Technology in Early China

As a child, I remember my father telling me stories about all the technology that originated in China. Gun powder, the compass, paper, and even pizza (although that may have been an exaggeration). I did not grow up with what most scholars seemed to think – that the western world brought technology to the east. Alternatively, I was given the impression that Chinese technology was dispersed through the world by way of the Silk Road, thus sharing the advances with other nations.

Unsurprisingly, my China-centric version of history is just as incorrect as historian’s assumptions that technology was transferred West to East. As usual, the history of technology in China is much more complex. According to Bray’s article, while there were some technologies like the horse-drawn chariot that were brought to China from the West, a lot of technologies arose independently in China.

One thing that was not communicated directly to me as a child about these inventions, was how the use of these advances were manipulated and controlled by various rulers and dynasties. How technology was used to create a well-defined power structure of ruling class vs peasants is an important part of Chinese history.

One of the technologies that imperial rulers used to secure their power were agrarian tools and techniques. Agriculture in early China was surprisingly mechanized and benefited from technological advances. In China, rice is grown in the south and wheat is grown in the north. That is an important distinction in China, people from southern China don’t consider a meal complete without rice and a similar sentiment is felt in the north in regards to noodles. At first rice was grown in marshes, where rice naturally grows because of the plant’s semi-aquatic characteristics. Farmers started to expand and began building paddies that had dikes surrounding the field to keep the rainwater in. Other technologies that helped with cultivation included field preparation, first using hand-held hoes, then ox-drawn plows, to iron plows mass-produced by the state. Post-harvest technologies helped farmers easily process their grain with trip hammers, that were later further mechanized using water wheels.

Agriculture and land are important areas for governments and institutions to control power in China. Those in power, aristocrats and the dynastic emperors, relied on peasant’s agricultural yield for taxes and to fill silos to feed armies, which is why there was a lot of old imperial texts encouraging the production and spread of agricultural technology. It was important during this early period to have stores of grain because of the relative frequency of warfare.

Innately tied to agriculture, land ownership policy is also important. Historians aren’t sure what land ownership looked like in early China, but in the Zhou dynasty there was a feudal-like system where aristocrats owned estates that peasants worked, paid taxes, and occasionally drafted into the army. The Qin dynasty took over after the Warring period and created private ownership where peasants still worked, paid taxes, and males were required to do service in the army or government projects. The relationship between governments and peasants regarding land is an interesting history in China. I am more familiar with more recent land seizures in China, as talked about here in this NPR article. Land seizures happen not just in rural areas, but also in old ‘hutong’ traditional neighborhoods in Chinese cities.

Another important technology that was controlled was metallurgy. Metallurgy in China developed independently from the Near East, demonstrated by the differences in their methods. Bronze was used as a political tool — elites would gift each other bronze crafts as signs of alliances. It was also used in music and in burials of nobles. Perhaps in a two-pronged attempt to first control the production of bronze and second to increase efficiency, bronze was produced in an assembly-line fashion. While craftsmen in Europe would perform all steps in the process, Chinese craftsmen were trained in a single step and repeated this one task over and over.

The Qin dynasty is known for creating great displays of their technological ability, and is another example of how the imperial rule dominated technology of the time. Under the rule of Shihuangdi, the Great Wall and his famous tomb of terracotta warriors were built. The Great Wall was a huge military undertaking – it’s role was to protect China from the northern warriors, the Hun. Parts of the wall were already built along the border, but rough terrain had previously prevented the connection of these individual parts.

Shihuangdi’s tomb was another large project that, like the Great Wall, required the sacrifice of thousands of laborer’s lives. The tomb was expansive and was significant in that they put over 8,000 life-sized statues of warriors made of terracotta. The purpose of the terracotta warriors was to protect Shihuangdi in the afterlife. Each statue is different, although the statues were put together in sections (arms, torso, legs) in probably the same assembly-line fashion with detailing later.

Reading about early Chinese history was interesting in terms of its relation to the power structure of the time (or lack thereof at some points) and how it impacted the relationship between the ruling class and the peasantry. Those in power controlled how technology was utilized as well as encouraging the use of certain types – such as special agricultural practices. It’s interesting to contrast this early history to more recent, like The Great Leap Forward  that is another huge example of the intersection of technology, the powerful, and the lay-people in China. This seems to demonstrate how technology and society affect each other in meaningful ways.