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Science in ancient China

I'll start this text with a question for you dear reader. What do you understand by science? If we take the dictionary certainly we will read that science comes from Latin. Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge"). But do other people and more specifically does China have this same concept of science? Certainly not! Everything you see in this day and age, the Chinese were the precursors. Everything from the clock which awakens you in the morning invented in the Tang dynasty with a complex system of gears propelled by water to the umbrella. "Priest Leoni Nani in 1904 visited China as well as many Jesuits and took the idea of the clock to Europe a thousand years after its creation". The schedule that you use during the day was a Chinese invention, as well as the wheelbarrow of the construction worker, the seismograph, astronomical observatories, computational machines such as the abacus, hydraulics systems, metallurgy factories, printing, toilet paper, the paper armor used by the Chinese of the Tang dynasty and which maintained a remarkable performance, the compass, the stirrup and so many other inventions we will show you in this text and that certainly happened only because China not only made Science in the past, as was certainly the precursor of scientific thought, even though Europe insists on discussing the concept of science and deny the Chinese this evolutionary legacy of mankind.

History is definitely is not fair! When I had in hand the book The Man who Loved China (O Homem Que Amava a China) by Simon Winchester, I understood better why it is so difficult for some people to believe in the Chinese Treasury trips towards the "new world" that again had nothing new when the Europeans arrived here; because to me that studies China for nearly a decade, it struck me know that she was the forerunner of almost everything that exists in today's world. Imagine for a common sense person steeped in his everyday life and that received by conventional education at an early age a bombardment of information, both in conventional school, as in his own family by listening to say that this or that is the fruit of this people or of that culture. And certainly Europe has always been as the great and virtuous continent which has bequeathed knowledge to all of us poor little ones from the third-world. Actually it is understandable to hear from some people without full knowledge of the facts, that it would be impossible for the Chinese to have discovered the world in 1400, when those same people have no information at hand about the gigantic Chinese culture of the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where China was the largest commercial and military power, and the most advanced nation in the world, being feared by all those who knew her with the exception of course of the Europeans who barely knew how to navigate at that moment. It was with the reading this book that I also had the grateful happiness of knowing the work of professor Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, a man who dedicated half of his magnificent life to the study of science in ancient China and composed that which is recognized as the greatest literary work written about the Middle Empire and one of the greatest literary works carried out by man. Professor Needham founded the ' NEEDHAM RESEARCH INSTITUTE ' to follow-up with the elaboration of this huge encyclopedia, a fact that required much effort from him and his second wife Lu Gwei Djen. Today the Institute is under the responsibility of its Trustees.

 

Step by step as I began to learn more about the book by Simon Winchester I began to realize that something really was lost in the past and that denied the Chinese its immense role in the history of humanity, with regards to the modern world and science itself, because we know of the great Chinese discoveries of the past such as the compass, paper and gunpowder, but we have no knowledge of almost everything else the Chinese-invented from the more distant past. However these three Chinese inventions were only the beginning, the Primordium of the great Chinese contributions to humanity!

The list of Chinese inventions is so great that I would be writing for hours on end without being able to stop, if I wanted to do justice to all the great Chinese scientific achievements. But as I am not concerned about quantity but rather to bring to the attention of people the exact notion of what has happened in the past and was forgotten and also denied, either by lack of knowledge or by pure political manipulation by those who don't want to give up the merits which they did not have; I will then try to show the role of China with its wonderful inventions and their consequences towards the improvement of the quality of human life over time.

Since we're talking about books we'll start with the first book printed by man and it was not that of Joannes Gutemberg as many believed until recently. Maybe many people don't even know that the title of the first book printed by man has already changed hands, coming out of the hands of Gutemberg into the hands of the first Chinese Buddhist monks that six hundred years before Gutenberg made the first mobile impressions on paper. The cave 17 in the city of Dunhuang was the first practical laboratory where for the first time on this planet man managed to perform movable type printing. This book became known as the diamond sutra.

No less valuable was my discovery about the stellar maps made by the Chinese and also discovered inside the cave 17 in Dunhuang. These maps brought with them the design of the sky seen from the northern hemisphere, with the Big Dipper and Polaris described with the same perfection that we can observe today in our centers of astronomical research. All this prepared by Chinese scientists during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

In hydraulic engineering, perhaps China has built something unequalled in its magnitude and practicality compared to other works also colossal erected by other Nations. This is the dam of Lin Bing built 2300 years ago. An ingenious work that had the function of calming the Ming river flooding. This work is still in operation today in the same way that it was 2300 years ago.

Metallurgy in China emerged in the 6th century b.c., when the Chinese were able to produce a type of soft steel, however unbreakable, hence from this the first pieces for the plow were developed. Another creation from Chinese metallurgy were the chest straps for horses, which appeared in the 3rd century BC. In the classical Huainanzi encyclopedia of the 2nd century is described a method of creating puddled iron (Operation which clears the pig iron, separating carbon and turning it into wrought iron), which leads us to think that metallurgy in China has evolved quickly.

From this same metallurgy the currents in the 10th century were born, seven centuries before the first currents appeared in Europe. And from these same currents will emerge the first suspended bridges in the world. On the Dadu River in Sichuan one can see one of these bridges still in use, since it was built in 1701.

Ancient China was also the scene of joy and pleasure. Despite what many people think China has always been the scene of much art and joy. I was surprised to know that some Chinese in their inventiveness also thought to create automated floats to bring entertainment and relaxation to the people. And one of these men was Ma Jun who lived circa 206 BC. He had as a handicraft the creation of automated dolls. A great variety of scenes from the daily life of common people as well Government celebrities, were translated to a universe of automated movements ranging from a simple automated girl dancing to the more complex movements of government officials in their offices carrying out their Mandarin activities. We always have in mind the vision of dolls with their extraordinary electronic movements performed with the gifts of technology of our time. But to imagine an automated scene inside a performance done by a ' craftsman ' who lived in 206 BC, this leads us to rethink our concepts of what is geniality.

Other inventions such as the Periscope, the weighing balance, paper money, typography and the rain gauge also were seen for the first time in ancient China. Could it be the Chinese when they invented such instruments were unaware they were doing science? The answer is Yes. It is obvious that they knew they were transforming nature for the benefit of civilization. So why insist to say that what was done in ancient China is related to proto-science. What proto-science would be this that left for humanity almost everything that it would use and transform the same for humanities own benefit? 

In ancient China there was a man named Liu Xiang who recorded for the first time the magnetic properties of the magnet. Is it possible Liu was an alchemist? Or maybe an astrologer, who knows. The compass was also invented by the Chinese. The axial rudder which consists of a vertical plane attached to the vessel hull in the stern area, aligned with the keel was another wonderful Chinese invention of the 1st century AD, along with the crank to power mechanical devices. The discovery of coal, oil and gas as well as fuel were made in the 4th century BC also in China. The parachute, alcohol, phosphorus and the seismograph for identifying and registering earthquakes as well.

And you dear reader. What do you think of it all? Do you agree with the way in which the information from the past is conveyed? Surely you felt cheated as I felt. Luckily for me I chose history as a University course and had as a natural impulse the need to relearn the past. Not only the past of China, but about almost everything that is connected to this subject. And today I can admit with all conviction that I feel cheated in almost everything I learned at school while in the University. Don't blame the teachers, they are also victims.

Today we live in a world much different than when we were children and teenagers and even adults in college. There is one question to be made. Do you want your son to be tricked in the same way that we were? Or do you want to have inside your home a child, a teenager and an adult who is more lucid and critical and less alienated towards the issues of the past. China is a classic example with its science. How many other issues just as serious were and will continue to be placed low down our throats? Require from your child's school a retelling of ancient science and China's role in it. Don't forget that your son will live in a world where China will have a key role. As has been happening. To understand the role of China in the world begins by understanding it´s past and to do justice to what the Chinese have entrusted us, i.e. almost everything! 

Text of Fausto Guimaraes

 

 

 

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