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  • Look at this map of China and tell me if, from what we've learned so far, you can

  • tell me about the Chinese civilization. Yep, rivers, big onesand from them ran the

  • bureaucracy and technology necessary for controlling water.

  • Like Egypt, Sumer, and Mesoamerica, ancient China represents a hydraulic civilizationone

  • that maintained its population by diverting rivers to aid in irrigationand one that

  • developed writing thousands of years ago.

  • In fact, there is an unbroken Chinese literary and scientific tradition from this time onnot

  • true of Egypt, Sumer, or Mesoamerica. And from writing, Chinese scholars naturally

  • developed a critical invention in knowledge transmission and state control: you know it,

  • you probably hate it, the standardized test. Today, we're going to focus on the time

  • of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, a time of great technical innovation. But,

  • before we get to the Song, let's take a tour through the ages and explore key elements

  • of Chinese scientific culture.

  • [Intro Music Plays]

  • From the beginning, science in China was a product of the state. The very first Chinese

  • dynasty, the Xia, supported astronomical research to create more accurate calendars.

  • Later, between 400 and 0 BCE, Chinese scholars measured the length of the solar year to 365.25

  • days, predicted eclipses, recorded supernovas and sunspots, founded a Bureau of Astronomy,

  • and even determined the 26,000-year cycle of the precession of equinoxes!

  • Alongside this research, Chinese culture developed a grand model of the cosmos: in an infinite,

  • empty spaceenclosed by the great celestial spherecelestial bodies float around, directed

  • by a h“hard wind.” This mysterious force explained how the stars

  • and planets moved around. The earth sits, still, at the center of the

  • system. On the earth, in a zone between the four points of the compass, stretches the

  • Middle KingdomChina. The cosmos revolved around not just earth, but China itself.

  • And in the symbolic center of China stands the Son of Heaventhe emperor.

  • The ancient Chinese states, like others governing large populations, developed complex ideas

  • about human society. The most prominent early Chinese thinker was

  • Confucius, whose philosophy emphasized the importance of tradition, etiquette, respect

  • for elders, and for the patriarchy. Confucianism's focus on an orderly human

  • world conflicted both with Buddhism's transcendental orientation toward a reality beyond this one,

  • and the proto-scientism of Mohism and Legalism, which were contemporary schools

  • of thought that privileged rational laws. Despite competition from these other schools,

  • Confucianism influenced a lot of later thought. The official state ideology of the Song was

  • neo-Confucianism. China was first unified in 221 BCE, in the

  • Qin Dynasty. But it was the succeeding Han Dynasty that instituted an imperial university

  • and the state examinations, also called the civil service or imperial examinations.

  • The state exams, which were open only to men, were a way of ensuring that the central administration

  • had enough trained civil servants to oversee the collection of taxes and building of roads,

  • maintain a large standing army, and roll out agricultural reforms.

  • For the examinees, it also meant a chance to jump from a lower class to a higher one.

  • Passage of even the first level of exams led to exemption from corvée labor,

  • which was part-time unpaid work for the state. Science, however, did not figure much into

  • these state examinations. The exams mostly tested memorization and recitation from the

  • important government and Confucian texts. These shaped the values of the country: examinees

  • were well-rounded and shared a common culture focused on law and order.

  • So while the Chinese state did support research, especially on topics such as agriculture,

  • meteorology, and astrology, and while there was a large state system for educating people

  • and getting things done, these two threads never quite entwined as they did at the Museum

  • of Alexandria or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. This brings us to the Song Dynasties.

  • The Song state produced a lot of infrastructural and social change across China, starting with

  • the key to everyone's heart, their stomachs. During the eighth century, rice cultivation

  • took off in southern China and the Yangzi Basin.

  • Then, in 1012, the Song state introduced new early-ripening and winter-ripening rice from

  • the Champa kingdom in what is now Vietnam that allowed rice to be produced faster with

  • less water The Song state reclaimed ricefield plow and

  • paddle chain water-lifting devices. These agricultural changes led to the growth

  • of a leisured middle class, increased trade, and a growth in manufacturing.

  • Within a century, urbanization skyrocketed: urban population reached twenty percent of

  • the total even as population jumped from fifty million to one hundred and fifteen million.

  • And we moderns know what hegemonic powers want, right?

  • A gigantic state bureaucracy!

  • In medieval China's case, this meant the highly centralized mandarinate, a term referencing

  • Mandarin, the dialect of Chinese employed in the imperial court.

  • The bureaucrats who oversaw the imperial exams became known asmandarins.” The mandarinate

  • provided social stability and, thanks to the exams, some insulation against corruption.

  • Systematic knowledge production in abstract natural philosophy was never unified. But

  • Chinese technē was another story. Whereas scholars had high status, craftspeople

  • had low status. The state controlled most industries, and the state was responsible

  • for programmatic improvements. The list of Chinesefirstsor true technical

  • inventions is so long that it could be its own episode.

  • The wheelbarrow, silk production, earthquake monitors, lacquer, gunpowder, the crossbow,

  • porcelain, umbrellas, fishing reels, suspension bridges, and paper money.

  • As fascinating as this list is, it's of somewhat limited analytic value, because it

  • doesn't tell us anything about the social and political context of technological invention.

  • What are the characteristics of a given society that lead to new ideas? Does the state help

  • or hinder this work? Let's look at some examples.

  • Sometimes a practical invention led to new scientific knowledge after the fact. For example,

  • the Chinese had tinkered with magnetic compasses since 300 BCE, but the concept of attraction

  • to the North Pole was not understood for another two hundred years.

  • Other times, cultural desires drive lots of little iterations that lead to major breakthroughs.

  • For instance, Chinese artisans made paper since the second century CE, although it may

  • have been developed even earlier. And by 700, the Chinese also made use of a

  • printing press involving carved wood blocks. In fact, the first Song emperor ordered the

  • printing of a compilation of Buddhist scripture that included 130,000 two-page wood blocks

  • in 5048 volumes! But printing really took off in 1040, when

  • Song artisans introduced the first movable-type printing presses using wood and, later, ceramic

  • characters. These helped standardize writing and unify Song culture.

  • Finally, sometimes the state would directly support the creation of new knowledge.

  • Sponsored by the state, Chinese artisans created complex astronomical clocks and orreries,

  • or mechanical models of the heavens. During the Song Dynasty, civil servant Su

  • Song refined these techniques to construct a gigantic machine that would replicate planetary

  • movements and allow the government to correct the official calendar.

  • Alchemyor a systematic investigation ofwhat is stuff?”—also took off with

  • state support, starting in the Han dynasty. Thanks to this work, the Chinese had gunpowder

  • as of the mid-ninth century. But it took until roughly the twelfth century, under the Song,

  • to perfect the military application of such a volatile substance.

  • But as fascinating as medieval gunsmithing is, the real achievements of Chinese technology

  • were in infrastructure. This includes everything from taking raw ore

  • and making it into usable iron, to moving vast quantities of water around.

  • Medieval China saw an infrastructure revolution. Show us what it looked like, Thought Bubble!

  • Iron production in China had been a state

  • enterprise since 117 BCE. But under the Song, iron production skyrocketed, increasing by

  • sixfold from CE 800 to 1100. In 1078, for example, the Song state foundries produced

  • 125,000 tons of iron! How did they do it? Knowing more about the

  • chemical properties of stuff! Specifically: coal.

  • By the late Song, households used coal for heating, which was much more efficient than

  • charcoal. Coal burns hotter, for longer, and doesn't require deforesting the lands around

  • cities. This allowed iron production to scale up without

  • destabilizing society. And iron workers used water-powered bellows by the eleventh century,

  • smelting ore with coke—a powerful fuel made from coal which burns hot and clean.

  • The Song state made 32,000 suits of armor, 16 million arrowheads, not to mention loads

  • of agricultural implements, every year! In addition to metallurgy-backed military

  • might, hydraulic engineering is vital in running large states. But the Grand Canal took infrastructure

  • into a new scale. Completed in 1327, the Grand Canal stretched

  • eleven hundred miles, from Hangzhou in the south up to Beijing in the north.

  • This is about the distance from New York to Florida. The Grand Canal allowed merchants

  • to ship up to four hundred thousand tons of grain every year.

  • The Great Wall is pretty wondrous, as far as long-term engineering projects go, but

  • the Grand Canal was not only a technical projectnecessitating the water-level-adjusting pound lock (a technology

  • we still use in canals to this day) —but a social and economic one.

  • Thanks, Thought Bubble! The efficient moving-around

  • of goods is characteristic of the Chinese world by the time of the Songwhen economic

  • activity and population boomed alongside the ability to grow more rice.

  • The Canal also represented the powerful Chinese state's ability to engineer vast regions:

  • they connected smaller waterways to main rivers, opening up where goods and people could travel.

  • Butas political winds shiftedcertain sections were expanded or left to silt in.

  • So centuries later, during the Ming Dynasty, the Grand Canal had to be massively restored.

  • The Ming repaired 40,987 reservoirs and planted a billion trees. BillionWith a B.

  • The story of natural philosophy in China is similar to the story in other early states:

  • useful science was prioritized, not science for its own sake.

  • Given its resources, state support of research, population, and impressive track record regarding

  • technical innovation, some historians have asked why a “Scientific Revolutiondidn't

  • occur during Song Dynasty China. But is this question useful in helping us

  • make sense of past systems of knowledge-making? For one, many revolutionary technical achievements

  • in medieval China were made over long periods of time by anonymous, lower-class artisans,

  • not individual, named scholars. Two, in another sense, a “Scientific Revolution

  • did happen! Coal, water-powered bellows, gunpowder, compass-assisted

  • navigation, centuries-long hydraulic engineering schemes, movable-type presses, massive urbanization,

  • and research-driven agricultural intensificationadded up, these sound pretty revolutionary! And

  • many of these inventions traveled well beyond China.

  • But! The Song state fell towait for itthe Mongols

  • ….so these achievements didn't all persist in time. The more important point is that

  • changes in how cultures have understood and manipulated the natural world don't follow

  • a single predictable model. Chinese historians have seriously challenged

  • the assumption that a so-calledScientific Revolutionis a necessary path for all

  • civilizations. Next timewe'll zoom in on the field of

  • medicine and compare systems of making knowledge about health across Eurasia and north Africa.

  • Crash Course History of Science is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney studio in Missoula,

  • Montana and it's made with the help of all this nice people and our animation team is

  • Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If

  • you wanna keep imagining the world complexly with us, you can check out some of our other

  • channels like Nature League, Animal Wonders, and Scishow Space.

  • And, if you'd like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support

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  • love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued

  • support.

Look at this map of China and tell me if, from what we've learned so far, you can

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Medieval China: Crash Course History of Science #8

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    林俞均 posted on 2018/11/30
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