18th century drawing of Chinese fireworks

Lynda Shaffer wrote: Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an early advocate of the empirical method, upon which the scientific revolution was based, attributed Western Europe's early modern take-off to three things in particular: printing, the compass, and gunpowder. Bacon had no idea where these things had come from, but historians now know that all three were invented in China. [Source: Lynda Shaffer, "China, Technology and Change", World History Bulletin, Fall/Winter 1986/87; Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

Printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass were brought to Europe by Arab traders during the Renaissance and Reformation. Bacon, a leading philosopher, politician, and adviser to King James I of England, wrote: “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more clearly than those three which were unknown to the ancients [the Greeks], and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious; namely printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and stage of things throughout the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these three mechanical discoveries.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer /=/]

Books and Sources on Chinese Inventions: "Science and Civilization in China" by Joseph Needham ; 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 ;

Why Didn’t Gunpowder, Printing and the Compass Revolutionize China the Same as the West

Shaffer wrote: “Since, unlike Europe, China did not take off onto a path leading from the scientific to the Industrial Revolution, some historians are now asking why these inventions were so revolutionary in Western Europe and, apparently, so unrevolutionary in China. In fact, the question has been posed by none other than Joseph Needham....The impact of these inventions on Western Europe is well known. Printing not only eliminated much of the opportunity for human copying errors, it also encouraged the production of more copies of old books and an increasing number of new books. As written material became both cheaper and more easily available, intellectual activity increased. Printing would eventually be held responsible, at least in part, for the spread of classical humanism and other ideas from the Renaissance. It is also said to have stimulated the Protestant Reformation, which urged a return to the Bible as the primary religious authority. [Source: Lynda Shaffer, "China, Technology and Change", World History Bulletin, Fall/Winter 1986/87; Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“The introduction of gunpowder in Europe made castles and other medieval fortifications obsolete (since it could be used to blow holes in their walls) and thus helped to liberate Western Europe from feudal aristocratic power. As an aid to navigation the compass facilitated the Portuguese- and Spanish-sponsored voyages that led to Atlantic Europe's sole possession of the Western Hemisphere, as well as the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, which opened up the first all-sea route from Western Europe to the long-established ports of East Africa and Asia.” /=/

Gunpowder, Printing and the Compass Changed in Different Ways Than the West

Earliest known gunpowder formula

Lynda Shaffer wrote: Needham's question can thus be understood to mean, Why didn't China use gunpowder to destroy feudal walls? Why didn't China use the compass to cross the Pacific and discover America, or to find an all-sea route to Western Europe? Why didn't China undergo a Renaissance or Reformation? The implication is that even though China possessed these technologies, it did not change much. Essentially Needham's question is asking, What was wrong with China? /=/

“Actually, there was nothing wrong with China. China was changed fundamentally by these inventions. But in order to see the changes, one must abandon the search for peculiarly European events in Chinese history, and look instead at China itself before and after these breakthroughs. To begin, one should note that China possessed all three of these technologies by the latter part of the Tang dynasty (618-906)—between four and six hundred years before they appeared in Europe. And it was during just that time, from about 850, when the Tang dynasty began to falter, until 960, when the Song dynasty (960-1279) was established, that China underwent fundamental changes in all spheres. In fact, historians are now beginning to use the term "revolution" when referring to technological and commercial changes that culminated in the Song dynasty, in the same way that they refer to the changes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England as the "Industrial Revolution." And the word might well be applied to other sorts of changes in China during this period. /=/

“For example, the Tang dynasty elite was aristocratic, but that of the Song was not. No one has ever considered whether the invention of gunpowder contributed to the demise of China's aristocrats, which occurred between 750 and 960, shortly after its invention. Gunpowder may, indeed, have been a factor, although it is unlikely that its importance lay in blowing up feudal walls. Tang China enjoyed such internal peace that its aristocratic lineages did not engage in castle-building of the sort typical in Europe. Thus, China did not have many feudal fortifications to blow up. /=/

“The only wall of significance in this respect was the Great Wall, which was designed to keep steppe nomads from invading China. In fact, gunpowder may have played a role in blowing holes in this wall, for the Chinese could not monopolize the terrible new weapon, and their nomadic enemies to the north soon learned to use it against them. The Song dynasty ultimately fell to the Mongols, the most formidable force ever to emerge front the Eurasian steppe. Gunpowder may have had a profound effect on China—exposing a united empire to a foreign invasion amid terrible devastation—but an effect quite opposite to the one it had on Western Europe.” /=/

“Gunpowder, printing, the compass—clearly these three inventions changed China as much as they changed Europe. And it should come as no surprise that changes wrought in China between the eighth and tenth centuries were different from changes wrought in Western Europe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. It would, of course, be unfair and ahistorical to imply that something was wrong with Western Europe because the technologies appeared there late. It is equally unfair to ask why the Chinese did not accidentally bump into the Western Hemisphere while sailing east across the Pacific to find the wool markets of Spain.”

Mariner's Compass

20080212-cno-compass pandaamerica.jpg
Early compass
The Chinese are credited with inventing the magnetic needle (an early form of compass) around 1000 A.D., although they may have used similar devices long before that. Early Chinese compasses were outfit with a needle that pointed south. There are records of them being used for navigation in 1119. Compasses were used in ships in Europe (first by the Vikings) around A.D. 1200. Around that time compass markings showed up on land surveys in China.

Ancient Chinese and Greeks had been familiar with magnets since at least 500 B.C. and Chinese chronicles contain references to the ability of magnetic lodestones to point south as early as 300 B.C. Historians believe that lodestones were probably first used in fortunetelling. As early as the 2nd century A.D. lodestones may have been used by navigators on the open sea.

The world’s first compasses looked like spoons and evolved from the game of chess, which developed in China as a divination technique used to unravel the meanings hidden in the universal forces of Yin and Yang. In early Chinese chess the Great Bear, or Northern Dipper, was represented by a spoon that was spun about. The spoon came to be made of magnetite after its seemingly magical properties were discovered, and so served as a divining device when it was rotated according to the complicated rules of the game. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “The exact history of the compass, like that of gunpowder, is uncertain. The fact that house foundations in the recently excavated capital of the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, the Shang (1766?-1123? B.C.), are laid out according to magnetic north suggests a possible knowledge of magnetism at this early time. The first definite reference to magnetism, however, is found in a Chinese book completed about 240 B.C., which describes the lodestone as a stone that "summons or attracts iron." This statement and certain others in the same book may indicate Greek influence upon Chinese thought, coming through the Asiatic conquests of Alexander the Great. Thus there are hints of a knowledge of the lodestone in the works of somewhat earlier Greek writers. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“A clear description of the magnetic compass itself, as distinct from the lodestone, occurs only about 1300 years later. It is found in a Chinese book written by a certain Shen Kua (A.D. 1030-94). His book contains a passage describing geomancers, a kind of fortuneteller long employed in China to determine the luckiness or unluckiness of proposed sites for buildings, graves, and other monuments. Shen Kua writes that such geomancers pursued their art by rubbing a lodestone against a steel needle, thus causing the needle to point south. (South is the primary direction for the Chinese, just as north is for us.) Such a needle, he adds, can then be floated on water, or, best of all, can be suspended from a thread. Shen Kua notes further — and this is remarkable — that the needle never points exactly to true south, but always deviates slightly. The knowledge here shown of the principle of magnetic deviation proves almost certainly that the compass had been long known and studied by the Chinese before Shen Kua's time. /=/

“In Shen Kua's description the compass is used only for magical purposes. In a Chinese book probably written shortly before 1125, we find the earliest clear account of the compass as used for actual navigation. The book describes the sea trade between China, the South Seas, India, and Western Asia. Since the Arabs played an important part in this trade, some people have thought that the Arabs rather than the Chinese first applied the invention of the compass to navigation. However, the earlier development of the compass in China itself, and the fact that the earliest references to it in Arabic literature are later than 1125, make it seem unlikely that the Arabs were its first users. What seems most probable is that the Arabs, coming to China in their ships, learned there of the Chinese methods of sailing by compass, and in their turn introduced the compass into Europe. /=/

“In Europe the compass is first mentioned in a French poem of 1190, but its application to navigation is mentioned only later. It was not until the fifteenth century that Europeans came to understand the principle of magnetic deviation about which Shen Kua had written some four hundred years earlier. /=/

Impact of the Compass on China

south-pointing chariot

Lynda Shaffer wrote: “Finally we come to the compass. Suffice it to say that during the Song dynasty, China developed the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated merchant marine and navy. By the fifteenth century its ships were sailing from the north Pacific to the east coast of Africa. They could have made the arduous journey around the tip of Africa and sail into Portuguese ports; however, they had no reason to do so. Although the Western European economy was prospering, it offered nothing that China could not acquire much closer to home at much less cost. In particular, wool, Western Europe's most important export, could easily be obtained along China's northern frontier. [Source: Lynda Shaffer, "China, Technology and Change", World History Bulletin, Fall/Winter 1986/87; Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Certainly the Portuguese and the Spanish did not make their unprecedented voyages out of idle curiosity. They were trying to go to the Spice Islands, in what is now Indonesia, in order to acquire the most valuable commercial items of the time. In the fifteenth century these islands were the world's sole suppliers of the fine spices, such as cloves, nutmeg, and mace, as well as a source for the more generally available pepper. It was this spice market that lured Columbus westward from Spain and drew Vasco Da Gama around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. /=/

“After the invention of the compass, China also wanted to go to the Spice Islands and, in fact, did go, regularly—but Chinese ships did not have to go around the world to get there. The Atlantic nations of Western Europe, on the other hand, had to buy spices from Venice (which controlled the Mediterranean trade routes) or from other Italian city-states; or they had to find a new way to the Spice Islands. It was necessity that mothered those revolutionary routes that ultimately changed the world.” /=/

Origins of Gunpowder

Frank Winter, former curator of rockets at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, wrote: “Gunpowder was discovered in China by Taoist alchemists, or religious philosophers who were employed by the emperor to search for an “elixir of longevity.” Needham and his colleagues found early accounts of the haphazard practice of the Taoist alchemists in which they occasionally had their beards singed, hands and faces burnt, and even the houses where they worked burned down when they ignited certain mixtures. These accidents suggest that, in their pursuit of life-prolonging medicines, they eventually stumbled upon the explosive concoction of gunpowder unintentionally. [Source: Frank Winter, Space History Department, Smithsonian, July 3, 2013]

“For hundreds of years, and well into the 17th century, the traditional Chinese Taoist alchemical interpretation of the explosive property of gunpowder was regarded as the interaction of yin (female) and yang (male) values, a belief entirely in accord with the principles and practice of Taoism. Based upon this philosophy, it seems highly improbable that the essential ingredients of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were deliberately brought together as a planned invention to form gunpowder, since the true chemical reaction of these ingredients upon ignition was hardly predictable.

“Similarly, it was highly unlikely that the early Chinese “invented” the rocket from well-founded scientific principles. Rather, the ancient Chinese alchemists (by the 11th century), seeking an elixir for longevity, very likely “witnessed” the accidental discovery of the explosion of a proto-gunpowder. After continuous trial-and-error experiments, possibly over centuries, these alchemists arrived at true gunpowder and these empirical experiments may have further led to the accidental discovery of the rocket, perhaps when gunpowder was placed in a container, with one end closed: when accidentally lit, the container unexpectedly flew off by itself, due to what we would today explain as Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.”

First Paper in China

20080212-first paper ch pg.gif
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.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: ““The formal invention of paper can be dated exactly in the year A.D. 105, and was the work of one who should surely be honored among the great contributors to human civilization. He was Ts'ai Lun, a man attached to the Chinese imperial court. Ts'ai Lun's biography in the history of his time describes his invention as follows: “In ancient times writing was generally on bamboo or on pieces of silk, which were then called chih [a Chinese word pronounced jer, which has since been used to mean paper]. But silk being expensive and bamboo heavy, these two materials were not convenient. Then Ts'ai Lun thought of using tree bark, hemp, rags, and fish nets. In the first year of the Yuan-hsing period (A.D. 105) he made a report to the emperor on the process of paper making, and received high praise for his ability. From this time paper has been in use everywhere and is called the "paper of Marquis Ts'ai." There is good reason to suppose that previous attempts to make paper, using raw silk, had already been going on, possibly as early as the third century B.C. What Ts'ai Lun seems to have done, however, was to develop an easy process for manufacture and, above all, to substitute cheaper materials in the place of the expensive silk. His achievement put paper within the reach of everyone. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

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."

Early Printing in China

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “The noble sequel to paper in China was printing. As in the case of most major advances in human civilization, this invention was not the work of any single individual. It came as a climax to several separate processes, developed over a number of centuries. One of these was the invention and spread of paper itself, the significance of which has just been described. Another was the development of a suitable ink. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“A third was the process of making what are called rubbings or squeezes. This is a Chinese technique for obtaining on paper exact copies of inscriptions that have been cut on stone monuments and tablets. A sheet of moistened tissue paper is closely fitted upon the face of the engraved stone. The outer surface of this paper is then rubbed with an ink pad so that all parts of the paper touching the raised portions of the underlying stone are inked black. The parts of the paper that fit into the cutout depressions do not receive ink and are left white. Thus an exact black-and-white paper copy of the original inscription is obtained. The Chinese developed this technique of making rubbings because of their eagerness to obtain exact copies of their classics, which were often inscribed on stone monuments. /=/

“Most important of all the forerunners of printing was probably the Chinese use of stamp seals. Such seals first appear in human civilization in Mesopotamia, where seals with pictures on them played an important part in man's first development of a system of writing. In China seals began to be used about the third century B.C. At first they served the purpose, as in Mesopotamia, of personally identifying their owners. Even to this day, a Chinese, when endorsing a bank check in China, must not only sign his name, but also stamp the check with a personal seal bearing his name in printed characters. The seal of the author, which he used for this purpose when he lived in China, is shown under his name on the cover of this pamphlet. /=/

Image Sources: 1) Compass, Pandaamerica; 2) Fire oxen, University of Washingon; 3) Early bronze gun, University of Washingon; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; 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.

Last updated August 2021

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