replica of a Song water clock

The Northern and Southern Song (Sung) dynasties (960–1279) were distinguished for their literature and philosophy and use of movable type printing and gunpowder for weapons and rockets. Paper money was circulated and the improvements of the magnetic compass were made. A dramatic change from the chaotic period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms (907–60) that preceded it, the Song dynasty was a time of attempted reforms, scholarly studies and artistic progress, marked by authentication of the Confucian literary canon and systematic development and promotion of Neo-Confucianism. The poetry of the Song period was derivative, but a new popular literary form, the novel, appeared at that time. Neo-Confucianism Gunpowder was first used for military purposes in this period. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Song period is so important, because it is also the time of the greatest development of Chinese science and technology. Many new theories, but also many practical, new inventions were made. Medicine made substantial progress. About 1145 the first autopsy was made, on the body of a South Chinese captive. In the field of agriculture, new varieties of rice were developed, new techniques applied, new plants introduced. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Advances that occurred during the Song dynasty included the first printed books, the first widespread use of paper currency and credit notes, the first school system, the development of gun powder, rapid development of the coal, steel and armaments industries, increased economic activity, and expansion of markets abroad. Shan-Yin, a Song princess, had a special bed made that could accommodate 30 men who all made love to her at the same time.

The Song created pumps for lifting water, and experimented with water power as a means of operating silk looms and cotton mills. Under the Song dynasty iron production in 1078 was double that of England in the early industrial revolution in the late 18th century. Chinese ships had watertight compartments, pivoting sails and compasses. Large sailing ships had six masts, four decks and were capable of carrying a 1000 men. Chinese engineers developed the spinning jenny and the steam engine, two inventions that were key to England the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Improvements in crop yields through innovations, improvements in techniques and intensification produced what has been described as the world's first green revolution.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The need to harness the water energy of South China led to a series of inventions connected to irrigation and flood control. The military was refitted with weaponry that used a new technique for carbonizing iron: the invention of steel. Alongside the development of new financial institutions, Chinese mathematics made enormous strides, as did astronomical science – intellectual fields whose growth was facilitated by the possibility of mass produced books. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The Chinese inventions of printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass were brought to Europe by Arab traders during the Renaissance and Reformation. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a leading philosopher, politician, and adviser to King James I of England, was unaware of the origins of these inventions but deeply impressed by their significance when he 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 ]

Good Websites and Sources Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; Chinese Text Project Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization

Printing and Movable Type in the Song Dynasty

Song Dynasty map

Printing was an important development of the Song Era. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: since c. 770 printing was known in the form of wood-block printing. The first reference to a printed book dated from 835, and the most important event in this field was the first printing of the Classics by the orders of Feng Tao (882-954) around 940. The first attempts to use movable type in China occurred around 1045, although this invention did not get general acceptance in China. It was more commonly used in Korea from the thirteenth century on and revolutionized Europe from 1538 on. It seems to me that from the middle of the twentieth century on, the West, too, shows a tendency to come back to the printing of whole pages, but replacing the wood blocks by photographic plates or other means. In the Far East, just as in Europe, the invention of printing had far-reaching consequences. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “By the 9th century, Chinese craftsmen had developed a way to mass produce books by carving words and pictures into wooden blocks, inking them, and then pressing paper onto the blocks. Each block consisted of an entire page of text and illustrations. As in Europe centuries later, the introduction of printing in China dramatically lowered the price of books, thus aiding the spread of literacy. Inexpensive books also gave a boost to the development of drama and other forms of popular culture. The storytellers depicted in the Beijing Qingming scroll (below) may have benefited from “prompt books” that would help them review the stories that they told orally to their audiences. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

“In the 11th century movable type (one piece of type for each character) was invented. Movable type was never widely used in China because whole-block printing was less expensive, but when movable type reached Europe in the 15th century, it revolutionized the communication of ideas. Movable type was first created by Bi Sheng (990-1051), who used baked clay, which was very fragile. The Yuan-dynasty official Wang Zhen is credited with the introduction of wooden movable type, a more durable option, around 1297.(1) Cast-metal movable type began to be used in Korea in the early 13th century, and the first font is believed to have been cast there in the 1230s.”

Eberhard wrote: "Books, which until then had been very dear, because they had to be produced by copyists, could now be produced cheaply and in quantity. It became possible for a scholar to accumulate a library of his own and to work in a wide field, where earlier he had been confined to a few books or even a single text. The results were the spread of education, beginning with reading and writing, among wider groups, and the broadening of education: a large number of texts were read and compared, and no longer only a few. Private libraries came into existence, so that the imperial libraries were no longer the only ones. Publishing soon grew in extent, and in private enterprise works were printed that were not so serious and politically important as the classic books of the past. Thus a new type of literature, the literature of entertainment, could come into existence. Not all these consequences showed themselves at once; some made their first appearance later, in the Song period.

Gunpowder and Bombs in the Song Dynasty

self-tripped trespass land mine

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The Wujing zongyao (“Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques”), a military manual from 1044 CE, records the first true gunpowder formula and describes how to produce it on a large scale. Gunpowder was first use in warfare as an incendiary, or fire-producing, compound. Small packages of gunpowder wrapped in paper or bamboo were attached to arrows and lit with a fuse. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

“Song military engineers found gunpowder to be helpful in siege warfare, leading to the development of early types of rockets, cannons, bombs, and mines. Bombs of gunpowder mixed with scrap iron would be launched with catapults. Another use was “fire-spurting lances,” which were a kind of flame-thrower using bamboo or metal tubes for their barrels.

“Weapons involving gunpowder were extensively used by both the Chinese and the Mongol forces in the 13th century. Song efforts to continually improve their weapons were one reason they were able to hold off the Mongols for several decades. But the Mongols, like the Khitans and Jurchens before them (who conquered the first, or northern, Song dynasty capital in Kaifeng), were equally ready to adopt new and better military technology, often by capturing the Chinese engineers and gunners.”

Ship and Maritime Advances in the Song Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Song Chinese were world leaders in shipbuilding. Watertight bulkheads improved buoyancy and protected cargo. Stern-mounted or stern-post rudders improved steering. Sounding lines were used to determine depth. Some ships were powered by both oars and sails and large enough to hold several hundred men. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

“Also important to oceangoing travel was the perfection of the compass. The way a magnetic needle would point north-south had been known for some time, but in Song times the needle was reduced in size and attached to a fixed stem (rather than floating in water). In some cases it was put in a small protective case with a glass top, making it suitable for sea travel. The first reports of a compass used in this way date to 1119.”

Valerie Hansen wrote in “The Beijing Qingming Scroll and Its Significance for the Study of Chinese History”: “The stern-post rudder [was a] steering device mounted on the outside or rear of the hull. [It] could be lowered or raised according to the depth of the water. This type of rudder made it possible to steer through crowded harbors, narrow channels, and river rapids.”

Scientists and Experimentation in the Song Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Quite a few educated men in Song times took an interest in matters related to engineering, as well as inquiry about the physical world. One high official, Su Song (1020-1101), is famous for having designed and constructed a mechanical clock tower (almost 40 feet high) by adding a chain-driven mechanism to the existing water-powered clock. The clock told not only the time of day but also the day of the month, the phase of the moon, and the position of certain stars and planets in the sky. At the top was a mechanically rotated armillary sphere that showed the changing location of the planets and stars. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

“Another notable polymath of the time was Shen Gua (1031-1095), who made contributions in fields as diverse as mathematics, geography, economics, engineering, medicine, divination, archaeology, military strategy, and diplomacy. In his writings Shen Gua described the use of petroleum and explained in detail how Bi Sheng first made movable type from clay. He often analyzed issues mathematically, and once computed the total number of possible situations on a game board, and another time the longest possible military campaign given the limits of human carriers who had to carry their own food as well as food for the soldiers.”

“Shen Gua is especially known for the explanations of natural phenomena found in his famous 11th-century book, Meng Xi Bi Tan (Meng Ch’i Pi T’an or “Brush Talk from a Dream Book”; more commonly known as the “Dream Pool Essays”). In these pages he presents his theories on a variety of topics, including the deflection of the compass from due south: When the point of a needle is rubbed with the lodestone, then the sharp end always points south, but some needles point to the north. I supposed that the natures of the stones are not all alike. Just so, at the summer solstice the deer shed their horns, and at the winter solstice the elks do so. Since the south and the north are two opposites, there must be a fundamental difference between them. This has not yet been investigated deeply enough. [Source: Joseph Needham, “Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. IV. Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1. Physics” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 250]

Great 11th Century Water Clock of Su Song

Su Song clock tower

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.

Daniel Boorstin wrote in “The Discoverers”: "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 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." ~~

Joseph Needham on Stereotypes About Chinese Science

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Because the European “Scientific Revolution” of the 16th and 17th centuries is generally regarded as the foundation of the modern sciences and because in the late 19th and 20th centuries China lagged behind the most developed areas of Europe both economically and technologically, it is too commonly assumed that there was something about Chinese culture or Confucian thought that was incompatible with scientific inquiry and experimentation. But as Joseph Needham notes in his Science and Civilisation in China, China was for a time well ahead of the West in the development of several fields of knowledge about the physical world — including magnetism and optics — and Chinese advances in engineering were, at least until 1500, “frequently superior to anything which Europe could show.” [Source: Joseph Needham, “Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. IV. Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1. Physics” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 250, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

Chain drive from Su Song's book

In another chapter he identifies petrified bamboo and from its existence argues that the region where it was found must have been much warmer and more humid in ancient times: In recent years [c. 1080] there was a landslide on the bank of a large river in Yung-Ning Kuan near Yenchow. The bank collapsed, opening a space of several dozens of feet, and under the ground a forest of bamboo shoots was thus revealed. It contained several hundred bamboos with their roots and trunks all complete, and all turned to stone.... Now bamboos do not grow in Yenchow. These were several dozens of feet below the present surface of the ground, and we do not know in what dynasty they could possibly have grown. Perhaps in very ancient times the climate was different so that the place was low, damp, gloomy, and suitable for bamboos. “ [Source: Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. III. Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 614 ]

In another place Shen Gua argues against the theory that tides are caused by the rising and setting of the sun and demonstrates that they correlate rather with the cycles of the moon: “Lu Chao says that the tide of the sea is formed because it is stirred up by the rising and setting of the sun. This has not the slightest basis. If the tide were due to this cause it would have a diurnal regularity. How could it happen that it sometimes comes in the morning and sometimes in the evening? I have myself given much study to its periodic motion, and found that the tide comes to high water whenever the moon makes its meridian transit. if you wait for this moment you will never miss the tides.” Ibid., 492.

To explain his theory about why the sun and the moon are spherical, not flat, Shen Gua wrote: “The Director asked me about the shapes of the sun and moon; whether they were like balls or (flat) fans. If they were like balls they would surely obstruct (ai) each other when they met. I replied that these celestial bodies were certainly like balls. How do we know this? By the waxing and waning (ying khuei) of the moon. The moon itself gives forth no light, but is like a ball of silver; the light is the light of the sun (reflected). When the brightness is first seen, the sun (-light passes almost) alongside, so the side only is illuminated and looks like a crescent. When the sun gradually gets further away, the light shines slanting, and the moon is full, round like a bullet. If half of a sphere is covered with (white) powder and looked at from the side, the covered part will look like a crescent; if looked at from the front, it will appear round. Thus we know that the celestial bodies are spherical.” Ibid., 415.

Shen Gua did not, however, realize that the sun and moon had entirely different orbits and, later in this same passage, explained that “they could meet without obstructing one another” because they were both made of qi (vital energy) and “(have) form but no solid substance.” [Source: Joseph Needham, “Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. IV. Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1. Physics” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 2]

Yang Hui's Mathematical Methods

Yang Hui's magic circle

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Development of Chinese mathematics reached its greatest heights at the end of Southern Song Dynasty, with the appearance of four outstanding mathematicians: Qin Jiushou, Li Zhi, Yang Hui and Shijie. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Yang Hui's works were compiled by posterity into Yang Hui's Mathematical Methods, totaling 7 volumes, comprising of 3 volumes of "The Complete Variations of Multiplication and Division", 2 volumes of "Speedy Multiplication and Division Methods by Land Comparisons" and 2 volumes of "Impressive Calculations from Ancient Times". "The Complete Variations of Multiplication and Division" is the first mathematics textbook in Chinese history, and provides detailed instructions on progress, methods, teaching materials and hints. [Source: “Yang Hui's Mathematical Method” by Yang Hui of Song dynasty, Giyeongju imprint in Jaseon in 1433, recarving from Qingde Bookshop of Ming dynasty in 1378] \=/

“In this book Yang Hui pointed out the step-by-step process of mathematical studies, and pointed out highlights for each topic as well as the number of days required for studying each topic. The various speedy calculation methods set out in "Speedy Multiplication and Division Methods by Land Comparisons" reflected the history of calculation reforms prior to invention of the abacus. Yang Hui's Mathematical Methods also offered innovations regarding such mathematical concepts as high level polynomial equations and magic squares. In addition, mathematical application books generally used in the Tang and Song Dynasties – such as Jia Xian's "Chart of Extractions of Roots" – are mostly lost, and these methods were passed on because of their inclusion in Yang Hui's Mathematical Methods. \=/

“One of the editions of Yang Hui's Mathematical Methods was published in the 11th year of Hongwu period of Ming Dynasty (1378), which was later carried to Korea. Korea then republished it with bronze movable type in 1433, and distributed 100 set to various departments. The book entered Japan during the 17th century, and was transcribed by the Japanese mathematician Seki Takakazu. It is therefore a highly influential mathematical work in the East Asia region.” \=/

If the Song Dynasty Was So Advanced Why Didn’t It Shape the Modern World

Dr. Eno wrote: “Commercial activity and the appearance of new methods of production and other technologies created the conditions favorable for speculative investment, and social historians find many of the institutions that are typically precursors of capitalist development: urban professional guilds, concentrations of wealth in socially mobile families, and liquid forms of currency. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“These developments in commerce, science, and economic institutions during the Song have led scholars to question why China did not go on to make the intellectual and social breakthroughs that are associated with transformations to modernity in the Western world. If one were to take a snapshot of the world in the twelfth century, there seems no question that China would appear the only state capable of making those sorts of changes. Europe did not reach the levels of commerce and intellectual sophistication seen during the Southern Song period until centuries later. What held China back? It is often pointed out that this may be the wrong way to ask the question: the critical changes in culture and economics that led to the Enlightenment and scientific revolution in the West may not have followed any laws of social development, and the real question should perhaps be what forces pushed Europe to develop as it did. Nevertheless, what is often called the Song “commercial revolution” is so pronounced, and the intellectual ferment surrounding it so dramatic, that, with or without reference to Europe, it is indeed disappointing to look a century or two ahead and find China having apparently regressed in both economic and scientific terms. /+/

“A number of candidates as causes for this deceleration of China’s social development have been proposed over the decades, and it is now generally acknowledged that it is very likely that no single cause decisively altered the direction China took. It has been pointed out that in Europe, modernization was enabled in part by weak and fragmented governments being unable to constrain experiment and initiative by individuals, while in China, the universal top.down pattern of governance was dedicated to a type of social control that left far less room for economic and intellectual entrepreneurship. A related contrast is that in Europe, modernization was focused in rapidly growing urban centers that were often administered solely on local initiative, outside the purview of established state structures, whereas in China, the strongest nodes of central government control were precisely urban centers – the rapid growth of an urban community in South China during the Song brought people under stricter government control than would have otherwise been the case. /+/

“But one component of China’s retreat from the brink of modernity is generally agreed to be related to abrupt changes that took place in the intellectual sphere. These changes are associated with the rise of an entirely new form of Confucian ideology, an approach that substantially rejects both the Cultural Confucianism of the conservative Northern Song establishment and the activist reform program of Wang Anshi’s followers. This new ideology is called Neo-Confucianism in the West, and its impact on China’s intellectual history was so dramatic that for centuries the term “Confucianism” itself was understood only in terms of this new approach, which was born amidst the factional struggles of the Northern Song, and first attracted a wide following after the invasions of 1127. We will discuss Neo-Confucianism further in a separate reading. /+/

Seeds of an Industrial Revolution in China

Chinese steam-powered machine

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?’

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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