Ancient China is one of the most remarkable civilizational phenomena ever known. It gave birth to a number of inventions and discoveries, which are still used in our times, including compass, porcelain, silk, gunpowder and many others. This paper is to examine the most prominent issues of ancient Chinese science and technology. It will focus on agriculture, engineering, mathematics, astronomy and medicine.
Ancient Chinese economy was based on agricultural production. It was a river civilization so the Chinese began to build dikes to control the annual flooding. Later this allowed to begin rice farming. Their fertilizing allowed them to use the fields year after year, without the need to allow it to lay fallow. In the sixth century BC the Chinese began growing crops in rows, which has not been practiced in western world until the eighteenth century. One of the evidence was the Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals. It tells us: “If the crops are grown in rows they will mature rapidly because they will not interfere with each other’s growth. The horizontal rows must be well drawn, the vertical rows made with skill, for if the lines are straight the wind will pass gently through”.
By the fourth century BC the Chinese government authorities started to promote a frame-plow. It was the first to have adjustable strut which regulated the plowing depth by altering the distance between the blade and the beam. Also the Chinese approached towards winnowing grain to separate out husks and stalks from the grain after harvest and threshing. The grain has been thrown up into the air, preferably in a strong wind, so that the chaff is blown away while the grain falls down to the ground. Later, winnowing baskets were invented allowing to separate the heavy grain from the chaff, which is gradually tipped over the edge of the basket, leaving the grain behind. Later still, the winnowing sieve was introduced. By the second century BC, Chinese invented rotary winnowing fan.
When plow farming technologies were brought into Holland and England in the seventeenth century from China, they sparked the European agricultural revolution, and it is believed that European agricultural revolution brought up the Industrial Revolution. So, the Chinese technology paid a great contribution into rise of the West.
Outstanding Chinese engineering achievements are being applied in the whole world. Though Chinese were not the first to make steel in the 2 century BC, they did invent two exclusive steel production processes: taking the carbon out of cast iron, and melting wrought and cast iron together to make something in between which was steel. New types of steel were used the steel mostly in the weapon making such as new swords, new crossbows, and some in the agriculture tools parts.
One of the inventions of greatest utility which has spread from China throughout the world, so that its origins are no longer realized, is the square-pallet chain pump consisting of an endless circulating chain bearing square pallets which hold water, earth, or sand. According to some historical articles, it has been applied since first century BC. Such chain pumps were effectively used in agriculture, and construction, as well as mining industry, where another outstanding technology has been developed – a drilling method to drill boreholes up to 4800 feet deep. The size of Chinese drilling equipment was remarkable with derrick up to 180 feet above ground, tubes for extracting 130 feet long.
The main problem was usually to break through hard rocks, and Chinese boreholes made it possible to drill up to dozens feet into depth of firm ground. A drill would be suspended by bamboo cables from a derrick. Invention of cast iron provided mighty drilling bits.
The later development of belt-drive in the 1 century BC allowed to transmit power from one wheel to another, and produce continuous rotary motion. Also, driving-belt was essential for the invention of the spinning-wheel. The belts could now run not only round normal wheels with rims, but also round rimless wheels.
The driving-belt was apparently imported to Europe as part of the technology of quilling-wheels and spinning-wheels introduced into Italy by travelers returning from China. Flat belts and wire cables as driving-belts in Europe only began to be used in the nineteenth century.
Mathematics and physics
Chinese mathematics was defined by Chinese in ancient times as the “art of calculation” (suan chu), and it was both scientific and spiritual practice. The first true evidence of mathematical activity in China can be found in numeration symbols on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones (commonly called oracle bones), dated from the Shang dynasty (14th century B.C.). In fact, the numeration system applied in the modern world originated 34 centuries ago in China. The need for mathematical calculations appeared for development of the calendar, flood-control measures, administration, and so on. To facilitate the calculations they invented a wide variety of mechanical aids like counting boards, and wrote numerous mathematics texts to aid them in mathematical calculation. They also discovered a concept of zero.
Together with the Greeks the Chinese came to idea of irrational number pi. It expresses the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, a relationship which cannot be framed in terms of whole numbers. The value of pi was computed by Archimedes to three decimal places, and by Ptolemy to four decimal places. But after that, no greater accuracy was achieved in the Western world for 1450 years. The Chinese, however, made great strides forward in computing pi. In Greece Archimedes decided that pi had a value between 3.142 and 3.140. Liu Hui of China was thus able to calculate a value of pi of 3.14159. At this point, the Chinese overtook the Greeks.
Algebra and geometry developed independently. Today it would be hard to imagine such a situation, however, once those sciences were not connected, and the first people to use them together, expressing geometrical shapes by equations, were the Chinese. A Chinese book of the third century AD called the Sea Island Mathematical Manual gives a series of geometrical propositions in algebraic form and describes geometrical figures by algebraic equations.
The first European who adopted those methods from the arabs, who, in turn, studied them from the Chinese, appears to have been Leonardo Fibonacci, who in his Practica Geometriae of 1220 used algebra in solving geometrical problems relating to the area of a triangle. Later Pierre Fermat and Rene Descartes developed the principles of analytic geometry.
Another famous European, who seems to have been outrun by his eastern colleagues was Isaac Newton, who formulated his First Law of Motion in the eighteenth century. It stated that “every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”
Joseph Needham’s researches have now established that this law was stated in China in the fourth or third century BC. We read in the Mo Ching: “The cessation of motion is due to the opposing force … If there is no opposing force … the motion will never stop. This is as true as that an ox is not a horse.”
The book Mo Ching is the collection of writings of a school of philosophers called Mohists, after their founder and sage Mo Ti (more oftrn known as Mo Tzu, which means “Master Mo”). The Mohists disappeared completely from Chinese history after only a moderate time, and most of their writings remained unread and almost forgotten until recently. Their brilliant scientific insights were also largely lost, and made very little lasting impact on later Chinese history. The Mohists were also the only ancient Chinese to consider the subject of dynamics in the theoretical sense, though practical dynamics was continuously applied in the great strides made by Chinese technology and invention.
Astronomy truly is an ancient science in China. In fact, mankind’s first record of an eclipse of the Sun was made in China in 2136 BC. The initial interest to that what was in the skies has been shown by the Chinese to study phenomena, influencing their agrarian cycle.
The only way to predict the start of the seasons was by the positions of the stars overhead. The equinoxes and solstices were the primary way to determine the seasons. The middle of spring was when Niao was overhead, in the mid summer Huo is above, in the mid autumn Xu is in the sky, and in mid winter Mao is overhead. These star positions correspond to the equinoxes of the spring and autumn and also to the solstices of the summer and winter.
Even more interest has been shown by the Chinese to apply their knowledge for astrologic purposes. By 2300 BC, ancient Chinese astrologers, already had sophisticated observatory buildings, and as early as 2650 BC, Li Shu was writing about astronomy. Observing total solar eclipses was a major element of forecasting the future health and successes of the Emperor.
By about 20 BC, surviving documents show that Chinese astrologers discovered what caused eclipses, and by 8 BC some predictions of total solar eclipse were made using the 135-month recurrence period. By AD 206 Chinese astrologers could predict solar eclipses by analyzing the Moon’s motion.
Before 1000 BC the eclipse records are often incomplete, however, and the dating of the bones is not reliable. Eclipse observations from the Chou dynasty and Warring States period (c. 1050-221 BC), and onward, have been reliably dated, and it appears that some astronomers recognized eclipses as naturally occurring phenomena. From the Chou dynasty, 36 solar eclipse observations are recorded in the Ch’un-ch’iu beginning around 720 BC. The Piao and the Shih-chi documents refer to nine solar eclipses from the Warring States period.
The Chinese were the first to record Halley’s Comet. Their recording mentions the “broom star” on the handle of Yin. They also knew of many movements of the stars and were able to determine the difference between stars and planets. They also accounted for guest stars being present in the sun which would be referred as sunspots now. They had thought stars were within the sun. The path of the sun and the moon were recorded and studied. The sun and the moon were on separate paths and are important for the complicated Chinese calendar.
Chinese traditional medicine is very different from the European one, nevertheless it gained huge popularity on the West, and it’s most famous element is acupuncture which is very well-known to the people. No one was able to trace it’s origin, it is still believed, that the first relevant observations were made by military doctors, who cured soldiers, wounded with arrows. It could also have some origins in massage. Acupuncture using needles and the systematized meridians is more traceable to the past 2000 years.
The disease processes of the human body came to be seen as similar to external natural events – floods can ruin the crops, as drinking too much water with meals can impair digestion. Drought can lead to fires, as a dry cough can turn into the fire of a bloody cough and fever.
In China, indisputable and voluminous textual evidence exists to prove that the circulation of the blood was an established doctrine by the second century BC at the latest. For the idea to have become elaborated by this time, however, into the full and complex doctrine that appears in The Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Corporeal Medicine (China’s equivalent of the Hippocratic writings of Greece), the original notion must have appeared a very long time previously. It is safe to say that the idea occurred in China about two thousand years before it found acceptance in the West.
The ancient Chinese conceived of two separate circulations of fluids in the body. Blood, pumped by the heart, flowed through the arteries, veins and capillaries. Ch’i, an ethereal, rarefied form of energy, was pumped by the lungs to circulate through the body in invisible tracts. The concept of this dual circulation of fluids was central to the practice of acupuncture.
The Chinese traditionally identified twenty-eight different types of pulse, which they recognized as emanating from the pumping heart. The entire view of the body and its functioning was that of a dual circulation theory of blood (which was yin) and ch’i (which was yang). The two were interrelated. As a text dating from about the time of Christ says: ‘The flow of the blood is maintained by the ch’i, and the motion of the ch’i depends on the blood; thus coursing in mutual reliance they move around.’ The Yellow Emperor’s Manual says: ‘The function of the tract-channel system of the human body is to promote a normal passage of the blood and the ch’i, so that the vital essentials derived from man’s food can nourish the yin and yang viscera, sustain the muscles, sinews and bones, and lubricate the joints.’
Ancient China was truly a birth-place of many inventions and doctrines, which are applied in the entire modern world, including achievements in agriculture, engineering, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The Chinese talked of the same thing as their European colleagues, and often much earlier than the Europeans did, however, they did it in the traditional way of their civilization, so many of their achievements were not understood or forgotten, to be later attributed to Europeans. Nevertheless, it is impossible to reject the influence, which the civilization of ancient China has on modern world, since some of it’s founding technologies and scientific methods origin exactly from China.
Ho Peng Yoke, Li, Qi, and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China (Hong Kong; Hong Kong University Press, 1985)
Cho-Yun Hsu, Han Agriculture: The Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy, 206 B.C.-A.D. 220 (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1980)
John Merson, Genius That Was Chin (Overlook Hardcover, New York, 1990)
A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court, Chicago, 1989)
Charles Le Blanc, Susan Blader, Chinese Ideas about Nature and Society: Studies in Honour of Derk Bodde (Hong Kong University Press, 1987)
Paul U. Unschuld, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003)
 Ho Peng Yoke, Li, Qi, and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China (Hong Kong; Hong Kong University Press, 1985), 121
 Cho-Yun Hsu, Han Agriculture: The Formation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy, 206 B.C.-A.D. 220 (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1980), 36
 John Merson, Genius That Was Chin (Overlook Hardcover, New York, 1990), 103
 A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court, Chicago, 1989), 53
 Charles Le Blanc, Susan Blader, Chinese Ideas about Nature and Society: Studies in Honour of Derk Bodde (Hong Kong University Press, 1987), 40
 Ho Peng Yoke, supra note, 159
 Paul U. Unschuld, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003), 33
 Paul U. Unschuld, supra note, 147