100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 51



Invention and Science in China*

* Ed. Note: For China’s discoveries and inventions in tabular form, see appendices 15 and 16.


The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention


The Chinese have been more facile in making inventions than in using them. Gunpowder appeared under the Tangs, but was very sensibly restricted to fireworks; not until the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) was it formed into hand-grenades and employed in war. The Arabs became acquainted with saltpeter—the main constituent of gunpowder—in the course of their trade with China, and called it “Chinese snow.” They brought the secret of gunpowder westward, the Saracens turned it to military use, and Roger Bacon, the first European to mention it, may have learned of it through his study of Arab lore or his acquaintance with the central Asiatic traveler, De Rubruquis.

    The compass is of much greater antiquity. If we may believe Chinese historians, the Duke of Zhou invented it in the reign of King Cheng Wang of Zhou (1042-1021 B.C.E.) to guide certain foreign ambassadors back to their homelands; the Duke, we are told, presented the embassy with five chariots each equipped with a “south-pointing needle.” Very probably, the magnetic properties of the lodestone were known to ancient China, but the use of it was confined to orienting temples. The magnetic needle was described in the Song Shu, a historical work of the fifth century C.E., and was attributed by the author to the astronomer Zhang Heng (78-139), who, however, had only rediscovered what China had known before. The oldest mention of the needle as useful for mariners occurs in a work of the early twelfth century, which ascribes this use of it to foreign—probably Arab—navigators plying between Sumatra and Guangzhou. About 1190 we find the first known European notice of the compass in a poem by Guyot de Provins.

    Despite the contribution of the compass and gunpowder, of paper and silk, of printing and porcelain, we cannot speak of the Chinese as an industrially inventive people. They were inventive in art, developing their own forms, and reaching a degree of sensitive perfection not surpassed in any other place or time. But before 1912 they were content with ancient economic ways, and had a perhaps prophetic scorn of laborsaving devices that hectically accelerate the pace of human toil and throw half the population out of work in order to enrich the rest. They were among the first to use coal for fuel, and surface mined it in small quantities as early as 3500 B.C.E.; but they developed no mechanisms to ease the slavery of mining, and left for the most part unexplored the mineral resources of their soil. Though they knew how to make glass, they were satisfied to import it from the West. They made no watches or clocks or screws, and only the coarsest nails. Through the two thousand years that intervened between the rise of the Han and the fall of the Manchus, industrial life remained substantially the same in China—as it remained substantially the same in Europe from Pericles to the Industrial Revolution.

    In like manner, China preferred the quiet and mannerly rule of tradition and scholarship to the exciting and disturbing growth of science and plutocracy. Of all the great civilizations, it has been the poorest in contributions to the material technique of life. It produced excellent textbooks of agriculture and sericulture two centuries before Christ, and excelled in treatises on geography. Its centenarian mathematician, Zhang Cang (253-152 B.C.E.), left behind him a work on algebra and geometry, containing the first known mention of a negative quantity. Zu Chongzhi (429–500) calculated the correct value of p to six decimal places, improved the magnet or “south-pointing vehicle,” and is vaguely recorded to have experimented with a self-moving vessel. Zhang Heng invented a seismometer in 132 C.E.,* but Chinese physics largely lost itself in the occultism of feng shui and the metaphysics of the yang and the yin. Chinese mathematicians apparently derived algebra from India, but developed geometry for themselves out of their need for measuring the land. The astronomers of Confucius’ time correctly calculated eclipses, and laid the bases of the Chinese calendar—twelve hours a day, and twelve months each beginning with the new moon; an extra month was added periodically to bring this lunar calendar in accord with the seasons and the sun. Life on earth was lived in harmony with life in the sky; the sun and moon regulated the festivals of the year; the moral order of society itself was based upon the regularity of the planets and the stars.

    Medicine in China was a characteristic mixture of empirical wisdom and popular superstition. It had its beginnings before recorded history, and produced great physicians long before Hippocrates. Already under the Zhou dynasty, the state held yearly examinations for admission to medical practice, and fixed the salaries of the successful applicants according to their showing in the tests. In the fourth century before Christ a Chinese governor ordered a careful dissection and anatomical study of forty beheaded criminals; but the results were lost in theoretical discussion, and dissection stopped. Zhang Zhongjing (150—219), in the second century, wrote treatises on dietetics and fevers, which remained standard texts for a thousand years. In the third century Hua Tuo (140?–208) wrote a volume on surgery, and made operations popular by inventing a wine that produced a general anesthesia; it is one of the stupidities of history that the formula for mixing this drink has been lost. About 300 C.E. Wang Shu-he wrote a celebrated treatise on the pulse. Towards the beginning of the sixth century, Tao Hongjing composed an extensive description of the 730 drugs used in Chinese medicine; and a hundred years later Chao Yuanfang wrote a classic on the diseases of women and children. Medical encyclopedias were frequent under the Tangs, and specialist monographs under the Songs. A medical college was established in the Song Dynasty, but most medical education was through apprenticeship. Drugs were abundant and various; one store, four centuries ago, sold over $17,000 dollars’ worth in 2013 money every day. Chinese physicians pedantically detailed diagnosis; they described ten thousand varieties of fever, and distinguished twenty-four conditions of the pulse. Inoculation—not vaccination—was used, probably in imitation of India, in the treatment of smallpox; and mercury was administered for syphilis. This disease seems to have appeared in China in the later years of the Ming Dynasty, to have run wild through the population, and to have left behind its course a comparative immunity to its more serious effects. Public sanitation, preventive medicine, hygiene, and surgery made little progress in China; sewage and drainage systems were primitive, or hardly existed; and some towns failed to solve the primary obligations of an organized society—to secure good water, and to dispose of waste.

    Soap was a rare luxury, but lice and vermin were easily secured. The simpler Chinese learned to itch and scratch with Confucian equanimity. Medical science made no ascertainable progress from Shihuangdi to the Dowager; perhaps the same might be said of European medicine between Hippocrates and Pasteur. European medicine invaded China as an annex to Christianity; but the sick natives, until our own time, confined their use of it to surgery, and for the rest preferred their own physicians and their ancient herbs.

* His machine consisted of eight copper dragons placed on delicate springs around a bowl in whose center squatted a toad with open mouth. Each dragon held a copper ball in its mouth. When an earthquake occurred, the dragon nearest its source dropped its ball into the mouth of the toad. Once a dragon released its ball though the inhabitants had felt no shock. Zhang Heng was ridiculed as a charlatan, until a messenger arrived who told of an earthquake in a distant province.

Feng shui (wind and water) was the art, very widespread in China, of adapting the location of homes and graves to the currents of wind and water in the locality.