Look at this map of China and tell me if, from what we’ve learned so far, you can
tell me about the Chinese civilization. Yep, rivers, big ones… and from them ran the
bureaucracy and technology necessary for controlling water.
Like Egypt, Sumer, and Mesoamerica, ancient China represents a hydraulic civilization—one
that maintained its population by diverting rivers to aid in irrigation—and one that
developed writing thousands of years ago.
In fact, there is an unbroken Chinese literary and scientific tradition from this time on—not
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, we’re 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, let’s 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 space—enclosed by the great celestial sphere—celestial bodies float around, directed
by a h“hard 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 Kingdom—China. The cosmos revolved around not just earth, but China itself.
And in the symbolic center of China stands the Son of Heaven—the 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. Confucianism’s focus on an orderly human
world conflicted both with Buddhism’s 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 everyone’s 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 China’s 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 as “mandarins.” 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 Chinese “firsts” or 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, it’s of somewhat limited analytic value, because it
doesn’t 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? Let’s 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.
Alchemy—or a systematic investigation of “what 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 doesn’t 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 coke—a 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 project—necessitating 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 Song—when economic
activity and population boomed alongside the ability to grow more rice.
The Canal also represented the powerful Chinese state’s ability to engineer vast regions:
they connected smaller waterways to main rivers, opening up where goods and people could travel.
But—as political winds shifted—certain 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. Billion… With 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 a “Scientific Revolution” didn’t
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, a “Scientific 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 intensification—added up, these sound pretty revolutionary! And
many of these inventions traveled well beyond China.
But! The Song state fell to—wait for it—the Mongols…
….so these achievements didn’t all persist in time. The more important point is that
changes in how cultures have understood and manipulated the natural world don’t follow
a single predictable model. Chinese historians have seriously challenged
the assumption that a so-called “Scientific Revolution” is a necessary path for all
civilizations. Next time—we’ll 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 it’s 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 you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support
the series at Patreon; a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you
love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued