes such as northern nomads massed on horseback and numerous indigenous tribes to the south.

During China’s succeeding Zhou Dynasty (1050-256 BCE), the advancement of metallurgy reached its next phase of maturity with the Iron Age, the first iron products in China dated to the 6th century BCE. During this time, other Iron Age civilizations produced fairly brittle, low-carbonized wrought iron from an archaic bloomery furnace, which required the iron to be beaten into shape. China’s Iron Age was unique in that they were the first to discover the use of the blast-furnace to produce highly-carbonized cast-iron. This process of melting iron ore in a blast-furnace and pouring the liquid iron into different molds wasn’t discovered in the West “until around A.D. 1310. Until then, Europeans mainly used wrought iron,” (Woods, 50). Michael and Mary Woods point out that some unique geological factors brought about the early stage of the Chinese Iron Age. One of the latter factors is the high-temperature-resistant clay in indigenous Chinese soil used for constructing the blast furnaces and standard molds for casting; this along with Chinese iron ore containing “large amounts of phosphorous. This ore melts at a lower temperature than ore found in the ancient Middle East,” (Woods 49). Beyond geological factors, the Chinese used quite sophisticated methods of casting iron and even the first to create true steel by the 1st century BCE. They employed the use of bellows, an air-filled chamber often made of leather in the ancient world, that when compressed would inject a blast of air into the furnace, thus providing oxygen to make internal temperatures in the furnace rise to greater heights. In ancient Chinese records of the Han Dynasty, it was recorded that in the year 30 CE “a Chinese government official named Tu Shih invented the first water-powered bellows. This was a complicated machine containing gears, axles, and levers that was powered by a waterwheel,” (Woods 51). Joseph Needham describes the use of a double-piston-bellows used during this period of the Han Dynasty, noting that the “double-acting force and suction pump; at each stroke, while expelling the air on one side of the piston…draws in an equal amount of air on the other side… [providing the] fundamental metallurgical necessity, a continuous blast,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 135). With the increased and preferred use of iron product in weaponry, bronze technology became archaic and was soon phased out in importance by 300 BCE during the late Warring States period, since iron was a far more durable and malleable metal than bronze. In fact, the Qin State owed much of its success in the conquest of all the warring Chinese states to its emphasis on intensified iron-production (although a short-lived Imperial dynasty due to its unpopular, ultra-authoritarian, and oppressive Legalist philosophy applied in law). The strength of iron also found practical uses outside equipping the military with iron weaponry, such as buttressing of architecture and feats of engineering. Completed in year 605 CE during the Sui Dynasty, the engineer Li Chun’s famous 123-foot-long Zhaozhou Bridge (also known as Anji Bridge, the first open-spandrel segmental-arch bridge in the world) had “slender-waisted iron cramps to bind the stones together,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 3 178) which along with mortar applied to the crevices, has kept the bridge in remarkable shape to this day. 

As China became much more territorially expansive and populous, with indigenous commercial markets and the armed forces demanding an increased and constant supply of iron product, “iron production reached around 125,000 tons per year in 1078 [CE], a sixfold increase over the output in 800 [CE],” (Ebrey 158). This massive increase in iron production correlates directly with the growing population of China during the medieval period, as iron-tech itself was largely responsible for the increase in population growth. Joseph Needham points out that China’s early rise in massive population stems back to the ancient Warring States period, since “there is good reason to think that iron was used for plough-shares and hoes at a date considerably earlier than that of the first steel weapons,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 65) steel weapons appearing in China around the 1st century BCE. Through widespread governmental efforts to gather taxes and census data, it was deciphered that “in 742 [CE] China’s population was approximately 50 million, very close to what it had been in 2 CE,” (Ebrey 156) and with advances in iron-tech allowing greater agricultural innovations such as the iron plow, “[China’s] population reached about 100 million in 1102 [CE],” (Ebrey 156). Reflective of China’s enormous population today, Spence notes that “in the late Ming [1368-1644 CE], China may have had well over 150 million people…in the 1790s, it had passed the 300 million mark,” (Spence 78). Other indigenous innovations helped to boost agricultural output in China, thus allowing for greater amounts of mouths to be fed and greater populations to sustain. Innovations such as the Han Dynasty era square-pallet chain pump in the 2nd century CE, which accomplished the same objective aim as the Greek Archimedes Screw, moving by manual (driven with foot-pedals) or mechanically-driven (rotating waterwheels) action any form of substance necessary (water, sand, pebbles, dirt, etc.) from a lower elevation to a higher elevation. Needham notes that the first use of a chain pump in China came with “Pi Lan [in 186 CE]…a master-founder who installed water-raising machinery (square-pallet chain-pumps and norias) which brought a piped water supply system to the palaces and city of Loyang,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 33), but was also widely used in running irrigation works, supplying water from the low bank of a river uphill to terraced rows of crops. The ancient and medieval Chinese were extraordinarily creative when it came to hydraulic and manual-driven power, performing various functions of “pounding, grinding, water raising, blowing, sifting, turning, and pressing,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 174) in the process of textile, sericulture, lumber, ceramic-ware, salt refinement, papermaking, ore and coal mining, and other such industries alongside uses in agricultural product. Some examples of the latter were mechanically-driven trip-hammers for pounding solids into bits for industrial production or grain pounding, mechanically-driven saw-blades for cutting wooden timbers, and for efficiency in agriculture, “a wheelbarrow-mounted crop-sprayer with a drive from the wheel,” which employed, “cranks…and connection-rods…fitted on each side of the wheel to raise and lower the piston-rod of the pump,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 175). Indeed, industrial and agricultural production on a massive scale was needed to sustain the supply-and-demand of a growing population, especially the needs of a growing elite class of scholar officials. More so than earlier periods, during the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties, Spence notes that, “the homes of the wealthy were filled with the products of Chinese artisans, who were sometimes employed in state-directed manufactories but more often grouped in small, guild-controlled workshops,” (Spence 10).

Surely one of the greatest inventors of this age who embodied the achievements thus far in science was Zhang Heng (78-139 CE, also spelled Chang Heng), also a skillful poet, mathematician, astronomer, and government official of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Much like Archimedes earlier, Zhang Heng not only found the mathematical formulae for pi, but was also the inventor of the Eastern version for the ancient mile-marking odometer, a wheeled mechanical device he used to measure distances traveled (complete with a wooden figurine having a mechanical-driven arm that would striking a drum to alert those around for every mile traversed). Zhang’s odometer actually “may compare…with the peg on the axle of Heron’s odometer in the previous century,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 494). Zhang Heng was also, “the inventor of the first seismograph in any civilization, and the first to apply motive power to the rotation of astronomical instruments,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 30). The mechanical workings of his seismograph were entailed inside a metal urn, and when the tremor of an earthquake struck, a swinging pendulum within the urn would begin to sway, activating a series of levers which would push a ball out of any one eight metal-cast dragon mouths each representing the cardinal direction of where the earthquake came from (thus allowing quicker aid to a region devastated by natural calamity), even if the central fault-line was hundreds of kilometers away (as written in the 2nd century History of the Later Han). As to his motive power in rotation of astronomical instruments, Zhang Heng might not have been the first to conceive of and invent the armillary sphere (the first by Greek Eratosthenes in 255 BCE), but he was the first to apply water-power through a waterwheel to make the astrolabe spin, thus a mock representation of the rotating stars and planets in the heavens he was so fond of charting out. His working in gears and proto-mechanical clocks (using Greek-style clepsydra water-clocks) laid the path for later innovations such as the 8th century escapement mechanism innovated during the Tang Dynasty. The latter in turn was employed by the brilliant 11th century engineer Su Song with the construction of his “great astronomical clock-tower at Kaifeng,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 2 32).

With China’s massive boom in population of 100 million by the end of the 11th century, there came a growing need for a larger governmental bureaucracy to maintain governance and order over this great mass of census-filed subjects. Prefecture, provincial, and central government officials were granted candidate degrees by passing the Civil Service and Imperial Exams in mass of annual cycles. To demonstrate the rising level of government officials, Ebrey gives figures just for prefecture officials, noting that “early in the 11th century, fewer than 30,000 men took the prefectural exams, which increased to nearly 80,000 by the end of that century and to about 400,000 by the dynasty’s end [in 1279 CE],” (160). One might ask how and with what widespread available writing resources roughly 400,000 men used in order to maintain such high education on a daily basis in order to pass the grueling exams. The answer to this is one of the paramount discoveries made by the Chinese that later transfused elsewhere (to Arabs by 8th century, Europeans by 12th) and arguably shaped the course of the known world: the invention of paper, and the papermaking process. Proto-mixtures for paper (water, fibers, and mould) were used in ongoing experiments for centuries in China, but not perfected until the introduction of tree-bark into the mix, first done by a Han Dynasty court eunuch named Cai Lun, in the early 2nd century CE. After that point paper was a desired writing material of mass-production over others used in China’s past, because “paper was a much cheaper and more ideal writing medium than expensive silk and the clumsier bamboo or wood,” (Needham, Volume 5: Part 1 4). Other mediums used before paper could be dried strips of leather (parchment), bones such as tortoise shells (used largely in ancient Chinese divination), and in the Western world, the paper-like writing material known as Papyrus, (derived from the rare and thus expensive Papyrus plant of Egypt). Along with the earliest known papermaking process, the Chinese were the first to use methods of mass proto-printing (before Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of the screw-driven printing press). The earliest known form of ‘printing’ through stamped seals can be found across many civilizations, as the Chinese used seals for stamping standard mirror-images of that seal onto clay, silk, and paper materials in ancient times. By the 8th century CE, during the military and expansionary height of the Tang Dynasty into Central Asia, the Chinese had discovered that using carved wooden blocks (each block representing a page in a book) they could reprint the same image of text or illustration carved on the block over and over onto paper. The earliest extant document that has been proven to be of wood-block-printed source is the dharani sutra scroll, found in 1966 within a stone stupa of the Buddhist temple Pulguk-sa, southeast Korea. Needham notes that the document bears no specific date. However, “it includes certain special forms of characters created and used when Empress Wu (r. 680-704 CE) was ruling China,” (Needham, Volume 5: Part 1 149). The printed document is also no older than 751 CE, the year that construction of the temple and stupa were completed.

Then there is the figure known as Pi Sheng (990-1051 CE), a commoner who invented moveable-type printing in the 11th century. The written record of Pi Sheng is handed down to us through the Song Dynasty statesman Shen Kua (1031-1095 CE). Shen Kua wrote that Pi Sheng took raw clay bits and incised small writing characters on their surface, each character forming a single type, and fired them in a kiln to harden them. Then using an iron plate coated with pine resin, wax, and paper ashes, he “took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types…he then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste…was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface,” (Needham, Volume 5 Part 1 201). Beyond the use of clay, later Chinese used wooden character types with moveable printing, and bronze-metal types were innovated by the Koreans in the 15th century. Although Shen Kua praised Pi Sheng’s innovation as a rapid method of printing, the Chinese ideographic writing system itself made moveable-type in this manner unpractical, inhibiting the spread of its use unlike woodblock printing, because “a fount of at least 200,000 Chinese types is not unusual,” whereas an alphabetical-based written language like the Western Latin Alphabet has a “complete fount…of no more than a hundred different symbols,” (Needham, Volume 5: Part 1 220) thus making the latter much easier to use with moveable-type. Although the innovative moveable-type was not as widespread as woodblock printing, the latter was still an efficient method of printing. Spence notes that because of woodblock printing, “the maintenance of extensive private libraries was feasible, and the wide distribution of works of philosophy, poetry, history, and moral exhortation was taken for granted,” (11).

The span of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) was one of China’s most prolific ages of innovations and innovators. The Song government, monopolizing on the earlier invention of woodblock-printing and the occasion of medieval economic revolution, was the first in the world to produce government-issued paper-printed money during the 1120s CE. This came about because the Song government was trying to “avoid the weight and bulk of [copper] coins for large transactions,” (Ebrey 156), which was justifiable since “more than 6 billion coins a year,” (Ebrey 156) was the annual rate of output for state currency, as recorded in the year 1085 CE. After 1127 CE, incurring Jurchen-nomad armies of the north pushed the Song Chinese south of the Yellow River, snatching away vital land routes along the famous Silk Road leading to Europe on the other end of the spectrum, thus forcing the Chinese to seek other ways to maintain economic trade with foreign powers while maintaining defense at home and prestige abroad. This was accomplished by the building of the first permanently-standing navy in China, along increased maritime presence of Chinese merchant fleets into the Indian Ocean, “since maritime trade for the first time exceeded overland foreign trade,” (Ebrey 158). While seafarers in other parts of the world had to rely upon oarsmen for the steering and maneuvering of their ships, the Chinese had remedied this problem with the innovation of a ship’s stern-post-mounted steering, evidence of which first appears in “a tomb of Hou Han date (1st and 2nd centuries CE) [with] a magnificent pottery ship model which demonstrates the existence of the axial rudder already at that time,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 3 650). Beyond employing wind-power with unique angled sails found on Chinese-style “junk” vessels (originating ship design from the1st century CE), the Chinese also used the invention of the brilliant engineer Kao Hsuan, hydraulically-powered paddle-wheeled ships for propulsion, and “between 1132 and 1183 CE a great number of treadmill-operated paddle-wheel craft, large and small, were built, including stern-wheelers and ships with as many as 11 paddle-wheels a side,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 3 476). The Chinese Taoist-alchemist discovery for the chemical compound of gunpowder (sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter) in the 9th century during the previous Tang Dynasty led the Chinese to invent not only the first fireworks and rockets, but also the employment of the highly-explosive gunpowder in warfare. With the Song’s powerful new navy of 11 squadrons and some 52,000 marines (based mostly in medieval Shanghai), the Chinese were ready to test the first gunpowder bombs and proto-cannons made first of bamboo-shafts, then cast in bronze and iron. For the enormous sea battle on the Yangtze River in 1161 CE the Song navy employed 340 ships to fight the northern Jin Dynasty, and “since 1129 CE trebuchets [catapults] throwing gunpowder bombs were decreed standard equipment on all warships,” (Needham, Volume 4: Part 3 476). Surely, naval engagements and maritime ventures onto the high seas were fundamentally changed forever when Shen Kua (1031-1095 CE) became the first man in history to write of a magnetic-needle compass used for navigation at sea, as well as the first that to realize magnetic declination with “the improved meridian determined by Shen’s measurement of the distance between the polestar and true north,” (Sivin III 22). Shen Kua was quite the polymath in his busy life as a military general, diplomat, financial officer, and scientist whose writings in his book Dream Pool Essays explored the realms of early understanding on mineralogy, erosion, sedimentation and uplift, as well as “two atlases…music, mathematical harmonics, administration, mathematical astronomy, astronomical instruments, defensive tactics and fortifications, paintings, tea, medicine, and poetry,” (Sivin III 10). Shen Kua, along with many of his intellectual contemporaries and peers, embodied the innovative spirit of his age in China.


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