Yuan dynasty depiction of smelting

Bronze metallurgy in China dates back to 2000 B.C., significantly later than southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where it developed around 3600 B.C. to 3000 B.C. The oldest bronze vessels date back to the Hsia (Xia) dynasty (2200 to 1766 B.C.). According to legend bronze was first cast 5,000 years ago by Emperor Yu, the legendary Yellow Emperor, who cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize the nine provinces in his empire.The oldest bronze bells and large objects date back to the Shang dynasty (1700 to 1050 B.C.). The Chinese Bronze Age is sometimes used to describe the period between 2000 and 300 B.C., a period dominated by the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

The world's first cast iron products were made in China around 500 B.C. By the 3rd century B.C., the Chinese were using blast furnaces to produce cast iron. The technology wasn't introduced to Europe until the Middle Ages. Modern iron making was made possible when the Chinese discovered how to make hotter-burning coke from coal. Not long afterwards they invented the first iron plow, which revolutionized agriculture. Some historians also claim that Chinese metallurgists were the first to make steel.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: ““ Chinese coins produced between the years A.D. 1094 and 1098 are described in the Chinese history of the time as containing four parts of copper, two parts of lead, and one part of zinc. Modern analysis of a few of these coins, which shows them to be 55 per cent copper, 26 per cent lead, and 13 per cent zinc, confirms the truth of this statement. Thus, in the eleventh century, the Chinese not only already knew of the existence of zinc, but — and this is more important — they possessed the complex technical knowledge necessary to isolate it in a pure state from other substances and to mix it with other metals according to specified proportions. For several hundred years before the eleventh century, moreover, various terms occur in Chinese literature that probably refer to zinc, though it is not certain that the Chinese at that time could actually produce the pure metal. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Be that as it may, the knowledge and use of zinc in Europe is undoubtedly a great deal later. The first description of it as a separate metal does not occur until the sixteenth century; its production for industrial purposes dates only from the early part of the eighteenth century. At that time an Englishman named Isaac Lawton is said to have gone to China expressly in order to learn the Chinese method of zinc refining. Having acquired this secret, he returned to England not long before 1740. There he began the first industrial production of zinc in Europe. Even then, however, many years were yet to pass before a really large and permanent zinc industry came to be established — that at Silesia, in Germany, about the year 1799. /=/

“The third Chinese mineral discussed here is really not a single mineral at all, but an alloy of several metals. It is the alloy commonly, though somewhat incorrectly, known today as "German silver." It is a mixture of copper, nickel, and zinc, and is notable for its silver color, bell-like resonance, and hardness. These qualities make it ideal for use in candlesticks and other decorative articles. In China it has long been known as pai tongs which means "white copper." In Europe, consequently, it was at first called paktong, which is about the way pai t'ung is pronounced in the Cantonese dialect. The earliest European mention of paktong occurs in the year 1597. From then until the end of the eighteenth century there are references to it as having been exported from Canton to Europe. German imitations of paktong, however, began to appear from about 1750 onward. In 1830 the German process of manufacture was introduced into England, while exports of paktong from China gradually stopped. That is why today the alloy has lost its original name and is generally known to us as German silver. /=/

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 ;

Coal in Ancient and Medieval China

Chinese may have began using coal as early as 1000 B.C. Coal was first mined for fuel in Europe around A.D. 1250. Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Coal has been known since the fourth century A.D. in China, where in later centuries it came into widespread use. Marco Polo, for example, who visited China during the years 1275 to 1292, writes admiringly how all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they (the Chinese) dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply them with fire at night, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“In Europe there was no comparable use of coal until several centuries later, which might seem to point to another case of borrowing from the Far East. The ancient Romans, however, during their occupation of Britain, seem to have known at least something about the rich deposits of coal there. In any case, the modern European use of coal on a large scale, beginning much later than that in China, seems to owe nothing to the Chinese example. It came about as an entirely independent development, which began in England and from there spread to the continent. /=/

20080312-coal briquettes westport.k12.ct.jpg
coal briquettes used for cooking and heating today

Marco Polo on Coal

Marco Polo described coal — which at that time was unknown to most Europeans — as “black stones...which burn like logs": At first charcoal was used in the production process, leading to deforestation of large parts of north China. By the end of the 11th century, however, coal had largely taken the place of charcoal.

Marco Polo wrote: “It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part I, Chapter XXX: Concerning the Black Stones That Are Dug in Cathay, and Are Burnt for Fuel,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 1 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Chapter XXX begins on page 603 of this online text /]

“It is true that they have plenty of firewood, too. But the population is so enormous and there are so many bath-houses and baths constantly being heated, that it would be impossible to supply enough firewood, since there is no one who does not visit a bath-house at least 3 times a week and take a bath - in winter every day, if he can manage it. Every man of rank or means has his own bathroom in his these stones, being very plentiful and very cheap, effect a great saving of wood." /

Early Earthquake Detecting Devices and Lacquer in China

The Chinese started recording earthquakes in 1831 B.C. In the early years of earthquake detection the direction of the epicenter of the quake was determined by a six-foot-wide bronze caldron circled with eight frogs at the bottom and eight dragons at the top. When an earthquake struck a ball dropped from a dragon and fell into the mouth of one of the frogs, showing the direction from which the quake arrived. A device activated by a pendulum triggered the ball to fall. The caldron was kept at the Bureau of Astronomy and Calendars in the Chinese capital.

The Chinese were using seismographs to measure earthquakes around A.D. 1000. The Chinese also invented methods of construction that allowed building to sways and not collapse during earthquakes and presented evidence that cows and other animals change their behavior before earthquakes, and used this as a means of predicting earthquakes.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: Lacquer, like silk, is one of the products longest known in China. It comes from the sap of a tree which is native to China. It is used by the Chinese to paint decorative designs on wooden boxes and other objects, or is applied in layers so thick as to allow itself to be carved into designs. Baskets painted with lacquer have been recovered from Chinese tombs dating from the first century A.D., and it is probable that Chinese lacquer goes back long before this time. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Lacquer was among the flood of Chinese things that entered Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where it enjoyed a popularity surpassed only by that of porcelain. Soon an imitative lacquer industry sprang up in France. There by 1730 lacquered cabinets, chests, and other pieces of furniture were being turned out which could bear comparison with the products of China itself. As in the case of early European porcelain, this lacquer work usually imitated Chinese designs very closely. The newborn industry, however, later declined, leaving China and Japan as the primary suppliers of the world's lacquer-ware today. /=/

Porcelain and Porcelain Making China

medieval steam machine

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Porcelain, as indicated by its popular name of "china," is another major product of China. Earthenware bowls, plates, and vases have been baked from clay by almost all people since time immemorial, but porcelain is justly acclaimed as a product of Chinese genius alone. True porcelain is distinguished from ordinary pottery or earthenware by its hardness, whiteness, smoothness, translucence when made in thin pieces, nonporousness, and bell-like sound when tapped. The plates you eat from, even heavy thick ones, have these qualities and are therefore porcelain. A flower pot, on the other hand, or the brown cookie jar kept in the pantry are not porcelain but earthenware. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Two mineral ingredients are necessary to give porcelain its peculiar characteristics. The first is the white clay known as kaolin. It is an aluminum silica compound which takes its name from the Chinese term kao-ling (gow-ling), meaning "high hill." The latter is the name of a place where the clay was obtained in early times, lying twenty miles northeast of the famous porcelain kilns at Ching-te-chen in Central China. The second essential ingredient in porcelain is petuntse, a mineral resembling kaolin, but more glassy in character. Its name originates from the Chinese term pai-tun-tzu (by-doon-dse), meaning "white bricks." The name describes the brick-like blocks into which this mineral is kneaded by the Chinese porcelain workers before being mixed with kaolin, shaped into various objects, and then baked to become porcelain. /=/

“The word tz'u, which is the present-day Chinese term for porcelain, occurs for the first time in the poem of a Chinese writer who died in the year A.D. 300. This poem speaks of a wine pot which is said to be of "blue-green tz'u." Yet it is unlikely that the new word here refers to a genuine porcelain. Several centuries were still to elapse before patient experimentation gradually evolved the real porcelain with which we are familiar today. /=/

“In this experimentation it is probable that Chinese alchemists played a vital part. In their eager search for the elixir of immortality, they carried on constant experiments with many kinds of minerals, of which kaolin seems to have been one. Thus kaolin is mentioned in Chinese literature as a medicinal drug before it is referred to in connection with porcelain itself. Incidentally, it is not at all impossible that this Chinese alchemy was the inspiration of the alchemy of the Arabs and, through it, of medieval European alchemy, from which our modern chemistry eventually comes. /=/

“The first description that seems to point definitely to porcelain is that of the famous Arabic traveler, Suleyman, in his account dated 851 of travels in India and China. There he speaks of certain vases made in China out of a very fine clay, which have the transparency of glass bottles. In the centuries following Suleyman's time the southern sea route to China rose to a position of commanding importance. Over it porcelain became by all odds the major export shipped from China to the outside world. Tremendous quantities of porcelain went to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indo-China, Siam, Malaya, the East Indies, Ceylon, and adjoining regions. Much porcelain went even farther, crossing the Indian Ocean and passing up the Persian Gulf to reach Persia, Syria, and Egypt. Some of it, too, went as far as the southeast coast of Africa, where its presence has been used by modern archaeologists as a means for dating certain recently discovered sites of African cultures. /=/

Introduction of Porcelain Making to Europe

medieval steam machine

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “From the fifteenth century on porcelain appeared in Europe in steadily increasing quantities. In the sixteenth century attempts, only partially successful, were made in Italy to imitate the marvelous product. Our word, porcelain, which comes from the Italian porcellana, is a memory of these attempts. This word originally referred in Italian to a small kind of white conch shell, from which porcelain was at first believed to be made. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“It was only in 1709, however, that true hard porcelain was successfully produced in Europe, and this through a curious accident. For nine years before that date a German artisan, named Frederick Böttger, had been trying to make porcelain. His patron was Augustus the Strong of Saxony, and he worked at Meissen, a few miles outside of Dresden, which was later to become famous for its "chinaware." This was the period in Europe when most people wore wigs which were whitened with a powder. In 1709 Böttger happened to notice that the hair powder he was using was peculiarly heavy. Investigating the reason for this heaviness, he discovered that it was caused by the presence of kaolin. From this kaolin he succeeded in producing the first hard porcelain ever made in Europe. /=/

“A porcelain works was straightway established at Meissen by Böttger's patron, Augustus. He became so enthusiastic over the new discovery that he wished it to be used even for the making of chairs and tables. As in the case of many other new inventions, the process was at first a jealously guarded secret. The artisans were sworn to absolute secrecy and operated their kilns behind high walls, where they lived as virtual prisoners. In 1718, however, one of them made his escape to Vienna, where he brought the precious secret. The following decades saw the rapid erection of porcelain works in France, Holland, England, and other countries. /=/

“Thus European porcelain came as an independent invention — an invention, nevertheless, directly inspired by examples of Chinese porcelain, which had been closely studied by Böttger during his years of experimentation. Most of the eighteenth century products of European kilns, moreover, closely imitated Chinese wares in their techniques, shape, color, and design. Especially is this true of the famous blue-and-white ware of Delft, Holland. The early examples of delftware often amazingly resemble the "willow pattern" and other designs commonly found on Chinese porcelain. Despite the enormous amount of porcelain since produced in Europe and elsewhere, however, the best work of the Chinese potter has never been successfully equaled outside the land of its origin. /=/

Seeds of an Industrial Revolution in China, 1000-1200

Mark Elvin wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “Early in the 11th century, Chinese government arsenals manufactured more than 16 million identical iron arrowheads a year. In other words, mass production. Rather later, in the 13th century, machines in northern China powered by belt transmissions off a waterwheel twisted a rough rope of hemp fibers into a finer yarn. The machine used 32 spinning heads rotating simultaneously in a technique that probably resembled modern ring-spinning. A similar device was used for doubling filaments of silk. In other words, mechanized production, in the sense that the actions of the human hand were replicated by units of wood and metal, and an array of these identical units was then set into motion by inanimate power. [Source: "The X Factor," by Mark Elvin, Far Eastern Economic Review, 162/23, June 10, 1999 |||]

“Common sense thus suggests that the Chinese economy, early in the millennium just coming to a close, had already developed the two key elements of what we think of as the Industrial Revolution: mass production and mechanization... Much later, from the middle of the 19th century on, China had to import, then service, adapt, and even at times improve, mechanical engineering from the West. This was done with considerable flair, particularly by Chinese firms in Shanghai, a city which during treaty-port days turned into a nonstop international exhibition of machine-building. So Chinese technical capability can hardly be said to have withered in the intervening centuries... Why did the first industrial revolution not take place in China, as it seems it should have?’|||

Chinese invented the potters wheel, escapements (important parts of a watch that keep the springs from unwinding too fast when they are tightly wound), the first computer, the first canal lock, deep drilling devices, efficient animals harnesses, and the first true mechanical crank. The Chinese constructed the first suspension bridge and built the first bridge with a segmented arch (one of these built in 610 is still in use). They also used caged humans to power paddle-wheel boats as far back as the A.D. 8th century.

Li Yü, a Chinese author in the Ch'ing Dynasty, invented a temperature-controlled stool equipped with a special chamber for cooling one's seat in the summer and a chair for warming it in the winter. The Chinese invented the chain pump in the first century A.D. and are still using it. They developed designs for steam engines (actually water-powered metallurgical blowing machines) around 600 A.D. and were experimenting with water-driven-spinning machines that closely resembled the first European spinning jennies in A.D. 1313.

The spinning jenny and the steam engine were two inventions that were key to laumching the Industrial Revolution in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution occur in China before England. Historians say the reasons were more economic, political and social than technological. See Introduction to Chinese Firsts above.

machines used in irrigation

Why the Industrial Revolution Happened in Europe Not China

In his book “A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy,” Joel Mokyr, who teaches at Northwestern University, argues that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not China, which in previous centuries was more advanced scientifically than Europe, because Europe developed a unique culture of competitive scientific and intellectual advancement. China lost its technological edge over the West, some argue, because obedience was emphasized in China over experimentation and individualism and Europe, where experimentation and individualism are more valued, was able to catch up. Mokyr told the Washington Post: “China has a glorious past in its scientific achievements. And yet they were never able to turn it into economic growth as the West did. If you look at Europe and China in the 19th century, Europe is advancing at breathtaking speed. It’s building a rail network, steamships, factories. By the early 20th century, China looked like it was going to be completely occupied by imperialist powers.... “Why?” People have given different answers, and I’m giving mine. One way of thinking about it is culture. But to state, “Hey, the Chinese have a different culture because they were Confucianists, and the Europeans were Christian,” I don’t buy that for a second. It’s much more subtle and complicated. The way I would phrase it is that culture is not independent of political and institutional circumstances. [Source: Ana Swanson, Washington Post, October 28, 2016]

Image Sources: 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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