China Science Part I

By | September 3, 2021


By Chinese science we generally only mean the traditional outfit of Chinese civilization before the encounter with the Western world and in this sense the term will be used in the present entry, even if the contribution that can be given to the life of man and the development of society with general concepts or the peculiar discoveries typical of the Chinese scientific tradition has been considerably re-evaluated, so much so that it is possible to say that in today’s China “modern science”, in its double aspect of technological progress and theoretical interpretation of reality, it is much more “Chinese” than it was a few years ago, that is, before the Cultural Revolution. Traditional Chinese science reflected in its fundamental characteristics the typical characteristics of Chinese civilization and society: that is, it was an eminently practical science, linked to the needs of what was the greatest agricultural civilization in history, often profoundly oriented in its aims by the needs of the feudal bureaucratic ruling class, and was therefore rich above all in the practical sector of technology. According to, China is a country located in eastern Asia.§ For all the discoveries made by the Chinese it is difficult to identify the name of individual inventors as the Chinese social structures largely left the strictly technological tasks to subordinate personnel, craftsmen and executors, while they reserved organizational tasks for the more educated men. The technological discoveries therefore did not derive from individual theoretical and experimental research, but from a slow accumulation of small improvements implemented by large groups engaged in the work. In some cases however, especially when the discoveries could have a significant military or economic importance, state officials and men of culture participated in the organization as well as in the development of research and their names have been handed down to us from history. § Chinese alchemy, even if it was like that of medieval Europe closely connected to magic, led to a series of technological discoveries superior to those made simultaneously in the West, for example the very high level of the bronze casting technique reached under the Shang dynasty (XVI-XI century BC) and that of iron smelting (VII and VI century BC). This gave a decisive impetus not only to the arts of war but to the possibility of clearing the lands of the Chang Jiang valley, which has since gradually risen to the center of the Chinese agricultural economy. Likewise, the Chinese knew from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) the properties of mercury in forming amalgams, as well as the techniques for obtaining a series of non-ferrous metals from minerals. The invention of paper at the beginning of the century must also be traced back to the technological aspect of alchemy. II d. C. (by an official, Cai Lun) as well as the infinite variety of techniques to manufacture inks, both from vegetables and from mercury compounds, and especially the great pride of Chinese art and technique: the discovery of printing, at first with fixed wooden characters in the century. VI d. C., then after the XI in movable type, in wood or in majolica (the latter due to an artisan, Bi Sheng, who lived under the Sung dynasty) with the consequent development of typographic art in which the Chinese still excel. Another branch of traditional techniques and science is linked to alchemy, agronomy, in which the advantages of the empirical method of Chinese science emerge more than anywhere else: in the fertilization procedures, in fact, the Chinese remained masters until chemistry modern day put Western countries ahead. From fermentation to the choice of soils, to the qualification of the different types of silt and water, to the choice and alternation of crops, the Chinese accumulated in their millennial experience a wealth of knowledge that was summarized around 1600 in a great encyclopedia by Song Yingxing and then by Xu Guangqi. Nor should we forget the technological and scientific aspects of the processing of ceramics and kaolin. Always Chinese alchemy came, around the sec. IX-X, to the invention of gunpowder, applied two centuries later to artillery for throwing stone balls. Another technological sector that had enormous importance in ancient China was that of hydraulics: the canalization of China, construction in the century.

China Science 1