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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Medieval China: Crash Course History of Science #8

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Look at this map of China and tell me if, from what weve learned so far, you can

tell me about the Chinese civilization. Yep, rivers, big onesand from them ran the

bureaucracy and technology necessary for controlling water.

Like Egypt, Sumer, and Mesoamerica, ancient China represents a hydraulic civilizationone

that maintained its population by diverting rivers to aid in irrigationand one that

developed writing thousands of years ago.

In fact, there is an unbroken Chinese literary and scientific tradition from this time onnot

true of Egypt, Sumer, or Mesoamerica. And from writing, Chinese scholars naturally

developed a critical invention in knowledge transmission and state control: you know it,

you probably hate it, the standardized test. Today, were going to focus on the time

of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, a time of great technical innovation. But,

before we get to the Song, lets take a tour through the ages and explore key elements

of Chinese scientific culture.

[Intro Music Plays]

From the beginning, science in China was a product of the state. The very first Chinese

dynasty, the Xia, supported astronomical research to create more accurate calendars.

Later, between 400 and 0 BCE, Chinese scholars measured the length of the solar year to 365.25

days, predicted eclipses, recorded supernovas and sunspots, founded a Bureau of Astronomy,

and even determined the 26,000-year cycle of the precession of equinoxes!

Alongside this research, Chinese culture developed a grand model of the cosmos: in an infinite,

empty spaceenclosed by the great celestial spherecelestial bodies float around, directed

by a hhard wind.” This mysterious force explained how the stars

and planets moved around. The earth sits, still, at the center of the

system. On the earth, in a zone between the four points of the compass, stretches the

Middle KingdomChina. The cosmos revolved around not just earth, but China itself.

And in the symbolic center of China stands the Son of Heaventhe emperor.

The ancient Chinese states, like others governing large populations, developed complex ideas

about human society. The most prominent early Chinese thinker was

Confucius, whose philosophy emphasized the importance of tradition, etiquette, respect

for elders, and for the patriarchy. Confucianisms focus on an orderly human

world conflicted both with Buddhisms transcendental orientation toward a reality beyond this one,

and the proto-scientism of Mohism and Legalism, which were contemporary schools

of thought that privileged rational laws. Despite competition from these other schools,

Confucianism influenced a lot of later thought. The official state ideology of the Song was

neo-Confucianism. China was first unified in 221 BCE, in the

Qin Dynasty. But it was the succeeding Han Dynasty that instituted an imperial university

and the state examinations, also called the civil service or imperial examinations.

The state exams, which were open only to men, were a way of ensuring that the central administration

had enough trained civil servants to oversee the collection of taxes and building of roads,

maintain a large standing army, and roll out agricultural reforms.

For the examinees, it also meant a chance to jump from a lower class to a higher one.

Passage of even the first level of exams led to exemption from corvée labor,

which was part-time unpaid work for the state. Science, however, did not figure much into

these state examinations. The exams mostly tested memorization and recitation from the

important government and Confucian texts. These shaped the values of the country: examinees

were well-rounded and shared a common culture focused on law and order.

So while the Chinese state did support research, especially on topics such as agriculture,

meteorology, and astrology, and while there was a large state system for educating people

and getting things done, these two threads never quite entwined as they did at the Museum

of Alexandria or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. This brings us to the Song Dynasties.

The Song state produced a lot of infrastructural and social change across China, starting with

the key to everyones heart, their stomachs. During the eighth century, rice cultivation

took off in southern China and the Yangzi Basin.

Then, in 1012, the Song state introduced new early-ripening and winter-ripening rice from

the Champa kingdom in what is now Vietnam that allowed rice to be produced faster with

less water The Song state reclaimed ricefield plow and

paddle chain water-lifting devices. These agricultural changes led to the growth

of a leisured middle class, increased trade, and a growth in manufacturing.

Within a century, urbanization skyrocketed: urban population reached twenty percent of

the total even as population jumped from fifty million to one hundred and fifteen million.

And we moderns know what hegemonic powers want, right?

A gigantic state bureaucracy!

In medieval Chinas case, this meant the highly centralized mandarinate, a term referencing

Mandarin, the dialect of Chinese employed in the imperial court.

The bureaucrats who oversaw the imperial exams became known asmandarins.” The mandarinate

provided social stability and, thanks to the exams, some insulation against corruption.

Systematic knowledge production in abstract natural philosophy was never unified. But

Chinese technē was another story. Whereas scholars had high status, craftspeople

had low status. The state controlled most industries, and the state was responsible

for programmatic improvements. The list of Chinesefirstsor true technical

inventions is so long that it could be its own episode.

The wheelbarrow, silk production, earthquake monitors, lacquer, gunpowder, the crossbow,

porcelain, umbrellas, fishing reels, suspension bridges, and paper money.

As fascinating as this list is, its of somewhat limited analytic value, because it

doesnt tell us anything about the social and political context of technological invention.

What are the characteristics of a given society that lead to new ideas? Does the state help

or hinder this work? Lets look at some examples.

Sometimes a practical invention led to new scientific knowledge after the fact. For example,

the Chinese had tinkered with magnetic compasses since 300 BCE, but the concept of attraction

to the North Pole was not understood for another two hundred years.

Other times, cultural desires drive lots of little iterations that lead to major breakthroughs.

For instance, Chinese artisans made paper since the second century CE, although it may

have been developed even earlier. And by 700, the Chinese also made use of a

printing press involving carved wood blocks. In fact, the first Song emperor ordered the

printing of a compilation of Buddhist scripture that included 130,000 two-page wood blocks

in 5048 volumes! But printing really took off in 1040, when

Song artisans introduced the first movable-type printing presses using wood and, later, ceramic

characters. These helped standardize writing and unify Song culture.

Finally, sometimes the state would directly support the creation of new knowledge.

Sponsored by the state, Chinese artisans created complex astronomical clocks and orreries,

or mechanical models of the heavens. During the Song Dynasty, civil servant Su

Song refined these techniques to construct a gigantic machine that would replicate planetary

movements and allow the government to correct the official calendar.

Alchemyor a systematic investigation ofwhat is stuff?”—also took off with

state support, starting in the Han dynasty. Thanks to this work, the Chinese had gunpowder

as of the mid-ninth century. But it took until roughly the twelfth century, under the Song,

to perfect the military application of such a volatile substance.

But as fascinating as medieval gunsmithing is, the real achievements of Chinese technology

were in infrastructure. This includes everything from taking raw ore

and making it into usable iron, to moving vast quantities of water around.

Medieval China saw an infrastructure revolution. Show us what it looked like, Thought Bubble!

Iron production in China had been a state

enterprise since 117 BCE. But under the Song, iron production skyrocketed, increasing by

sixfold from CE 800 to 1100. In 1078, for example, the Song state foundries produced

125,000 tons of iron! How did they do it? Knowing more about the

chemical properties of stuff! Specifically: coal.

By the late Song, households used coal for heating, which was much more efficient than

charcoal. Coal burns hotter, for longer, and doesnt require deforesting the lands around

cities. This allowed iron production to scale up without

destabilizing society. And iron workers used water-powered bellows by the eleventh century,

smelting ore with cokea powerful fuel made from coal which burns hot and clean.

The Song state made 32,000 suits of armor, 16 million arrowheads, not to mention loads

of agricultural implements, every year! In addition to metallurgy-backed military

might, hydraulic engineering is vital in running large states. But the Grand Canal took infrastructure

into a new scale. Completed in 1327, the Grand Canal stretched

eleven hundred miles, from Hangzhou in the south up to Beijing in the north.

This is about the distance from New York to Florida. The Grand Canal allowed merchants

to ship up to four hundred thousand tons of grain every year.

The Great Wall is pretty wondrous, as far as long-term engineering projects go, but

the Grand Canal was not only a technical projectnecessitating the water-level-adjusting pound lock (a technology

we still use in canals to this day) —but a social and economic one.

Thanks, Thought Bubble! The efficient moving-around

of goods is characteristic of the Chinese world by the time of the Songwhen economic

activity and population boomed alongside the ability to grow more rice.

The Canal also represented the powerful Chinese states ability to engineer vast regions:

they connected smaller waterways to main rivers, opening up where goods and people could travel.

Butas political winds shiftedcertain sections were expanded or left to silt in.

So centuries later, during the Ming Dynasty, the Grand Canal had to be massively restored.

The Ming repaired 40,987 reservoirs and planted a billion trees. BillionWith a B.

The story of natural philosophy in China is similar to the story in other early states:

useful science was prioritized, not science for its own sake.

Given its resources, state support of research, population, and impressive track record regarding

technical innovation, some historians have asked why aScientific Revolutiondidnt

occur during Song Dynasty China. But is this question useful in helping us

make sense of past systems of knowledge-making? For one, many revolutionary technical achievements

in medieval China were made over long periods of time by anonymous, lower-class artisans,

not individual, named scholars. Two, in another sense, aScientific Revolution

did happen! Coal, water-powered bellows, gunpowder, compass-assisted

navigation, centuries-long hydraulic engineering schemes, movable-type presses, massive urbanization,

and research-driven agricultural intensificationadded up, these sound pretty revolutionary! And

many of these inventions traveled well beyond China.

But! The Song state fell towait for itthe Mongols

….so these achievements didnt all persist in time. The more important point is that

changes in how cultures have understood and manipulated the natural world dont follow

a single predictable model. Chinese historians have seriously challenged

the assumption that a so-calledScientific Revolutionis a necessary path for all

civilizations. Next timewell zoom in on the field of

medicine and compare systems of making knowledge about health across Eurasia and north Africa.

Crash Course History of Science is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney studio in Missoula,

Montana and its made with the help of all this nice people and our animation team is

Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If

you wanna keep imagining the world complexly with us, you can check out some of our other

channels like Nature League, Animal Wonders, and Scishow Space.

And, if youd like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support

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The Description of Medieval China: Crash Course History of Science #8