The Genius of China

3,000 Years of Science, Discovery & Invention, by Robert Temple, Introduction by Dr. Joseph Needham, London: André Deutsch, 2013.

The Genius of China

About the Authors

Robert Temple is a Visiting Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Tsinghua University in Beijing—China’s leading university. He was previously Visiting (Adjunct) Professor of Humanities, History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Louisville, has affiliations with the University of the Aegean in Greece and the Archeological Sciences Institute of the Aegean at Alexandria, Egypt. He is the author of a series of classic investigations into archeological mysteries, notably The Sirius Mystery and Netherworld.

The late Joseph Needham was Director of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, and author of the definitive work Science and Civlisation in China. The world’s most famous Sinologist, he is probably the British historian best known on a world scale, and has been called ‘the Erasmus of the twentieth century.’

About this Book

  • Revised, colour-illustrated edition of this multi-award winning, international bestseller which has been translated into over 40 languages and approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
  • Written by world-renowned scholar Dr. Robert Temple, and based on the vast definite work of the world’s most famous Sinologist Dr. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China.
  • Reveals China’s contributions in the fields of agriculture, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, medicine, music, the physical sciences, transport technology and warfare that helped inspire the European agricultural and industrial revolutions.
  • Endlessly informative and fascinating, it bring the excitement of centuries of ingenuity and growth to life.

The West’s Debt to China

by R.K.G. Temple

One of the greatest untold secrets of history is that the ‘modern world’ in which we live is a unique synthesis of Chinese and Western ingredients. Possibly more than half of the basic inventions and discoveries upon which the ‘modern world’ rests come from China. And yet few people know this. Why?

The Chinese themselves are as ignorant of this fact as Westerners. From the seventeenth century, the Chinese became increasingly dazzled by European technological expertise, having experienced a period of amnesia regarding their own achievements. When the Chinese were shown a mechanical clock by Jesuit missionaries, they were awestruck, forgetting that it was they who had invented mechanical clocks in the first place!

It is just as much a surprise for the Chinese as for Westerners to realize that modern agriculture, modern shipping, the modern oil industry, modern astronomical observatories, modern music, decimal mathematics, paper money, umbrellas, fishing reels, wheelbarrows, multi-stage rockets, guns, underwater mines, poison gas, parachutes, hot-air balloons, manned flight, brandy, whisky, the game of chess, printing, and even the essential design of the steam engine, all came from China.

Without the importation from China of nautical and navigational improvements such as ships’ rudders, the compass and multiple masts, the great European Voyages of Discovery could never have been undertaken. Columbus would not have sailed to America, and Europeans would never have established colonial empires.

Without the importation from China of the stirrup, to enable them to stay on horseback, knights of old would never have ridden in their shining armour to aid damsels in distress; there would have been no Age of Chivalry. And without the importation from China of guns and gunpowder, the knights would not have been knocked from their horses by bullets which pierced the armour, bringing the Age of Chivalry to an end.

Without the importation from China of paper and printing, Europe would have continued for much longer to copy books by hand. Literacy would not have become so widespread. Johannes Gutenberg did not invent movable type. It was invented in China. William Harvey did not discover the circulation of the blood in the body. It was discovered—or rather, always assumed—in China. Isaac Newton was not the first to discover his First Law of Motion. It was discovered in China.

These myths and many others are shattered by our discovery of the true Chinese origins of many of the things, all around us, which we take for granted. Some of our greatest achievements turn out to have been not achievements at all, but simple borrowings. Yet there is no reason for us to feel inferior or downcast at the realization that much of the genius of mankind’s advance was Chinese rather than European. For it is exciting to realize that the East and the West are not as far apart in spirit or in fact as most of us have been led, by appearances, to believe, and that the East and the West are already combined in a synthesis so powerful and so profound that it is all-pervading. Within this synthesis we live our daily lives, and from it there is no escape. The modern world is a combination of Eastern and Western ingredients which are inextricably fused. The fact that we are largely unaware of it is perhaps one of the greatest cases of historical blindness in the existence of the human race.

Why are we ignorant of this gigantic, obvious truth? The main reason is surely that the Chinese themselves lost sight of it. If the very originators of the inventions and discoveries no longer claim them, and their memory of them has faded, why should their inheritors trouble to resurrect their lost claims? Until our own time, it is questionable whether many Westerners even wanted to know the truth. It is always more satisfying to the ego to think that we have reached our present position alone and unaided, that we are the masters of all abilities and crafts.

The discovery of the truth is a result of incidents in the life of the distinguished scholar Dr. Joseph Needham, author of the great work Science and Civilisation in China. In 1937, aged 37, Needham was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society and a biochemist of considerable distinction at Cambridge. He had already published many books, including the definite history of embryology. One day he met and befriended some Chinese students, including a young lady from Nanking named Lu Gwei-Djen, whose father had passed on to her his unusually profound knowledge of the history of Chinese science. Needham began to hear tales of how the Chinese had been the true discoverers of this and that important thing, and at first he could not believe it. But as he looked further into it, evidence began to come to light from Chinese texts, hastily translated by his new friends.

Needham became obsessed with the subject. Not knowing a word of Chinese, he set about learning the language. In 1942 he was sent to China as Scientific Counsellor to the British Embassy in Chungking. He was able to travel all over China, learn the language thoroughly, meet men of science, and accumulate vast quantities of priceless ancient Chinese science books. These were flown back to Britain by the Royal Air Force and today form the basis of the finest library, outside China, on the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine, at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge. After the war, Needham was among those who ‘put the ‘s’ into Unesco,’ having persuaded that organization to concern itself with science as well as education and culture. He became Unesco’s first Assistant Director General for the natural sciences.

In July 1946 Needham stated in a lecture to the China Society in London that: ‘What is really very badly needed is a proper book on the history of science and technology in China, especially with reference to the social and economic background of Chinese life. Such a book would be by no means academic, but would have a wide bearing on the general history of thought and ideas.’

When he returned to Cambridge, where he eventually became Master of Caius College for many years, Joseph went ahead and wrote the work which he had envisaged, except that it was very academic and impenetrable to the ordinary educated reader. The result, Science and Civilisation in China, became a huge multi-volume project, envisaged eventually in 36 volumes (at least 24 are now available). Since Joseph’s death, further volumes in the series have been issued by a number of specialist contributors. This was a progress which had begun even while Joseph was alive, with the appearance of the excellent volume on agriculture, written by a then young, intrepid sinologist, Francesca Bray, under Joseph’s occasional supervision.

Gwei-Djen died tragically before Joseph, leaving him emotionally bereft, but he continued working right up to his death. One day when Gwei-Djen was still alive, I pointed to an ornate sealed gate at Caius and said to Joseph: ‘What is that, and why is it so tightly shut?’ He said: ‘That gate is only opened at the inauguration of a new Master, or when one dies, for his funeral. One day they’ll carry me out through there.’ When, years later, I passed through the gate behind his coffin, I sadly recalled his comment.

Joseph never lost his early vision of a work which was ‘by no means academic,’ as he had originally promised. He had always wanted to make his work accessible in every possible way. Therefore, when I approached him in 1984 with the suggestion that I write a popular book for the general reader based upon his half-century’s labors, he agreed more readily than at that time I could understand. He and Gwei-Djen told me that they strongly approved of some things I had published about the Shang Dynasty, the I Ching and such matters, and liked the way I wrote about such abstruse subjects for the ordinary reader without sacrificing scholarly accuracy.

Although Joseph did not personally like Professor Derk Bodde, under whom I had studied Chinese philosophy, my academic background was considered acceptable because Joseph knew of Bodde’s high standards. As far as Joseph and Gwei-Djen were concerned, those writings of mine proved to them that I was qualified for the task, and the only thing that remained was for Joseph to make the hard decision to relinquish the task himself, which was first announced in 1946.

I have taken certain minor liberties which must be pointed out to those readers who may consult Needham’s own volumes. I have used the convention, which he avoids, of BC and AD for dates, substituting them in my quotations for his plus and minus signs. I have ironed out various passages, particularly translations from the Chinese, by eliminating Chinese words, occasional parentheses, and specialized matter which does not concern the general reader. I have also, at Dr. Needham’s own suggestion, eliminated the extra letter ‘h’ in Chinese words which he had introduced as a substitution for the aspirate apostrophe. Hence, his chhien becomes ch’ien, etc. The system of transliteration used in this book is thus the pure Wade-Giles system. The Pinyin system which has been adopted by the Chinese government and newspapers around the world in recent years is not suitable, for it would have made reference to Needham’s own volumes impossible to the non-specialist.

This book has purposely been prepared without footnotes or other scholarly accessories. Many volumes have continued to appear in the Science and Civilisation in China series, and the list of those in print should always be consulted by anyone wishing to go more deeply into certain specific subjects. The main aim of this book has been to make Needham’s work accessible to the general non-specialist reader, whilst providing an overview for specialists . In preparing the book I used many typescripts of unpublished material, discussions with Joseph and Gwei-Djen, proofs and oral and written accounts of material that had not yet been published. My account of porcelain was done entirely without the assistance of any material by Joseph, as he never wrote about that subject at all. Those collaborators, such as H.T. Huang, who were generous in helping me in my efforts have been specially acknowledged for it (…).


[Agriculture, The Iron Plough, Sixth Century BC]

—Of all the advantages which China had for centuries over the rest of the world, the greatest was perhaps the superiority of its ploughs. Nothing underlines the backwardness of the West more than the fact that for thousands of years, millions of human being ploughed the earth in a manner which was so inefficient, so wasteful of effort, and so utterly exhausting, that this deficiency of sensible ploughing may rank as mankind’s single greatest waste of time and energy. /16

—Since the agricultural revolution of Europe is generally thought to have led to the Industrial Revolution, and to the West’s superior power over the rest of the world, it is ironic that the basis of it all came from China, and was not by any means indigenous to Europe. /16-17

—The curved mouldboard, adopted from the outset in China, did not appear in Europe until the eighteenth century, and the lack of it probably caused more hardship to farmers than any other single factor. /19

—Chinese ploughs, with mouldboards, were brought to Holland in the seventeenth century by Dutch sailors. And because the Dutch were hired by teh English to drain the East Anglian fens and Somerset moors at that time, they brought with them their Chinese ploughs, which came to be called ‘Rotherham ploughs.’ Thus, the Dutch and the English were the first to enjoy efficient ploughs in Europe. Another name for the Chinese design was the ‘bastard Dutch plough.’ It was extremely successful on wet, boggy land, and it was soon realized that it would be just as successful on ordinary land. /20

—There was no single more important element in the European agricultural revolution. When we reflect that only two hundred years have elapsed since Europe suddenly began to catch up with and then surpassed Chinese agriculture, we can see what a thin temporal veneer overlies our assumed Western superiority in the production of food. /20

—From earliest times until the eighth century AD in the West (and, as we shall see, much earlier in China), the only means of harnessing horses was by the ‘throat-and-girth harness.’ It was an absurd method since the strap across the throat meant that the horse was choked as soon as he exerted himself. Yet for thousands of years, nobody could think of anything better. As long as man was restricted to the use of this pathetic harness, horsepower was all but useless for transport by cart. (…) If ever the feebleness of human ingenuity has been displayed, it is by the fact that mankind was prepared to put up with the throat-and-girth harness for millennia. /20

—The earliest evidence for the collar harness in China may be seen in a rubbing from an ancient brick, showing the collar harness on three horses pulling a chariot. It dates from some time between the fourth and first centuries BC. Therefore, we must consider the collar harness as having been invented in China by the first century BC at the latest. This is a full thousand years before its appearance in Europe a century after the trace harness. /23

[The Rotary Winnowing Fan, Second Century BC]

—The Chinese were about two thousand years ahead of the West in their approach towards the winnowing of grain, the means used to separate out husks and stalks from the grain after harvest and threshing. (…) But the Chinese were not satisfied with waiting for a strong wind for the tossing method, or with the slow and laborious basket and sieve methods .By the second century BC they had made a brilliant invention: the rotary winnowing fan. Models of them have been found in ancient tombs, made of pottery nd with miniature working parts. /24

[The Multi-Tube (‘Modern’) Seed Drill, Second Century BC]

—It may come as a surprise to those who are unfamiliar with the history of Western agriculture to learn that the West had no seed drills until the sixteenth century AD. Until the seed drill was adopted, broadcasting of seed by hand was practiced. /25

—Although it never made its way to Europe, the Sumerians of the Middle East had a primitive single-tube seed drill 3500 years ago. But it was the multi-tube seed drill invented by the Chinese in the second century BC (and adopted also in India) which made possible the efficient sowing of crop seed for the first time in history. The drill is pulled along behind the horse, ox, or mule and dribbles teh seed at a controlled rate into straight rows. /26

[Astronomy and Cartography. Recognition of Sunspots as Solar Phenomena, Fourth Century BC]

—In the West, the heavens were supposed to be so perfect that no such thing as a sunspot could be thought possible. Most of the sunspots seen in the West before the seventeenth century were explained away as transits of the Sun by the planets Mercury and Venus. The theory of ‘perfection of the Heavens’ forbade the admission of any imperfections on the surface of the Sun. Consequently, it was assumed that these ‘blemishes’ were planets or small invisible satellites. /28

—The Chinese suffered from no such preconceived insistence on ‘perfection.’ Since sunspots are sometimes large enough to be seen by the naked eye, the Chinese naturally saw them. The earliest surviving record we have of their observations would seem to be some remarks by one of the three known early astronomgers in China. He was Kan Te, whoch lived in the fourth century BC. He and two contemporaries, Shih Shen and Wu Hsien, drew up the first great star catalogues. Their work was fully comparable to that of the Greek Happarchos, though two centuries earlier. /28

—Most people today believe that sunpsots were first observed in the West by Galileo, who is also supposed to have been the first person to ‘invent’ or at least use the telescope. Neither belief is true. Galileo most certainly did not invent the telescope, though he gave it prominence, and courageously advocated its use to study the heavens. As for the observation of sunspots, the earliest clear reference to them so far found in Western literature is in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, of about 807 AD, or eight centuries before Galileo’s first observation of sunspots in 1610. /28-29

—Galileo’s priority in the seventeenth century was disputed by the Jesuit Christopher Schooner in Holland, by Fabricius in Germany, and by Thomas Hariot in England, all of whom seem to have seen the sunspots before Galileo did. /29

[Quantitative Cartography, Second Century AD]

—The science of map-making took a great step forward when Chang Heng invented quantitative cartography in the second century AD. Chang was the inventor of the first seismograph … and one of China’s leading scientific figures. /29

[Discovery of the Solar Wind, Sixth Century AD]

—Comet tails always point away from the Sun, blown that way by the ‘solar wind.’ The Chinese were history’s most noted observers of comets. The computation of approximate orbits for about forty comets appearing before 1500 have been based almost entirely upon Chinese records of their sightings. Comet movements were described with such precision by the Chinese that many precise trajectories across the sky can be drawn on a star map, simply from reading an ancient Chinese text. /34

[Engineering, Cast Iron, Fourth Century BC]

—Blast furnaces for cast iron are now known to have existed in Scandinavia by the late eighth century AD, but many readers will be amazed to learn that cast iron was not widely available in Europe before 1380. The Chinese, however, practiced the technique from at least the fourth century BC. What were the reasons for the Chinese superiority? There were a number of factors. China had good refractory clays for the construction of the walls of the blast furnaces. The Chinese also knew how to reduce the temperature at which the iron would melt. They threw in something which they called ‘black earth,’ which contained much iron phosphate. If up to 6 per cent of phosphorus is added in this way to an iron mixture, it reduces the melting point from the normal 1130ºC to 950ºC. This technique was used in the early centuries, ceasing before the sixth century AD, when proper blast furnaces came into use which needed no such assistance. /44-45

[The Crank Handle, Second Century BC]

—If you want to turn a wheel which is mounted in place for some mechanical purpose, then it is silly just to push the wheel round. The obvious thing to do is to stick a rod into the side of the wheel, use that as a handle, and turn it. This is known as the crank handle. But no one ever thought of it until the Chinese adopted the idea in the second century BC. The Chinese invention of the crank handle was for use on their rotary winnowing machine …, which was crucial to agriculture. It was only then that sticking a rod at right angels into the side of a wheel was seen to be useful as a handle to turn the wheel. Not for eleven hundred years would the same idea occur to Westerners. /49

[Manufacture of Steel from Cast Iron, Second Century BC]

—Since the Chinese were the first to produce cast iron, they were also the first to make steel from cast iron. This was fully under way by the second century BC at the latest, and eventually led to the invention of the Bessemer steel process in the West in 1856. (…) Iron, when melted and reformed into ingots, has carbon content. This determines the nature of the metal as cast iron or steel, whichever the case may be. Cast iron is brittle because it contains a considerable quantity of carbon, perhaps as much as 4.5 per cent. ‘Decarbonization’ is the removal of some or all of this carbon. Remove much of the carbon and you have steel; remove nearly all of the carbon and you have wrought iron. The Chinese used wrought iron a great deal, most notably perhaps in building large bridges and aqueducts. /53

[Deep Drilling for Natural Gas, First Century BC]

—The Chinese originated deep drilling by the first century BC and, with their traditional methods, were able to drill boreholes up to 4800 feet deep. The deep drilling for today’s supplies of oil and natural gas is a development from these Chinese techniques. /56

1 thought on “The Genius of China

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close