History of Science and Technology in China


Chinese Mission of Old Silk Road


It was a notion among various western scholars that the philosophical and cultural conditions in China historically being reluctant towards the articulating and speculating nature of human mind, was perhaps not fertile for the scientific thought about the nature and world around.

It is basically true that the Chinese Philosophies as well the China natural Universalist though prefers intuition and intuition driven wisdom over the speculative genius of human mind. In major philosophical trends like Confucianism and Taoism it was held that man with his meagre mental capacities can never reach the crux of reality of the universe; only through intuitive righteous actions can he be one with the universe. He can become a true universal being by identifying oneself with the universe not by speculating about the Universe.

Yet, the different other schools of Thought like Ming Chia (Names and Actiualities), Mohism, Legalism, Logic etc. were developed in Chinese Philosophical Scenario. The concept of Fa, which means the principle or a method of distinction between actuality and names led towards a serious development of Logic. A similar progress in the fields of logical thinking and reasoning occurred in the philosophical terrains of Mohism and Legalism.  

One must also not that the Taoist School was not completely oblivious towards the scientific thought, it had its own natural philosophy. The greatest contribution from this thought must be acclaimed as the initiation of the Chinese Medicine as a great tradition. One comes across the practice of Acupuncture that started in the Bronze Age China which spread towards Eurasian Lands as well as to the Greece and Further West.

Another important School of Thought which had its own ideas about the workings of the world and had created a system according to which the man was suggested to live in harmony with the nature, was Yin-Yang School of Thought. The purely observing nature of this school led to the foremost conjectures about the cycles of the cosmos, like seasons, days and nights, constellations, planets etc.

Joseph Needham in his magnanimous volumes on the Science and Civilization in China has rightly narrated these fundamental thought structures as psudo-scientific in scope and method. He has shown that the basis of whole of Chinese Scientific thought is pure Universalist intuition. The Speculative Character of Science and its deductive-inductive methodical structure never developed fully in China.

Yet, the high and higher peaks of Scientific as well as technological advancements that were reached by Chinese mind have completely changed the course of World History.

One of the most important characteristic of the Chinese Thought is its undeniable spread to the west. The whole of Chinese Thought can be to be expanding towards west and that too since the Neolithic Age of Human History in China.

Various scholars have traced the scientific as well as technological knowledge’s travel from Far East to West and especially towards the areas called as the fertile crescents. The most important transfer of first technic has been counted by various scholars as the technic of specific ploughing ensuing towards three burrows on the cultivable land. Along with this many of the other Bronze Age technics too like the creation of bronze Celts with sockets for fixing the wooden handle. It is a most characteristic tool for those days, as with the help of these axes much of the forest land in the fertile crescent of Tigris and Euphrates as well as in the western-southern China. Along with the Bronze Celts another important tool that can be traced to have Chinese Origin is double-edged bronze sword.    

The situation has to be comprehended here as that the Chinese Bronze Age and Later Iron Age Civilization formed a part of the totality of Human Civilizations System combining Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, Mycenaean Greek Civilization and Yellow-Yangtze River Valley System of China. The fifth important and great civilization was the American-Indian Mayan Civilization, but it has an independent evolutionary history. The remaining civilizations must be understood to have been the actual cradle of Human History. 

The transfer of ideas in these civilization goes back to the very early periods of Human History. According to Joseph Needham this interaction and integral relation between these civilizations must understood not on just archaeological evidences but also in the domains of folklore, Art Parallels. According to him, these are the actual propagators of ways of life from one civilization to another. And since his theoretical approach, many of such parallels have been unearthed. Many of folklore and art imageries like the mermaids, creatures like minotaur, have a clear prominence in most of the civilizations. At the same time, the finding of a plant and its juice that can be used as an elixir is characteristic to all the above civilization. This elixir must be the foremost idea which later evolved towards the medicinal plants and extracts in all the civilization.

According to Joseph Needham, these most humane tendencies and ideas were the real vehicles and foundations of further transfer of ideas and evolved interaction. These similarities provided towards a creation of common imaginative atmosphere, in which people of different regions and communities could easily mingle and interact.   

For the grasp of progress in the technics and sciences of any civilization, one must understand the pattern of its interaction with the other civilizations, its neighbours and adjacent cultural scenarios. In the case of Chinese Civilization, a parallel evolution of all the adjacent civilizations from Bronze Age to Iron Age can be a great case for study. The conceptual similarities in the artefacts of various civilizations like Chinese, Mesopotamian, Egyptian as well as the Mycenaean Greek has been taken as a pattern of transmission of ideas among these civilization by Joseph Needham.

And thus through the folklore, imagery and artistic representations, Needham has shown a parallel, autonomous yet interactive evolution of various ideas in these civilizations. Some of such ideas are the notion of atomism, ladder of life from plants-animal-man etc. have a clear simultaneous and interactive development in the Chinese and contemporary civilizations. The most important aspect of Chinese thought, which is moral or ethical doctrines have also various common streams running in the contemporary civilizations. The dilemma of a son regarding the reporting the sins and vices of his father to the authorities have a parallel deliberations in the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Chinese Civilization.

With such evidences and frameworks, Joseph Needham proves that the Chinese Civilization was always in a circuit of diffusion of ideas. These evidences have significantly proven that like all the other contemporary civilizations, Chinese Civilization too developed or evolved through interaction and not just as an autonomous secluded unit.

Another aspect of this whole circuit was anecdotes, views, rumours about various civilizations that were shared by all. Joseph Needham has shown that these rumours and anecdotes had a foundation of first person witnessing of the neighbouring and distant civilization. Without these witness driven accounts, such rumours would never have found their place in the records of various civilizations. The rumours regarding China have a kind of consistency among the people of west. Some of these are Chinese People’s inclination to follow the ancestral customs more than the laws ordained by the ruler of the land, importance to the ancestors more than the astrology and other divine powers of nature show a clear characteristic of the Chinese Civilization of those times, and which was completely true.

With all such evidences one comes down to the most important aspect of the interaction between these neighbouring and distant civilizations, which is horse. The Horse, its domestication and Horse riding technic not only changed the scenario of civilizational expanse and process of urbanization, but also changed the whole economy, polity and culture of the world for more than 3000 years. The horses started to be an indivisible part of civilizational process in many of these civilization very much simultaneously and had an influence on each other. The horses from the lands of Farghana, Kazhak, Pamir, Taklamakan became the staples in the stables of Egypt, Greece, Central Asia and China.

Evolution of Science and Technology in China

These all points have to be understood to know the orientation of Chinese interaction and civilizational relations. China throughout History has always been western oriented for establishing civilizational contacts and relations. This trend continued till the fall of Roman Empire after the great crusades.

And with this understanding of the interactive relations between various civilizations, one comes across the first of scientific or pseudo-scientific technics that were transferred to Chinese Civilization from the lands of Egypt and adjacent Turkish cultures. These first technics were of Abacus and Shadow Clocks. The Abacus must be understood as the foundation of mathematical thought in China. While the Shadow Clocks must be understood in certain way. The transfer of Shadow Clock and interpretation of Shadows that was taken over by the China was based on the notion of similarity of geographical conditions of China and near East. Both the lands are dominated by the vast swathes of lands without much hurdles like mountains or hills-hillocks. And thus the Shadow interpretation in all these areas must have been on the same conceptual lines. This was in the third millennium B.C.

The Abacus laid the foundation of astrological sciences in China, where the astrological conditions were started to be recorded by the Chinese. The records of such astronomical events too have their roots in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, yet the direct influence of these traditions has not yet been established. Needham has given the first recorded Solar Eclipse in the Chinese History goes back to 2132 B.C. Historically speaking these were the times when the Yin-Yang school was being established in its fundamental form. The natural observations played the crucial role in its formation. And hence one sees a clear tradition of Astrological Thought and impact of astrological conditions on the human life has been dealt in deep by the Yin-Yang School. With this one sees a clear development of the astrological thought in the Chinese History. The most important treatise of these times is ‘Book of Silk’, which actually is a record of all comets between 700 B.C. to 400 B.C.

The name Book of Silk, must be understood in terms of China’s historical development of Serology and production of Silk since the most ancient times. From the records of Greek and Egyptian Civilizations, Silk gave a name to China as ‘Seres’. The Book of Silk also describes the interpretation of comets and their impact of human life.

During or before the Warring States period, that is two – three centuries B.C. one comes across the initiation of the activity of building fortification walls with sophisticated architectural technics, around all major cities and the whole of territory of any kingdom in China. This architectural traditions must be seen as a precursor to the Chinese Great Wall construction.

In the years contiguous to 210-209 B.C. the most important military invention surfaced in China. During the days of Qin Dynasty, the first emperor of China Qin Shi Hunag was able to establish his consolidated rule over the great terrain China, by being reliant on this military invention. This military weapon was a Crossbow. Joseph Needham has stated that the Crossbows completely outstripped the contemporary world civilization in military technologies. It was an unprecedented invention, which had a great damage capacity. The Crossbow must be attributed to the Mohist School of Thought.

Recent researches have shown that Chinese were trying to develop such a damaging weapon since the Bronze Age. Many Crossbow prototypes have been unearthed from various Bronze Age sites of China. For more than a millennium Crossbow held all the armies of invaders away from the doors of China. Many of the scholars have noted that, If the Chinese Emperor would have utilized this weapon of their choice to the larger scale, it might have completely shaken the foundations of Persian as well as the Roman Empires. But the Crossbow of China never became a weapon of aggression. It was a great deterrent for all.

During these centuries initial stages of Yin-Yang school of Observation and Interpretation of nature had reached a step further in its development. The astrological theories had reached a stage in China, in which the earth-centric cosmos was imagined by the scholars and thinkers of those times. The heaven and the realm of glorious ancestors was also a part of this cosmos. And with this one comes across a first armillary sphere in Asia. The Armillary Sphere was a small scale replica of a whole universe, whose centre was the earth. It must be noted that the technic and philosophy behind the armillary sphere and such a universe rose in Greece. The Alexandria was the place where first of such Armillary Sphere was created for the studies of astrologers as well as physicists. And from there the technic and understanding came to China. Joseph Needham believes that many of Chinese Scholars who had established the tradition of wandering all over the earth for knowledge must have reached Alexandria as well. Yet he denies or rather the suspects the claim that the Armillary Sphere produced in China was a water powered device. The Automata Technology was not seen in China till that period and hence cannot be understood to have arose within a decade or less. The creator of this Armillary Sphere was a state official of Chinese Han Dynasty known as Zang Heng. He was a Confucian scholar and had developed a fine intellect in the matters of Taoism, Yin Yang as well as Ming Chia philosophies. This was the 1st-2nd Century A.D.

Another important and well-known practical invention of those times is the Seismograph. The Seismograph as a was a device used by the Chinese Imperial Order Chancellor or Highest Administrative Officer to know about the earthquakes and their region. Eight Dragon Heads or Terracotta Urns were used in this Device, in which the eight balls were kept. The tectonic movement in any of the direction would trigger the ball to fall out of the mouth of the dragon. The device according to Joseph Needham was a pseudo-scientific device, regarding which he abstains himself from using the word gimmick. But the idea of Earthquake having a natural origin and for the imperial order it was necessary to know the region in which the earthquake occurred was very important. This whole conception shows a mature understanding of the phenomenon of Earthquake by the Chinese People.

In the third century A.D. one of the most important invention emerged in China. Ma Jun, an imperial agricultural engineer who had earlier created the chain pump irrigation technic as well as had improved the design of Silk Loom for the development of the industry, created a south pointing chariot. The wooden chariot which used the technique of differential gear system was a genuine attempt on account of the Chinese to prepare a compass. The south pointing chariot was a device which didn’t use properties of magnetism. And Needham has shown that the direction compass of this device was not precise. China being a great plain land, it was a necessary invention for the people who had to traverse a long swathes of lands without any directives or symbols showing the directions. The south pointing chariot was a need of the people, yet it was not a precise instrument. A smallest defect in the make would make it lose the direction of south by 20 Degrees after every one kilometre. Needham has given it importance as a first human attempt to understand the directions by the means of mechanical devices.

Further development of the Compass came with the understanding of the magnetic properties and magnets. But this was very late in the documents related to Chinese medicines and agricultural records. The magnetization of the needle was done in the 11th Century.

Additionally important invention was of paper and printing. During the Han Dynasty Rule for the administrative record keeping a novel invention of Paper was made. The Paper was made from Mulberry Bars and Hemp. The sheets prepared such were the ideal instrument for record keeping as the raw material was easily available. The exact year has been attributed to be 105 A.D. that too during the Han Dynasty. The Printing was first recorded in the Tang Dynasty Period of China. That is in the seventh century A.D. One must understand the format of the printing of those days. Various wooden blocks were cut first and were glued with the text or an image to be copied. Then this text was carved on the wooden block, which was later dipped in the ink and printed on the paper. Yet the quality of the printing was not maintained much. And as has been shown by Needham that earliest usage of the Printing was for the religious or superstitious reasons. Various symbols, texts of local religious background as well as Buddhist texts were printed and sold to the common people, to be kept in their pockets or belonging as a sacred charm. It is only in the 10th century does one sees a continued printing industry established in China, as a requisite for the spread of Chinese Buddhism through texts. Further in the 11th Century, movable ceramic type printing was invented in China.

The last of these greatest discoveries was that of the Gunpowder. One must understand the foremost aspiration behind the development of Alchemy in China. This aspiration was immortality and a perpetual conservation of good health. Many of the natural elements were not only found but processed for consumption or wearing by the Chinese Alchemists. This stream must attributed to the discipline of Chinese medicine. The Chinese Medicine’s one stream went towards herbs and medicinal plants, while another stream came to alchemy which exploited conceived or believed capabilities of elements and mixtures like mercury, sulphur, saltpetre, Charcoal, Pine Resin etc. Under these Alchemical Experiments, one can decipher the first mention of explosives that were accidently or unintentionally found by Ge Hong in or around 300 A.D. Another of such experiment has been recorded in 850 A.D., in which Honey was mixed with Sulphur, Realgar or Vinegar and Saltpetre. The resulting explosion burned the whole house down and the fire burned the hands and face of the alchemists.

In the 11th and 12th Century, a detailed account of Chinese Gunpowder seems to have prepared by the Imperial Alchemists and later the same account was transferred to the Imperial Military Officers. And one comes across a full-fledged use of the Gunpowder by the Imperial Forces from the 13th and 14th Century onwards.

The same technologies of paper, printing, compass and gunpowder were transferred to the Arabian Caliphate by the means of cultural contact. Yet, as has Needham pointed out, a fact that the technology of Gunpowder which was again becoming a great weapon of damaging capacity cannot be completely understood. The technology of Crossbow had similarly put China out of bounds for the forces of invaders, and the Gunpowder had a terrific capacity to replace Crossbow as a great deterrent. But on the other hand, the technic was easily transferred to the Arabs and Turks, which completely changed the course of western history. As Roger Bacon has pointed out in his Novum Orgamum, three of the inventions from China namely Compass, Printing and Gunpowder had totally changed the course of human history.

Along with this history, a more important period in the history of science in China comes with the establishment of Song Dynasty in China in 10th Century A.D. The Song Dynasty emerged out of the civil war in China, which had lasted for up to a century. The Song Dynasty after coming to power understood the importance of the stability in society and political scenario. Many of administrative and bureaucratic developments were undertaken during the Song Dynasty Rule. At the same time, various other initiatives like the Empire-Wide Postal System was established by the Song Rulers. Song Dynasty is also characterised by the developments in the property rights of the women. A special attention was provided to the education of the women, and one sees the mothers of many diplomats, military commanders, administrators, engineers and alchemists were the teachers themselves. Various other important changes occurred during these times, include the meritocratic reorganization of whole of Chinese Bureaucracy, foundation of important cities in China which were one of the biggest cities of the contemporary world. During this period many important religious missions were sent and received from India, Central Asia, Roman Empire. The Buddhism too received a great patronage and impetus during these times. The Song Dynasty period was a reformation period in the Chinese History. It was during these times, that the revival of Neo-Confucianism were laid and it became the official doctrine of Song Dynasty. Various statesmen themselves were trained in the sciences and technologies. Song Dynasty overall provided an inspiring atmosphere for the scientific discoveries. Statesman Shen Kuo was the first scientist to detail about the North Pole oriented Magnetic Compass. Another Statesman Su Song had created an astronomical clock tower, which was propelled by a waterwheel. During the Song Dynasty period, many astronomers formed a group to record Supernova events in the cosmos. The Supernova is a stellar explosion of a Star. Even the most popular festivals of China like Lantern Festival, Qingming Festival were held during these times. The foundations of Chinese Theatre were laid in these times and the technique of building large auditoriums for the popular shows was created under the rule of Song Dynasty.

One of a very characteristic development during these times was the systematic study of Archaeology that was started in many of the State institutions. As Chinese Populace and its culture is rooted in the Ancestor worship, a systematic understanding of the burials, their unearthing and using the found artefacts in the religious rituals were started during the Song Dynasty Times. Along with this, the fields of Geomorphology and Climate Changes were also studied on a great scale by many of state officials and administrators.

The most important military technique of Gunpowder was implemented in military tactics by the Song Dynasty Rulers. And on the basis of this technique or the great firepower, Song Rulers were able to first wave of Mongol Invasion. The Song Dynasty must be seen as a period in which the most important inventions as well as scientific advances were made in China. Under the rule and complete support of the Song Emperors various fields like forensic science were also made. The Forensic Science too was developed by the state officials and state physicists to determine the cause of death. The state department of the Gazetteers was revived under the Song Rulers. The first of such maps of China and the Gazetteers of various regions were prepared under the Han Dynasty Rule. Among all these inventions one of the most important invention that was done under the Song Dynasty Rule was the creation of a Magnetic Mariner’s Compass. The Compass was not only adopted by the Arabs, but also by the western merchants and the explorers. We gravity of this transfer of the invention was felt after the fall of Constantinople.

As the Yuan Mongol Dynasty had defeated the Songs in Northern China, and had made them retreat towards the Southern China, the Song Chinese Empire after losing its contact with the western lands through northern china adopted a maritime policy and hence a surge was experienced in the maritime activities of Song Chinese Rule.

Chinese Medicinal System

The thought of wellbeing in the Chinese Philosophy has been largely related to the success on the battlefield, abundant crops, and a good interaction with the ancestors. This basic premise of well-being has been documented in the 11th century B.C. work related to later Confucian doctrine. One must understand that the Chinese Thought is largely monarchical state centric, and hence the earlier doctrines related to health also describe the physical health as a result of success against the enemies, visible as well as invisible. The demonological and ancestral underpinnings of the human health problems have been a consistent characteristic of the Chinese medicinal sciences. And this characteristic still persists in this field as well as medicinal practice.

A great Archaeological Discovery of a household belonging to the 2nd Century B.C., which  was unearthed and found to be completely intact in 1971-72, shows a great deal of herbs and medicinal plants as well as elixirs to be part of household belongings. Along with it 14 manuscripts have also been found in the same unearthed household, which form the foundation of Chinese History of medicine. These manuscripts have been attributed to the legendary yellow emperor, who has been hailed as the founder of medicinal science.

The most important notion of circulation of vapours all over the human body and a diagnosis on the basis of their deflections from circulation rose in Chinese Medicinal Sciences in the first century A.D., which has been detailed in a founding treatise on medicine known as Nan Ching. But, it must remembered that the notion itself rose in the Yin Yang Doctrine, in the sixth century B.C. This is the famous concept of ‘Chi’, that is the cornerstone of the Chinese Medicinal Sciences and Spiritual Practices.

In the first century A.D. a new literary form rose in the domain of Chinese medicine. This is well known encyclopaedias regarding the materia medica that is a descriptive catalogue of various herbs and medical plants, their usage and related diseases. Many of the times these encyclopaedia were in the form of drug lore.

In 221 B.C., the unification of China occurred when the Han Dynasty started to take root in the Yellow River valley. Corresponding to the socioeconomic structure of the Han Empire, all the Han resources on medicine describe human organism system as individual functional units which store, distribute and process resources, which were brought in the organism from outside or were produced inside. These individual units were linked to each other with a system of channels, these channels joined various units and organisms, and it linked the organism with outside world. The terminology used to describe the workings of organisms have also been derived from the socio-economic and political environment of Han Dynasty society.

Another important aspect of Chinese Medicine is the circulation of ‘Chi’, all over the body. The herbs, medicines, diets, lifestyle changes were implemented or suggested to bring this circulation on the right track, if had faltered. The Chinese medicine is about the prevention of disease as much it is about the correction of system. Very interestingly, it doesn’t attack the cause of disease, rather it maintains that the falsification in the course of natural and original course of ‘Chi’ is the cause of disease. Thus, for the gain of health, one must again come back to the right way of life. It completely corresponds to the notion of a good citizen, who obeys the system to the core.

Various diseases like leprosy, Cholera, liver cirrhosis etc. have been identified in the Chinese Documents of medicines. The treatments included various herbs, massage, minor surgeries, hot baths, sexual practices, diets, muxa cauterizations etc.

There were basically two approaches of Chinese medicinal practice that can be traced from Han Dynasty till the Song Dynasty. The one approach was about the systemic correspondence and the other was pragmatic drug therapy. The Systemic correspondence took notice of the whole cosmos and thought of human being as a part of it. The Human Being and its whole organism have to be in good interaction with the nature and had to obey or follow the ways of nature. Systemic Correspondence was also reflected in the socio-economic environ of man. Human Being had to follow the dictates of the socio-economic environ as well as the cosmic environ. This approach was earlier evolved by Yin-Yang School and later it was further developed by Five Phases School which came out of the five elemental thought of Chinese Philosophy, according to which various important organs were the manifestation of the various elements like liver was a manifestation of wood while the spleen was of water.

The pragmatic drug therapy, was a direct product of the drug lore of the Chinese medicine, in which herbs and allied therapies were prescribed by the treatises. The Drug Lore, on contrast to the above approach promised the people that it would save them, whether the follow the dictates of their surrounding or not. The drug therapy from 14th century focused more on the details of various diseases which included skin diseases, eye problems, children’s diseases, women’s diseases etc. But the drug therapy, although being pragmatic didn’t enter in the empirical studies through dissections. And even the surgeries were not much performed. The practise of castration was the answer to all problems. During the time of Tang Dynasty that is in the 8th Century A.D., the Cataract Surgery method was came to China from India, but the surgical knowledge itself was not developed further, neither was integrated in the system of Chinese medicine.  

During the Song Dynasty times, very important theoretical as well as practical work was done in the field of forensic science. Through this work, the human dissection was taught. And this science laid the foundation of studies of Anatomy in China.

Yet another facet of Chinese Medicine has been underlined by the crucial efforts of Joseph Needham. In his global history of Embryology, Needham came across the evidences of studies in Embryology that were initiated in the Ancient China since the days of Han Dynasty. This was very important discovery as the embryology was proved to have originated in China and was later transferred to the adjacent civilizations.

Reasons behind the Stagnation of Sciences and Technologies in China

With such an overview, one can see the advances made by China in various fields of Sciences and Technologies, which played an important role in the changing the course of human history. Yet the same inventions and scientific developments failed to initiate a scientific revolution in China. Many scholars have given their own postulates, yet the postulates by Joseph Needham have been accepted to be the most important and universally acceptable.  

According to Joseph Needham, the most important factor which contributed towards the development of the technologies and sciences in China was the nature of Chinese Physical and Socio-Cultural Environment.

Being a civilization developed in the valley of Yellow River and Yangtze River, China since the time immemorial has enjoyed the vast swathes of fertile lands. The plains of China in the very archaic period were the habitat of large bodied animals. With the advent of homo sapiens on this land, these same large games were continuously hunted by the human beings. The Hunter-gatherer phase of Chinese history came to a close with near extinction of many of the large animals. This may have been a drastic change, or could have been a gradual change. But man in China started to settle down and lean on cultivation as well as animal husbandry in the same period during which the gradual agricultural settlements were taking place in other parts of the world.

And thus, with the paddy cultivation technics an advanced settlement phase in the Chinese history started. The Paddy Cultivation being always in need of plenty amount of water, naturally the man in here starter developing the technics related to small scale irrigation and dykes. This must have been the first phase of technological age in China.

Being a vast plain, China was not naturally divided in various regions on account of the drastic geographic or atmospheric changes. A kind of continued geographical land and perennial water systems of both the rivers, China was naturally a singular entity in environmental terms. This same condition contributed towards its ruling by imperial powers since the times immemorial. The legendary divine beings, from whom the Chinese Civilization is considered to have borne were also the emperors of whole of China. The movement of people and ideas was easy on the Chinese Plain.

Thus, China was a natural house of empires. Sharing a common environmental conditions, people too were naturally inclined to form a singular unit. The Environmental Conditions were the most important factor which contributed towards a uniform administrative system and its continued existence throughout Chinese history. The imperial order sustained on the nature.

It was really easy as well as necessary for the empires to consider each and every aspect of human life in China, and accordingly the empire became the final authority as well as the custodian over the human individual as well as community life. The uniformity of environment contributed towards the uniform understanding of an ideal natural way of life. And this further evolved towards the uniform moral and ethical standards in Chinese History of Philosophy. The ideal of universalism was nothing other than purest identification with the nature. The ideal of this universalism was thought to have realized in the complete character and the persona of the Emperor. And hence Emperor of China has always been understood to be a universal man. From this universality he is ethically capable of ruling the world. Such a naturalistic understanding of the leadership, still persists in China.  

The technological advances in China and various important scientific as well as pseudo-scientific developments occurred as per the needs and dictates of the Empire. All the technologies were initially the products of various schools of thoughts and philosophies. These schools too found their universal patron in the emperor. One must take a note of a curious condition of Chinese Philosophical Schools. These all schools sought the backing of empire and in its patronization it proved its worth. The people-centric philosophy was the finding of Confucianism. Yet, it too later completely surrendered its independence at the imperial feet and functions.

Under these circumstances, the classes of the society viz. Scholars, Peasants, Artisans and merchants show a unique and uniform evolution of Chinese Society. These Classes evolved as a customary reflection of Chinese Imperial Needs and nature. Yet the centre of social order was a peasant life, completely one with the nature.

The first technologies were thus essentially related to the needs of Peasant life. The Agricultural technics like dykes, canals, irrigation, water drawing technics etc. were the first of such innovations which completely changed the first phase of Chinese Civilization. On the basis of this peasantry prosperity, other systems rose in China.  

Later on, with the Pan-China administrative mechanism established under the imperial order built a uniform taxation, laws as well as an overall administrative system in China. The Chinese Technological innovations as have been shown by Joseph Needham were developed as per the needs of empire and under the complete patronage of empire. All the four epoch making innovations were a product of imperial needs and support.

Another aspect of Chinese Innovations is its emphasis on the intuitive faculties on the human intellect. The Chinese Technologies must be seen as a product of intuitive grasp of the world around. The Chinese Thought didn’t develop a speculative methodology or articulate understanding of the nature around. And thus, the technics like Printing, Seismograph, Compass and even the medicinal practices were a result of experiential knowledge being applied in various scenarios through intuition.

The intuition dependence resulted in the advances in the technologies which were not based on sophisticated reasoning capabilities but were the products of makeshift approach to the world and life. The concepts like hypothesis, conjectures based on the speculations through human reasoning didn’t develop in China.

An important characteristic of the Science in China was its development by the scholar-administrator class of the society under the complete patronage of the Empire. According to Joseph Needham this system resulted in the arrest of amateur spirit of human exploration in China. Unless ordered and supported by state, people hesitated to take risks of exploration and discoveries.

Another important trait of the technologies in China was its Empire Centric existence. Unlike Europe and west, where the Merchant class itself became totally involved in the well-being of the sciences and technologies, in China, merchant class remained divorced from the process of innovation as well as technological advancements. The transfer of technologies from China to the west also occurred through an interaction between Chinese Officials Statesmen and Western Merchants.

Silk Road

            The most important facet of Chinese History is its unconditional and thorough nurture of the interactive relations with west. As has been seen earlier, this tradition of interaction goes back to the days of earliest Bronze Age and Iron Age Culture. The Northern China since the Bronze Age periods, that is since the 6-7000 B.C. had enjoyed an intimate interaction with civilizations of central Asia as well as Mycenaean Greece.

            The interaction continued through the plains above and below the Taklamakan Desert and led one towards the Tien Shan and Pamir passages. The route further went towards plains adjacent to the Aral Sea-Lake and then entered the Karakum Desert lands. From here the route of earlier interaction further entered the lands of Persian Zagros and then going up the Shatt-Al-Arab river valley it took one towards the another civilization’s capital Cairo. Another stream of same route used to divert from the plains of Kysilkum a desert region to the east of Karalkum. This stream used to then enter the mountainous parts of Pamir and Hindukush, crossing which it used to enter the Indus Valley moving further south towards the shores of Arabian Sea. 

            The tradition of this interaction forms the most crucial part of human history. Many of the settlement centres of human past developed on this route. The first millennium B.C. saw a rise of many important civilizational settlements as well as cultural melting pots being established on this route.

            During the whole of Chinese Hisotry, the empire which ruled China always maintained a crucial hold over the contacts with the west. All the Chinese Empires struggled with all their might to maintain their unchallengeable stronghold in the Northern China. The Northern China was the sole interactive region of China, as Chinese Empires except the Song Dynasty had always been reluctant to reach and grow the southern Chinese parts of empire. The Northern China on account of its contact had an undeniable importance in Chinese History.

            In the second Century B.C. the Chinese lands of North and South came under the most important Chinese Dynasty. This was the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty rose from the Han Community of Chinese People. The Han people have considered themselves the civilized elite and the administrators of China since very ancient periods. During the Han Dynasty Rule, by understanding the importance of the contact route with other civilizations, the Chinese Emperors made deliberate efforts to thorough contact network and a system over these parts.

            In 130 B.C., a first mission was sent from the Royal Court of Han Dynasty. This mission had an objective of getting the support of the Yuezhi tribe for the maintenance and Security of the northern regions of contact network. Yuezhi were asked to support the emperor in his operation of eradicating plunders and robbers tribes from the same region. The Yuezhi declined the proposal and peacefully left the land above the Taklamakan. For some time, they moved towards the North-West, but when threatened by the local raiders, the tribe directly crossed the Pamirs and came in the regions of Hindukush. The tribe of Yuezhi settled peacefully in the Hindukush region and shortly afterwards crossed the passes and finally entered the Indian Plains. The Yuezhi Tribe came to India and became Indian. It became the Imperial House of Kushanas of Purushapur or the Peshawar and later Mathura.

            In the North of Pamirs, the mission from Chinese Han Courts went on towards the lands of Perisian Zagros and this mission thus laid the foundation of very great trade network, better known as the old silk road. Still the problem of raiders, robbers and plundering tribes persisted in these regions.

            By the taste of fortune as well as a constant patronage of the Han Rulers, the most advanced military technology was evolved in China in the 2nd Century B.C. The Crossbow! The Crossbow completely changed the scenario of Old Silk Road. The plundering tribes were eradicated, and not only that for more than a millennium, that is up to the times of Khans of Mongols the whole of Silk Road enjoyed a marvellous protection and maintenance under the Imperial Order of China.

            This same Silk Road took the Chinese merchants to India, Arabia, Rome and later Constantinople. The cities like Almaty, Tashkent, Bukhara, Khotan Yarkant, Nishapur, Teheran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Aleppo, Damascus, Gaza, Angora, Cairo and Constantinople all evolved on this trade route. The Indian Route from Mathura to Peshawar or Purushapur later merged with the Silk Route at Bukhara.

            Even during the Muslim Era of conquests the whole of Old Silk Road never came under any threat, as it was held that region or the route below Samarkand was maintained by the Caliphate and above Tashkent was maintained by the Chinese Rulers.

            It must be understood that many Greco-Roman legions, commanders and nobles were sent from the courts of Seleucid Imperial Courts as well as from Rome and Constantinople for the protection and maintenance of this road as an ally of Chinese Rulers.

            In the 12th and 13th Century, under the threat and menace of the mongol tribesmen, the system of the Old Silk Road Collapsed. Many of the great powers like the Caliphate, Romans, Sassanids fell prey to the onslaught of the Mongols. The road was still maintained under the administration of the Song Dynasty.

            Another strain of this same Silk Route continued towards the southern China from peking and entered southern river valley plains going towards the city centres like Yunnan, Hanoi, Pagan and later on went up to the historical capitals like Ayutthaya of Thailand, finally reached the lands of Indonesia.

            But with the fall of Song Empire in the Northern China and its shift to the Southern China after the defeat at the hands of Kublai Khan of Mongols, the Old Silk Road System became completely orphan. And with this the decline of the Silk industry of China was set in, which further hampered the Chinese Stake in the whole venture.

            In the later part of the 14th Century and 15th Century the Chinese Ming Dynasty tried to re-establish the route but it couldn’t, as the west of Pamirs and Samarkand were completely bereaved by the continuous crusades. And finally fall the Constantinople was the last straw in this process of Decline. The complete decline of this trade network also resulted in the decline of whole of old civilization world in the 16th and 17th Century. The New World and the rise of West raised the trumpet sounds of coming modern age.

            Now in the 21st Century, under the leadership of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, China is once again making a serious attempt to revive this oldest human civilizational network. During his official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013, he has officially declared Chinese aspiration of resurrection of this old silk route. According to the speeches made in various universities of Indonesia and Kazahstan, Xi Jinping systematically put forth the historical doctrine of Old Silk Road and then detailed about the plan of Chinese Government. The China wishes to establish a road as well as a maritime network of ancient route throughout more than 70 countries which will start from the Indonesia and lead up to the lands of England.

            Although many of the nations of the world have taken this project of China as pet project of Chinese way of Imperialism, one must understand that the whole notion of this project stems from the most ancient aspiration of the Chinese Race. It was the Han Dynasty which initiated and moulded the project of Old Silk Road.

            And the most important thing to know about the 21st century venture is that Xi Jinping himself is an influential member of Han Chinese Community. The Han Chinese Community has been the ruling class of China since its ancient history. Except the Dynasties like Yuan and Qing, Hans have always been the imperial rulers of China. It can also be noted that the speeches he made for the project were sprinkled with the messages of the first mission that started in the 130 A.D. Jinpign has also declared his inspiration from the Confucian Philosophical Doctrine. The New Confucianism has gained a huge magnum in China as a novel philosophical doctrine which is Confucianism for the 21st Century.

            For the complete understanding of the 21st Century Aspiration of China behind Silk Road And Belt Initiative, one must know the historical contribution of China in the shaping of Old World Civilization and Old Silk Road.