Sheng Li (gmachine1729) wrote,
Sheng Li

How China led the West in metallurgy by a millennia

Originally published at 狗和留美者不得入内. You can comment here or there.

I read in detail about how Chinese invented blast furnace and cast iron over a millennia before Europe, before 0 AD. First blast furnace was in Europe was in Sweden between 1200 and 1350. It is a question of whether or not West invented that independently or got it directly or indirectly from Islamic world and/or Chinese. Chinese employed iron in gunpowder weapons in early 13th century. As late as 17th century, China was still more advanced than Europe in metallurgy in many ways. That partly explains why Industrial Revolution happened in Europe much later than Scientific Revolution, whereas if China kept developing independently of West, it likely would have been the other way round. Obstacles towards that in China included the imperial exam system, limits on private industry, and a relative lack of trade and inter-state competition compared with Europe.

I learned that close to mid 17th century, there was a major encyclopedia on agriculture and industry published called Tiangong Kaiwu (天工開物). However, after the Qianlong Emperor saw that it used “northern barbarians” to refer to the Manchus, it became a banned book. By then though, it had been transmitted to Korea and Japan, where it became influential. My friend also thinks Manchu Qing rule was rather disastrous for China. It impeded the further development of firearms as the Manchu rulers feared Han revolt. In many ways, Korea and Japan surpassed China during that period or late Ming. Japan did so significantly in mathematics, and Korea I believe exceeded China in printing (they also invented an alphabet) and military technology.

What was more shocking was my realization that Gutenberg only invented the printing press based on metal types after some revolutionary developments in metallurgy in Europe. So in retrospect, what Gutenberg did was predictable given the combination of alphabetic writing system of Indo-European languages and level of development of metallurgy in Europe at that time, which was certainly influenced to some extent by transmissions from China.

With this in mind, I’m also more understanding of why the pre-modern Chinese were more inward looking and even resisted modernization from Western science and technology until 1900. Because in the past, they never got anything from outside world that was anything close in importance to what had been transmitted from China to the outside world, not to mention the totally different language and culture.

Towards my comments, Steve Hsu and especially this Douglas Knight professed some doubts as well as exaggeration of Greek achievements in, I responded:

Blast furnace and cast iron appearing over a millennia earlier in China is well documented. So is decimal system and decimal arithmetic’s appearing at least three centuries earlier in China via counting rods, which the Greeks and West failed to invent themselves. Same with transmission of paper-making and gunpowder via Tang Dynasty Silk Road and Mongols respectively. In fact, the earliest reference to gunpowder was in 2nd century, treated then mostly as a curiosity; it’s natural that it took some time before the military applicability of it was noticed and developed. Needham may have exaggerated but I don’t think any of what I’m mentioning in this comment is controversial. A major reason that Needham on the blacklist during the Cold War was his advocacy for the Chinese assertion that US led UN forces had used biological warfare during the Korean War, which the state sponsored documentary on the war this year re-iterated.

I can only think of four major aspects of science and technology wherein China was well behind the West before direct contact with the West, which are 1) mathematical proof/axiomatic system/Euclidean geometry 2) alphabetic writing and its movable type printing 3) understanding of round earth 4) glass technology. Interestingly, the first three are all rather theoretical and verbally loaded in nature. The Chinese strengths on the other hand were all spatial and math loaded. I do believe though that the Chinese especially with input from Korea, Japan, Vietnam given another millennia could have figured out all three. As for 1), the Japanese after Seki, already putting geometry problems on temples, would have gotten there. As for 2), The Koreans did invented an alphabet in mid 15th century and would have eventually naturally extended movable type printing to it. As for 3), it would have naturally spun off more study of geometry with its understanding accelerated by increased trade and exchange between China, Korea, Japan, and of course, intellectuals in East Asia accepted round earth after contact with Portuguese, Dutch, and Jesuits.

I do believe that practical engineering and invention in some sense takes longer to develop, much because it requires more materials, trial and error, and human labor. The theoretical stuff can be done by a very small group of extremely high IQ scholars working with pen and paper, but to connect it to the real world, you also need developed technology and economy, which was a relative weakness of the very theoretical Greeks.

Maybe I’m a bit biased, but closer study of history of science and technology suggests that the West needed the Sinosphere much more to advance than the other way world. In the early days, the bottleneck was mostly practical and material, an area in which China was well ahead. I do believe that once technology and economy advanced to a certain point, which it already did in 1600, there would have been a revolution in the Sinosphere that overthrew the Neo-Confucian establishment; it would not have been difficult for the craftsman and merchants to gradually make the classical studies with the imperial examination ever more irrelevant, just as in Europe, the merchant class eventually made the Church and monarchs ever more irrelevant. What happened though was the West interfered in Asia before the Sinosphere could get there by themselves.

Uh, I know what Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, etc did. A bit about Aristotle as well. I know how Eratosthenes estimated the earth’s circumference. And of course, I’m extremely impressed by their achievements in geometry, mathematical proof, and astronomy. But it’s ridiculous to say that there weren’t important areas of science wherein other peoples vastly exceeded the Greek. The Ancient Chinese obviously did so in decimal system, arithmetic, and algebra. Speaking of which, I know roughly what Archimedes did in The Sand Reckoner, trying to estimate the number of grains of sand in the universe. The Indians also figured out the series for sin, cos, arctan in 14th century, three centuries before the West did. Also, in some sense, the achievements of the Greeks were maybe not that impressive given the extremely hospitable climate that came with access to the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, from whom they got alphabetic writing and papyrus. It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, that the Mongols were actually naturally smarter, but unable to develop civilization due to the cold and dry climate. If the Mongols weren’t smart, how did they conquer Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and all of China (and also at least parts of Korea, which further disseminated gunpowder, the recipe of which Koreans learned by 1400).

Currently, the West’s downplays the contribution of other peoples more so than others with respect to West mostly because the West, having been well ahead since at least 1800, were able to conquer many places through it, including culturally. However, now, the West is clearly losing. And it’s long occurred to me that maybe West is Russia hating despite Russia’s being culturally Western much because of 250 years of Mongol vassalage, an indirect consequence of which is that Lenin was also at least 3/8 Mongol-Turkic.

Moreover, due to having been educated in America, I actually thought that Soviets only led America in space race at the early stage. It was only in the last year or so that I learned that Soviets came before America in pretty much everything besides humans circling the moon and putting humans onto the Moon. Moreover, America never actually did a robotic lunar sample return, which is in some sense harder than a human lunar sample return, which Soviets and Chinese have done, in 1970 and December 2020 respectively. Without any intention of narcissism, I can only say that Soviets’ beating America in the space race despite being grossly damaged during WWII and overall behind to begin with is suggestive of higher aptitude. Not to mention, Sakharov got his sloika design (a worse version of hydrogen bomb) in 1949, which Soviets tested by aircraft in 1953. Though Soviets figured out Teller-Ulam design two or three years after American, with knowledge of American test of much higher yield, they actually tested an air-dropped one before Americans did, 1955 vs 1956. I didn’t believe it when a former Soviet scientist in America told me this, but after I looked up the details in English, it could not be refuted.

When I told him about my observation of relative superficialness and lack of cultural and historical knowledge in American scientists and engineers, he commented,

Yes, American scientists and engineers tend to be one-trick ponies. They know their subject, but usually nothing else, at least nothing in the realm of culture: music, literature, painting, as well as nothing about history or geography. In Russia this would be looked sown on, for people like that there is a term “professional cretin” (“профессиональный кретин”).

And no offense, but Terence Tao holistically cannot compare with CN Yang or SS Chern. The latter two were more profound in science (though it was much easier to be so in the old generation), and moreover, both were well versed in multiple languages, and also history and culture. Terry on the other hand is horrendously one-dimensional in comparison.

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