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
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