China Syndrome

An Internet guide to the technological wonders of the Middle Kingdom

Chinese compass
© Cano

Recently, I read Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China, a wonderful biography of Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the brilliant Cambridge scientist who devoted his life to uncovering the innovations that the ancient Chinese gave the world. The list includes far more than gunpowder, paper, printing presses, silk, and the compass. But all those marvels raise the question:

Why did a culture that invented so much, long before the West, not undergo a scientific and industrial revolution? Three British scholars, interviewed on the BBC’s online radio program “In Our Time,” examine that intriguing historical puzzle.


For video introductions to Needham and Chinese technology, see Simon Winchester discussing his biography at, as well as Discovery Science’s five-part program “Ancient Chinese Inventions” on YouTube at the left.

Before I get to my favorite example of ancient Chinese science and technology, here are a few Internet sites that reveal the scope of the civilization’s achievements, many predating Western developments by a thousand years or more. A well-designed site,, has beautiful images of the artifacts associated with early Chinese science (Needham, no doubt, would have loved it). The page presents images of the “Big Four”—gunpowder, the compass, paper, and printing—inviting you to explore them. At the bottom of each page are further images to explore. Under gunpowder, for instance, you’ll find a link to the Ming Dynasty “Flying Fire Crow,” a rocket-powered bird designed to burn or explode after being launched at an enemy. If you click “More” on the first page you’ll find an extensive list of other innovations. One of the best—from my geologist’s point of view—is the early “seismoscope,” invented by philosopher Zhang Heng in a.d. 132. A vessel six feet in diameter supported eight dragons, each poised to release a ball into the mouth of a waiting frog. If a distant earthquake struck, the dragon dropping its ball would indicate the direction of the disaster.

Oracle’s ThinkQuest Library also has illustrated entries cataloging the plethora of Chinese innovations, some of which I had not read about elsewhere, but were by no means minor. Clicking on “Physic” on the menu to the left, I found one entitled “The First Law of Motion,” once thought to have been first explored by Galileo and formalized by Newton. Intrigued, I found this remarkable observation made some two thousand years before Western scientists: “Needham’s researches have now established that this law was stated in China in the fourth or third century BC. We read in the Mo Ching: “The cessation of motion is due to the opposing force. . . . If there is no opposing force . . . the motion will never stop. This is as true as that an ox is not a horse.” And under the heading “Natural Discovery,” I spotted “Circulation of the Blood,” another crucial discovery that became doctrine some two millennia before its acceptance in the West.

The site East West Dialogue has another survey of some of the important developments, particularly those in the agricultural sciences (so critical to the success of each dynasty) and in metallurgy. In the latter category, I was amazed to read this passage: “In the Second Centuryb.c., the Chinese developed what became known in the West as the Bessemer process. They developed a method for converting cast iron into steel, by blowing air on the molten metal, which reduced the carbon content. In 1845, William Kelly brought four Chinese steel experts to Kentucky, and learned this method from them, for which he received an American patent. However, he went bankrupt, and his claims were made over to the German, Bessemer, who had also developed a similar process.”

To me, the most spectacular achievement of the ancient Chinese was their ability to drill deep into the Earth, a skill usually associated with the modern petroleum industry. At E&P Magazine,which reports on the latest oil extraction technology, I found an article entitled “Ancient Chinese Drilling: Drilling Technology Is Older Than We Think.” At, I found a link to a site on Zigong, the Chinese city where the feats of drilling were centered. Scroll down and click on the photo “Old Salt Wells in Zigong” to see an enlarged view of what resembles an American oil boomtown. The wells, some sunk more than 2,000 years ago, were drilled to bring up salt brine, and the natural gas that was discovered in the process was later used to boil the brine to recover the valuable salt. The deeper wells reached several thousand feet. A recent photo of the bamboo derricks can be found at Paul and Bernice Noll’s travel page.

For many centuries, the Chinese led the way military technology as well. For a look at the development of Chinese siege weapons (the most fun from my son’s point of view), go to a site maintained by Leong Kit Meng. The author includes well-illustrated directions for building these machines of destruction, many of which were adopted by the Mongols in their conquest of the Eurasian continent (the subject of one of my recent columns) and then Europeans.

Needham’s grand question—why science flourished and then foundered in China—was one he apparently failed to answer to his own satisfaction, and it remains open. In my own quick attempt to explore it, I looked at the Chinese progress in the development of mathematics, which is the language of science. A page on Chinese mathematics maintained by J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson, provides an interesting summary of the early Chinese number system (surprisingly similar to our modern decimal system) and early texts. In the authors’ overview that I found this clue: “Unlike Greek mathematics there is no axiomatic development of mathematics. The Chinese concept of mathematical proof is radically different from that of the Greeks.” So perhaps the theoretical underpinnings of their system were different, with more practical applications taking precedence. offers another look at Chinese progress in math. David E. Joyce at Clark University has a detailed chronology (with a helpful chart of the dynasties) for the mathematically inclined who wish to track Chinese achievements.

Whatever the differences between the origins of Eastern and Western science, the two cultures have been cross-fertilizing each other for some time, and China is poised to regain much of its ancient reputation for innovation. Yet there remain obstacles. At the OECD Observer, the magazine of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, I found an excellent article outlining some of the reforms that may be needed before China can lead in innovation.


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