& Tornado Alley
The Advanced Technology of Ancient China
Around 2300 years ago, when no one in Europe or the Middle East could melt even one ounce of iron
the Chinese were casting multi-ton iron objects. It was not until the mid-1700's in Europe
that such feats of metallurgy were achieved in
Britain, the technically most advanced country of Europe. The early success in iron-casting in China was due to a superior form of bellows
that delivered a continuous stream of air to a furnace instead of an interrupted stream as
from the type of bellows used in the West. No one beforehand would have given much thought
or attention to such a seemingly unimportant device as the Chinese bellows, but it turned
out to be a crucial technological development.
But ancient China was not just technically advanced in iron-making. In a wide variety of
technical fields China of 300 BCE was many centuries ahead of Europe and the Middle East.
And what happened to China that it stagnated technologically so that by the nineteenth
century it was so far behind the West that it was weak and primitive? China had regressed so
much that almost everyone, in China as well as the West, had forgotten that China was once
technically far advanced compared to the West.
The answer is that Qin Shihuang, the king of the state
of Qin (Ch'in) in western China, conquered the six other Chinese kingdoms, uniting them into one empire
and created a class of bureaucrats to run and regulate it. He created this bureaucracy to
centralize control and break the power of feudalists who were always usurping the power of
the central authorities. The Qin Empire did not last long after the death of its founder.
The Qin bureaucrats were of a different type than the bureaucrats who were later chosen
under the Han Empire. The Qin bureaucrats were hard-nosed administrators who adhered to
a philosophy of administration called Legalism. Legalism was a
totalitarian ideology that, among other things, held that
books and scholarship were a waste of resources. They burned books and buried some scholars
alive to discourage that waste of time.
After the Qin Empire collapsed the State of Han rose to power but kept some of the institutions
of Qin. Their empire also was to be run by bureaucrats but the Han bureaucrats, called mandarins,
were to be followers of the Confucian doctrines and were chosen through a competitive
examination based upon history, literature and philosophy.
Instead of being ruled by
philosopher-kings the China of the Han Empire and thereafter was ruled by scholar-bureaucrats
who over time stultified the civilization.
The Mandarins were a privileged class and did not want anyone disturbing their status quo
and endangering the system. Over the centuries the heavy hands of these bureaucrats slowed the
previously dynamic society of China to a standstill and ultimately caused it to regress.
But before considering the stagnation and regression it is enlightening to review how stunning
was the ancient flowering of Chinese civilization.
A Review of the Record
- Metal Casting: Casting of bronze objects developed very early in the Shang Civilization of the Yellow River Valley of about
1800 BCE. Religious objects, as well as tools and weapons, of great artistic merit were cast.
Later when the superiority of iron over bronze was recognized superior blast furnaces were
developed. These furnaces achieved high enough temperatures that the iron flowed like water and
could then be cast. In the West there were blast furnaces that smelt iron from its ores but
the temperature was only high enough to produce a mass of iron and slag melted together. This
mass had to be hammered to consolidate the iron and drive out the rock-like slag. It was known
as wrought iron. In China cast iron was produced. Cast iron has one disadvantage; it
has such high carbon content that it is relatively brittle. The Chinese learned to reduce the
carbon content to a level such that the metal was strong and resilient instead of being brittle.
This is called steel.
- The Compass: The compass was invented n ancient China. People learned to use naturally
occurring magnets, called lodestones, to magnetize an iron pointer. The first pointers had
a shape somelike a balanced spoon. The handle of the spoon pointed to the south rather than
to the north. The early compasses that were borrowed in the West also pointed to the south
and only later were modified to point to the north. The Chinese compasses were used in
the geomancy called Feng Shui as well as in navigation.
- Paper: The first paper was made from fiber obtained by pounding linen cloth. Initially it
was used for clothing rather than writing material. It was even used to make body armor for
soldiers. A thick layer of cotton was enclosed between two layers of the tough rag paper.
Some soldiers preferred it to the heavy, awkward metal armor.
- Gunpowder: Gun powder developed out of the experiments of Chinese shamans in throwing
mineral powders into fires to produce interesting effects in terms of colors and enhancements
of the flames. Later the gunpowder was used for making fireworks. The use of gunpowder as
an explosive came after its use was borrowed by the West.
- Deep drilling and the use of natural gas: In the search for salt wells the ancient Chinese developed a technology
of driving bamboo poles deep into the earth. Depths up to a kilometer were achieved through
this technique. In addition to brine this drilling also often tapped into reservoirs of
natural gas. This natural gas was captured in barrels and used as fuel to evaporate the water
from brine to produce salt.
- Mechanical clock mechanisms: Accurate mechanical clocks were developed in ancient China
because of a belief in a form of astrology that was based upon the moment of conception rather
than the time of birth. Retainers listened outside the royal bedrooms to record the possible
times of conception of royal children. This was considered important enough that considerable
effort was devoted to developing accurate timing mechanisms. These clock mechanisms were
borrowed in the West and perfected for other purposes. When Jesuits presented such mechanical
clocks to the Chinese emperor many centuries later the technology had be forgotten in China
and no one knew that the mechanical clock had been invented in China.
- Row crop farming: In ancient times field were planted by broadcasting (throwing) the
seed randomly. It was the Chinese who in ancient times realized that if the seeds were
planted in separated rows the plants could be irrigated more effectively and the weeds could
be chopped down with a hoe. This greatly increased the crop yields.
- Silk: The discovery that the cocoons of silk worms could be unwound and the filaments
used to weave an especially light, strong and beautiful cloth was of course made in
- Porcelain: In very ancient times the Chinese discovered that with the right choice of
clay and firing techniques pottery could be made so thin that it was translucent. Such porcelain
became universally known as china.
- Rudders for navigating ships:
- Suspension bridges:
These are just some of the technological acheivements of ancient China. There were also
major early developments in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and literature. There were also
numerous inventions of less technological significance such as kites. There are some technologies
that are important in China that were never adopted in the West such as bamboo scaffolding
in building construction and renovation.
Chinese technology did not immediately stagnate under the control of the Mandarins. In
the fifteenth century China sent armadas of ships vastly larger than those of the Europeans.
The story of the treasure fleets of the early fifteenth
century is told elsewhere. Without a doubt that technology was explicitly destroyed by the
(To be continued.)
For more on the history of China see China.