Science, Technology and Civilisation in China

This is a transcript of a talk given in May 2014 at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Valletta

This commentary attempts to build on the PowerPoint presentation and provide more detail about the topic. I cannot do justice to the theme because of the time constraints and the immense amount of material relating to the topic.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese history is the significant advances made over many thousands of years in astronomy, mathematics, science and technology. Many of these discoveries and inventions were made long before similar advances in the West. For example gunpowder, the magnetic compass movable type printing and paper making were all invented before appearing in Europe.  Ancient Chinese mathematicians, scientists and technologists realised through careful and systematic observation and experimentation major discoveries in disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, science and technology. The true extent of this is just beginning to be accepted by the West. Confirmation and validation of these achievements are being made continually as more archaeological and new literary evidence is discovered. Many of these developments can be mapped to a number of determining factors such as social unrest, wars, needs to improve the infrastructures for transportation and communication. In the case of China a number of historians have also highlighted other factors such as the nature of the Chinese landscape its vastness and exposure to extreme weather conditions. Its long rivers, numerous mountains and plateaux required land management techniques to be developed to produce sufficient crops. Very effective irrigation systems were established along with crop rotation and rice production methods. The Chinese also referred to crop rotation as alternating fields. Irrigations schemes included artificial lakes, canals, dams, embankments and sluice gates.

A system of canal locks and pounds is shown opposite.

Sluice Gates

Sluice Gates

These achievements occurred and span practically all the dynasties from pre-history.  For example a number of innovations were made in metallurgy during the Zhou dynasty (c 1045-256BC) including the development of steel and wrought iron using forging and puddling techniques.   The crossbow was in use during the Warring States period which according to Joseph Needham (see below) was a groundbreaking invention. Gunpowder was recorded in 330AD by Ge Hong.

Picture on the left opposite shows a crossbow from the Warring States period 403-256 BC.



The Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The Han Dynasty witnessed the development of a seismograph, improved irrigations systems, the silk loom and kite and air balloons.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The Tang Dynasty also witnessed another period of great innovation and discovery. Printing was first recorded in the Tang Dynasty. Book printing was developed in China and it is also important to note that this also occurred in Japan and Korea. This period saw advances in traditional Chinese medicine with the publication of several seminal compilations on the medicinal benefits obtained from animals, cereals, fruits, herbs, minerals, plants, vegetables.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The Song Dynasty witnessed a period of relative stability after a century of civil war which encouraged an era of modernisation and innovations. Greater freedom facilitated scientific development, economic reforms and achievements in the arts and literature. Overseas trade expanded and with greater wealth the mints produced 5 billion coins in 1088 AD and the first banknotes were produced in 1032. Minted coins were made of mixtures of copper and tin to create a bronze alloy. The picture shows a multitude of metal artefacts made in iron, steel and bronze.

Song Dynasty Artefacts

Song Dynasty Artefacts

Also during this period maritime engineering rapidly developed associated with overseas trading e.g. the use of dry docks for repairing ships .Various writers proposed theories associated with geology and climate change. Su Song with other scholars produced a pharmaceutical treatise dating from 1058-1061 including interrelated topics on botany, mineralogy, metallurgy and zoology. Su Song also made significant advances in the technology of clock design and in the theories of horology. The period also witnessed developments in astronomical observation e.g. super nova explosions and comets. Experiments were also made in developing the camera obscura and the invention of the movable type printing. The picture below on the left shows a person operating movable clay type printing during and after the Song Dynasty 960-1127.

Movable Clay Type Printing

Movable Clay Type Printing

Advances also made in metal forging and mathematical theories associated with spherical trigonometry and number theory.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

The mogul rule under the Yuan Dynasty witnessed advances in economics with the first mass production of paper banknotes. A number of links were established at this time between Europe and China driven by various wars and alliances between the Franco-Mogul.  Chinese knowledge of gunpowder and siege warfare was transmitted to Arabic and European countries during this period. Chinese and Arabic astronomers worked together at the Chinese Astronomical Bureau establishes by Kublai Khan as well as working at the Persian Maragha observatory. Even earlier Indian and Chinese astronomers had exchanged expertise with each other.

Taoism heavily influenced the development of the Chinese nation and was very associated with research into alchemy and as a result discovered many new dyes, metal alloys and types of porcelain.

The Jesuits missions of the 16th and 17th centuries introduced Western astronomy, science and technology into China as well as transmitting Chinese developments to Europe. This was during the latter end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The works of Confucius were translated into European languages which subsequently influenced European philosophers e.g. Goethe and Quesnay.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon said ‘that the three discoveries of printing, gunpowder and compass changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; first in literature, second in warfare, third in navigation; whence followed innumerable changes, in so much that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.’

Many commentators have agreed ’that the failure of modern science to develop in China in the 18th/19th centuries was  due to the differences in the social and political structure and environment and not inherent ineptitude of the Chinese for science’.  (Fu Ssu-Nien (Sinien)). Also interference and intervention from Western nations in the 19th century – the century of humiliation- did not help e.g. Opium Wars, the pillaging and destruction of unique and priceless Chinese treasures and the Boxer compensation etc.  A number of countries in the West have little to be proud of in their treatment of China particularly Britain. The absurdity of the so-called gun boat diplomacy is but one example of this interference and arrogance of behaviour.

People’s Republic of China 1949+

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic China has designated science and technology as one of the Four Modernisations. A few examples of their achievements and scientific research include high speed trains, satellite launching, space travel, improved rice production and alternative technologies particularly associated with energy generation. China is now at the forefront of high tech patent registrations and has rediscovered its previous genius in science and technology.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) – Chinese name was Li-Yuese.

No other person was more influential than Joseph Needham in bringing the world’s attention to these Chinese achievements.

Joseph Needham was a remarkable individual, a noted scientist-biochemist, historian and sinologist. Educated at Cambridge University specialising in embryology and morphogenesis following his post-graduate studies. In 1937 three Chinese research students came to work with him; Lu Gwei-djen, Wang Ying-lai and Chen Shi-zhang .  As a result he became fascinated by China particularly the history of science and technology and learnt Classical Chinese and the language being tutored by Gustav Halous a colleague from his college at Cambridge. As a result of this interest in China he decided to write a large compendium of the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine.

In 1942 he was sent to China to establish links with scientists and create a Sino-British Science Co-operation Office initially based in Chongqing (Sechuan). At the time Japan was invading China and the British saw China as an ally against the Axis powers so this initiative was part of a strategy to strengthen cooperation between China and the West. In spite of the challenges that Needham had to face he was delighted to be able to stay in China for three years and travel freely as much as the Japanese presence would allow. His longest trip was to the far west in Xingjiang at the caves of Dunhuang located at the end of the Great Wall where he found the first printed coy of the Diamond Sutra. He was able to build on his already extensive knowledge of Chinese culture and history and quickly establish excellent relationships and respect with the Chinese scientific and artistic communities and beyond including political figures e.g. Zhou Enlai. He became great friends with Wang Ling a noted historian who became one of his major collaborators on the Science and Chinese Civilisation (SCC) project. During his time in China he collected an immense amount of material much of which was freely given be the Chinese. The Chinese continued to send him massive amounts of documents and manuscripts when he returned to Cambridge. In 1948 he proposed his project to the Cambridge University Press who agreed to publish the material. All this material along with records he made in China talking with scientists and historians provided the basis for the publications. The first volume was published in 1954.

In 1946 helped to found UNESCO – actually establishing the S in the title (S for Science) and was the first head of the science division of the organisation. In 1948 he returned to Cambridge and taught  biochemistry but began to devote the majority of his time to the SCC project. In 1966 he became master of his college and was relieved of all his teaching and research work on biochemistry and was then able to spend all his energies on the project. He was joined by colleagues including u Gwei-djen along with other researchers. He wrote 15 volumes himself and later collaborated with other researchers until his death in 1995. The planning and preparation of the series continues.

He received many honours from around the world.  A Joseph Needham Research Institute was established in 1985 in Cambridge to continue his work.

Definition of terms:

Embryology – Study of the embryo

Hypothesis – A tentative suggestion not yet validated

Morphogenesis – The study of organisms

Sinologist – The study of China its history, language and customs.


Needham. J. ‘Science and Chinese Civilisation’ 25 volumes to date.  CUP. 1954 +

Needham. J. ‘The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. Allen and Unwin. London. 1969.

Needham. J. Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology. CUP. 1970.

Deng  Yinge. ‘Ancient Chinese Inventions’. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press. ISBN 7-5085-0837-8.  2005.

Greenberger. R. ‘The Technology of Ancient China’. Rosen Publishing Group. New York. ISBN 1-4042-0558-6. 2006.

Temple. R. ‘The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention’. Simon and Schuster. New York. ISBN 0-671-62028-2. 1986.

Goldsmith. M. ‘Joseph Needham: 20th Century Renaissance Man’. ISBN 92-3-103192-9. UNESCO. 1995.

A very readable biography of Joseph Needham is Simon Winchester: ‘The Man Who Loved China’. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-088459-8. 2008. (Also available in an audio book format).

An excellent account of Foreign Interventions in China is given by Robert Bickers in ‘The Scramble for China’ Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914. ISBN978-0-713-99749-1. Allen Lane. 2012.

A few dates of key inventions:

The horse saddle and collar – 3rd century BC (see figure 1 below)

Horse Saddle and Collar

Horse Saddle and Collar

The wheelbarrow – 1st century BC

The plough – 3rd century BC

Paper money – 9th century AD (see figure 2 below)

Paper Money

Paper Money

Cast iron – 4th century BC

Propeller – 4th century AD

Decimal system – 14th century BC

Seismograph – 2nd century AD

Sundial – 7th century AD (see figure 3 below)



Matches – 6th century AD

Paper – 2nd century BC (see figure 4 below)



Brandy and whiskey – 7th century AD

The kite – 5th/6th century BC

Porcelain – 16th century BC (see figure 5 below)



Seismograph – 1st century AD (see figure 6 below)



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