Science in ancient and medieval China

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Chinese compass; a round yellow disk with a hole in the center

Chinese compass

Possibly as a result of the formation of the first empires and the rise of the Silk Road, Chinese scientists embarked on a series of important inventions around 500 BC, during the Warring States period. Most of these inventions spread quickly along the Silk Road across Asia, and eventually even reached Africa and Europe. About 450 BC, Chinese blacksmiths invented the crossbow. By the 200s BC, Chinese engineers developed the double-piston box bellows to help those same blacksmiths, and the smiths started to make steel sewing needles. Chemists figured out how to burn cinnabar – a kind of rock – to get mercury, and then mix the mercury with silver or gold ore to extract the silver and gold.

clay tile with an urban scene

A man pushes a wheelbarrow in front of a wine shop (Han Dynasty China, about 150 BC)

China was always short of silver, and now smiths could silver-plate or gold-plate a necklace by mixing silver or gold with mercury to make a liquid, dipping the necklace in the liquid, and then evaporating off the mercury. About 150 BC, someone invented the wheelbarrow, too.

Chinese drawing of a watermill with two horizontal wheels

Hu Shi’s watermill

It was in Han Dynasty China, 200 BC to 200 AD, that experimenters invented paper, and about the same time the magnetic compass, for telling north from south. About 50 BC, the Han Dynasty engineer Hu Shi invented a water-powered box bellows. Scientists in China also invented gunpowder. About 100 AD, they used Hu Shi’s bellows to run a blast furnace for making steel. In 132 AD, Han Dynasty scholars built the first seismograph to tell you what direction an earthquake was coming from.

During the Three Kingdoms period, about 250 AD, Zhuge Kongming invented an early hot air balloon that people also used in war.

Chinese scholars also conducted scientific observations of plants and animals. This resulted in the discovery of the first effective treatment for malaria by Ge Hong in the 300s AD. Chinese astronomers also observed the stars and planets. The many detailed and careful drawings of flowers and other plants, and star charts, from China show this interest.

Chinese painting of a woman using a spinning wheel

Spinning wheel

The influence of Confucius made China a place where logical thought was also highly valued. Mathematics was taught in the schools, through the use of a math textbook called the Nine Chapters, which may have been written as early as the Han Dynasty in the 200s AD (but nobody knows for sure).

By around 650 AD, under the T’ang Dynasty, Chinese printers were experimenting with block printing, and around the year 1000 they invented movable type. Around the same time, Chinese blacksmiths began to use coal instead of charcoal to heat their forges. And in the 1200s AD, they (or maybe somebody in Central Asia) invented the first spinning wheel.

More about the Nine Chapters
More about Chinese medicine

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese science:

Science in Ancient China, by George Beshore (1998). .

The Joy of Pi, by David Blatner (1999). It’s not all about ancient China, but some of it is. For teenagers.

Ancient China: 2,000 Years of Mystery and Adventure to Unlock and Discover (Treasure Chest), by Chao-Hui Jenny Liu (1996). Lots of activities , including a Chinese calligraphy set.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife and Matt Zimet (2000).

Chinese mathematics
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By | 2018-04-18T18:18:11+00:00 June 7th, 2017|China, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Science in ancient and medieval China. Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. May 26, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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