This essay concludes the overview of key ancient Chinese discoveries and innovations, such as the printing press, magnetic compass, and kite. Furthermore, it explores the reasons for ancient China’s lack of systematic progress or an industrial revolution despite the presence there of numerous inventive thinkers.
Movable character blocks were invented by Bi Sheng in 1045. A method for arranging and printing pages in mass quantities was devised. However, this was not efficient when applied to the Chinese language, which possesses over 5000 characters, and thus could not spur on the same printing revolution as that which occurred in Europe.
The first magnetic compass was invented in China during the 3rd Century AD, utilizing a piece of magnetite (an ore of iron) which was heated and aligned in a North/South position, afterward being contained in a bowl of water where it floated on a piece of reed. This was integral to early 2nd millennium Chinese explorations in the Indian Ocean.
Other Noteworthy Advances
The Chinese were the first to develop a kite in the 4th Century BC. Craftsmen like Kungshu P’an possessed mastery to the extent of developing kites that stayed afloat for three days. These kites had military applications as well, carrying messages to isolated troop formations on the battlefield.
Commissioned by the imperial government in 132 AD, mathematician and cartographer Chang Heng devised the first seismograph, which allowed fairly accurate forecasts of earthquakes, leading to more efficient economic planning.
The Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Corporeal Medicine, composed in the 2nd Century BC, contains an advanced treatise on the circulation of blood. This was published fifteen centuries before William Harvey developed a work of comparable caliber in the West.
Why the Ancient Chinese Failed to Achieve Routine Technological Progress
Despite numerous ingenious technological innovations throughout its history, China failed to develop an industrial revolution and a routine theory like the Scientific Method to render inventions and discoveries systematic and not merely the spontaneous products of ingenious minds.
Ancient China was a generally stagnant society which, despite the presence of numerous brilliant thinkers, failed to achieve any regular technological progress until the late 19th century. So dramatic was this stagnation that it led Victor Hugo to compare China to “a fetus in a jar.” While it witnessed numerous promising technological developments in their embryonic stages, ancient China failed to harness these developments into a consistent advance.
The reason for this unfortunate lack of progress was above all institutional. Although the earlier Han and Tang dynasties among others were receptive to advancements and scientific practice, the Ming, following the defeat of the Mongols, isolated China from the remainder of the world and focused on civil stability to a greater extent than technological progress.
The heavily Confucian paradigm of the era from 1368 to 1911 focused more on adaptation to nature and the arts rather than the sciences. Scholars were trained in extensive law memorization rather than further studies of the external. This caused China to lag behind the West, and contact with the Occident was required to re-establish its rich technological tradition.
1997 World Book Encyclopedia: Vol. 3 C-Ch. World Book Inc. Chicago. 1997.
Franklin Institute Online. “China: Ancient Arts and Sciences.” Available March 31, 2002: http://sln.fi.edu/tfi/info/current/china.html
Latourette, Kenneth S. A Short History of the Far East. The Macmillan Company. New York. 1964.
Reischauer, Edwin O. Fairbank, John K. East Asia: The Great Tradition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. 1960.
Schurmann, Franz. Schell, Orville. Imperial China. Random House Inc. New York. 1967.
Think Quest Library of Entries. “Ancient Chinese Technology.” Available March 31, 2002: http://www.thinkquest.org/library/lib/site_sum_outside.html?tname=23062&url=23062/frameset.html.
Wagner, Donald B. “Liu Hui and Zu Gengzhi on the Volume of a Sphere.” Available March 31, 2002: http://www.staff.hum.ku.dk/dbwagner/SPHERE/SPHERE.html.