A group of ancient tombs have been
discovered in recent years in Shandong Province which date back 4,500
years. Among the relics are about a dozen pottery wine vessels, which
bear one character each. These characters are found to be stylized
pictures of some physical objects, and so are called pictographs.
By 1700 BC, symbols were
oracle bones and tortoise shells, shown at left. These are
thought to be the
first true Chinese writing.
These picture words underwent a
evolution over the centuries until the pictographs changed into "square
characters," some simplified by losing certain strokes and others made
more complicated but, as a whole, from
irregular drawings they became stylized forms. By 1200 BC Chinese
writing was already a highly developed writing
system that was used to record a language fairly similar to classical
Chinese. In 1000 BC the first book was produced. By
inventing writing so early in their history, the Chinese preserved a
record of their history and learning.
|As early as 500 BC, Chinese
had studied and learned much about magnetism in nature. For example,
they knew that iron ore, called magnetite, tended to align itself in a
North/South position. Scientists learned to "make magnets" by heating
pieces of ore to red hot temperatures and then cooling the pieces in a
North/South position. The original lacquered earth plate, dating to the
3rd century BC, is currently on display at the Museum of Chinese
History. Later, the magnets were placed on bronze plates marked with
directional bearings. Compasses were first used in Feng Shui, the
buildings. By 1000 AD,
navigational compasses were widely used on Chinese ships, enabling them
to navigate without stars in
view. The magnetic compass remains an essential
navigational tool today.
Sails & Rudder
|China has a very old seafaring
tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han
Dynasty. By 100 AD, Chinese shipbuilders invented the stern post
rudder and watertight compartments for ship's hulls. By 200 AD,
they used several masts and the redesigned the basic square sail with
the fore-and-aft rig. This allowed
to sail into the wind.
With these inventions, the Chinese trader
Zheng Ho sailed as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433. Mysteriously,
China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their
ocean going ships and halted further expeditions.
& Iron Refining
|Iron was smelted in China by
the 4th century BC, and steel was perfected
by the 400's AD using coal as a high temperature fuel. By having good
refractory clays for the construction of blast furnace walls, and the
discovery of how to reduce the temperature at which iron melts by using
phosphorus, the Chinese were able cast iron into ornamental and
functional shapes. This expertise allowed the production of
pots and pans with thin walls. With the development of annealing,
ploughshares, longer swords, and even buildings were
eventually made of iron.
In later centuries, the mass production of steel made industrial
|The building of the Great Wall
one of the legendary seven wonders of the world, began in 221 BC in an
effort to keep Mongol invaders out. In the 600's AD,
the Sui Emperor Yang Di began a huge project of repairing the ancient
wall. The costs of rebuilding the wall were enormous. The
construction involved the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of
people, many of whom died from the harsh working conditions and were
buried in the wall itself. Costs were also increased by the
frequent robbery of supply wagons. 15,000 defense towers and
constructed along the walls. It remains the largest structure
ever built anywhere in the world, and is the only human made work on
earth visible from orbit.
|It seems that porcelain was
not a sudden
invention, although some
claim that Tao-Yue in the 600's AD was the legendary inventor of
porcelain. He used so-called 'white clay' (kaolin) which he found along
the Yangzte river where he was born. He added other types of clay to
produce the first white porcelain, which he sold as 'artificial jade'
in the capital Chang-an. By around 900 AD, porcelain was
perfected, incorporating the translucent minerals quartz and feldspar.
Porcelain was much finer than other clay
ceramics, so thin as to be translucent. Its white color could be
painted in many colors. Porcelain was one of the most highly
prized products from China, and in fact came to be called "china."
|Imperial China's construction
waterways to connect different parts of its vast territory produced
some of the world's greatest water engineering projects. One of
the most impressive was the building of the Grand Canal.
Construction of the first Grand Canal began in the early 600's to
connect the Yellow River (Hwang He) in the north with the Yangzi River
(Chiang Jiang) in the
south. The project lasted for many centuries as it was constantly
enlarged and repaired. Once the Grand
Canal was in use, people could carry messages and ships could carry
rice back and forth.
Canal locks were another innovation in the 10th century. These
allowed boats to go uphill and downhill, by raising or lowering the
water level within the lock. Click here to see
how a lock works. This invention allowed boats to travel farther
inland. Today locks are used in places like Niagara Falls and the
& Relay Hostels
|Roads and relay hostels, or
greatly improved communication and trade throughout the vast land of
China. By the late 700's, inns offered horses and food to
travelers, and provided places for government officials to stay for the
night during long journeys. The system of roads allowed government
tax collectors, and postal messengers to move long distances.
Messengers delivered mail across hundreds of miles. Merchants
could carry trade goods such as rice, tea, silk, and seafood without
fear of bandits.
Around 200 AD, Chinese scientists
discovered that an explosive mixture could be produced by combining
sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). The
explosive mixture, called huoyao, was used by the military in the 900's
during the Tang Dynasty. Imagine their enemy's
surprise when the Chinese first demonstrated their newest
invention. New weapons were rapidly developed, including rockets
that were launched from a bamboo tube.
Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder filled tubes. At some
they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon
they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just
by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was
born. The date reporting the first use
of true rockets was in 1232. At this time, the Chinese and the Mongols
were at war with each other. During the battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese
repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage of "arrows of flying fire."
fire arrows were a simple form of a solid propellant rocket. A tube,
at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the
was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid
of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open
and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that
kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the
air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as
weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols
must have been formidable. Gunpowder changed the methods of war
|One of the greatest inventions
medieval world was the mechanical clock. The difficulty in
inventing a mechanical clock was to figure out a way in which a wheel
no bigger than a room could turn at the same speed as the Earth, but
still be turning more or less continuously. If this could be
accomplished, then the wheel became a mini Earth and could tell the
Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, made the first model of a
mechanical clock in 725 AD. This clock operated by dripping water
that powered a wheel which made one full revolution in 24 hours.
An iron and bronze system of wheels and gears made the clock
turn. This system caused the chiming of a bell on the hour.
Su Sung's great 'Cosmic Engine' of 1092 was 35
feet high. At the top was a power driven sphere for observing the
positions of the stars. The power for turning it was transmitted
from the dripping water by a chain drive. A celestial globe inside the
tower turned in
synchronization with the sphere above. It was two more centuries
before the first mechanical
clock was developed in Europe.
|Inoculation works by
introducing a weak
form of a disease to stimulate the human body to fight off the
disease. Smallpox, a deadly virus characterized by skin blisters
drying to crater-shaped scars, existed in Europe, Asia, and
The technique of inoculation was first publicly
recognized when the son of Prime Minister Wang Dan (957-1017) died of
smallpox. Hoping to prevent the same thing from happening to
other family members, Wang Dan summoned physicians from all over
China. A Daoist monk introduced the technique of inoculation to
the physicians in the capital. By the 16th century it was widely
practiced against smallpox in China. The technique was unknown in
Europe until the 1800's, when it was introduced by Edward Jenner.
|The Chinese developed the abacus, a
counting device, around 100 AD. By the 1300's it
was perfected and given the form it still has today. The
instrument consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with parallel
rods. Each rod holds beads as counters. The rods
are separated into upper and lower parts by a crossbar. Each bead
above the crosspiece is worth five units, and each below is worth
one. The rungs or rods from right to left indicate place value in
powers of ten -- ones, tens, hundred, and so on.
instrument the Chinese could
add, subtract, multiply and divide with remarkable speed. The
abacus became the basic calculating device in Asia, where it is still
Silk was first
made by the Chinese about 4000 years ago. Silk thread is made from the
cocoon of the silkworm moth, whose caterpillar eats the the leaves of
the mulberry tree. Silk spinners needed a method to deal with the
tough, long silk threads. To meet the increasing demand for silk
fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035. This
simple circular machine, easily operated by one person, could wind fine
fibers of silk into thread. The invention used a wheel to stretch
and align the fibers. A drive belt made the wheels spin.
Italians who traveled to China during the Mongol dynasty brought the
invention to Europe in the 14th century.
Left: lady spinning
Right: 2-man loom
||The technique of printing
with carved wood blocks
appeared about the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Block
printing reached its golden age during the Song dynasty, in
the years 960-1279, as the imperial patronage encouraged the
of large numbers of books by the central and local governments. Movable
type was first invented by Bi Sheng of the Song dynasty in the year
1045 AD. The invention of reusable, moveable type made
books cheaper and more available.
Europeans separately invented movable type in the 1400's. Until
the invention of computers and photocopying in the 20th century, all
books were printed using movable type.
|The Chinese invented paper
money in the
9th century AD. Its original name was 'flying money' because it
was so light it could blow out of one's hand. As exchange certificates
used by merchants, paper money was quickly adopted by the government
for forwarding tax payments. In 1024, the Song government took over the
printing of paper money and used it as a medium of exchange backed by
deposited "cash" (a Chinese term for metal coins). The first Muslim
bankers used a checking system by the 1200's, followed by Italian
bankers in the 1400's. Paper money is still the most common form
of currency around the world.