China: technical, scientific and social change, by J. Siry

[print version]


Traditional phases: wü xing, or the theory of the five elements. From Shü JĒng

Š           Metal

Š           Wood

Š           Water

Š           Earth

Š           Fire


Contrast this with the Greek doctrine of the four elements:

          1. earth
          2. air
          3. water
          4. fire

compassThree great inventions (Sir Francis Bacon postulated) are emblems of “modernity:”

1. Printing
2. Compass
3. Gunpowder


These great inventions are all Chinese originally.


Chinese are originators and transformers of material culture. Four lessons emerge from the transfer of technical discovery and expertise from east to west.


1.       Discovery [Gé ZhĒ ] is not use and neither is it the same as dispersal.

2.       Use is not always decisive despite proficiency. (Astronomy, polaris)

3.       Invention is the parent of necessity.

Magnetic compass          


Canals, canal locks and paddle boats

Cartography       Chang Heng, 116 AD,  (1311-1320)

Decimal system

Suspension bridges (stone arched)

Porcelain (851 AD reported, c. 3rd century AD)


Mechanical clock (astronomical) with escapement mechanism

Block printing and movable type

Rudders, large ships and watertight bulkheads

                  Bronze and cast iron bells (120 BC oxygenation used in smelting of iron ore)

                  Cannons and populous armies


      4. Sufficiency may be the purpose of progress but it relates to discontent.


Why then in 1400, when China, India, Persia and the Ottomans stand equally with western European powers does the apparent race to ascendancy not belong to China?




Therefore, at the Thirty Years war’s end, western European rivalry lead to overseas colonialism while Chinese civilization continued migration to parts of Asia as it was “colonized” by the Manchu or Ch’ing dynasty. Foreign domination of China and the subsequent European and Japanese pressure to possess the wealth of Chinese commercial and technical centers prompted an eclipse of Chinese mastery in fine technology, for which it had been world famous since the Tang and Sung dynasties of the Middle Ages.


Who Was?



Shen Kua. Dream Pool Essays                           1086 AD               Magnetism


Lou Shu. Pictures of Tilling and Weaving            1145 AD               irrigation; “step” bucket chain

to raise water into the fields.

Rice & silk were currency used by farmers to pay

taxes (burdensome).


Tools of Toil: what to read.
Tools are historical building blocks of technology.