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Science, technology traditions in ancient China still relevant

Author  :  LIU XIAOQING and WU GUOLIN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-03-02

Amid the splendor of traditional Chinese culture, ancient science and technology have made important contributions and had far-reaching impacts on Chinese and human civilization. For many eras, China’s achievements in science and technology led the world. These achievements are inseparable from the unique tradition, epistemology, methodology, and value orientations of time-honored traditional Chinese culture, which is precisely the legacy that we should inherit and pass on.

Advanced traditions

The rivalries between a hundred schools of thought in the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 BCE) laid the foundation for the development of science and technology in ancient China. The book Commentary on Books of Change (Yi Zhuan), written in the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), systematically expounded on the view “Heaven and Man Are United As One,” which is not only the source of Chinese ideology and culture, but also the basis for ancient Chinese science and technology.

The “Way of Heaven” represents basic rules governing the existence and changing state of all things between heaven and earth, as opposed to “the way of humans.” Other worldviews such as cosmogony (something undefined and complete coming into existence before Heaven and Earth) and “Nature and Humans Respond to Each Other” also set a rational tone for the emergence and development of ancient Chinese science and technology.

During the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE), ancient science and technology greatly advanced. Under the influence of Han Confucianism represented by Dong Zhongshu and the theory of yin and yang, five elements and qi (vital force), five disciplines ranging from mathematics, astronomy, geography, agriculture, to medicine formed their own unique systems.

At the same time, many production technologies matured, such as papermaking, south-pointing carts (or carriages), spinning wheels, looms, drilling machine equipment, armillary spheres, astrolabes, and seismographs, as well as the construction technique for the Great Wall.

During the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589), Wei and Jin metaphysical thoughts gave birth to the first development peak of ancient science and technology. The Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi approximated Pi to seven decimal places. Commentary on the Waterways Classic by Li Daoyuan provided rich geographical information about major rivers along with cultural, economic, and historical data on areas around these rivers. Jia Sixie’s Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qimin Yaoshu) marked the formation of the ancient agricultural system. Tao Hongjing’s Variorum of Shennong’s Classic of Materia Medica (Shennong Bencao Jing Jizhu) opened up a new theoretical system: herbalism.

In the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), the rational spirit of Neo-Confucianism culminated ancient Chinese science and technology. Shen Kuo’s Dream Pool Essays (Meng Xi Bi Tan) summarized the achievements of science and technology prior to the Northern Song Dynasty. The Outline of Military Science (Wu Jing Zong Yao), compiled by Zeng Gongliang and Ding Du, recorded three formulas for gunpowder, various methods for firearm-making, and a method for making a south-pointing fish (water compass). Jia Xian streamlined extraction of square and cube roots and extended the method to higher-degree roots using binomial coefficients. Su Song engineered a water-driven astronomical clock tower, with 133 different clock jacks to indicate and sound the hours. Li Jie’s Rules of Architecture (Ying Zao Fa Shi) reflected the technological sophistication and management experience of architecture at that time.

In the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), during a wave of practical utilitarianism, ancient science and technology prospered further. Li Shizhen’s Compendium of Materia Medica made significant contributions not only to pharmacology and medicine, but also to the classification of natural history and botany. Xu Guangqi’s A Complete Treatise on Agriculture (Nong Zheng Quan Shu) gave a systematic exposition of agricultural administration and agriculture. Song Yingxing’s Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong Kaiwu) systematically recorded the technical achievements of ancient Chinese agriculture and handicrafts. Xu Hongzu’s Traveling Notes of Xu Xiake detailed the geological structure and topographic characteristics of karst landforms in southwest China for the first time.

Source of ancient prosperity

The invention and application of Chinese characters and the manufacture and use of bronzeware marked the transition of the Chinese from a Neolithic lifestyle to civilization. In the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–256 BCE), bronze technology reached a high level of maturity. The use of bronze instruments and the further division of labor promoted the development of agriculture and handicraft industries. Therefore, science was separated from technology and was in its infancy. An example of this is the Shang Dynasty calendar which was differentiated into big and small months, and regulated 366 days into a cycle, which is of great significance to early agricultural development. Another innovation was a decimal system which used a set of numeric symbols to represent numeric values up to 5000.

In the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period, the emergence of iron technology and the use of iron instruments led to the rapid development of productive forces, which created a material basis for the collapse of slave society and the establishment of feudal society. In the mid- and late Warring States period, iron goods had penetrated into all aspects of people’s lives and production, further promoting the development of agriculture and handicraft industries, and also making the construction of large-scale water conservancy projects possible. The development of a large number of wastelands provided the social foundation for the formation of a small-scale peasant economy. On this basis, new landlords gained economic and political capital, ushering in an era of feudalism.

By the Qin and Han dynasties, iron technology had matured, and iron was the material of choice for producing tools and weapons. Agricultural measures to increase yield per unit area, such as crop rotation, basic principles of crop cultivation, and intensive cultivation, were established. Advances in astronomy helped predict the ideal timing for agricultural production.

With the invention of papermaking from plant fibers, writing materials underwent a revolution, which greatly influenced the development of traditional Chinese culture and even world cultures. The development of shipbuilding technology supported flourishing shipping routes and overseas trade. The construction of the Great Wall, a complex system of over 4,000 miles of road and water conservancy projects, was conducive to ancient China’s socioeconomic development. In short, the development of science and technology played a fundamental role in the prosperity and development of feudal society.

The Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907) represented the height of China’s ancient feudal society. The construction of the Grand Canal, the capital Chang’an, and the Eastern capital Luoyang, illustrated China’s national strength at that time.

Ancient Chinese science and technology reached a peak in the Sui and Tang dynasties, paving the way for high-speed development in the subsequent Song and Yuan dynasties. The progress made in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was omni-directional, with remarkable achievements in geography, geology, medicine, metallurgy, shipbuilding, textiles, and porcelain making.

Contributions to the world

The Song Dynasty was an important period in the history of science and technology in ancient China, known for three major inventions: the compass, movable type printing, and gunpowder. These inventions spread overseas via cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries and had an extensive impact on world civilization’s historical development.

After the fall of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), a large number of Song people fled to Korea to make a living, including many printing craftsmen, so that movable type printing technology spread to Korea. With time, the Korean people made innovations in printing materials, creating copper, iron, wood, ceramic movable type and so on. It is notable that the Koreans were the first to produce large quantities of metal movable type.

At the same time, gunpowder and gunpowder-propelled weapons spread to China’s minority-populated northern areas during wars. The Liao, Jin, Mongolian, and other minority regimes produced new weapons such as flying muskets and iron cannons through the improvement of firearms technology. Later, rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368) spread the firearm technology to Korea, Annan, Java and other regions via foreign wars.

The westward expedition of the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty broadened the communication of science, technology, and culture between the East and West. China’s scientific inventions and technological creations, such as papermaking, printing, silk weaving, porcelain production, and gunpowder, were successively introduced to Europe through the Arabs, which gradually raised the comprehensive level of science, technology, and culture in Europe.

The introduction of movable type printing in Europe liberated learning and education from monasteries, provided a powerful ideological weapon for reformation and the anti-feudalism struggle in the continent, and also helped establish the capitalist mode of production as well as the exchange and dissemination of culture. Similarly, when gunpowder made its way into Europe, it quickly became a technology that monarchs and nobles wanted to monopolize in order to win power struggles. In addition, the use of the compass supported ocean navigation and set the stage for great geographical discoveries.

Contemporary value

Needless to say, it is essential to summarize experiences and lessons from the history of Chinese science and technology in order to provide a frame of reference for the present-day development of science and technology in China.

First of all, China’s ancient scientific and technological achievements cannot be separated from cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world. From Han, Tang to Song and Yuan dynasties, China always kept an open mind in interactions with the outside world. Therefore, it is crucial for today’s China to have a global vision and remain curious about knowledge produced in other nations.

Second, the wisdom contained in ancient science and technology is an important source for China to draw from to establish its innovative and competitive advantages today. Only when we dig deep into ancient science and technology traditions and explore their contemporary value can we transform this into precious cultural resources and wealth, so as to enhance national cultural consciousness and strengthen national confidence.

At present, China is faced with the challenge of imbalanced development between science and humanities, and the social application of science has gradually become an issue that needs urgent attention. The concept of harmony in Chinese culture not only emphasizes harmony in ethical values, but also avoids extremes within methodology, which provides good inspiration for China’s contemporary scientific and technological civilization.


Liu Xiaoqing and Wu Guolin are from the School of Marxism at South China University of Technology.

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