First Paper in China
Early paper Chinese papermaking is over 2000 years old (paper has been found in 2nd century B.C. Chinese tombs). Before then some Chinese wrote on bamboo strips, turtle shells, oxen shoulder blades, and sheets of waste silk and Tibetans wrote on the smooth shoulder bones of goats.
According to legend, the first sheets of paper were made in A.D. 105 by Ts'ai Lun, a Chinese eunuch at the Imperial Chinese court, from mulberry leaves, old fish nets, hemp, tree bark, and rags. For the ancient Chinese paper was more than a material to write on. From at least the 5th century A.D. the Chinese made hats, shoes, belts, curtains and armor with arrow-resistant pleats from paper.
Paper was so prized In imperial China that it was forbidden to step on it. Describing paper, the third century scholar Fu Hsien wrote, "Lovely and precious is this material/ Luxury but at a small price;/ Matter immaculate and pure in its nature/ Embodied in beauty and elegance incarnate,/ Truly it pleases men of letter."
Book: Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham; Good Websites and Sources: Google “Chinese Inventions”; The Wikipedia article is very long and thorough Wikipedia ; Science and Civilization by Joseph Needham in China Series Needham Research Institute ; Chinese Inventions Timeline Columbia University ; Astronomy chinapage.org Links in this Website: CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS
Ancient Papermaking in China
Paper is made of fibers that are mixed together when wet and bond when dry. In ancient times, paper was made by pounding rags, hemp, bark and other materials into fibrous pulps, which were dumped in water-filled vats. The fibrous pulps were suspended in the water and collected in a mold by workmen. The mold was then gently shaken, causing the thin layer of fibers to interlock, a process called matting. When the matted material dried it formed paper.
Chinese taken prisoners by Turks and Arabs after the conquest of Samarkand in the A.D. 8th century introduced the art of papermaking to the Muslim caliphs of Baghdad. By the 9th century Chinese paper craftsmen were working out of shops in the Middle East. Paper was not manufactured in Europe until the 11th century, almost 1,200 years after it was first used in China. The process of making it flowed to Europe from the Middle East via Byzantium and Spain.
The earliest known inks for writing were made in China and Egypt at least 2000 years ago.
First Wood Block Printing in China
The Chinese are credited with inventing wood block printing in the A.D. 3rd century, and printing presses in the 11th century. Before giving China full credit for inventing printing it must pointed out the wood-block printing invented by the Chinese was very different from the movable type printing used by Gutenberg to print his famous Bible in the 15th century.
"Making repeated images for printing textiles from a carving on wood was an ancient folk art," Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers. "At least as early as the third century the Chinese had developed an ink that made clear and durable impressions from these wood blocks. They collected the lamp black from burning oils or woods and compounded it into a stick, which then dissolved to the black liquid that we call India ink." Block printing on paper was widely developed in the Tang dynasty. The emperor's library in the 7th century held about forty thousand manuscript rolls. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
The idea for wood-block printing began when someone decided to take the handle off a wooden stamp so that printing surface could be placed face up on a table. A sheet of paper then could be laid on the inked block, rubbed with a brush, to produce a print. The making of large woodcuts became possible when several of these "wooden stamps" were placed side by side.
Buddhism played an instrumental role in the development of block printing in China in the A.D. 7th century. Buddhists believe they can earn "merit" (brownie points on the path to Nirvana) by duplicating the image of Buddha and repeating sacred texts. The more images or texts a Buddhist makes the more merit he earns. Buddhists use rubbings from stones, seals, stencils and small wooden stamps to make images over and over. For them printing is perhaps the easiest, most efficient and most cost effective way to earn merit. The earliest examples of Chinese printing were destroyed during a crackdown on Buddhism in 845 when temples were destroyed and a quarter of a million nuns and monks were forced to flee their monasteries.
Chinese ideograms are not well suited for movable type. There are so many Chinese characters it is difficult to make multiple copies of them and to categorize them in a way that is easy to retrieve. Roman letters are better suited for movable type because there are many fewer letters. Chinese ideograms have a couple of advantages over Roman letters when it comes to printing. Their intricate forms are more interesting for carvers to make and their large size makes them easier to align on a page and grasp and put into place with the fingers. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Oldest Book in China
The world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra, was printed with wooden blocks in China in A.D. 868. It consists of Buddhist scriptures printed on seven 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together into one 16-foot-long scroll. Part of the Perfection of Wisdom text, a Mahayanist sermon preached by Buddha, it was found in cave in Gansu Province in 1907 by the British explorer Aurel Stein, who also found well-preserved 9th century silk and linen paintings.
In Imperial times, the Chinese preferred handwritten calligraphy over printing for important texts. Printing was used by those who could not afford anything better. In 932 a Chinese prime minister wrote: "We have seen... men from Wu and Shu who sold books that were printed from blocks of wood. There were many different texts, but there were among them no orthodox Classics [of Confucianism]. If the Classics could be revised and thus cut in wood and published, it would be a very great boon to the study of literature."
The revival of Confucianism during the Chinese Renaissance of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) is partly attributed to the printing of Confucian texts which helped spread the word of the philosophy to a greater number of people. By the end of the 10th century scholars printed the first of the great Chinese dynastic histories, consisting of several hundred volumes, and Buddhist monks printed the Tripitaka, the whole Buddhist canon with 5,048 volumes and 130,000 pages. In 1019, the 4,000-volume Taoist cannon was printed. In the 11th century Muslims in China printed calendars and almanacs while the Koran continued to be made by hand.
Invention of Movable Type in China
In the early tenth century, texts began to be printed with copper plates instead of wooden blocks. Between 1041 and 1048, a Song dynasty historian wrote: "Pi Shêng, a man of the common people, invented movable type. His method was follows: He took sticky clay and cut it in characters as thin as the edge of a copper coin. Each character formed as if it were a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he covered this plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax and paper ashes."
"When he wished to print," the historian continued. "He took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the type, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste (at the back) was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone...for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was divinely quick."
The Koreans later developed a more sophisticated and adaptable method of movable type, but they failed to incorporate it with the Hangul (Korean) alphabet, which wasn't invented until the early 15th century. There is some evidence that Gutenberg got the idea for the technology on his printing press from the Portuguese who in turn got it from the Chinese.
Some regard the Phaistos Disk, found in the ruins of 3700-year-old Palace of Phaistos in Crete, as the earliest example of printing. The six-inch, baked-clay disk contains 241 pictorial design consisting of 45 different letters arranged in a spiral formation. The symbols were placed on the disk with sets of punches, one for each symbol, using the same concept as movable type.
World's First Coins and Paper Money in China
Zhou dynasty spade coin There is some debate as to where the world's first money came from. Some scholars say the Lydians, a 7th century B.C. culture that lived on the west coast of Asia Minor near present-day Izmir, Turkey, were the first to make it. They made thumb-nail-size coins under King Gyges in 670 B.C. struck from lumps of electrum, a pale yellow alloy of gold and silver. Other scholars believe the world's oldest coins are spade money from Zhou dynasty China dated to 770 B.C. In the seventh century B.C. coins were minted in China with the names of towns printed on them. These coins were tiny, minted pieces of bronze shaped like knives and spades.
Paper money was first produced in China in 11th century when there was a metal shortage and the government didn’t have enough gold, silver and copper to meet the demand for money. It wasn’t long before the Chinese government was producing paper currency at a rate of four million sheets a year. By the 12th century paper money was used to finance a defense against the Mongols. Notes produced in 1209 that promised a pay holders with gold and silver were printed on perfumed paper made of silk. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
A piece of paper money used under Kublai Khan in the 13th century was about the size of a sheet of typing paper and had a furry felt-like feel. It were made from the inner bark of mulberry trees and according to Marco Polo was "sealed with the seal of the Great Lord."
"Of this money, “ Marco Polo wrote, “the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world. With this currency he orders all payments to be made throughout every province and kingdom and region of his empire. And no one dares refuse it on pain of losing his life...I assure you, that all the peoples and populations who are subject to his rule are perfectly willing to accept these papers in payment, since wherever they go they pay in the same currency, whether for goods or for pearls or precious stones or gold or silver. With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything...When these papers have been so long in circulation that they are growing torn and frayed, they are brought to the mint and changed from new and fresh ones at a discount of 3 per cent."
The world's largest paper money was a 1 guan note issued by the Ming dynasty of 1368-99 that was 9 by 13-inches.
First Paper Money, Inflation and Banks in China
Early paper money With paper money came inflation. Describing one particularly disastrous period of inflation during the Song dynasty the historian Ma Tuan-lin wrote: "After having tried for years to support and maintain these notes, the people had no longer any confidence in them, and were positively afraid of them. The payment for government purchases was made in paper. The fund of the salt manufacturers consisted of paper. The salaries of all the officials were paid in paper. The soldiers received their pay in paper...So it was natural that the price of commodities rose, while the value of the paper money fell more and more. This caused the people, already disheartened, to lose all energy. The soldiers were continually anxious lest they should not get enough to eat...All this was the result of the depreciation of paper money."
Inflation fueled resentment against of the Mongol Yüan dynasty and hastened its collapse. One of the first things the new Ming dynasty emperor did was cut back on the production of paper money as a means of stabilizing the currency.
The Chinese developed the concepts of private property, price-making markets, and networks of trade associations and banks long before the Europeans did.
Early Chinese Geography and Maps
Chinese believed that the Earth was the center of universe long after Copernicus, and believed the world was flat until the 19th century. They also thought there was a massive body of water inside the earth from which all life sprung, and the universe was a "great vault of heavens" over the earth. Despite these beliefs, the Chinese developed a very reliable and accurate system of cartography. Early Chinese maps were made of silk and had a grid-like coordinate system. These maps showed mountain ranges, roads and rivers, and distinguished between towns, cities and villages.
Maps were described in Chinese texts written in 700 B.C. The oldest Chinese map yet found dates back to 200 B.C. Bureaucrats in the Chou Dynasty (1120-256 B.C.) made maps of feudal principalities and registered their populations. After China was unified in 221 B.C., maps were used to define the boundaries of different regions. The world's oldest map is a clay tablet with the Euphrates River and Mesopotamia. It dates back to 2250 B.C.
In A.D. 267 the famous Chinese mapmaker Phei Hsui wrote that maps should show: "mountains and lakes, the courses of rivers, the plateaus and plains, the slopes and marshes, the limits of the nine ancient provinces and the sixteen modern ones...commandeers and fiefs, prefectures and cities...and lastly, inserting the roads, paths and navigable rivers." Beginning in the Song dynasty (960-1279) north was regularly fixed at the top of all maps. The Chinese defined north, south, east and west from observations of the north star and the sun.
The Chinese system of coordinates may have evolved from the fact that the first Chinese maps were drawn on silk. The terms (ching and wei) which Phei Hsui used for coordinates on his maps were the same words that had long been used for the warp and the weft in the weaving of textiles. Some historians have theorized that the idea of a rectangular grid on a map was suggested by “following a warp and a waft thread to their meeting place?" [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
The world's oldest known printed map is from China and dates to A.D. 1115. In A.D. 801, during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), the Emperor's cartographer produced a one-inch to 33⅓-mile scale map of the entire Chinese empire that was 30 feet high and 33 feet high. This map has been lost to time. In 1136, a "map of Chinese and foreign lands" was cut into stone. It showed rivers and the Great Wall of China and had descriptions and histories of the places it named.
Early star map
Early Chinese Astronomy
The Chinese have been recording celestial events for about 4500 years. Chinese astronomers were among the first to chart constellations and record supernovas. In 2296 B.C., Chinese astronomers observed a comet. The earliest written records of astronomical phenomena are inscriptions on Shang oracle bones from the 14th century B.C. with mentions of eclipses, solstices, seasonal stars, constellations and other phenomena.
In ancient Chinese astronomy 28 constellation were placed into four equal groups with each group under the protection of an animal deity: a blue dragon in the east, a white tiger in the west, a phoenix-like mythological bird in the south and turtle-snake hybrid in the south.
The Chinese developed a system of observation based on the equator and the poles that was not adopted by Europe until 4000 years later. In 352 B.C. they described a super nova that lit up the night time sky for ten days. Chinese records cover long periods for which no other accurate chronicle of celestial events exist and modern astronomers still refer to them in their study of novae and supernovas.
Ancient Chinese astronomers recorded an eclipse on September 24, 1912 B.C. that is the earliest verifiable eclipse reported by any people. In an ancient text the philosopher Mozi wrote: "The three Miao tribes were in disarray. Heaven ordered their destruction. The sun rose at night." Modern astronomers researching the event concluded that the eclipse indeed took place when the ancient Chinese said it did.
Using computer models which plot the courses of planets thousands of years in the past, scientists have discovered that on March 5, 1953 B.C. Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus were "lined up like a string of pearls" with the moon and sun. This date also happens to be the first day of the Chinese calendar when Emperor Yu became the first emperor of the Xia dynasty. [National Geographic Geographica, December 1993.]
Supernova Seen by Ancient Chinese Observers
The oldest recorded supernova was from A.D. 185: a "guest star" observed in ancient China for eight months before disappearing. In 2011 astronomers announced they had discovered they were witnessing a massive supernova 8,000 light-years away. New infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have revealed how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances.
In October 2011, AFP reported: “The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise. The Spitzer Telescope doesn't just spot supernovae, but also planetary collisions
"This supernova remnant got really big, really fast," said Brian Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University and lead author of a new study detailing the telescope's findings online in the Astrophysical Journal."It's two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we've been able to finally pinpoint the cause," he added.
In 185 A.D., Chinese astronomers noted a "guest star" that mysteriously appeared in the sky and stayed for about eight months. By the 1960s, scientists had determined that the mysterious object was the first documented supernova.Later, they pinpointed the object, known as RCW 86, as a supernova remnant located about 8,000 light-years away but remained puzzled at how the star's spherical remains were larger than expected. "With multiple observatories extending our senses in space, we can fully appreciate the remarkable physics behind this star's death throes, yet still be as in awe of the cosmos as the ancient astronomers," said Bill Danchi, Spitzer and WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Astronomy, Time and Astrology in China
Ancient map of the solar system In China, astrology did not evolve into the hard science of astronomy like it did n the West. Specific events in the cosmos were thought to have links to events on earth.
In the 16th century Italian priest Matteo Ricci noted that Chinese astronomers included 400 fainter stars on their celestial maps than Europeans did on theirs maps, "yet with all this, the Chinese astronomers take no pains whatever to reduce the phenomena of celestial bodies to the discipline of mathematics...they center their whole attention on that phase of astronomy which our scientists term astrology, which may be accounted for by the fact that they believe that everything happening on this terrestrial globe of ours depends upon the stars."
Time itself was viewed as a fabric rather than a linear sequence of events, with events in one place having impacts on other events regardless of their time and place. One scholar said that for Chinese the goal is “temporal harmony with in the person, among individuals and between society and nature.” Time was also seen as cyclical and political dynasties were seen as things that rose and fell in accordance with celestial cycles. Confucius called the North Star the "Great Imperial Ruler of Heaven.”
Imperial Astrologer in China
The Imperial astronomer was one of the highest ranking hereditary officials. He spent the night making observations from the emperor's observatory tower. According to once Chinese text, he "concerns himself with the twelve years [the sidereal revolutions of Jupiter], the twelve months, the twelve [double] hours, the ten days, and the positions of the 28 stars. He distinguishes them and orders them so he can make a general plan for the state of the heavens. He takes observations of the sun at the winter and summer solstices, and the moon at the spring and autumn equinoxes, in order to determine the succession of the four seasons." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
The Imperial astrologer also "concerns himself with the stars in the heavens, keeping a record of the changes and movements of the planets, the sun and the moon, in order to examine the movements of the terrestrial world, with the objective of distinguishing good and bad fortune...All the fiefs and principalities are connected with distinct stars, and from this their prosperity or misfortune can be ascertained. He makes prognostications, according to the twelve years [of the Jupiter cycle], of good and evil in the terrestrial world. From the colors of the five clouds, he determines the coming of floods or drought, abundance or famine. from the twelve winds he draws conclusions about the state of harmony of heaven and earth, and takes note of the good or bad designs which result from accord or discord." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
One of the main functions of early Chinese clocks and the Imperial Astrologer was to help the Emperor schedule his sex life with his numerous wives and concubines. See Emperor’s Sex Life Under Court Life, Imperial China
The Emperor, Ricci wrote, "prohibited anyone from indulging in the study of this science unless he was chosen for it by hereditary right. The prohibition was based upon fear, lest he who should acquire the knowledge of the stars might become capable of disrupting the order of the empire and seek an opportunity to do so." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Calendar Clocks in China
The Chinese invented the world's first mechanical clock in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), and then lost the technology over the centuries only to have it reintroduced by Europeans in the 16th century. The Chinese divided the day into temporary hours, which were determined by the amount of sunlight on a given day and varied with time of year. Sundials have been used in China at least since 2,600 B.C.
Early Chinese clocks recorded units of the Chinese calendar not hours and minutes. The establishment of a calendar was just as important to Chinese emperors as the royal minting of coins was in Europe. Private clock-making was a treasonous crime. Only authorized mathematicians and astronomers were allowed to produce and adjust the calendar; their methods were closely guarded secrets; and each new dynasty produced it own new calendar. Between the first unification of the Chinese empire in 221 B.C. and the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 about one hundred different calendars were produced. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Errors in the calendar clocks often resulted in disasters for farmers and undermined the authority of the emperor, which is one reason why the "Son of Heaven" kept his clock under a veil of secrecy. "Chinese farming depended on irrigation, and successful irrigation required predicting the rhythms of monsoon rains and the melting of the snows to flood the rivers and fill the canals." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Water Clocks and Fire Clocks in China
Fire clock Water clocks have been used since ancient times to record and measure time in China and other places. They operate on the principle that water can be made to drip at a fairly constant rate from a bowl with a tiny hole in the bottom. The learned civil servant and clock maker Su Song wrote,"There have been many systems and designs for astronomical instruments during past dynasties, but the principal of the use of water-power for the driving mechanism has always been the same. The heavens move without ceasing but so also does water flow." Water clock have been used in Egypt since the 15th century B.C.
The early Chinese, Japanese and Koreans also measured time with fire. A fire-clock consisted of a continuous line of powdered incense woven into an elaborate design or seal. Time was indicated by the place in the seal reached by fire. One of the most sophisticated of these—the 'hundred-gradations incense seal'—was made in China in 1073 when a drought dried up wells and made it difficult to use customary water clocks.
One of the most elaborate clocks the world has ever seen—made in 1094 by Su Song— was called the "Heavenly Clockwork" in honor of the emperor, the "Son of Heaven." The clock took over a decade to design and construct but was only seen by the Emperor and few high official before it was melted down in 1094. When a new emperor came to power, according to custom, the calendar of the previous emperor was labeled "obsolete" and destroyed. It wasn't until the late 16th century when Jesuit priests introduced Italian clocks that China witnessed clocks of such sophistication again. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Great 11th Century Water Clock of Su Song
Su Song’s "Heavenly Clockwork" was a 10-meter-high, five-story, pagoda-like structure that utilized flowing water to turn a giant water wheel at a precise, steady rate. Employing dozens of wheels and bristling with shafts and levers, this “combination planetarium-clock signaled the quarter hours with gongs, bells, and a sort of glockenspiel. Its crowning feature was a water-triggered device called an escarpment that stopped the clock's movement at set intervals, forcing it to run at a steady state."
On each of the five stories a procession of manikins carrying bells and gongs marked the hours. Inside the three-story-high main tower was a huge clockwork, driven by water flowing at ground level and alternately filling and emptying the scoops on a vertical rotating wheel. On the topmost platform, reached by a separate outside staircase, was a huge bronze power-driven armillary sphere within which there rotated automatically a celestial globe.
Boorstin wrote: "Every quarter-hour the whole structure reverberated to bells and gongs, the splashing of water, the creaking of giant wheels, the marching of manikins. The escapement that stopped and started the machine as it marked off the units of time was, of course, the crucial element. Su Song's ingenious water escapement made use of the fluid qualities of water...to provide the staccato motion required in a mechanical timepiece." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Su Song described his own machine as follows: "There are ninety-six jacks. They are arranged to correspond in timing with the sounding of ‘quarters’ on the bell-and-drum floor of this belfry...At sunset a jack wearing red appears to report, and then after two and a half ‘quarters’ there comes another in green to report darkness. The night-watches each contain five subdivisions. A jack wearing red appears at the beginning of the night-watches, marking the first subdivisions, while for the remaining four subdivisions the jacks are all green. In this way there are twenty-five jacks for the five night-watches. When the time of waiting for dawn comes, with its ten "quarters," a jack in green comes out to report this. Then dawn with its two and a half "quarters" is marked by another jack wearing green, and sunrise is reported by a jack wearing red. All these jacks appear in the central doorway." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
A model of this clock is now in the Beijing Museum. 1990
Image Sources: 1) Early paper. China Page website; 2) Early printing, China Page website; 3) Earliest printed book, Brooklyn University; 4) Paper money Brooklyn College; 5) Early star map Brooklyn College; 6) Song water clock photo by Conrad Jung
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010