Early China

When we talk about early China, most scholars would define the “early” as a period from Xia to the beginning of Qin dynasty. That’s roughly before 221 BCE, when Qin dynasty united China for the first time on this land. During this time there were a lot of new technologies emerged and were applied into daily life.

However, to explore technologies that derived from or modified by China in the past thousands of years, to truly understand technologies in China and what role did them play in China and world range, the word “early” is inappropriate here.

To discuss technologies in China, many Chinese scholars mainly focus on the period late than 221 BCE. They use “ancient” instead of “early”. That is a period between 221 BCE to 1840, at which a war called “Opium War” between China and Britain began. There are a few reasons to study this period. 1), one political institution remained almost identical from Qin dynasty to Qing Dynasty, and this institution have shaped the society in China and affected the emergence of new technologies. 2), there were a huge amount of technologies came into being in this time, and it is these technologies that exerted influence on China and the world most deeply.

Before we go to the technology, it is necessary to get acquainted with the background in this particular period. At the very beginning of Qin dynasty, one major change made by the government is the abolish of fief. The first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qinshihuang, strongly believed that it was the fief that led to the end of Zhou. This was because under the fief, the local states would grow more and more powerful after generations, which finally led to the chaos in the society.  Thus, Qin dynasty established a new institution known as the feudal to replace the fief. That is, one central government takes full control of the country, and the government serves to the emperor. Under this institution, the government controls what people do and further order what people will do, and many technologies emerged directly or indirectly due to this reason.

That’s also why agriculture developed fast in China. As an old Chinese saying goes, “people take the grain as their priority”, Chinese began to grow crops lone time ago. One thing needs to pay attention to, however, is that there is a major difference of food people grow between the south and the north China. In the south, where near the Yangtze river, people domesticated rice; in the north, where near the Yellow river, people domesticated crops like wheat and millet. This tradition is largely remained until today in China. That’s where the saying came: “南米北面”, roughly means that “rice for the south and noodle for the north”.

Primarily due to the variety of rainfall-or water source-between the south and the north, farmers in the south grow rice mainly. They “began to construct bunds (low dikes) around their fields to keep in rainwater during the growing season. Flooded fields used to grow rice are called paddies.” “First, a polder (high dike) was built encircling the land, then bunds were used to subdivide the land inside into small fields. Little canals ran between the fields, linked to the river by sluices (gates) in the dike. Farmers used the canals to flood the paddies when the young rice plants were growing and to drain off water from the paddies shortly before harvesting. Rice farmers also built holding tanks or reservoirs for storing water to irrigate their paddies.” Overall, the growth of rice requires a huge amount of water, thus keeping a constant source of water became the priority to the farmers in the south.

At the same time, growing rice also need manpower as well as a stable social order, since its growth period is relatively long and need to be taken care of elaborately. Under this demand, Land ownership and a uniform institution came into being. “Under the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050-221 BCE) the land was divided into estates owned by aristocrats and worked by peasant farmers. The nobles held their land as fiefs (gifts) from the king, and in exchange provided him with local products yearly, as well as an agreed number of peasant soldiers when he needed a fighting force.” Then, a major shift occurred when the Qin dynasty abolished aristocracy fiefs, “introducing private ownership of land and direct official taxation of the peasants.” This change not only made the produce of rice more effective but also reinforced the power of the emperor, since the emperor directly controlled the agriculture sources that was crucial for the survival of farmers. All told, a central-powered government is needed to well develop the agriculture, and the Han dynasty further make changes on agriculture policies in order to promote the agriculture development.

Approximately 3500 years ago, when the early government was formed in China and the production of food became relatively more stable, people-or the government-began to develop technology. One noticeable artifact resulted in the improvement of technology is bronze. At the early stage of making bronze or bronze artifacts, which started roughly in Xia, metalworkers “first melt ores of copper and tin under intense heat to extract the metal content. They then mix the metals together in proportions of roughly two-thirds copper to one-third tin, rising in some cases to 90 percent copper and 10 percent tin (this process is known as smelting).” At Shang and Zhou, “bronzeworkers, however, cast their bronzes using a much more elaborate method known as the piece-mold process, sometimes described as ‘casting bronze the complicated way’”. It is reasonable to say that the early technology of bronze-make reached its peak at Shang and Zhou, primarily presented by the mass production of bronze, the specialized bronze workshops, and dedicated-skilled person who manage the manufacture.

To summarize, the bronze began at Xia, developed fast at Shang and reached its peak at Zhou. And the time between these periods is called “era of bronze”.

The bronze and the bronze artifacts served three purposes: 1), since the bronze is an alloy, it is harder and sharper than other materials, and thus it can be made as useful weapons. 2), bronze was made into instruments, such as bells, that are commonly used in music play and certain ritual feasts. These activities played an indispensable part in the royal events. 3), the artifacts made of bronze indicated the power of the king: “During the early part of the Zhou dynasty, only the king was entitled to hang rows of these instruments on all four sides of the courtyard of his ancestral temple. Feudal lords were entitled to three rows, ministers to two rows on opposite sides of the courtyard, and ordinary noblemen to a single row.” However, it should be noticed that “The foundry at Houma in modern Shanxi province, the site of the Jin state capital from 585 to 453 BCE……(bronze) seemed to have been available to anyone. This development is evidence that the feudal system was falling apart during the Warring States era (480-221 BCE). The regulations that had restricted luxury goods to aristocrats were no longer observed……More goods and money were circulating, and rather than rank conferring wealth, wealth began to confer rank.” Such a change on bronze-make also revealed a change on early China’s society.

When the Zhou state came to end, most part of China entered a period called Warring States period. The Zhou broke apart, and eventually there existed 7 different states. This period lasted roughly for 200 to 300 years, when Qin state eliminated other six states and united China in 221 BCE. During Qin’s conquest, technology was also developing fast. One product is the Crossbow.

Crossbow is broadly used in Qin’s military, and this equipment was largely contributed to the winning of Qin among other states. Because “the tension exerted on a crossbow’s bowstring is much greater than that of a conventional bow, the bolt traveled farther and penetrated thick armor with ease. The spring-loaded trigger also gave the crossbow great accuracy over a long range. Solid ranks of crossbowmen opened battle by launching devastating assaults against the massed troops of an opposing army.” It also helped Qin defend the trespass from northern nomad Xiongnu. In a word, the crossbow is a superior weapon that could help the military win even when it is outnumbered in soldiers. However, its drawbacks are also patent: “Crossbows are slower to load and to rearm than ordinary bows, making crossbowmen easy prey for an opposing army’s advancing cavalry.” To address this problem, Qin’s military employed ordinary bows and crossbows in the army, thus successfully filled the gap when the crossbows is reloading.

Since the country is united and the society is more peaceful than in the Warring States period, technology in this time grew faster than ever before. Technology at that time saturated in more field, including some marvelous projects. The Terracotta Army was an excellent example.

Because the first emperor of China, Shihuangdi, was so obsessed by immortality, he even wanted to maintain his emperor status when he is dead. Thus, the construction of the Terracotta began. “Presumably this army was intended to serve as a magical force that would defend the dead emperor and his domains eternally against his enemies.”

The Terracotta Army is not only a tomb, but also it is a comprehensive underground engineering project. “The terracotta figures provided scholars of Chinese technology with information about the way modular mass production was organized by the Qin state. Each of the figures was stamped or inscribed with dates, serial numbers, and the names of craftsmen. The names indicate that some of the craftsmen were originally makers of clay drainage pipes, who had installed the large-scale drainage systems that run under the Qin tomb and palaces.” It is also not hard to image that such a noble project demanded a huge amount of manpower. So, what the Terracotta Army told us, besides the technology itself, is that the central government in ancient China was capable to maneuver labor force for war or projects in one time.

Besides the Terracotta Army, another project that involves technology is the Great Wall. Most scholars accept that Qin dynasty finished such a glorious project. However, one thing that need to be corrected is that what Shihuangdi did was not “built” the Great Wall. What he did was connect all the “walls” that constructed by other six states prior to Qin dynasty together to form one “wall” —the Great Wall. This wall served to protect nomad, Xiongnu, from the northern China encroaching the Qin’ military as well as the civilians. The Great Wall we see nowadays in Beijing was the one that renovated in Ming and Qing dynasty and in modern days. However, there is still part of the Great Wall that remained the same appearance as more than 2200 year ago. Unfortunately, that part usually does not open for every ordinary people.

Other important technologies are the Four Great Inventions of China, namely the printing, paper-making, gunpowder, and compass. They are vital because they not only contributed to the development of China but also the rest of the world. Now the scholars in China argues that the spread of paper to Europe helped the arrival of Renaissance, because this paper made it possible to write things down and the printing made the text spread out easily, raising every ordinary’s awareness. The gunpowder, possibly invented by accident when the emperor was seeking for the medicine that makes him immortal, helped the people in Europe defeat the feudal government. And the compass helped Columbia find the American continent. Another interesting technology product is called Didongyi, which is used to determine which direction does the earthquake come. (refer to


It seems I could only find English version on Wikipedia)

All told, nearly all the technology inventions are bolstered by or emerged under the demand of the government. That also why China fell far behind when the Industrial Revolution started in the western world in 18th century. What the government needed may not be technology itself but how technology can strengthen the emperor’s domination. Also, roughly since the Industrial Revolution, China became a technology-export country (it also needs to be pointed out that the notion “country”, or nation, first came into being in China only until the beginning of 20th century) to a technology-import country. After 1840, China entered an era known as semi-capitalism and semi-feudal. During the period-between 1840 and 1949, when the nation “China” truly formed- Chinese people and government spent most of the time to acquire technologies from western countries to defend the nation and prevent it from becoming a colony. And the development of technology almost remained static at this time.





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