The Formation of Chinese Civilization
China is an East Asian country with a large territory, a huge population and an ancient history. With written records dating back 4,000 years, it is recognized as one of the four great ancient civilizations of the world, together with ancient Egypt, Babylon and India. Moreover, it is the only ancient civilization that has continued to this very day.
China was one of the cradles of the human race. The Chinese nation is not only the most populous but also one of the oldest in the world. Fossils that have been found in Chinese territory include those of Yuanmou Man, the first Homo erectus, who lived 1.7 million years ago, those of Lantian Man, who lived 750,000 years ago, and those of the Peking Man, who lived at Zhoukoudian in today's suburban Beijing 600,000 years ago. The fossils of Shu Ape, a primate that lived 45 million years ago, which is known as the "first anthropoid", were discovered in China in 1994.
The first light of Chinese civilization revealed itself 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, as indicated by the ruins of the Daxi Culture in Sichuan and Hubei provinces, the Majiapang Culture in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the Hemudu Culture in eastern Zhejiang and the Yangshou Culture along the middle reaches of the Yellow River and its main tributaries.
According to legend, the primitive tribes that inhabited the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River were unified into two powerful tribes under the Yellow Emperor and Fiery Emperor, and began their push southward 5,000 years ago. After years of warfare, they conquered the Sanmiao and Jiuli tribes active in south China under the leadership of Chi You. Part of the defeated tribe was incorporated into the tribes under the Yellow and Fiery emperors to become a component part of the Han people, which marked the beginning of the Chinese nation. This history has also given rise to the term "descendants of the Yellow and Fiery emperors" that Chinese often use to refer to themselves.
Archaeological studies have revealed that around 5,000 years ago the Chinese entered the stage of patriarchal society. Not only did villages begin to appear but also the initial forms of cities began to become evident. Extensive communities indicated that the population at the time had already reached a fairly large size and agriculture had made great headway. The earliest discoveries took place during this period. Shen Nong tried and tasted various kinds of wild plants to select crops appropriate to be cultivated for food and herbal medicine to cure disease. The Yellow Emperor invented the compass, which helped him defeat Chi You. More importantly, the appearance of chariots greatly reduced labor intensity. Lei Su, wife of the Yellow Emperor, discovered silk making by raising silkworms, and produced the first garments, which allowed the ancient people to bid goodbye to the period when they wore animal skins and tree leaves. The tribe under Chi You in the south learned how to make weapons with copper, creating the conditions for making bronze vessels, metallurgy and alchemy of later times.
During the Xia Dynasty, 4,000 years ago, China entered the period of slave society. The Shang Dynasty (16-11th centuries BC), which replaced the Xia, saw the height of bronze culture, when superb smelting and casting techniques brought forth beautiful wares made of bronze. Pottery making also developed very rapidly with the appearance of primitive pottery wares. Sericulture and silk weaving reached maturity at this time.
From 475 BC to the end of the 19th century, China went through a long feudal period. Before the 15th century, China was one of the most powerful countries in the world, occupying a leading position in the development of productivity and technology. Ancient China enjoyed a developed agriculture and advanced irrigation system, an independent tradition of medicine and advanced botanical knowledge. China's four great inventions, namely, the compass, gunpowder, movable type printing and papermaking, not only changed the world but also accelerated the evolution of world history. Besides, China was rich in ceramics and silk textiles which were great inventions that exerted a great impact worldwide. China also kept the world's most detailed and earliest astronomical records. The first people to take note of such astronomical phenomena as comets, sunspots and new stars were all Chinese. It was also the Chinese who produced the most advanced astronomical observatory apparatus of the time. In metallurgy, China long held a leading position. When Europeans still could not turn out a single piece of cast iron in the 14th century, Chinese people had already produced cast iron on an industrial scale four centuries earlier.
In the field of thought, Confucius, founder of Confucianism, not only had far-reaching significance for China, but for the whole of East and Southeast Asia. The warfare strategies introduced by the noted military strategist Sun Zi are still studied and referred to today. Taoism was an important school of thought, and is known for its simple dialectical elements. Its position of "quietude and inaction" has many identical views with the thoughts of modern man. Taoism, based on the Taoist doctrines, is an independent religion established in China.
When commenting on the relationship between China's civilization and that of the rest of the world, the late Joseph Needham, historian of China's science and technology and professor at Cambridge University, once said that people must remember that China was way ahead of the West in almost every discipline of science and technology, from chart making to gunpowder, in early times and into the Middle Ages. Western civilization, he went on to say, did not begin until the era of Columbus, and China had left the Europeans far behind in science and technology before that time.
Unfortunately, the country's feudal bureaucratic system held back science and inventions from making further progress, and prevented Chinese society from developing modern science, resulting in China staying long in the experimental stage in science and technology.
Modern China is experiencing a completely new era in which respect for science and inventions and encourage creativity have become the guiding principles of society. Looking back at the contributions China's civilization has made to the world, we have reason to believe that a more prosperous and stronger China will surely make new contributions to the civilization of mankind.
2. The Origin of Man
In 1965, fossils of Yuanmou Man were discovered in Yuanmou County, Yunnan Province. Yuanmou Man, who lived 1.7 million years ago was the first Homo erectus ever found within the boundaries of China. The two fossil teeth unearthed were from the inside upper jaw of a young male. In the same layer, stone chips and stone tools with traces of the work of man along with a three-meter-thick layer of earth containing carbon indicated that man had already begun to make simple tools and knew how to use fire. In 1929, a skull fossil of Peking Man who lived some 200,000 to 700,000 years ago was discovered in Zhoukoudian, Fangshan, in suburban Beijing. The skull showed a brain capacity of 1,059 ml., lower than the average brain capacity of 1,400 ml. of modern man. Analysis shows that Peking Man had the ability of simple thinking and speaking, and could walk straight and engage in productive labor. From the same site, fossils of bones and teeth belonging to more than forty men and women of different ages were unearthed along with more than 100,000 pieces of roughly processed stone tools for cutting, smashing, chopping and trimming. Also found was a layer of accumulated ashes six meters thick and animal bones that had been burned, which suggested that Peking Man used fire to cook his food.
The origin of man is admittedly a matter of dispute in the field of modern natural science. In recent years, foreign scientists have come to the position after making use of molecular biological method in their research that the earliest ancestor of the modern man was born in Africa 200,000 years ago. From the molecular biological point of view, since people could mate among different ethnic groups, they came from the same distant ancestor. Some scientists believe that the origin of modern man was an African woman who lived 200,000 years ago, and that some of her descendants arrived in the Middle East some 100,000 years ago. After that, another group arrived in East Asia and Europe about 60,000 years ago. Wherever they stopped, they wiped out the "aboriginals". Neanderthal Man in Europe and the Peking Man in China were collateral branches which became extinguished during man's evolutionary process.
Most of the palaeoanthropologists of China do not agree with this. The large amount of palaeoanthropological fossils found in China suggest that Yuanmou Man of 1.7 million years ago, New Cave Man of 100,000 years ago, Upper Cave Man of 18,000 years ago and Jalai Nur Man of 10,000 years ago all had high cheekbones, flat nose bridges and spade-shaped upper front teeth, which are all characteristics of modern man in China, indicating genetic stability and evolutionary continuity. In particular, the span of 330,000 years from Peking Man, to New Cave Man and Upper Cave Man, who all made their home in the Zhoukoudian area, effectively testifies to the fact that the yellow race evolved from a local ape.
Backed by solid proof, almost all of China's palaeoanthropologists support the theory of "regional evolution" of the origin of man.
In 1998, a group under the guidance of Professor Qiang Biqin of the Basic Medicine Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, and Professor Chen Zhu of the Shanghai Research Institute of Haematology of the Second Shanghai Medical University, together with Chu Jiayou, president of the Medicinal Biology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, who was the leader of a sub-group, published their thesis titled, "Genetic Relations Among Different Human Groups in China" in the journal of the US Academy of Medical Science. The group made analyses of generic samples of 28 major groups including the Ewenkis in Heilongjiang in the far north, the Uygurs in Xinjiang in the far west, several branches of the Gaoshan people in Taiwan in the east and people in Yunnan in the south. Their studies suggested that the 56 ethnic groups in China showed genetic differences among people in the north and south, with the Yangtze River as the dividing line. The genome tree conforms with the theory of a single African origin. To this day, no proof has been found to support the theory of an independent origin in Asia, which differs from what the fossils suggest.
The results of the most recent study, made public in March 2000, however, once again favored scholars in China in their theory of human origin. The Shu Ape, a primate weighing only 100 to 150 grams and being similar to a mouse in size, lived in the Middle Eocene Epoch 4.5 to 4 million years ago. Its discovery posed a great challenge to the theory of African origin of the human race. When palaeontologists and research fellows Qi Tao and Wang Jingwen discovered the fossil of this advanced primate in Liyang, in east China's Jiangsu Province in the early 1990s, they named it the "China Shu Ape". "Shu" means the first light. They so named the animal because they wanted to suggest that its discovery had brought new hope for finding the common ancestor of the human race and advanced primates. At the same time, it also meant that the place of origin of the advanced primate might well have been in China.
The Shu Ape is to date the smallest primate animal ever discovered. Carrying the characteristics of both the advanced and lower primates, it was the link between the lower to the advanced primates. It was good at climbing, and walked on all fours on tree branches. Its diet was wide-ranging -- from insects to fruits. Fossils of this ape have been found in Liyang in Jiangsu Province and Yuanyang in Shanxi Province in China and earth formation at Pondug in Myanmar. All of these places were temperate, damp forested areas crisscrossed by rivers, a suitable environment for the Shu Ape.
Professor and palaeontologist Daniel L. Gebo of Northern Illinois University has said that most scientists believed that the ancestor of advanced primate animals came from Africa, but the importance of the regions where the Shu Ape was found suggests the unusual aspects of Asian fossil sites. Chinese palaeontologist Qi Tao believes that the discovery of the Shu Ape fossils solved two issues: One was that it pushed back the time of origin of advanced primates by 10 million years, and the other was that it moved the place of origin of advanced primates from Africa to East Asia. The discovery's great significance poses a strong challenge to the important position the African continent has so far held in theories of man's evolution.
3. Home of Ceramics
Pottery making began to develop in China during the New Stone Age some 10,000 years ago. Pottery wares have been unearthed in many historical sites dating from the New Stone Age. The pottery jar found in the Cave of the Immortals in Jiangxi Province has a history of more than 10,000 years.
China is one of the countries where colored pottery first appeared. Gansu and Qinghai Province on the upper reaches of the Yellow River has yielded more colored pottery wares than any other places. Ruins of the lower type of culture at Shiling in Minhe County, Qinghai Province, clearly demonstrate the degree of development of pottery making at that time. Artifacts from virtually all ancient sites include pottery containers made from clay of different colors and quality. In most cases, the method of applying clay strips was discovered, according to which clay was first shaped into long strips and then piled up from the bottom to create a rough base, on which adjustment and further shaping were done. On the surface of some pottery wares colored painting is visible. Most colored pottery wares have a blue color, although red and white colored ones have also been unearthed. The majority of the patterns on the pottery wares are geometric. A pottery basin unearthed at Upper Sunjiazhai, Datong, in Qinghai Province in 1973, had a dark red surface. Below the basin's rim are painted in blue three groups of dancers with five dancers in each group. They have the same costume and hairstyle, and they are hand in hand, dancing to the same beat, bringing to the present the image of ancient people dancing and singing after work some 5,000 years ago.
The blue pottery cup unearthed from the ruins of the Longshan Culture in Shandong is as thin as an eggshell, representing the highest level of pottery making in the late period of the New Stone Age. The speedy development of pottery making gradually gave rise to an independent trade, and the emergence of cutting and shaping techniques on a fast-turning wheel greatly raised the level of pottery making, enriching the variety of shapes. Pottery wares in hitherto unseen shapes such as an eagle-shaped tripod which represents the clever combination of animal images with actual pottery wares and the application of high-heat baking technique created the conditions for the appearance of metallurgy.
In the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC), primitive porcelain made from kaolin clay appeared, which required a much higher degree of fire in the kiln to around 1,200 degrees C. These wares showed a much lower water absorption level and bore the initial qualities of porcelain, which occupies an important position in the development of ceramics in China. The earliest porcelain found to date is a primitive porcelain wine vessel unearthed at Erligang, Zhengzhou, Henan Province, in 1953. First, kaolin clay was shaped into the form of a vessel and then baked with high degree of fire. A thin layer of greenish yellow glaze on the surface gives the vessel an ancient elegance.
In 221 BC, the ruler of the State of Qin unified China with the help of a powerful army, and became the first emperor of the country. When he died in 210 BC, 700,000 slaves produced a pottery army of more than 8,000 life-size warriors, including archers, chariots and horses, which were buried to protect his mausoleum. The different and vivid expressions of the pottery soldiers, and the attractive colors on their armor demonstrate the level of pottery making and colored sculpture making, winning the terracotta army the reputation of being the "eighth wonder of the world".
In the middle period of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), glazed pottery using a lower degree of fire appeared. These products were mostly used as burial objects. In the south of the country, hard pottery which required a high degree of fire and solid base came into fashion. Besides, it was very common during this period to apply colored paint to ready-made pottery wares. Colored patterns mostly appeared on the cover, neck, shoulder and belly of pottery wares and figures, the most popular patterns being dragons, tigers, zhucui (a legendary bird guarding the west), and clouds.
The Eastern Han was an important period in the development of pottery. Blue porcelain first appeared as early as in the Shang Dynasty, but reached its maturity in the Eastern Han. The blue porcelain had a fine and solid base, embellished with an even and shiny color. It laid a solid foundation for porcelain making in the years to come.
During this period, porcelain making in the south made great headway, as proved by new characteristics in the shape, decoration and industrial art of porcelain making. On the basis of blue porcelain, blue glazed porcelain with a high sheen like lacquer ware appeared. A blue glazed porcelain pot was cleverly designed with the spout shaped as a rooster's head and the handle as a rooster's tail. In addition to its unusual shape, it was convenient to use.
Among the burial objects unearthed from tombs of the Wei-Jin period (220-420), many are blue porcelain art objects with a smooth and lustrous finish.
What makes blue porcelain special is the use of iron in the pigment, which, after being fired, gives a luster of bluish green or yellow, hence the name blue porcelain. Most of the blue porcelain wares are covered with exquisite patterns finished with such techniques as carving, sculpting and molding, symbolizing an important step forward in porcelain making.
Porcelain making in the Tang Dynasty showed even more prominent progress, as demonstrated by the emergence of some famous kilns with distinctive characteristics, and the appearance of two major schools known as white in the north and blue in the south. The technique of creating color glaze in this period far outdid that of previous dynasties, with new achievements. Porcelain wares with blue glaze, multi-colored glaze and blended glazes emerged. Porcelain as white as silver and snow, blue porcelain similar to jade and crystal ice and the combined three colors typical of Tang glazed wares together created the most colorful period in China's history of porcelain making.
Porcelain making in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) revealed dazzling exuberance. Kilns mushroomed throughout the country, with their distinctive ceramics competing in elegance. The Jun, Ru, Ge, Guan and Ding kilns are known as the five major kilns of the Song Dynasty. The Ding kiln belonged to the north China porcelain making school, and its porcelains display a well-balanced shape, whitish body and smooth glaze. Highly decorative, they were rendered mostly with vivid and well-arranged designs of flowers, grass, flying birds and swimming fish finished with drawing, carving and stamping techniques, demonstrating a high artistic level. Gold, silver or copper was inlaid on the edges of the wares, which not only covered up any defects, but also made them look more elegant and imposing.
The Jun kiln produced porcelains of varying degrees of bluish and milky glazes as their basic ones. When the glaze was light, it was the tint of a light blue sky or white like moonlight, while in other cases, the glaze was deep sky blue. Copper oxide was used as a coloring agent to successfully create a red glaze resembling the evening glow in a blue sky. Among the outstanding porcelain wares from the Jun kiln, those with rose purple and begonia red tints are the most valuable pieces.
In the south, famous kilns included the Yue, Longquan and Jingdezhen kilns. According to one story, during the Song Dynasty there were two brothers with the family name of Zhang in Longquan, Zhejiang Province. Each of them had a kiln producing blue porcelain. People referred to the kiln of the elder brother as the Ge kiln, and to that of the younger brother as the Di kiln (``ge" and ``di" meaning elder and younger brother, respectively). For a long time, people could not find the exact site of the Ge kiln. In recent years, however, archaeologists collected fragmented pieces of porcelain from the Ge kiln in Longquan and initially determined that products from the Ge kiln were a kind of blue porcelain. Ge porcelain had pinkish blue, bluish white and millet yellow glazes, the most outstanding feature of which was that on the glazed surface were patched patterns of varying sizes arranged in different degrees of compactness.
The Song Dynasty also saw busy trade between major cities along China's southeast coast with the Arab and the Mediterranean countries. Along this "Maritime Silk Road," Chinese porcelain spread to different parts of the world, and won wide acclaim for its unique charm.
Underglaze, a new porcelain making art, appeared during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was a major invention of the kiln at Jingdezhen.
Ming Dynasty porcelain showed a visible improvement in using glaze, patterning and the shape of the wares. Jingdezhen became the center of China's porcelain making industry. On the basis of white porcelain, the art of blue patterns made the most conspicuous progress and became the mainstream for colored porcelain wares.
Blue and white porcelain took cobalt oxide as its main coloring agent. After coloring was applied to the body, it was baked in a high degree of heat to create an underglaze, the light and quiet elegance of which won the hearts of many. During the reigns of emperors Yongle and Xuande, thin-body and bright-colored blue and white porcelains were all over the world for their varied patterns and shapes.
Porcelains of contending colors were a new variety created during the reign of Emperor Chenghua (1465-1487) of the Ming Dynasty. Blue paint was used to paint the contours of mountains, rivers, flowers, birds and human figures on the body of the object. After the porcelains were fired in high heat, yellow, green and red colors were filled in within the contours of the patterns. Then a low fire was used to bake them again. The underglaze was blue, while above it were varied colors creating an effect of strongly contrasting colors.
The five-colored porcelains that appeared during the Ming Dynasty used red, yellow, green, purple and other colors to create patterns on the porcelain to bring out an effect of sharply contrasting dark red and dark green. Red was given particular emphasis.
Soft-colored porcelain was created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when lead powder was mixed with the paints. This way, each color could show different shades.
It was not until the 18th century, more than a thousand years after the Chinese mastered the art of porcelain making, that people in the West began to understand its technology.
4. Great Thinkers
China's period of slave society disintegrated during the Spring and Autumn Period, sometime after 700 BC. Progress in productivity brought about drastic changes in social life and politics. Different classes with different schools of thought were unprecedentedly active, giving rise to a situation of ``many schools of thought contending with each other," and promoting science and culture. The major schools were those of the Confucianists, Moists Taoists Legalists, military strategists, Logicians, and Political Strategists. Among them, the works and doctrines of such famous thinkers and military strategists as Lao Zi, Sun Zi and Sun Wu are still widely circulated in the world today.
Lao Zi, founder of Taoism, lived during the Spring and Autumn Period. Whether he was the true author of the book Dao De Jing (The Book of Virtue) has long been in dispute. However, the majority of scholars tend to believe that the book reflects his thinking. Lao Zi used the concept of the "Dao" (Way) to explain all changes in the universe, and put forward dialectical ideas such as "Dao gives rise to one, one gives rise to two, two gives rise to three and three gives rise to all other things", "All things under Heaven came from something which in turn came from nothing" and "Good fortune lies within bad, bad fortune lurks within good". In aesthetics, he advocated the concepts of "Great sound is rarely heard" and "Great images have no forms". The theory of Lao Zi exerted a great impact on the development of philosophy in China, and later scholars made use of his thinking in various ways. The Dao De Jing has been translated into many languages. Apart from its philosophical views, the moral principles standing for universal love as expressed in the following words "To honor others' aged people as we honor our own; and to be kind to others' young as we are to our own" are often quoted with approval by people today.
Confucius (551-479 BC) toured various states during the Spring and Autumn Period advocating his ideas on right conduct, in order to shore up aristocratic rule. Later he devoted his energy to teaching by opening schools and enrolling some 3,000 students. Among them, seventy-two were noted scholars who helped compile ancient books and put his teachings into the book titled The Analects. For 2,000 years, Confucianism was the dominating force in the feudal society of China, exerting a significant impact on the stability and moral principles of society. Having spread to East and Southeast Asia, his thinking became an important guiding ideology in many countries, making Confucius a world-level thinker.
Sun Wu was an outstanding military strategist in the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period, and helped Ge Lu, king of the State of Wu, to realize his ambitions. His book, The Art of War, is the earliest writing on military strategies in the world. Some of the strategies and tactics in the book are still used in military affairs and even enterprise management, commercial competition and sports competition today. The book spread to other Asian countries, and further on to distant Europe as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is said that Napoleon read The Art of War during his campaigns and Emperor William II of Germany once expressed regret that he had not read the book 20 years earlier. Now this book has been translated into a dozen languages.
Wang Chong, who lived in the early years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) was an outstanding materialist thinker in Chinese history. His Discourses Weighed in the Balance is an ancient philosophical work that illuminates plain materialist thinking. In the book, he discusses the materialist concept of nature, refutes the idea of ghosts and elaborates on "the response between Heaven and man."
During the Ming Dynasty, new idealist theories, such as what was advocated by Wang Shouren, emerged. At the same time, progressive thinkers with democratic characteristics were also produced, Li Zhi (1527-1602) being one of the most outstanding representatives in this regard. He was opposed to the deification of Confucius, arguing that it was unnecessary to consult Confucius on everything and that Confucian theory should not be adopted as the only criteria for judging right and wrong. He refuted the feudal class system, opposed feudal rites and propagated equality between men and women. His theories aroused official alarm, and consequently Li Zhi was persecuted to death.
5. Astronomy and Mathematics
Like people of other cultures, the ancient Chinese paid close attention to the heavenly bodies and their movements, because the sun, moon, stars and their movements were the most eternal features that the ancient people could observe.
Since the ancient Chinese believed that the perceived movements of the stars were closely related to the destiny of the country and its rulers, for thousands of years they recorded their movements with great attention. From the 16th century BC to the end of the 19th century AD, almost every dynasty appointed officials charged with the sole task of observing and recording the changes in the heavens. Such observations and records have left a rich astronomical legacy.
A long time ago, people noticed that the sun and moon sometimes suddenly lost their brightness. People could not figure out the reason and feared that, once gone, the brightness would not return and would mean the end of the world. Precisely because of this, the ancient Chinese began to observe solar and lunar eclipses, recording the time and size of the coverage, and searching for the reasons for eclipses. The earliest solar eclipse record that can be verified appears in a bone inscription dating back to the Shang Dynasty. Studies have proved that the solar eclipse recorded actually took place on May 26, 1217 BC, thus also proving that it was the first reliable record of an eclipse man ever made. Records of lunar eclipses, however, date back to an even earlier time. Bone and tortoise shell inscriptions record five lunar eclipses that took place during the 14th and 13th centuries BC.
Ancient Chinese astronomers diligently observed solar eclipses, and made scrupulous records, maintaining continuity of the recording. For instance, the Spring and Autumn Annals record 37 solar eclipses during a period of 294 years -- from 770 to 476 BC. Studies have proved that most of these records are reliable. Later, recordings of solar eclipses begun in the 3rd century BC and of lunar eclipses begun in the 5th century BC continued all the way to contemporary times.
While Western astronomers of the Renaissance period were still arguing in 1615 who was the first to discover sunspots, Chinese astronomers had already accumulated a large amount of records on sunspots. Now it is known that the earliest records of sunspots were made in 28 BC by Chinese astronomers during the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Western Han Dynasty. From then until the late Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century, Chinese history books recorded more than 100 sunspots. Furthermore, they also took note of other phenomena concerning the sun, such as solar prominences and coronas. The first record of a solar prominence has been found in a tortoise shell inscription, which describes "three suddenly bursting fires eating a chunk of the sun". According to statistics, sunspots occur in a cycle every 11.33 years on average, which is in conformity with ancient Chinese documents and once again testifies to the fact that records of sunspots made by ancient Chinese people are a very valuable astronomical legacy.
China also compiled a huge amount of records on meteoric showers. The Bamboo Annals records a meteoric shower in 2133 BC in today's Henan Province. This is the first mention in the world of a meteoric shower.
Meteorites, both of iron and of stone, often fall to the earth, and this was noticed by the ancient Chinese. Song Yingxing, a scientist of the late Ming period, once said, "When stars fall to the earth, they become stones." Shen Kuo, a scientist of the Song Dynasty, observed three meteoric explosions one evening in 1064, and described in detail an incident of meteorites falling into the garden of a farmer in Jiangsu Province in his book Dream Stream Essays.
During the Spring and Autumn Period, some 2,200 years ago, Chinese documents already had entries on what later came to be known as Halley's Comet. The record of the comet, which appeared in 613 BC, in Spring and Autumn Annals is recognized as the earliest mention of Halley's Comet in the world. Since Halley's Comet visits the earth once every 76 years, it came back to the earth 29 times during a period of 2,149 years from 240 BC (the 7th year of the reign of the First Emperor of Qin) to 1910 (the 2nd year of the reign of Emperor Xuantong of Qing). Each of these visits was clearly recorded by Chinese scholars. J. R. Hind, an astronomer from the West, once used these continuous data to calculate the orbit of Halley's Comet, and discovered that the angle of the orbit showed a narrowing trend. In the Han Dynasty, it was 170 degrees, but it narrowed down to 161 degrees in the mid-19th century.
From 1600 BC to AD 1600, China recorded comets 581 times, leaving behind valuable materials. In 635 BC, Chinese astronomers pointed out that the comet always traveled with its back to the sun. Without these repeated observations, the detailed descriptions of the comet tails could not have been made, nor could the relationship between the sun and comets have been correctly deduced.
The scientific and technological achievements of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) are very impressive. The various feudal states all had their own court astronomers. The most famous among them -- Gan De of the State of Chu and Shi Shen of the State of Wei -- together wrote The Gan and Shi Book of the Stars, which accurately record the positions of 120 stars, constituting the world's earliest star chart. The lid of a lacquer chest of the Warring States Period unearthed in Suizhou, Hebei Province, has a list of the 28 constellations, China's earliest record of the entire list of the constellations.
Novas and supernovas are all variable stars created by nova outbursts. During an outburst, the brightness of a nova may increase during a matter of a few days by several thousand or even dozens of thousands of times. Then it will gradually dim, to eventually return to its original brightness after several or dozens of years. Outbursts of supernovas are on an even grander scale, increasing their brightness by up to hundreds of millions of times.
There are more than 50 reliable records of novas made in ancient China, in addition to over a dozen cases of supernovas. The first record of a nova dates from 1400 BC in China, in a tortoise shell inscription, which reads as follows: "On the 7th day of a certain month, a new star appeared next to 'Heart Constellation II'." From 1400 BC to AD 1600, China recorded 90 novas. Among them the supernova discovered in 1054 was the first to be confirmed by modern radio astronomers. In 1731, a British astronomer discovered an oblong spot of fog over China. After observation, calculation and analysis by several astronomers, it was proved that the crab-shaped nebula found in this position was the ruins of a supernova that had shot out of a dense cluster some 900 years previously, i.e., the year of 1054. This discovery was one of the most significant astronomical findings in the 1960s.
Enormous amounts of records in ancient China on happenings of the stars, comparatively, were most accurate and complete in the world. In terms of data, they held the highest rate of application. It is entirely beyond the imagination of ancient astronomers that their records could serve modern scientific studies. In future along with further developments in science, these ancient records may well prove to be of even greater values.
The period from the 3rd to the 6th centuries was an important stage in the development of culture and science in China, as many outstanding scientists emerged. Zu Chongzhi (420-589) made outstanding contributions to mathematics, astronomy and machine building. He was the first person in the world to bring the calculation of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter to the seventh decimal place, between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927. His achievement was more than a thousand years earlier than that of his European counterparts. Zu put dozens of his writings on mathematics into a book titled The Art of Mending, which represented the highest achievements in the realm of mathematics at that time. In astronomy, the Daming Calendar he worked out was China's most advanced calendar of his era. After observations and studies, he concluded that a year lasted exactly 365.24281481 days which was only 46 seconds different from the modern estimate. In machine building, records suggested that he made improvements to a compass device for carriages, built a water-mill and a "thousand-li ship". In order to commemorate Zu's outstanding contributions to science, a mountain on the moon has been named after him.
Yi Xing (683-727), a monk of the Tang Dynasty, led a large-scale project to identify the locations of the major stars, and, based on the results, concluded that the length of a degree of the meridian line was 351.27 li by Tang measurement, which meant 123.7 km. This was the first measurement of the meridian ever done in the world.
Around the year 723, Yi Xing and his colleagues constructed an armillary sphere which could move in synchronization with the movements of the heavenly bodies at night. It was installed in an observatory established in Chang'an (Xi'an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty.
Astronomical studies made impressive headway during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During this period, five large-scale observations of the sky were undertaken, resulting in star maps. The stone planisphere kept in Suzhou today was first drawn during the reign of Emperor Yuanfeng (1078-85) and then committed to stone in 1247 by Wang Zhiyuan of the Southern Song Dynasty. On the map are 1,434 stars, the ecliptic, the equator, the Milky Way and the twenty-eight constellations. The lower part of the planisphere is occupied by explanations totaling 209 characters, which constitute a concise introduction to the astronomical knowledge man had grasped by that time. This is China's earliest and most complete star map still extant.
Shen Kuo was a noted scientist of the Northern Song Dynasty. He left behind a great store of notes and research findings in the fields of geography, geology, astronomy and mathematics. His work Dream Stream Essays contains early discussions of the compass and movable type printing. This book is of great value for the study of the history of science.
Su Song, a Northern Song Dynasty scientist, invented a new type of astronomical instrument powered by hydraulic force -- a water-driven astronomical clock tower which combined the functions of observing the stars, recording astronomical data and telling the time. His book New Design for an Armillary Clock crystallized the highest levels of astronomical science and technology of the 12th century in China.
About 4,000 years ago, the oldest astronomical instrument known to man up to date appeared. It was merely a bamboo pole planted in the ground so that the movement of the sun could be observed from the direction and length of the shadow of the pole. This primitive instrument had two other important functions: One was to judge the time according to the direction of the shadow during the day and the other was to tell the summer and winter solstice by watching the length of the shadow at the noontime of the given day. By adding a disc carved with radiating lines, it became a sundial. The shadows of the bamboo pole happened to be the shortest at the summer solstice and longest at the winter solstice. Experience told people that when the sun began to move northward from the southernmost point, the weather would gradually become warmer, with all things coming back to life. It also meant that famine would soon be ended. In the same fashion, when the sun moved from its northernmost position toward the south, the weather would turn cold, and living things would wither. People then had to store food for the long winter. As a result, the summer and winter solstices were very important to ancient people. To identify the summer and winter solstices thus became one of the most essential purposes of astronomical studies in ancient China.
Guo Shoujing (1231-1316), a noted scientist of the Yuan Dynasty, made major improvements to the sundial. First he created a tower sundial, raising its height from the original 2.66 meters to 13.33 meters, which drastically increased its accuracy. Based on his research, the calendar was revised. His calendar had 365.2425 days in a year, which was only 26 seconds different from the time it takes the earth to go around the sun. His achievement was 300 years earlier than the finalization of the modern calendar. Xing Yunlu, an astronomer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), further raised the height of the sundial by erecting a twenty-meter-tall one and his statistics derived from this sundial enabled him to calculate that there were 365.2417 days in a tropical year, which constituted the most accurate figure at the time in the world, with a difference of only 2.3 seconds from the modern calculation.
Guo Shoujing made great contributions in the areas of astronomy, the calendar and water conservation. He made or improved 13 kinds of astronomical instruments. In 1296, he improved the armillary sphere into an astronomical observation apparatus, in which he discarded the ecliptic ring, and combined the azimuth, equatorial torquetum and sundial into one, which not only simplified the structure but also made the armillary sphere more accurate. It overcame the shortages of the armillary sphere in having too many rings, being difficult to operate and having limited measuring capacity. The equator device in Guo's new instrument was an important invention in astronomical apparatus making and very similar to that in modern astronomical telescopes. Occupying an important position in the world's history of astronomy, Guo's torquetum was 300 years earlier than a similar instrument produced by Danish astronomers.
The water-driven astronomical clock tower was produced by Su Song and Han Gonglian in 1088 in the Northern Song capital of Bianliang, now called Kaifeng. The wooden tower consisted of three levels. The top level housed an armillary sphere to measure the location of the sun, moon and stars; the middle level was reserved for a globe and a mechanical installation which allowed the revolving globe to move in synchronization with that of the natural celestial sphere. The lower level was a wooden cabin divided into five stories, with a door in each story. A wooden puppet would emerge and tell the time by beating a drum every quarter of an hour, waving a bell every hour and beating the bell every two hours.
Counting-rods were used for arithmetical calculations in China for about 1,000 years. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the abacus appeared, and gradually replaced the counting-rods.
The earliest calculation tools -- counting-rods--appeared some time in the Western Zhou period (11th century-771 BC). The rods were small sticks of various lengths made of bamboo, bone, bronze, iron or lead. According to the History of the Han Dynasty, the rods were about six Chinese inches or 13.86 centimeters long.
The rods could be placed either upright or horizontally. In the upright position, they represented units of one, one hundred, 100 thousand, million, etc., while horizontally, they represented units of ten, one thousand, 100 thousand, 10 million…. A blank space represented zero. The counting-rods could be used for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and extraction. And the system used was decimal.
The water clock was an ancient timing device in China, which calculated time according the constant flow of water. A sinking-arrow type bronze water clock of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) unearthed in Hanggin Banner, Inner Mongolia, in 1976 is 47.9 centimeters high, 24.2 centimeters deep inside and with a volume of 3,684 cubic centimeters. Wooden arrows carved with scales were fixed to the handle, lid and body of the pot. When water flowed out, the arrows gradually sank, and from their position the time could be determined. This was an early form of water clock. Later, people invented water clocks of multiple containers with floating arrows, which were more accurate.
A copper clepsydra cast in 1316 is the earliest multiple-container water clock extant in China today. Its four component parts, namely, the sun pot, moon pot, star pot and receiving pot, are arranged on a terraced frame next to each other. The four pots resemble cylinders in outside appearance. Their tops, covered with lids, are larger in diameter than their bases. The sun pot, carved with the image of the sun, was the largest. A tube for letting the water flow was fixed to the bottom. The moon pot is carved with the image of the moon, while the star pot is carved with the seven stars of the Big Dipper. To tell the time, water was first poured into the sun pot, which then dripped at a constant rate into the next pot through the tube, until it finally reached the receiving pot. Here there is a copper ruler in the center, bearing 12 marks, each representing a two-hour period. In front of the ruler is a narrow rectangular hole to which is fixed a wooden arrow. Underneath the arrow is a floating boat. As the water level rose, the boat pushed up the arrow. By matching the arrow with the markings on the ruler, one could tell the time of day. Originally, this copper clepsydra was placed on the rostrum of the North Gate Tower in Guangzhou. It was damaged by fire in the 18th century, but was repaired later.
The Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon and the Circular Paths, written during the Han Dynasty, is an ancient work on mathematics. The book not only summarizes the mathematical achievements made up to that time, such as the multiplication and division of fractions, the application of fractions and the use of right-angled triangles for astronomical calculations, but also records scientific knowledge in many other areas, including the movement of the heavenly bodies, and the fact that the moon reflects the sun's light. Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, written during the Eastern Han Dynasty, introduces mathematical achievements up until Eastern Han. The book contains 246 solutions to mathematical problems, arranged in nine chapters. The book touches upon the rules of the four basic operations of fractions, calculation of the area of plane figures, simultaneous linear equations, square and cubic roots, and the rules of addition and subtraction of positive and negative numbers, exerting a great impact on mathematical development in China and the East, and leaving a glorious chapter in the history of mathematics of the world.
Social and economic development as well as the introduction of scientific and technological knowledge from the West during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) gave a boost to studies in the natural sciences. In mathematics, Ming Antu, of the Mongolian ethnic group, was a pioneer in examining the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter in his book An Express Way to Solve the Ratio of the Circumference of a Circle to Its Diameter. Mei Wending, another noted mathematician of the same period, made a comparative study of European and traditional Chinese mathematics in an effort to promote the study of mathematics in China. A prolific writer, he wrote A Comprehensive Study of Chinese and Western Mathematics, which included almost all the current knowledge of mathematics worldwide. Wang Xichan, an astronomer, wrote the New Methods of Xiao An, in which he calculated the transits of Venus and Mercury, based on his in-depth studies of Chinese and Western astronomy.
China was also one of the first countries in the world to apply astronomical knowledge to navigation. How does one determine the location of a ship in a boundless ocean? Before the invention of modern navigation technology, the only solution was to rely on observation of the stars.
The Book of the Prince of Huai Nan, which was compiled during the Han Dynasty, describes how locating the polar star can help ships navigate. This is the earliest written work on sea navigation in China, indicating that terrestrial observation was widely applied to sea navigation as early as the initial years of the Han Dynasty.
Zhu Yu of the Song Dynasty wrote in his Pingzhou Table Talks, "The ship's captain, well-armed with knowledge of geography, observed the stars at night and the sun during the day. When it was gloomy, he consulted his compass." Thus, we know that the stars, the sun and the compass were all used to tell directions at sea.
Zheng He, a famous navigator of the Ming Dynasty, undertook several epic sea voyages as commander of the then largest fleet in the world. Apart from the advanced compass, invented in China, he and his fleet also benefited from the method of terrestrial observation to find their way. His fleet cruised through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, to reach the Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa. The book Charts of Zheng He's Voyages presents the entire course of his voyages in the form of charts, from which we learn that different positioning methods were used in three stages: First from Suzhou, China, to the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, compasses were enough, since the fleet sailed with the coast on its right. The second stage was from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, when the fleet went westward without much change of latitude. In addition, the distance between the two places was relatively short. Compass was the major means of positioning, and terrestrial observation was employed as an auxiliary method. The third stage was from Sri Lanka to the eastern coast of Africa across the Indian Ocean. A slight digression of the fleet would take it far away from its destination. As a result, terrestrial observation became the only means of positioning. The book also contains a supplement titled Charts of Relying on the Stars to Cross the Sea. These charts are marked with, in great detail, the locations of the stars and the levels of the horizons when the fleet sailed through the Indian Ocean.
In 1973, the excavation of a tomb dating back to the year 168 BC at Mawangdui, Changsha, a city in south China, shook the world. The body of the occupant of the tomb-a marquis-was preserved in a special liquid which prevented it from decaying and maintained partial elasticity of the flesh 2,000 years after it had been buried. This made people reevaluate China's early achievements in medicine and chemistry.
In fact, as in early medical history of many counties, medicine and chemistry in ancient China were closely related to alchemy, and aimed at finding the elixir of immortality. The enthusiasm for finding a drug or plant that would make man live forever led people to make repeated chemical experiments and record the results.
Among the world's many civilizations, China's has a unique tradition of recording medical conditions and discoveries. Infectious fever is recorded on bone and tortoise shell inscriptions dating from as far back as 2000 BC. Texts carved on bronze wares also contain mention of arthralgia and such skin diseases as eczema, lichen and alopecia. Excavated seals of the Warring States Period tell of specialization in branches of medicine, as some owners of the seals specialized in exterior damage, some in ulcers and others in inflammations. The Classic of Mountains and Rivers, which was completed in the 2nd century BC, includes details of epidemic diseases, goiter, trachoma, dropsy and paralysis, as well as lists of plants, animals and minerals that may provide cures for these diseases.
The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, China's earliest collection of medical documents, took its present form in the first century BC. Though the exact date of compilation is unknown, what is certain is that most of the book was completed before the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), and some might have been written during the Warring States Period. The theories it expounds, namely, about the organs of the human body, the "five elements" (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), and the internal organs, sense organs and brain waves interacting with each other, are unique in the world, and laid the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine.
A noted doctor of the Warring States Period, Bian Que, was well versed in many branches of medicine. Spurning the witchcraft that was fashionable in his time, he proposed four ways of diagnosis-observation (of the patient's complexion, expression, movements, tongue, etc.), auscultation and olfaction, interrogation, and pulse feeling and palpation-the methods that characterize traditional Chinese medicine.
The Han Dynasty saw the rise of the basic system of traditional Chinese medicine, and outstanding results were achieved in pathological studies, diagnosis, herbal medicine, acupuncture and physical exercise.
Zhang Zhongjing was a medical scientist in the later part of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He avidly read ancient medical classics, collected folk prescriptions and then, in combination with his own clinical experience, wrote the monumental medical work Treaties on Febrile and Other Diseases. By febrile diseases he meant epidemic cholera, malaria, pneumonia, flu and other infectious diseases. The "other diseases" mentioned in the title of his book refer to internal, surgical and gynecological ailments. In the book, he elaborated traditional Chinese medical theory and principles of treatment, laying the foundation for treatment based on differential diagnosis. Later, he came to be known as the "Sage of Medicine", because of his outstanding contribution to Chinese medicine. His book was also regarded as the "classic of medicine," and it remains a classic work of reference today for the study of traditional Chinese medicine.
Hua Tuo was also an outstanding medical scientist during the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He was well trained in various branches of medicine, and was especially good at surgery. His most outstanding achievement was the development of an anesthetic drug which was a unique creation in the world's medical history. Hua was the world's first doctor to use drugs to achieve total anesthesia in order to conduct a surgical operation. There are many stories, passed down from generation to generation, as to how he cured difficult diseases. He became known as the "Magical Doctor". His principle of resisting the onset of disease by working and doing exercises was also a major contribution to traditional Chinese medicine.
Acupuncture and moxibustion are other forms of treatment discovered by the Chinese in their long fight against diseases. These methods can often produce beneficial effects when other treatments have failed. Gold needles unearthed from the tomb of Liu Sheng in Mancheng, Hebei Province, in 1968 are the earliest medicinal needles discovered to date. The points of these needles fall mainly into three types of shapes, demonstrating that the technique of acupuncture had reached a fairly sophisticated level as early as in the Han Dynasty. Meanwhile, Han Dynasty tombs excavated in Shandong and Hebei provinces have yielded medicinal pills, bronze drug spoons, and medicinal bronze basins and mortars.
During the Warring States Period, monographs on acupuncture and moxibustion had already appeared, and the Tang Dynasty offered special courses on acupuncture and moxibustion. Traditional Chinese medicine made breakthrough progress during the Song Dynasty. After studying the meridians and collaterals of acupuncture theory, and on the basis of summing up experiences in acupuncture and moxibustion made by people of earlier times, Wang Weiyi, official medical officer during the Tiansheng reign period (1023-31) of the Song Dynasty, cast a life-sized bronze human figure for teaching acupuncture and moxibution. The model was marked with 666 acu-points, and each point bore its name. Students used the model to practice, and during examinations a layer of yellow wax was applied, so as to cover up the points and their names. The inside of the model was filled with water. During examinations, if the insertion was made at the right point, water would ooze out, but if a student failed to locate the required acu-point, no water would come out. There is a replica of the figure in the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing.
Techniques combining breathing with bodily exercises were practiced during the Spring and Autumn Period. Pictures on the brick wall of a Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province show people engaging in such exercises. Forty-four men and women in four rows are portrayed in different positions, such as bending the knees and holding the leg, walking in a stylized way, stretching out the arm and holding the head high, lying prone on the ground and sticking out the neck. Next to each picture is the term for the exercise such as "bear gait", and "monkey cry".
Hua Tuo, an outstanding Eastern Han medical scientist, attached particular importance to combined physical and breathing exercises. Summarizing the theories and practices of the method by his predecessors, he classified the routines into five types, which imitated the movements of the tiger, the bear, the monkey, the deer and the bird, respectively. There are countless offshoots of this original classification.
Ge Hong was an alchemist and doctor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). His work Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan, The Book of Master Baopu summarizes China's ancient alchemy and records many observations of chemical phenomena, making it an important book for the study of the history of chemistry in China. Ge was the first doctor to write about smallpox. Although it was around the year 1000 that doctors in China discovered how to prevent smallpox by the inoculation method, they did not publicize it until 1500, and Western scientists did not realize that vaccination could prevent smallpox until the early 19th century.
Wang Shuhe, who was once the imperial physician, wrote the book Classic of Pulse Diagnosis, which is the earliest book on the study of the pulse preserved to this day. He divided the pulse into twenty-four categories, which basically include all the phenomena in circulatory physiology.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a golden age in Chinese history, and, not unexpectedly, medical studies made new breakthroughs in this period. The Revised Materia Medica, completed during the Tang Dynasty, was discovered at the Dunhuang Grottoes in 1900. This was the first reference book on pharmacy ever revised under the auspices of a government in the world. Consisting of 56 volumes and lavishly illustrated, it has entries on 850 kinds of drugs.
Li Shizhen (1518-93), a medical scientist of the Ming Dynasty, was the author of Compendium of Materia Medica. To complete this book, he spent nearly 30 years touring the country, collecting herbal specimens and folk prescriptions. He also personally tasted and tested many herbal drugs to understand their medicinal effect. In addition, he consulted more than 800 medical books. Running to 1.9 million characters, the book records 1,892 kinds of drugs, which is 370 kinds more than any other previous work, and over 10,000 prescriptions, in addition to more than 1,000 illustrations of drugs. Its high scientific value not only resulted in its huge popularity throughout the country, as evidenced by repeated editions after it was initially published in 1596, but also in translated editions into Latin, German, French, English, Russian and Japanese, among other foreign languages, thus making it a document of medical science of global importance.
7. The Four Great Inventions
China's long history has seen some extremely important inventions emerge, most noticeably gunpowder, paper making, printing and the compass, which, in the words of Roger Bacon, changed the whole appearance and status of things in the world.
China was the first country in the world to make proper paper. Paper made during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-16 AD) has been found in Gansu Province, Xi'an and other places in Shaanxi Province as well as Xinjiang. A further development of paper is credited to Cai Lun of the Eastern Han (25-220). He used plant fiber such as tree bark, bits of rope, rags and worn-out fishing nets as raw materials. In 105, Cai presented the first batch of paper made under his supervision to the Han emperor, who was so delighted that he named the material "Marquis Cai's paper". Eastern Han Dynasty paper found in Wuwei, Gansu, in 1974 carried words which were still clearly decipherable. Thin, soft, and with a smooth finish and tight texture, this paper is the most refined and oldest paper discovered to date.
Before paper was invented, the ancient Chinese carved characters on pottery, animal bones and stones, cast them on bronzes, or wrote them on bamboo or wooden strips and silk fabric. These materials, however, were either too heavy or two expensive for widespread use. The invention and use of paper brought about a revolution in writing materials, paving the way for the invention of printing technology in the years to come.
The invention of gunpowder was no doubt one of the most significant achievements of the Middle Ages in China. The correct prescription for making gunpowder with nitre, sulphur and carbon was probably discovered in the ninth century. In fact, in his book, Ge Hong in the third century records the procedures for making a kind of mixture that could be ignited. After the Tang Dynasty (618-907), things took a much faster course as gunpowder was already used in simple hand-grenades which were thrown by a catapult. In 1126, Li Gang, a local official, recorded how he ordered the defenders of the city of Kaifeng to "fire cannons" at the invading Nuzhen tribal people, inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders.
The first prescription for gunpowder appeared in 1044, much earlier than the earliest (1265) gunpowder-making instructions recorded in Europe. By the Song Dynasty (960-1126), gunpowder was in extensive use. Weapons made with it included rifles and rockets. The Song army also used a kind of flame thrower which involved packing gunpowder into bamboo tubes. The earliest picture of a European cannon shows that it bears a striking similarity to Chinese cannon of 1128.
About 1230, the Song army had cannon powerful enough to breach city walls.
A bronze Chinese cannon cast in 1332 is the oldest one in the world extant today. Many bronze and iron cannons have been unearthed in China, most of them bearing inscriptions dating them to between 1280 and 1380.
On the basis of printing using carved blocks in the Tang Dynasty, Bi Sheng of the Northern Song Dynasty invented movable type printing in the 1040s, which ushered in a major revolution in the history of printing.
Bi's printing consisted of four processes: making the types, composing the text, printing and retrieving the movable types. According to Dream Stream Essays, Bi Sheng carved individual characters on squares of sticky clay, then baked them make clay type pieces. When composing a text, he put a large iron frame on a piece of iron board and arranged the words within the frame. While one plate was being printed, another plate could be composed. After printing, the movable types were taken away and stored for future use. Movable type printing has a very important position in the history of printing, for all later printing methods such as wooden type, copper type and lead type printing invariably developed on the basis of movable clay types. Bi Sheng created movable type printing more than four hundred years earlier than it was invented in Europe.
According to ancient records, natural magnets were employed in China as direction-finding devices. This led to the first compass, called a sinan (south-pointing ladle) during the Warring States Period. In the Han Dynasty compasses consisted of a bronze on which 24 directions were carved and a rod made from a natural magnet. Such devices were in use until the eighth century.
In the Song Dynasty, Shen Kuo described the floating compass, suspended in water, a technique which minimized the effect of motion on the instrument. This enabled the compass to be used for sea navigation for the first time. The invention of the compass promoted maritime undertakings, and its use soon spread to the Arab world, and thence to Europe.
China's four great ancient inventions made tremendous contributions to the world's economy and the culture of mankind. They were also important symbols of China's role as a great world civilization.