President Trump claims that China is stealing intellectual property from the United States, and Vice-President Pence even said that Chinese people lack creativity, in other words, China’s progress today is based on stealing inventions. What does history tell us?
Everybody knows that silk and the cultivation of silkworms is a Chinese discover. China is famous for porcelain and tea as well, and it took Western countries a long time before they managed to copy silk, porcelain and tea. In this sequel I will mention a few of the inventions where China was far ahead of the rest of the world. In many cases these Chinese inventions were imitated by other people.
The Chinese were already making cast iron in 300 BC, about 1700 years before Europe. They maintained the necessary high temperature with so-called double acting piston bellows. Whether you push or pull the handle, it will always blow into a combustion chamber. This machine is discussed in chapter five of the classic Daode Jing.
One cast iron product was used to make salt. In Sichuan salt was produced by drilling a hole all the way into underground layers of salt. The drill bits were made of cast iron suspended from bamboo ropes. Brine was pumped up from these holes and evaporated in large cast iron pans, heated by natural gas from other boreholes. The whole salt, gas and iron industry was nationalized by Han Wudi in 119 BC. Today’s drilling for oil can be traced directly back to this Chinese invention, for it started immediately after the missionary Laurent Imbert described the technique in detail in 1828.
China developed iron plows in East-Zhou. In the Western Han Dynasty (around 200 BC) there were already four different types of plow. Dutch sailors brought these plows back to Europe in the 17th century, probably after having seen them in Taiwan. These plows (called ‘Dutch plows’!) were twice as efficient and so one needed less animals and less meadows to feed them. This caused a revolution in European agriculture.
From the 2nd century AD on, Chinese ships had watertight compartments that divide the space inside a ship. If these are not connected to each other, the ship won’t sink if a part of the hull is damaged. At the end of the 18th century Benjamin Franklin and others recommended that shipbuilders should learn from China to build ships with watertight compartments.
Long ago European horse drawn carriages could not carry much weight. If the horse had to pull too hard, it could not breathe because of the belt around its neck. The Chinese used a horse collar, so the horse would pull with its chest. Another Chinese invention was stirrups (mass produced from cast iron!). With stirrups riders were much more stable on their horses. These inventions arrived in Europe in the 6th century AD and immediately became popular.
Paper is well known to be a Chinese invention. Invented already in the Han dynasty, the Arabs learnt the technique from the Chinese around the year 700, and managed to keep it a secret for about five centuries. Not many people know that toilet paper (unknown in the West before the 19th century) was already in use in China in the 6th century. Wallpaper, playing cards and paper umbrellas are other paper products directly copied from Chinese examples.
The British introduced the so-called civil service examination in the 17th century, and that was directly copied from China. There all officials had to pass an examination, and this practice had started in the Sui dynasty (about 600 AD).
The oldest known printed book is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868. How the technique of printing arrived in Europe is unknown, but it suddenly appeared in Europe after the Mongolian army had reached the German borders.
In the Song dynasty China reached its peak in science and technology. Here are some examples.
1. Movable type. This was invented by Bi Sheng in 1045 AD. It did not become popular because Chinese has so many characters and it is sometimes more practical to use block printing. Gutenberg invented printing with movable type in 1448 AD. He may have been inspired by Arab bookmaking.
2. Paper money. Some Sichuan rich merchants issued bills of exchange, but their company was confiscated and their system was ‘nationalized’ in 1023 AD, so these bills later became official banknotes.
3. Magnetism. In the Han dynasty a kind of magnetic spoon was used for Fengshui, but this had evolved into a magnetic compass by the 10th century. A book of 1117 AD mentions a government regulation saying that sea-going ships should have a compass. That is just about the time that the compass suddenly appears in Europe together with another Chinese nautical invention, the stern post rudder.
4. Pound lock. The Grand Canal has sections of different level. It was difficult for ships to go from one section to another. In the Northern Song Dynasty, Qiao Weiyue built (in 984 AD) a so-called pound lock (two sluice gates close to each other). After the ship enters the lock through one gate, the gate is closed, the water level in the lock is changed and then the ship can leave through the other gate with a small loss of high level water. 400 years later this was copied in the Netherlands.
5. Gunpowder and firearms. Many people know that gunpowder is a Chinese invention, but they think the Chinese only used it for fireworks. Not so. After the invention of gunpowder (ca. 800 AD) it was immediately applied to warfare. An early use was incendiary rockets. So-called fire lances were long pipes filled with fast burning gunpowder. This weapon evolved into the cannon by the 13th century. After the Chinese mastered the art of making explosive gunpowder they developed all kinds of bombs. European firearm technology started suddenly, and when one sees a German 1450 woodcut showing a cannon that looks exactly like a Chinese cannon of 50 years earlier, then one understands why.
Western science expanded from the combination of Greek geometry and astronomy with practical applications and systematic experimentation. China had enough mathematics to serve as basis for science, not geometry but advanced numerical mathematics. Chinese mathematicians solved routinely higher degree equations by approximation and in 200 BC they were already calculating with negative numbers, that’s about 1800 years before Europeans did so. Why then was there in China no spark between theory and practice that produced science?
The Ming Dynasty reversed the Mongolian discrimination against the Han people. It reinstituted the examination system, but merely tested Confucianism by letting candidates write so-called eight-part essays. Personal opinions were not allowed. There is nothing wrong with Confucianism but you can’t solve all problems with quotations from Confucius. In the Ming Dynasty all intellectual force was channeled into memorizing Confucianist writings and becoming an administrative bureaucrat. There were people in China who understood that this was no good. I mention Gu Yanwu (1612-1683) and Song Yingxing (1587-1666, writer of Tian Gong Kai Wu), but they were powerless. The Qing Dynasty (after 1644) was even worse. In 1793, the British sent Special Envoy Macartney to China. He gave a letter from king George to emperor Qianlong to ask for more trade. He also brought various advanced instruments as gifts. However, Qianlong answered that China already had everything and did not need trade. This set the stage for the later humiliation of China.
Imitation of an advanced civilization is not surprising. The West has copied many inventions from China. Once the British accused Germany of imitation, and after the Second World War Western people laughed at Japanese imitations. Now they say that Chinese can’t innovate. Of course, the past success of China doesn’t prove that Chinese are naturally more talented. Different ethnic groups may look slightly different, but people’s brains are in average the same, even if their skins are paler, their hair more like straw and their noses stick out more than those of others. However, the Chinese have a tradition of hard work and diligent study and this certainly contributes to the rapid development. And most important of all, they remember the lessons of history and are determined not to repeat their mistakes.