Discoverers and Inventors in Ancient China

The men of Ancient China searched earth and sky to discover the truth about the world and its work­ings, yet they would have been baffled by the idea of “pure science.” They did not probe the unknown for whatever unsuspected truths might still lie hidden there. They did not carry out experiments uncommitted to specific goals, but directed their probings chiefly toward rediscovery of the supposed­ly reliable methods of ancient masters. “Free in­quiry” would have seemed meaningless to them.

The ancient Chinese explored the mysteries of nature for one of three reasons: to add the weight of new evidence to what they already believed, to refine existing techniques or to attain more effec­tively such pre-established goals as a more accurate astrology or a more effective alchemy. The purpose of understanding the natural order was to stabilize the social order based on it or to accommodate one’s personal life more closely to it.

Subsidiary to this great aim was the more homely, technological one-the improvement of the skills needed to in­crease wealth or comfort, as by finding ways to make more efficient plows or less fragile dishes.

From the earliest days, astronomy was the queen of Chinese sciences. The ancient Chinese assiduously studied the sky to perfect their methods of astrological predictions; for many centuries the study of astronomy remained a royal monopoly, delegated only to the keenest observers and the most dedicated mathematicians, native and foreign. It was believed that knowledge of astronomy gave power over man and nature and hence should be kept from ordinary persons. Even as late as the Eighth Century AD., harsh penalties were imposed on any private citizen who owned or used astronomical instruments or charts of the sky, or who consulted cosmic diagrams and prognostic books.

Legend says that the prototype of the astronomical observatory was the tower of Wen Wang, founder of the Chou lineage, before 1000 B.C.:

He designed, he inaugurated a holy platform
Designed it, laid it out.
The common folk built it
By day’s end achieved it!


Mapping the skies, Ch’ien Le-chih, a Fifth Century astronomer, charted the constellations, using colors to associate them with the men who had determined their positions. The Big Dipper (bottom) is said to have been identified by the shaman Hsien of the Shang period (1500-1000 B.C.).

From such structures as Wen Wang’s legendary tower, the Bronze Age astrologers observed and recorded the seemingly irregular paths of the planets, searched for dragons in the flickering Northern Lights and worried about sunspots-those mysterious splotches that appeared at unpredictable times on the face of the sun. All were thought to convey divine messages for men’s guidance.

The measurements and reverent calculations of the royal astronomers provided the basis for the imperial almanac, the origins of which may go back to the earliest times. The almanac fixed the lengths of the months, determined the dates of the spring and autumn equinoxes-the two times a year that night and day are of equal length-and of the summer and winter solstices-when night and day differ most in length.

The most difficult problem to the astronomers plotting the almanac was the determination of the length of the solar year-that is, the exact length of time required to complete the cycle of seasons. The ancient estimation had been that it was 366 days; this figure was corrected to 365% days by the Fourth Century B.C. and this calculation was constantly refined thereafter. The Chinese based many of their computations not on the sun but on the position of the polestar and the wheeling around it of circumpolar constellations like the Big Dipper; its handle, pointing north in winter, south in summer, marked off the 12 months of the Chinese year. The movement of the planet Jupiter, which was called the “Year Star” and whose orbit takes 12 years to complete, was also taken into account in the Chinese division of time into periods. Finally, the phases of the moon, from dark to full, which bear no fixed relationship to the solar year, had to be included in the computations so that the calendar months could be adjusted to fit the year.

The indispensable function of the calendar was to set the date of the New Year-when all life began anew. That most important day in the calendar, the day from which all others were counted, was the winter solstice, considered the head of the year. Then the positive, warming yang force was thought to be at its lowest ebb, about to reassert itself to bring the welcome spring. Since the sun was often covered by clouds on that critical day, the official astronomers determined when it fell by making a projection from the summer solstice, which they fixed by watching the shadow of a special stone pillar about eight feet tall. When the shadow was shortest, they knew that the summer solstice had arrived.

The ancient Chinese did not distinguish meteorological events-those that occur in the vicinity of the earth-from the astronomical-those occurring in outer space. To them all were events in the sky. The distinction they made was between those, such as the swing of a constellation around the polestar, that reflected the regular and predictable side of nature, and those, such as sunspots, that were irregular and unpredictable and were considered heaven-sent portents for wise men to interpret. Because such interpretations were held to be of the utmost importance, the Chinese left uniquely complete accounts of these events.

Their records of the occurrence of sunspots which were often made easily observable when northern China dust storms dimmed the solar glare-are enlightening today. The accounts of comets in China, which are more complete than those made anywhere else in the ancient world, still form the basis for computing the orbits of such comets as Halley’s, which was observed first in China in 240 B.C.

Records of eclipses of the sun and the moon, including some that must have been reported from outlying regions, have been found on Shang oracle bones, inscribed seven centuries before the first Babylonian eclipse records were made. Eclipses were mentioned in the Chou classics, and from the Third Century B.C. on they were systematically recorded.

Attempts to predict them began in that century, but despite steady improvement, no truly reliable method was worked out.

Legend says that the stars were first catalogued by a shaman named Hsien more than 3,000 years ago in Shang times. The first star-mappers whose records remain were Shih Shen and Kan Te of the Fourth Century B.C. The stars they identified, along with those supposedly identified by the legendary Shang shaman, were incorporated into later maps. The luck of all three Chinese astronomers was better than that of the Babylonian Naburianna and the Greek Timocharis, whose sky charts have quite disappeared. A 10th Century version of the map of Chien Le-chih, who worked in the Fifth Century A.D., has recently been discovered. The oldest extant scientific star map, it shows the stars of shaman Hsien in white, those of Shih Shen in red and those of Kan Te in black.

Of all stars, the most remarkable-and the most ominous-to the Chinese were the supernovae: large, brilliant stars that appeared miraculously where no stars had been seen before. The unique Chinese records of those “new stars,” or “stranger stars,” have excited the interest of 20th Century astronomers; there is nothing of comparable inquiry to help explain these mysterious cosmic explosions, some of which may have occurred at the time the universe was born, but so far away from the earth that their light is only now reaching us.

The Chinese invention most important to astronomy was a fundamental tool, the armillary sphere. This outstanding product of Han culture was essentially a nest of rings-hoops that represented imaginary circles dividing up the sky for measurement and mapping. Each ring was marked off for use as a gauge. The most important one was the equatorial armil, a bronze ring representing the celestial equator, which is an imaginary line that divides the sky in two above the earth’s equator.

The Chinese called this ring the “Gauge of the Red Road.” Its invention is attributed to Keng Shou-Ch’ang, an astronomer of the First Century B.C., but it is possibly much older. Combined with a bronze tube through which heavenly bodies were watched, its graduated rings allowed for more accurate location of the position of the sun, moon and planets with reference to the celestial equator. But the true motions of these bodies could be figured accurately only with reference to the ecliptic -the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun and the equator, and another great advance came with the addition of an elliptical armil to the equatorial armil in the First Century A.D.

This second bronze hoop, called “Gauge of the Yellow Road,” was particularly helpful in calculating the expected dates of eclipses-a matter of primary concern, since eclipses were very portentous occurrences. The Gauge of the Yellow Road also improved computations of planetary motions, but the Chinese results, not being based on sound geometry, remained inferior to those of the Greeks.

In the Fourth Century, Yii Hsi discovered that the equinoxes appear about 20 minutes earlier each year-a frightening and subversive idea to believers in an unaltering universe. The discovery of this steady change-or “precession” -of the equinoxes was made possible by the fully developed armillary sphere: a nest of bronze rings that served as a miniature skeleton of the cosmos. It is believed that the first one was built in the Second Century A.D. by Chang Heng, astronomer and poet. His brilliant invention was cast in bronze in 124 A.D. and was a little more than a yard in diameter. Its four graduated armillary rings represented the equator, the ecliptic, the meridian-an imaginary line that circles the earth over the poles-and the horizon. It was called “Gauge of the Enveloping Sky,” a name that implied that the astronomers believed that the sky was no mere umbrella-like hemisphere, as conservative tradition held, but was an all-encompassing sphere.

Chang Heng, it seems, was also the first man to design and build an orrery-reduced model of the armillary sphere rotated mechanically by water power, the individual rings moving in imitation of the motions of the heavenly bodies. Here was the indispensable mechanism of a modem clock in embryo. Later, more intricately contrived orreries were ornamented with miniature planets, an image of the Big Dipper, and figures of the 28 “mansions” of the moon, the segments of the sky through which the moon was presumed to travel.

Finally, in the Eighth Century, the learned Buddhist monk I-hsing and the military engineer Liang Ling-tsan, trying to devise a more precise calendar, constructed a great astronomical clock on the grounds of the palace in Chang-an. This ancestor of all modern clocks, completed in 721 A.D., was the first machine known to employ an escapement, the basic device that is still used to regulate clocks. It divided the power from a water wheel into exactly similar unit impulses so that the apparent motions of stars and the less regular wanderings of the planets could be duplicated by the measurable movements of a bronze microcosm of rings and little spheres, while wooden figures struck out the sequence of the hours.

The extent of the influence of other countries’ astronomers on the early Chinese is still not known. It is suspected that some ideas of the scientists of Mesopotamia were dimly known during the classical age in the Far East-for example, the astrological concept of the 28 mansions of the moon. The advent of Buddhism and its paraphernalia of Indian learning, including mathematics and astronomical theory, had some effect on official Chinese astronomy. Greek ideas also reached China by way of India. In the early centuries of our era foreign treatises were gradually translated into Chinese, and finally, during the early Eighth Century, Indian astronomers monopolized the researches of the T’ang imperial observatories.

The most notable of these foreign specialists was Gautama Siddharta, under whose name an astrological almanac was published in 729 A.D. The almanac embodied the most advanced methods of computation, including the use of a significant new number, zero. Men like Siddharta represent the high tide of Indian intellectual domination in the Far East. But although Indian astronomy and mathematics influenced such inquiring, receptive minds as the T’ang monk I-hsing-who not only helped build the first clock, but also refined the estimate of the period of Jupiter’s year-they had little permanent influence on the established routine of the Chinese astronomers.


Applying a painful cure, a village doctor ignites clumps of grass powder on the back of a patient, who must be held down by friends. Everyone in this 12th Century painting, even the doctor’s assistant standing on the right, cringes at the treatment.

After astronomy, alchemy was a major preoccupation of the Chinese. Its prime goal was the discovery of a potion that would confer immortality. In their pursuit of this aim, the Chinese made important contributions to the healing arts, especially in the field of pharmacology.

Chinese alchemists, influenced by the Taoist belief in the trans-mutability of all substances, believed that if they could discover a method of turning base metals into gold-which lasted foreverthey would at the same time have discovered the elixir of life. To them the Taoist theory of the interchangeability of substances seemed to have been verified by the apparent transmutation of lead into silver during the smelting of galena ore, of long-buried ice into rock crystal, of shining stars into stony meteorites and of living, breathing creatures into stone fossils. They believed that these changes were caused by a universal underlying process, which, if it could be discovered, could be controlled and accelerated in a laboratory.

Li Shao-chim is the first alchemist mentioned in early Chinese records. Pretending to immense age, he came to the court of Emperor Liu Che in the Second Century B.C. He told the ruler that a Taoist goddess, the Spirit of the Furnace, who was a beautiful woman clothed in red, had shown him how to convert cinnabar-a red mercuric ore into gold. Prolonged life would be the reward, he said, of the man who ate from dishes made of that divine gold. The emperor, who was obsessed with a desire for immortality, must have supplied a laboratory and the cinnabar.

The earliest surviving purely alchemical book, the Ts’an t’ung Ch’i, was written in later Han times. Unfortunately it is couched in quite esoteric language and could serve as a laboratory manual only to the trained initiate; mercury was called “dragon,” lead was called “tiger,” and other substances bore similar names. The book contains the traditional alchemical notions-gold can be made from cinnabar, the eating of refined mercury compounds prolong life-but it also describes such scientifically accurate processes as the reduction of white lead-basic lead carbonate-to lead metal by the use of carbon.

The most famous of all students of alchemy was Ko Hung. His ideas are preserved in the book Pao P’u Tzu, which he wrote late in the Fourth Century A.D., after years of wandering far from the disturbed northern plains in search of peace in the politically untroubled south. His volume treats of many kinds of Taoist lore-such as instructions for writing charms and spells, and the secret names of forest goblins-but it is mainly devoted to the prime alchemical purposes: the creation of gold and of the elixir of life.

He describes the proper conditions for alchemical labors: they must be carried out in a retreat on a sacred mountain, after the alchemist has fasted and anointed himself with aromatics. Hostile presences, such as women, lechers and unbelievers, must be absolutely excluded. Then the alchemist could work productively at his iron caldrons, copper bowls, earthenware braziers and bamboo tubes.

Ko Hung’s formulas for making immortality elixirs and precious metals were, like those of his predecessors, based mainly on the supposed miraculous properties of cinnabar. His chief products were artificial metals, especially those that seemed to be gold-alloys and amalgams of cinnabar-derived mercury with copper, lead and arsenic. His book contains the first reference to “mosaic gold,” a sulfide of tin, and called certain white amalgams “soft silver.” With such magical “golds” and “silvers,” the alchemists hoped to achieve the prolongation of life and to transmute the elements-objectives that modern scientists do not despise.

In the continuing quest for the elusive immortality elixir, the alchemists discovered, or concocted, many substances that did give them the temporary illusion of success. Thus they made major contributions to the advancement of medical knowledge.

The early study of medicine was sanctified by the venerable belief that the ancient holy shamans had the power to heal both the body and the mind. By the Sixth Century B.C, there were secular physicians who were no longer considered to have shamanistic powers, but even these did not reject the use of anti-demonic charms or appeals to the gods to supplement less mystical forms of therapy. By the Third Century B.C, at the latest, physicians had developed specializations. There were dietitians, veterinarians and specialists in external and internal medicine. The royal government was employing doctors to minister to the ailing members of the court and also to study and describe various drugs and therapeutic methods.

Two forms of therapy devised by the ancient Chinese-acupuncture and moxibustion were eventually to spread throughout Asia and even to enjoy fitful vogues in the West.

Acupuncture was the treatment of illness or pain by pricking the patient’s body with needles at points that were believed to be connected with the visceral organs causing the physical disorder. Moxibustion, a treatment in which wicks of moxa, the pith of the Chinese wormwood-are burned at certain fixed points on the skin, was a related form of therapy. Both were based on a primitive view of anatomy and physiology.

The greatest contribution of early Chinese medical genius was to internal medicine, especially in the discovery of healing drugs. A considerable part of a long series of books on materia medica going back to the Han period still survives and is now being minutely examined by medical scientists and historians of culture because of the light it sheds on these early Chinese discoveries.

It is known that ancient Chinese pharmacologists were the first to discover the therapeutic properties of many herbs that are still valued: ephedra, a vegetable alkaloid, for asthma; iodine-rich seaweeds to treat goiter; ergot, a rye fungus, to alleviate uterine difficulties during childbirth. The Chinese made particular efforts to remedy vitamin-deficiency diseases, which became more and more prevalent as men of the Middle Kingdom moved into the rice-growing southlands. There they lived mainly on polished rice instead of eating a more balanced diet, and many contracted beriberi. They gave special attention to this disease, though its cause went unrecognized, and recommended such useful remedies as a gourd drink.

The ancient Chinese healers also utilized many non-herbal substances, most of them little used in the ancient West. The organs of animals proved to be efficacious remedies for various ailments, though medical scientists are only now discovering why. The vitamins in the livers and kidneys of pigs and in the eyes of sheep, though they were not identified as vitamins, improved the health of generations of medieval Chinese. Even the Chinese claims for the diuretic and stimulant properties of velvet deer horns.

Finally, the ancient Chinese anticipated the medical chemists of Europe by many centuries in their successful therapeutic use of minerals, such as iron and copper and even the salts of arsenic and mercury, which can be poisonous if not carefully administered. These remarkable discoveries are still being explored by modern scientists. In spite of the excellence of the purely scientific discoveries of Ancient China, her greatest contribution to humanity was technological-the work of her artisans and technicians.

Four Chinese technological inventions of Han and medieval times laid the whole basis for the European exploration and colonization of the world: the compass became the tool of the pioneering seafarers of Portugal, Holland and England; gunpowder enabled Europeans to subdue the lands they found; paper and printing made possible the wide dissemination of their ideologies and decrees.

By Han times, the Chinese had made compasses -spoons of lodestone, a naturally magnetic iron ore that rotated freely on a polished board. The floating needle-magnetized by rubbing it with lodestone-was probably not invented before the T’ang period. Neither device was used for anything more scientific than to locate the most propitious site for a building or a tomb, however, until the 11th Century, when it was finally applied to navigation. It may have reached Europe through the Arabs.

Gunpowder, to the medieval Chinese, was simply an aid to aesthetic pleasure. They had learned how to combine potassium nitrate with the proper proportions of charcoal and sulfur to make an explosive by the Seventh Century A.D. But they used it only in pyrotechnic displays to illuminate great court and public celebrations: “fire trees,” “flame flowers” and “peach blossoms” of gunpowder exploded in the sunset skies over the capital of Chang-an. Apparently the Chinese did not use gunpowder in warfare, even as a simple incendiary substance for fire arrows, until the 11th Century.

The invention of the first paper, which was made from tree bark, hemp, old rags and fishing nets, is attributed to one Tsai Lun in 105 A.D., but actual samples of earlier rag paper have been found. From the Second Century on, paper was used as a substitute for the silk cloth on which important and elegant messages had always been written. The crude pulp was strengthened with starch, sized with gypsum, coated with lichen-derived gelatin, stained in handsome colors. Yellow was a favorite, and even polished. This whole complex technology was transmitted to western Asia in the Eighth Century. By the Ninth Century, paper had everywhere replaced the traditional papyrus from Egypt.

Ultimately a new European industry was devoted to the manufacture of paper, and the parchment of medieval Christian monks became a thing of the past.

Printing from woodblocks is believed to have begun in the Seventh Century, though the earliest surviving printed book is a later one, a sacred Buddhist scroll from the Eighth Century A.D. The art developed from several techniques that were used between the Fourth and Seventh Centuries: the stamping of textile patterns, the impressions of seals-both secular and religious and the common practice of taking ink rubbings from stone engravings. These forerunners of printing were used mainly for religious purposes. Stone rubbings, for example, were used to duplicate the orthodox Confucianist texts and the sacred writings of the Buddhist and Taoist sages so that they could be widely disseminated among the faithful.

The material used in woodblock printing was usually pear or jujube wood, cut to the size of two book pages and smoothed and softened with paste. The matter to be printed was written on a two-page sheet of thin, transparent paper. This was spread carefully over the woodblock and rubbed so that the ink adhered to the paste. Then the woodblock cutter carved around the transferred written characters so that they stood out, raised in high relief. The printer brushed ink on the block and pressed blank sheets onto it to make the print.

There was no officially sponsored printing until the 10th Century, though a century earlier the private presses of T’ang were turning out accounts of the lives of the Taoist saints, directions for Buddhist spells, pamphlets on divination and magic, almanacs and surprisingly dictionaries. The court authorized the sale of the printed version of the Confucian classics in 953 A.D., and, at the very end of the 10th Century, the printing of the official dynastic histories began.

The early invention of printing provided a means for the wide dissemination in China of the sort of materials that were available in the rest of the world only in manuscript, and hence could be read only by a small elite. The diffusion of the art of printing, like that of making gunpowder, seems to have followed the far-ranging Mongol conquests of Europe in the 14th Century.

In addition to these inventions, which profoundly altered the course of world history, Chinese technology produced a wide range of significant but less dramatic innovations. Some of these were also adopted by Europeans; others were developed independently, but much later.

The wheelbarrow was a Chinese invention of the Third Century B.C., not known until centuries afterward in Europe; so also was the breast-collar and harness that enabled domestic animals to pull heavy loads. Chinese technicians were the first to undertake deep borehole drilling-holes 2,000 feet deep were drilled in the salt mines of Szechwan in the First Century A.D. The world’s first suspension bridges supported by ingeniously woven bamboo cables, as well as the earliest known segmental arch bridges, were built in China between the Third and the Seventh Centuries A.D.

The ancestor of the modern Great Wall, which became the Eighth Wonder of the World, was constructed by the Ch’in emperor Shih Huang Ti in the Third Century B.C. It joined a series of smaller walls to reach a length of almost 1,500 miles. The first important canals were built soon afterward and gradually a vast network was developed. By the Eighth Century A.D. it was possible to float a cargo from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River in the north without reloading it.

First to discover the value of lacquer, a natural varnish obtained from a relative of the sumac, the Chinese used it to paint images on Bronze Age buildings and to preserve and decorate wooden artides, leather shoes and silk hats.

Sometimes it was improved by the addition of gold dust, mother-of-pearl and red pigments. In the early centuries of our era, handsome Buddhist images were made by pressing lacquer-soaked cloths over clay models, and in medieval times, marvellously designed actors’ masks, representing the faces of supernatural beings, were made in the same way.

Another innovation was the domestication of the silkworm and the whole complex process of reeling silk filaments from cocoons. For many centuries only the Chinese knew how to control the whole life-cycle of the silkworms, feeding them with the leaves of white mulberry and killing whole generations before they could rupture their cocoons; they were also the sole possessors of the techniques for reeling off the long, undamaged, resilient filaments and twisting them into threads of great strength. Drawlooms were developed in China to weave these threads into richly ornamented damask.

Articles made of porcelain, also a Chinese invention, became the envy of the world in early medieval times. The Chinese had made fine pottery vessels since the Stone Age, but making porcelain required the addition to the clay of a mineral called feldspar. At first they merely applied feldspar as a glaze on the surface, but by T’ang times they had learned that the mineral could be added to the clay -before the vessels were molded and the mixture fired at a higher temperature to produce porcelain. Shards of the renowned T’ang porcelains have been found as far away as Mesopotamia and Africa.

These and other products of early China became so well known for their excellence that, by medieval times, the word for “Chinese” became a synonym for “superior” in many Asian languages. A distinguished Ninth Century Arab author, Jahiz of Basra, wrote that while the Turks were the greatest soldiers and the Persians the best kings, the Chinese were pre-eminent among all craftsmen.

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