by Jean-Pierre Voiret for the Saker Blog

The history of Chinese science and technology is particularly interesting because it is so different from the history of Western science and technology. This history was essentially rediscovered by Joseph Needham, a British scholar who was active until his death in 1995 at the Caius and Gonville College of Cambridge University.

Joseph Needham, a biochemistry researcher by profession, had come into contact with the Chinese culture in the thirties through a Chinese colleague working at the same institute. She became his lover and later his second wife, and ignited Needham’s interest for the Chinese culture, language and writing. This is why he already could speak and write Chinese as he was sent by his government to China’s provisory capital Chong Qing during WW II. There, he had fruitful contacts with Chinese intellectuals and scientists who awakened his interest for ancient Chinese science. He started at the same time to collect Chinese books, articles and manuscripts on this topic. After his return to Great Britain, he decided to concentrate on research on Chinese science history and published Volume I of his huge “Science and Civilization of China” in 1954. This first volume was a success, and his work went on with specialized volumes on Chinese chemistry, alchemy, physics, astronomy, medicine, metallurgy, agriculture etc. A total of 25 volumes were published, of which more than half are from his pen and the rest from the pen of his successors at the East Asian History of Science Library he had founded in Cambridge to house his ever growing library and to give a center to the activity of his students and successors.

Most interesting is the fact that before Needham’s work came into existence, the West had an entirely wrong view of Chinese science and technology. The main reason for this situation is the fact that Europe’s information on far away China had always been rather poor, except for the information on China that came from the Jesuit missionaries from the beginning of the 17th century on. But that information concentrated on China’s system of government, on Chinese history, on Chinese philosophy and on medicine – not much on science and technology. As Europe came closer to China through invasion and war in the 19th century (Opium wars, 1841, 1860) and could have studied the facts of China’s science and technology history in a closer way, it was not interested in doing so: A colonial attitude toward the Chinese and the conviction that China was a decaying civilization (which was true at that time) hindered an objective confrontation with the facts of Chinese history in general, and of Chinese history of science in particular. So the commonplace of China as an old agricultural civilization unable to industrialize and to modernize by itself was established almost unshakably.

Earlier, knowledge of some important Chinese invention had actually come to Europe, so that some Chinese achievements were known. But the fact which was not known, is that these achievements were Chinese! Even the great philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon wrote in 1620 in his Novum Organum the following words: “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious; namely printing, gun powder and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these three mechanical discoveries”. These words are very interesting for many reasons. They show that at the end of our Renaissance, a reputed European scholar, a man of knowledge, does not know how these most important inventions of the Renaissance came about. He also doesn’t know that these inventions didn’t take place in Europe but in far-away China. Finally, he also does not realize that the 14th century technology transfer from China to Europe played a huge (and up to our days underestimated) part in the development of just our Renaissance. So we first need to know more about what really happened in China.

Quick progress in antique times

If we want to know better and more on the development of science and technology in China, we must first refute the tale of China as an agricultural country without any “industrial” past. In fact, early economical consciousness and early proto-industrial developments are the characteristics of the Chinese antique. Let us explain.

First, we must mention the fact that China brought forward very early in history two texts which have no counterpart in Western economical literature: Chapter 24 of the Hanshu of 82 AC (‘History of the Han dynasty’) on the economic history of China from the beginnings (2nd millennium BC) up to the year 25 A.C. [1], and the book Yantielun of 81 AC (‘Discussion on salt and iron) discussing the respective advantages and disadvantages of state-ruled economy as against purely private economy[2]. Let us repeat it: these texts have been written around 2000 years ago! They prove that China had at that time a much higher consciousness of economical connections than we had. And these texts were not isolated exceptions. The Shihuozhi (Economical treaty) translated by Balazs from the Suishu (History of the Sui dynasty, 644 AC) shows that this economical consciousness did not get lost during the disorders that followed upon the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AC), and remained much higher than in the West until the Mongolian invasion of China in the 13th century. The incredibly exact and detailed population statistics[3] of the huge empire from the census of the year 609 AC also confirm this fact.

Now these texts revealing an astonishing economical consciousness could not have been written without economical events sustaining this consciousness. History shows that these economic developments did exist. The first interesting fact is related to metallurgy: China was not a pioneer of bronze and iron metallurgy. But it did catch up extremely fast and overtook the Middle East and the European pioneers of these techniques quite early: Chinese bronze metallurgy developed very fast as early as the Shang dynasty (1766 1154 BC) and was in full bloom in the Zhou dynasty (1122 to 255 BC). Another leap forward by the Chinese, this time in the field of iron making, was their very early progress from primitive lump-iron fabrication to the use of cast iron on a large scale: Around 400 BC, China was casting iron implements, tools, vessels (and coins!) on a grand scale, and the mold pre-heating technique, the development of multi-layer molds and the invention of metallic, reusable molds allowed the Chinese to cast huge quantities of cast iron goods on an industrial scale in workshops in which the division of labor and the efficiency were highly developed.

Another improbable proof of the Chinese ability to modern division of labor according to “industrial” methods was given the historians to understand after the discovery in 1974 of the huge underground guardian army protecting the first emperor Qin Shi huangdi (‘First Exalted emperor of Qin’, reg. 221-209 BC). Now if you analyzed the manufacturing of this huge shadow army of 7000 natural size pottery warriors and horses, you had the proof of what I mean with “industrial” methods: this find was not only an archaeological sensation, it proved the attainment in the 3rd century BC China of extremely developed methods of work organization and of labor division: thousands of artist and of specialists of different professions had to be gathered, fed, lodged and paid. Construction wood, huge quantities of heating wood for the furnaces, huge tonnages of clay, pigments, colors, tools had to be acquired, transported, stored, prepared and distributed on a regular schedule during years. Workshops had to be built and organized for sculptor work, mold preparation, clay preparation, the shaping of the clay figures, the painting of the clay bodies, the casting of bronze accessories etc. A great number of furnaces had to be built and operated on a regular schedule. A huge fleet of transportation wagons and a huge herd of draft animals had to be fed and managed. And this took place in an empire in which at the same time a huge network of roads was established, the first great wall was built in the north, a network of irrigation and transport canals was also built, big casting plants manufactured huge quantities of tools and weapons, and in which weights and measures as well as the writing system were being standardized. As an antipode to the huge Roman Empire in the West, the Chinese empire was the most developed technological and economical power in the East – and this, by far.

This system inherited by the following Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AC) made China so strong that it brought huge swathes of Central Asia under its dominion and developed a very successful economy in the farthest corners of the empire. At the same time (around 100 BC) the invention of paper gave the government a cheap, efficient and easy to transport support of writings and thus of administrative information. Only after around 400 years did China decay in a way similar to the Roman Empire and fell victim to huge peasant uprisings. But contrary to Europe, where the Middle-Ages lasted until the Quattrocento in the Renaissance, China reestablished her power and her economy in a much faster way: The Tang dynasty (618-905 AC) and the Song dynasty (993-1278 AC) are considered the most glorious dynasties before the Mongolian invasion of the country.

China is becoming modern

The Tang dynasty saw a huge expansion of China and of her prestige. The Tang governments gave the country a strong system of Confucian examinations for the selection of the bureaucratic elites, a strong jurisdiction, and applied with success on a grander scale the technical inventions and developments made in the Antique. It was also under the late Tang that the technique of block printing was developed, which would become a huge success under the Song dynasty.

The following Song dynasty may be considered as the successful beginnings of a Renaissance process within the growth of China. Under Song, knowledge of old and new techniques was spread and disseminated in the whole country thanks to the help of block printing. It was particularly the edition of peasant calendars in the million which helped to efficiently disseminate in the whole country new knowledge of the early ripening rice seeds from South Asia, of the new agricultural implements and tools available, of the new means of payment, of book keeping, etc. Block printing also allowed the mass printing of paper money, a mean of payment invented under Song which facilitated commerce and helped the country to pass from tribute economy to monetary economy. Delivery of tribute (grain, silk) and of statute labor (also “corvée” yiao or yao yi 徭 役) to the state was more and more replaced by the payment of taxes, whereas the state would now often replace called up statute laborers by salaried workers. With growing commerce, the proportion of the country’s population living in towns grew from 6% to 28%, whereas the proportion of salaried work and of factories no longer based on family structures but on management constantly grew. At the same time, the social structures changed progressively as the number of salaried workers and of managers grew. This development also saw a growing number of marriages between children from the mandarinate class (state bureaucracy) and the now growing class of rich industrialists and rich traders. At the same time, the private acquisition of land was growing, foreign trade, especially to Japan and South Asia, expanded considerably and many inventions like those mentioned by Francis Bacon and more, gave China a considerable advantage. China was now obviously, only much earlier, on a path leading to some form of modern capitalism: like in Europe where our Renaissance was also the beginning of an evolution toward capitalism and industrialization.

At the same time, again like Renaissance Europe, but 300 years earlier, China rediscovered its antiquity and its antique art and published very detailed catalogues of imperial and other art collections.

The Mongolian “black hole”

But in the 13th century, China lived through one of the longest and toughest of the wars ever fought on this our planet: the Mongolians entered China in 1214 and finished their conquest of the whole country in 1279, the year they established their dynasty upon China under the name of Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). This war of conquest thus lasted 65 years, which is practically the double of the longest war ever fought in Europe (the so called Thirty years wars, which took place between 1618 and 1648 essentially in Germany and destroyed this country in a catastrophic way). This is why China lost a huge portion of its population: The difference between the last Song dynasty census and the first Yuan census shows that during these 65 years of war, China lost practically the half of its inhabitants (i.e. not only the half of its peasants but also the half of its scholars, teachers, scientists, manufacturers and administrators). What a gigantic loss! Not only that. Lots of schools had been destroyed during the conquest and China’s education system remained in shambles during most of the Yuan dynasty, whose emperors were mostly illiterates. Since the duration of the war and of the Yuan occupation of the country (from 1214 to 1368) has been a total of 154 years, five (5) generations of scientists were missing at the end of this period of time, and the transmission to the posterity of the scientific and technical knowledge available in Song China was thwarted. This is what the Jesuit missionaries later noticed when they came to China in the 17th century: the French missionary Dominique Parennin wrote for instance in a letter from Beijing that the medical doctors he met at the imperial court (the best of the country!) had a knowledge of medicine lower than the level he had ascertained in old Song medicine books he was allowed to examine in the imperial library! This means that because of the Mongolian invasion and occupation of China, this country saw its Renaissance destroyed, the scientific and technical knowledge available in the country before the invasion partly destroyed or lost and its soul traumatized. What followed was a Ming dynasty centered on face recovery (thus the big naval expeditions of the early Ming decades) but unable to really and dynamically re-modernize China’s economy, then a renewed invasion and long occupation of the country by the Manchu (so called Qing dynasty, 1644-1912) and finally long decades of civil war and of revolutionary struggle until the liberation in 1949.

Only through the catharsis of decay, wars and revolution was China able to overcome the old Mongolian trauma and to find again its old creativity and dynamics under Deng Xiaoping and his successors: this is the extraordinary Chinese surge which we are witnessing in our days.

On the rape of China by the Mongolian invasion and occupation, see chapter 4 of VOIRET, Jean-Pierre, 2022: Ex Oriente Lux? Cuvillier, Göttingen (in German).

  1. Translated in: SWANN, Nancy Lee, 1974:Food and Money in ancient China. Octagon, New York
  2. Translated in: GALE, Esson M.,1967: Discourses on salt and iron. Reprint Ch’eng-wen, Taibei
  3. Übersetzt in: BALASZ, Etienne,1953: Le traité économique du Souei chou. Brill, Leiden
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