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In the present, when it comes to technology, science and culture, it seems that China is simply lapping up the scraps of the western world and doing with it what it can. This was not always the case. Throughout history, China has been quite the ingenious and creative civilization and has often been well ahead of it’s time. In fact, today’s advanced world is not just a product of inventions from the west, but of those from the east as well. The Chinese have invented many things which have heavily influenced the future of the west and the world as a whole.
One field in which the Chinese created many innovative and revolutionary inventions was warfare. One such invention, the stirrup, was developed during the Han period to gain equal footing in battle with the confident horsemen to the west. While other similar, yet lackluster, devices were found earlier in India the precursor for the European version was created independently in China. Originally it was used as simply an aide in mounting but as Chinese horsemen started using heavier weapons and armour the stirrup was developed so that they could effectively dominate a head on charge. The knights of the European feudal age who charged across the fields and dominated warfare were a product of the Chinese stirrup. While one Chinese invention would give power to the Knights, another earlier one would begin to take it away. During the period of civil war after the fall of the Zhou dynasty in the 7th century BC military innovation was a key to survival. One product of this period was the crossbow. Initially a cumbersome but effective weapon the crossbow required strongmen laying on the ground to arm it. Later a cocking piece was invented so that the crossbowman could arm the crossbow while standing resulting in greater rapidity. The crossbow would remain a Chinese weapon until it arrived in Europe near the beginning of the second millennia. Through the centuries of feudal Europe the crossbow became widespread and with it a peasant could kill a life dedicated and full armoured Knight with only a few days of training. While the Knight would remain a power on the battlefield for some time, his status was beginning to change. Gunpowder is undoubtable the most famous and influential of Chinese warfare inventions. It’s discovery was somewhat of an accident, the result of Taoists looking for ways to create an elixir of immortality. At first, this new discovery was used in festival as firecrackers to scare away evil spirits but it would soon find it’s way on the fields of war. Gunpowder grenades were first used after the fall of the T’ang dynasty in 906AD to offset the Chinese loss of horse breeding grounds to their enemies in the north. The Chinese used the grenades to scare the horses of their enemies so that they could gain the advantage in battle. Gunpowder was also used to fuel rockets that could be used in both sea and land warfare. The ‘bee’s nest’ was one such weapon, which fired multiple arrows simultaneously with an explosive sting. The use of the gun would give the Chinese a helpful advantage over their enemies but gunpowder’s greatest influence would be in Europe, where it would change warfare by bringing the downfall of the Knight, eliminating the usefulness of Castles and eventually allow the Europeans to conquer foreign worlds. Throughout a period of Chinese complacency the gun would develop in Europe as a mighty weapon that would later come back to haunt China.
Throughout their history the Chinese have had a relatively high population. This has forced them to find new and efficient methods of agriculture, ones that are still used today. A simple, yet important technique that the Chinese used was row planting, invented around 600BC. The seeds were planted by hand in rows so that they would not interfere with each other. Europeans instead just threw the seeds on the ground which would cause interference and ultimately a lower crop yield. It was not until the 17th century that the Europeans borrowed this method. The technique is still in the present, although machines do most of the work now. To complement row planting, a device was developed called the seed drill. With this a farmer didn’t need to plant seeds by hand, resulting in quicker work and greater acreage. The seed drill would emigrate to Europe as well. While plows were used in all parts of the world the ones in China were much superior. Made of iron the plow had a sturdy, square frame, strong heavy, well designed shares and new moldboards that were well in advance of any plows elsewhere. The greatest feature was an adjustable strut which precisely regulated the depth at which it would plow. In the 17th century the Europeans would abandon their own plows for this 2000 year old, but more advanced, piece of technology. It was only once these and other Chinese methods of agriculture reached Europe that the agricultural revolution could happen the way it did. Since the agricultural revolution was its precursor, the Industrial Revolution in Europe was indirectly a result of the Chinese.
Johan Gutenberg has been much celebrated for his invention of the printing press with movable type. Yet really it was the Chinese that created this invention first. Gutenberg did develop his press independent of China, but another Chinese invention; paper making, was a necessary ingredient. China first started making paper in the second century BC. It was more reliable than bamboo strips and cheaper than silk so it was widely used by scholars, government officials, and many among the general populace. Through the knowledge of Chinese made slaves by Arab traders, the technique of paper making was passed along to the west where it also became widely used. In the 15th century, only with the technology of paper making known, did Gutenberg develop the printing press that revolutionized Europe. While it was still used to print thousands of copies for a variety of works, the 400 years older Chinese version of the printing press didn’t have the huge impact in China like it’s eastern equivalent did in Europe(mostly due to the 60 000 different characters). Nevertheless, it was a Chinese technique that allowed one of Europe’s most celebrated and important inventions to be created.
Another important field that the Chinese contributed to was Naval technology. Without a borrowed device from the Chinese the great voyages of the Europeans around the globe would not be possible. This invention was the sternpost rudder. Before the rudder came to Europe around 1100AD ships could only turn using steering oars. Long trips across oceans were only plausible with the rudder and so the Chinese made many voyages of discovery. They rounded the cape of good hope much earlier than the Europeans and also made it to Australia first. There is even evidence that the Chinese were the first to reach America. Yet it was only a one way trip, since no one returned. While Vikings were able to reach North America with their own steering boards it was not until the Chinese rudder reached the west that the later Imperial powers of Europe were able to do the same. Other important naval inventions of the Chinese include the ballast, multiple masts, leeboards, for-and-aft rigs and a fenestrated version of the rudder(which is necessary for a ship to turn at high speeds). To go along with the rudder was the magnetic compass. The compass was originally used as a magical tool but was soon discovered to be useful for navigation so the Chinese used it for their naval voyages. Along with celestial navigation, the compass was necessary for the Europeans to find their way around the world by sea. Without technologies imported from China the world exploration(and later domination) of the Europeans would not have been possible.
As these technologies show, China has been quite the inventive and advanced civilization throughout history and it’s products have had greater influence on Europe and the world than what most westerners and even Chinese think. Still, these examples only scratch the surface of Chinese innovation and creativity. Umbrellas, the parachute, the hot-air balloon, paper money, whiskey, brandy, the chain pump, deep drilling, the mechanical clock, the segmental arch bridge, playing cards, the driving belt, matches, the seismograph(a device to predict and measure earthquakes), the flame thrower, cast iron, the horse collar, the fishing reel, chess and toilet paper among many other inventions all originated in China. China’s genius was not limited to it’s inventions though. The philosophy of the “age of 100 schools of thought” is unrivalled in impact by a period of philosophical teaching. Among other more forgotten schools of thought, Confucianism and Taoism were started and developed during this period. They still have a great impact on China today. While other civilizations, such as Greece, have had their own great thinkers and philosophic societies none have had quite the impact or complexity than that of China. China has also had great cosmopolitan cities, architectural wonders and beautiful art, poetry and writing. Yet there is one major question that remains to be answered. If China was such a wonderfully innovative, developed and advanced civilization how did they not emerge as a great industrial power in the recent centuries? This topic is a complex and complicated one that deserves it’s own essay but a simple answer would lay in the nature of the Ming dynasty. In seeking to remain in power for a longer period the Ming dynasty realized that conservatism and isolationism must be favoured over development and change. While China did become relatively peaceful and prosperous it didn’t make nearly the leaps and bounds that Europe did at the same time. Such a path allowed China to become taken advantage of later, and in the emerging global society it lacked any real influence while it could have been one of the most powerful nations. If China had instead maintained a path of change and invention the world could certainly be a totally different place. But since that was not what really happened, China’s greatest influence has been in it’s invention and creativity of times long past.
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