China's Exploding Technology
This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2005) written in 1970.
Joseph Needham was an eminent Sinologist and historian of the science and technology of old China. He was founder and President of SACU. At the SACU Annual General Meeting on 16 May 1970 he gave a lecture on the developments of pure and applied science in present-day (1970) China and related them to the inventions and discoveries of the past.
Well, Chairman and friends, I'm afraid everybody will be very disappointed tonight in this talk, because unfortunately I'm afraid it won't be very bright. The thing is that I am fundamentally nowadays a historian, a historian of science and technology, and I'm not one really well up in the current developments of science pure and applied in China at the present day.
Nevertheless I have put a good deal together along the general idea that we should try to have a look at things that had been done during the past two or three years, and in fact since the Cultural Revolution came to China, in the field of science and technology; linking it up at the same time with background material which may take us back for centuries. I don't think there's any harm in doing that, because the idea that China suddenly sprung, as it were, out of the earth from nowhere and has suddenly impinged upon people's mentality, has nothing to do with China - it's only a reflection on people's mentality, that they haven't been aware of it before.
But if one looks at the whole thing as one continuous fine of evolution, I think it's extremely fruitful. Now the Chairman of course has already referred to the question of the satellite, which people are calling 'Mao No. 1'. In case anyone doesn't know the proper name for it, it's jen-tsao ti-chhiu wei-hsing. (in pin yin this is 'ren zuo di tiu wei xing') Somebody asked me that - in fact the interviewer asked me on the impromptu interview which the BBC had on the Home Service not long after it went up. And at that time I didn't know, and wasn't able to tell the right name; but in fact it means 'the man-made earth-guarding star'; wei-hsing is the satellite, that's something that goes round the planet, and jen-tsao is man-made, and tichhiu is the earth. It's 380 lb s. in weight, as we know, and it corresponds to an intercontinental ballistic missile of 5000 miles range.
You may have read an article by Nigel Calder, a very good science journalist in the New Statesman for 1 May (rather appropriately) in which he talked about an evidence of a certain maturity, a once-and-for-all demonstration of talent, which is absolutely right; and then he went on to consider the possible intentions of this achievement. He raised the question of whether it was primarily civilian or military in intention. And of course the interviewers on the BBC naturally did the same thing.
One of the questions on that occasion was: would it mean that the Chinese would engage in a long-term space programme, like the Americans and the Russians have done, with landing a man on the moon and so on. My reply to that was that I thought they had better things to do with their resources than trying to land a man on the moon or on Mars before anyone else. I said that I felt they were conscious of the world food problem for example, and the question of raising the standard of fife of the millions in their own country, and that therefore they were not really so likely to engage in a long-term space programme as some people might think.
As for the civilian applications, Nigel Calder took that one up, and pointed out that weather reports are already available apparently from the American and other satellites that are circling anyhow, so he didn't think it would be likely to be that; and then he ventured to make some rather frightening prognostications; but it was only leading up to a very good point indeed. He said:
More chilling is the thought that the Chinese are not signatories of the Outer-Space Treaty, and that they might want to put H-bombs in orbit. Plainly there is a lot of terror and awed respect to be engineered with a swarm of such orbital bombs flying routinely over Moscow and Washington. However, it doesn't make much sense militarily, chiefly because satellites without elaborate orbit-changing powers are probably easy to destroy with anti-satellite missiles. But the fact that it's no longer incredible makes the final nonsense of Washington's China policy of two decades. The Russians, too, would be well advised to drop their racialist jokes about the Chinese. And if the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Vienna have aimed at a thermonuclear world order without China, they are most regrettably but logically doomed to fail on that basis. After all, Mao is NOT on a different planet. A great deal of the world's future safety hangs on the SALT talks. In this period when multiple-warhead missiles and ineffectual but seductive antiballistic missiles threaten a terrific resurgence of the East-West arms race, the possible effects on the Vienna discussions of this new Chinese complication are not to be shrugged off. But the remedy may have to be the radical one of providing a place for the world's most populous nation, not only in the United Nations, but also in SALT and similar negotiating bodies.
This was very-well said, I thought, by Nigel Calder in the New Statesman. And the Times also had a leading article which wasn't really too bad. The Times leader writer pointed out - and a very good thing he did - that:
When China's first nuclear device was exploded in 1964, it was accompanied by an assurance from Peking that the Chinese would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, and that China was making them solely for her own defence. Since then there has been a critical period in the expanding Vietnam war, and lately some sharp hostility on the Sino-Soviet border; yet nothing so far has invalidated the Chinese assurance.
I thought that, coming from the Times leader-writer, was really quite good. And he went on to say the same thing Nigel Calder said, that the world's great outsider has been China, excluded from the United Nations and from SALT. Sooner or later, the Times said, this gap must be closed. Sooner, of course, we would say, the sooner the better. And he finally added that Moscow and Washington have every reason to be aware of the difficulties and frustrations, but the need is overwhelmingly there, and a reminder to Moscow and Washington of it is given every 114 minutes. Well, I thought that was very good, coming from the Times.
Celebrations at a Chinese atom bomb test, June 1967.
And now, to take quite a different point of view about the satellite and the launching mechanism, the rocket, I must fill out my side of the story, and go on to explain - though I'm sure there's probably no-one here who doesn't know what I'm going to say now - about the origin of gunpowder and rockets. But I think it ought to be said - I think really that's part of the point of the story of this evening - that we should link the present, and the new, with the past. The fact is that the oldest mention of any explosive substance known to man occurs in a Chinese Taoist text of the middle +9th century, where Taoist alchemists are strongly advised not to mix saltpetre, sulphur and a source of carbon, with various other things like arsenic; because those who have done this have sometimes had the cottage explode where they were working, or burn down over their heads, and singe their beards; and it was not bringing Taoism into any credit to do this. So don't mix that particular mixture.
That was about +850. Then immediately afterwards - very soon afterwards - by +919, we get the oldest reference to the fire-drug, as it was called, huo yao the name which gunpowder still retains in Chinese, as an igniter for a flame-thrower. This is in the military-books of the time, and it's a kind of slow match which was used for the ignition. Here we go back to an earlier stage, we link up with Greek proto-chemistry. Because it was in Byzantium in the +7th century that an ingenious proto-chemist, if we may call him so, called Callinicus produced for the first time the famous 'Greek fire'; and it has been shown by various scholars that this was nothing else but distilled light petroleum fractions. Then in the 10th century we get information about this being presented to China, though no doubt by that time they were distilling their own; and so it links up through the Arabs with the Byzantine civilisation.
But the explosive character of the particular Chinese invention was destined to undergo a very rapid development, because by +1000 - we're coming to the time of William the Conqueror, when no such thing was thought or heard of in the West - by +1000, rockets were flying in the air, with arrows on the end. They were called huo chien or fire-arrows. And at the same time also, this gunpowder, which was probably very low in nitrate, was put in bombs which were going off and thrown from trebuchets - a kind of catapult. This was called huo phao. And just at almost the same time, in 1044, we get the first printed formulae for gunpowder in any civilisation.
But the transition to guns and cannon followed quite soon afterwards; because when we come to +1110, when the Chinese were trying to repel the invasion by the Chin Tartars from the North, a new invention was made, namely that of holding a rocket - not letting it fly free and deliver some war-head, but holding it on the end of a pole, and using it in the other direction as a kind of five-minute flame-thrower.
If you had enough of those, and enough chaps lighting them on the battlements of a city, it might be - I'm sure it undoubtedly was - a considerable dissuader from those who were trying to take that city. This was used a lot in the wars with the Chin Tartars and with the Mongols, and it was called huo chhiang or fire-lances. It is really rather important, because it depended essentially on natural tubing. You see, in China, India of course, and Ceylon, they had natural tubing which the West didn't have, namely bamboos; and if you're only using it for five minutes or three minutes, in the form of rockets or fire-lances, this will work very well.
And it's very important historically, because I think undoubtedly it was the ancestor of all the guns and cannon made in bronze and iron of later times; and of course the rockets, the solid or liquid fuel rockets, that we have at the present time, such as were used to launch the satellite that the Chinese successfully did this year.
When you come to 1280, you come to a very dubious period, a dark period, which we haven't unfortunately got to the bottom of; because the crucial time is 1280 to 1290 or 1300 when we have yet to find out where the first metal-barrel guns or cannons were developed. There have been of course claims for Europe, but I myself am not inclined to rate them very highly because of the fact that the natural bamboo tube existed in the East and not in the West. There is also a claim to be made for the Arabs - the Arabic civilisation - which was certainly referring to them about 1300, under the name of madfaa, a kind of cannon or gun. We don't know exactly what it was made of; but we're quite certain that the thing was in Europe by 1327, because that is the date of the oldest picture in European civilisation (in an Oxford manuscript) of the earliest European bombard. I think that 1280 was almost certainly the time when the thing was starting, and we don't yet know whether it was in China, in Arabic regions, or in Europe; but I myself believe that it was probably in the East. The first dated cannon, by the way, are all Chinese, from the 1360s onwards, which is some half a century earlier than the oldest dated ones in the West; but of course that doesn't prove the point.
Two further matters of interest in connection with the tremendous achievement of the first explosives technology in China: one is that from about 1230 onwards we get what the technicians call really brisant explosions - in other words the blowing up of city walls and gates and towers which you couldn't do with the low-nitrate compositions which they had previously. These are all right for rockets, but they won't do for brisant explosives; you've got to raise the nitrate, and that was undoubtedly done by about 1230; because in the wars with the Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan and his immediate successors the Chinese were using these against strong places held by the Mongols, and successfully blew them up.
And the other point, too, is that when you come to about 1400, you get an extremely interesting phenomenon: you get two-stage rockets in Chinese technology. Something - it's fantastically similar to the Saturn rockets of our own time - is found there, with subsidiary rockets placed at an angle to the main projectile; and not only that but an automatic fuse arranged so as to let loose a shower of projectiles when the whole thing was reaching its destination. Well this is a very remarkable thing, this is found in the Huo Lung Ching (Fire Dragon Manual) which is a treatise on artillery from about that period, about 1400 or a little later.
I wish I could say we had written all this up in our work on the history of science and technology in Chinese culture; but I am very glad to be able to say (not that it matters to anyone I suppose, except us) that my collaborator Wang ChingNing is coming back to Cambridge this summer. He's the great authority on this subject, and he's really going to draft the whole thing and get it down.
I should like also to make one final remark about this, and that is that anyone who goes around with the idea that the invention of chemical explosives, which is what it amounts to - after all it's the ancestor of everything, cordite and gelignite, and TNT, and everything you want to think of in this way - to think of it as what my friends in France call néfaste, something tragic and terrible for mankind (rather like Shakespeare used to say in his plays 'that villainous saltpetre should be digged out of the ground' etc, that kind of thing) - it's not fair to look at it that way. Because where would human communications and transport be if it hadn't been for the explosives used to build all the railways and roads in the world, and cuttings and tunnels, to say nothing of mining, the burrowing for metals in the earth, the use of explosives in destroying obstructions in canals, and every conceivable sort of beneficent human communication? This is the kind of thing which you've got to weigh in the balance, and it isn't fair to regard chemical explosives in a purely military light. After all, ever since the beginning of fire, obviously man has been faced with the problem of how he's going to use the Promethean gifts which the inventors provide, and that is a moral question which is not really up to them, but up to every one of us.
The question of the satellite was of course the high point one had to begin with, but I want to go on now to talk about power production. And as you may possibly know, the Chinese at the present time are very proud of the successful completion during the past year of a 125,000 kilowatt steam turbo-generating dynamo set with a double internal water cooling system. This problem has not been solved elsewhere, but the Chinese have succeeded in doing it. It's a very difficult one, because although it's quite easy to water-cool the stator-the parts of the dynamo which don't rotate-it's very difficult indeed to cool the rotor; and they've used hollow copper tubes for doing it. It runs at about 3000 revs per minute, and it is regarded, I think, by engineers in all countries as a considerable achievement. It's only part, of course, of a very big move towards power production; and you'll find that last year 25,000 kilowatt types-very useful in all countries-were actually ready for export from China. They can be exported to underdeveloped countries, in the regular trade of China with the rest of the world, to say nothing of A/C diesel generating sets in plenty. And as a matter of fact in Albania the Chinese have in the past two years constructed a complete thermal power station.
In 1969 also they were rather pleased that they designed and constructed entirely in China a hydraulic power station, consisting of a set of nine 72,500 kilowatt water-driven turbines, with a total output of 652,000 kilowatts. That is certainly the first time that this has been done completely in the Chinese culture-area. Well, we are all extremely delighted to compliment them on these achievements, and I certainly feel very proud of them myself. But if you want to go into power-production, then it's fair to take a step backwards, as we did with the question of the chemical explosives, and just put yourself in the middle of the +10th century. At that time, a picture was painted, which still exists. We're not absolutely sure whether it's the original-it may be a later copy. But it's quite possibly the original, because the design of the machinery which is visible through the open walls of the mill is very archaic indeed. It's called "The Mill at the End of the Canal", and it dates from about +960. This is when we find the first form of the standard assembly for the inter-conversion of rotary and longitudinal motion. You see, everybody used to be familiar (nowadays I'm afraid owing to the use of Diesel engines on the railways there's a generation of children growing up that's not going to be so familiar as the children of my generation were) with the eccentric, connecting-rod and piston-rod; because steam locomotives all had them very obviously, and they only had to stand in railway stations and admire the way these things went round. Actually there is still a bit of steam left. I noticed on my way to London this afternoon that-rather a joke-of all people, the Central Electricity Generating Board moves their trucks at Tottenham with steam, from nice tank engines painted blue. This is a compliment to the past indeed.
Of course the standard assembly was not used in China in the Middle Ages for steam. But it was absolutely identical in principle; it was the morphological prototype of the steam-engine, acting in reverse. What happened in China in the Middle Ages was that furnace bellows-blast-furnace bellows-were operated by power from water-wheels. They always used horizontal water-wheels, or generally did so; and then they had above an eccentric working a connecting-rod which then pushed the piston-rod to blow the furnaces. So they were starting with the rotary motion and converting it to longitudinal reciprocating motion; while of course the steam-engine, as developed from the time of Trevithick and James Watt onwards, does the opposite thing: it applies the power to the piston in the cylinder and it gets the rotary motion out. But nevertheless, the morphological equivalent was there; and it was a very long time before Watt and Trevithick, a very long time indeed; because it was not in the 18th century but in the 10th that this started in China.
So you might say that the morphology of the steam-engine was ready for several centuries before it ever came to life in physiology; and this is another very remarkable achievement of the Chinese in the old days from the point of view of power-production. Of course there's no direct connection with the turbines and dynamos, except that the horizontal water-wheel is the ancestor of all turbines; this we know through the work of Besson in France in the late 16th century. The tub-wheel is the ancestor of all turbines, and the Chinese had been making those. But all their modern electro-technical work, of course, is derived from the foundations of the study of electricity in the 18th century.
The science of electricity is a typical post-Renaissance science characteristic of the 18th century, of people like Francis Hawksbee, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, and all those; but it happens that the study of magnetism on which it depended in the first place was something about which Europeans had done nothing whatever in ancient times. Ptolemaic astronomy and Euclidean geometry were indeed two of the great pillars of modern science as it developed in Galileo's time in the west, pillars on which modern science was founded. But there was another pillar-perhaps several others-namely the study of magnetism; and nothing had been done about it in Europe, absolutely nothing. It was the Chinese who had started that, from the Han period onwards-from the first and second century onwards they had been pegging away at that. And, in fact, to put the thing in a nutshell, one can say that the Chinese were worrying about the declination-why the magnetic needle does not point exactly to the astronomical north-before the Europeans had ever heard of the existence of the north-or south-pointing needle at all.
Turning to another subject, when we come to the instrumental and mechanical things now being made in China- many for export -we can find extraordinary items in the instrument and electronic equipment which China has been exporting in the last year and in 1970. In physics, for example, we find medium plane-grating spectrographs and multipurpose oscilloscopes; in engineering we find high-precision engraving machines, photo- and thermo-sensitive devices for automation in factories; and here again quite recently I saw a very good picture of an automatic gas chromatography control apparatus, which is very important in automating chemical industrial plants. The Chinese are also making transistorised digital computers. And while we are speaking of the chemical industry, they make all kinds of refrigeration and other chemical compressors, moulding presses for thermosetting plastics, and many things also for telecommunications-they're making their own telephone exchanges, automatic switching equipment; and one thing I found particularly interesting was that they are making electronic high-speed telecommunications equipment for coding, decoding and printing out Chinese characters, 1500 a minute.
This is very interesting, I don't know how it's done-whether by code-numbers which are then converted into the actual characters or not, but in any case it shows the way in which, with an ideographic language, you can still storm some of the heights of modern technology without worrying that you haven't got an alphabet. Why should you have an alphabet? The Japanese in recent years have practically liquidated illiteracy in Japan, and their language is far, far worse than Chinese. And yet, they are using it right and left in science and telecommunications and everything else. But whether the new Chinese high-speed equipment would be useful for them, too, I don't know; I imagine it certainly would. In the field of medicine, also, many things are now home-made in China which only a few dozen years ago would have been quite incredible. For example, electroencephalographs and electrocardiographs-they're all made there; and they are now also, for cardiac surgery, making their own artificial heart-valves and other spare parts for human beings. We heard much, of course, in recent years about the restoration of severed limbs and fingers; it's a branch of surgery in which the Chinese have particularly excelled. Now they're going in for cardiac surgery and replacing spare parts. And another interesting point about surgery, too, is that the Chinese pharmacopoeia-the indigenous traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia- has been laid under contribution of late for various kinds of drugs from plant and mineral origins which are useful in the healing process after surgical operations. There isn't the slightest doubt-that there is a very great deal in the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia which has not yet been brought to light and studied with the aid of modern science; though the Chinese are working. hard on this. Medical equipment which is rather nice is electronic erythrocyte counters red-blood-cell counters, to relieve technicians of a frightful lot of labour electronic blood cell counters. A very nice thing. I suppose they're used in hospitals here; but anyway they're home-made in China now.
When one learns back after looking at a list like that, and thinks about the achievements that the hands and brains of our Chinese friends could make in times past, it sends one's mind back to the late Han period, the +2nd century, when the father and mother of all seismographs was made in China. This was the work of Chang Heng, one of the greatest astronomers of the +2nd century, who was very worried and disturbed in mind about the frightful earthquakes that China's always been subject to. It was really a piece of very great social-mindedness as well as. purely scientific interest that one should know at the capital in those days. With no telegraphs (certainly no electric coding and decoding telecommunications machines) no telephones, all they could do at best was with fire and smoke signals (you find those groups of five little towers for them all along the Great Wall). But that was the best you could do, and there were lots of possibilities of misunderstanding and that sort of thing.
Zhang Heng's seismoscope 2nd Century AD (Science Museum London)
So Chang Heng devised an apparatus about + 130 which was the first of all seismographs. I don't know whether some people here have seen pictures of it. It is in fact believed to have been an inverted pendulum which, on receipt of an earth tremor, would be knocked over to one side or the other- it was kept in a state of very unstable equilibrium-and would enter a series of slots to operate a series of balls which would then roll out and drop into the mouths of toads made of bronze waiting to receive them outside. Well, this gave an idea not only of the strength but also of the direction of the epicentre; and what is rather marvellous is that the History of the Later Han dynasty has an actual account of the use of this apparatus in practice. It said that the courtiers made a lot of fun of Chang Heng and thought the whole thing was very amusing and really a great joke; until one day it actually worked, and he informed the emperor that there must have been a very severe earthquake in Kansu province in the north-west, and they'd better prepare to send assistance immediately. And then of course three or four days later despatch-riders arrived at the court saying that frightful damage had been done and so on, and afterwards they didn't laugh at Chang Heng any more. If that could be done in the +2nd century, then one is not surprised that things can be done now. And of course when one thinks of people doing things now, there arises the question of who exactly is doing them. Well, in that particular case, Chang Heng was a scholar, with the greatest, the highest education that his age could provide; and he was a fine poet, and a real literary scholar; one of those greats-you might say universal-geniuses which the Chinese produced in all the centuries; but today we find that ordinary working men are themselves producing inventions of great value. And they are encouraged to do so in the present day China. This is a very important point.
Actually there always were men of that kind. I could give you another example from the +3rd century, namely Ma Chun, who was perhaps one of the greatest textile inventors of any age and any country. I mustn't go off on to that now, but it's interesting that the history of the Three Kingdoms period tells about Ma Chun that he was quite unable to express himself-he was not a scholar. He was unable to persuade the officials to carry out and order all the improvements that he invented, and couldn't explain them. He could show his own technicians, his own foremen, how to do it; but he could not explain it, and the officials despised him. This is all in the history and the literature; for instance of a very fine biography written by Fu Hsuan one of the greatest technicians in Chinese history.
But at the present time there are people like Ma Chun all over the place. For example, in the reports which have come from China in the past year, we find people like Shih Ko-Chi, who had no great amount of education, but set to with his friends and studied at night, and succeeded in producing something they had wanted for a long time-fully electronically automated skip-hoists and scale-cars for blast furnaces-thereby sparing an enormous amount of absolute sweat and labour on the part of his mates. And this is the kind of thing that really can happen in China at the present day. Another group decided that it wasn't necessary to use the best steel for Diesel crank-shafts. They were convinced they could do it with cast iron, and it took a lot of experimenting; but this plant did in the end succeed in doing this, and saved a great deal of expensive best steel in consequence.
As a matter of fact, that harks back to something I was saying earlier on: one of the reasons why the Chinese were able to invent the standard assembly of interconversion of rotary and longitudinal motion centuries before anyone else could may have been that they had good cast iron. Of course other people had steel-the Romans could make steel. All you have to do for that is to take your purified wrought iron, your pure iron, and melt it in charcoal, so that just the right amount of carbon gets into the wrought iron, and you get your steel. They were doing that early in the Iron Age. But it isn't so easy to make cast iron. The temperature required is a great deal higher; in order to melt cast iron you've got to be rather clever. The Chinese were making cast iron something like fourteen hundred years before anyone else could do it. Nobody could get a single pig of cast iron until 1300 or so in Europe; it started in the Rhineland, and in the low countries, when the blast furnaces really began to pour it forth. Well, it's one of the foundations of our civilisation, even today; but in China you can go into museums and handle cast-iron tools from tombs of the - 2nd and - 3rd century. They were already making cast-iron tools at that time.
And there is a point, you see, about wear. Of course you need oil. But one of the bright things about managing bearings is to use a combination of steel and cast iron; and that's very effective if you don't have brass. Of course the Chinese had brass; they may have used brass. But it's very expensive-it's much more likely that they used that combination. Engineering friends of mine say that this may have been one of the contributing factors to their ability to solve that problem of the interconversion of motion before anyone else could.
Well, I mentioned Shih Ko-chi and I'll turn to others whom I think it's nice to name, people who really exist. They've no idea that we're telling their names this afternoon, but I think it's fine to celebrate them. For example, Huang Ju-lin: now, he belongs to the South-east, a machine-works in Nan-phing in Fukien. What did he do? Last year he decided that what was needed was a mobile, you might say a one-man workshop. I don't mean that exactly as it says: but supposing you could make a machine tool, and make it mobile as well, which would do turning, grinding, milling, boring, drilling and slotting that would really be rather good. You could do quite a lot of things on the spot, you could take it about with you from place to place. This was Huang Ju-lin's achievement. Not a very highly trained engineer-he was a foreman, a workshop chap, a practical man-and he produced it. And it's done by encouragement; if you don't encourage people like Huang, you won't get these results.
Another chap, Li Kuo-tsai, was in the oil, industry, and what they wanted was a 12,000 ton hydraulic, high-pressure pipe-bender; and that again was not so easy. No doubt they imported them, they got them from Germany or somewhere, but it wasn't exactly what they wanted. And there he was in Lanchow, in the great oil plant there, the petroleum purification plant. So he got together with his friends and he produced this on the spot and it was regarded as an excellent achievement.
Another thing which interests me as a railway fan myself is the new electric locomotives they've been producing in China, using silicon semi-conductor rectification instead of the old type; they're smaller, more powerful, better on gradients, and a distinct improvement on the electric locomotives they had before. No doubt this technique is well known here in the West where there's always a lot of know-how. Since the Russians haven't been willing to provide that for some time, or give any good suggestions, and certainly people from Western Europe have not, then it's up to the people there. When they can get smaller and better, more effective locomotives, naturally they're, very pleased. Well, one should say that all these people had to overcome (it's very clear from the records) a lot of opposition, from the official authorities whom one might call stuck-in-the-mud, who always wanted to follow the yang fa (foreign ways of doing things), and pretty cautiously at that.
Now I want to say something about civil engineering. Our volume about that is coming out this year. In this book we'll be telling about the epic-you can only call it an epic-of civil engineering in China through the ages, particularly with regard to the management of the great rivers and canals. The Chinese were the greatest canal builders of the whole Middle Ages: they compare in irrigation technology with the experts in other countries, the Egyptians, the Ceylonese, and also the people in South India-the greatest experts in hydraulic technology.
But they did everything quite differently, and this is what is interesting to bring out. They tunnelled, of course. You get irrigation tunnels from very early times in China. There's one in Shensi, for example, that's described in the Chhien Han Shu (History of the Early Han Dynasty), and that was back in the -2nd century. But just recently they've done one for a road, which is rather an exciting one, a half-mile tunnel, again largely done by not very well-trained engineers, foremen and so on, who managed to hit in the middle very well, the middle of the half-mile. It's a highway tunnel in the Thai-hang mountains, and it cuts out a narrow road with eighteen hairpin bends. If you've driven those roads in China as I have you'd rather go through a straight tunnel; now they're going to be able to do that. Shih Pao-ching was actually only a maintenance linesman to start with, but he did night study and was able to take charge of this tunnel which has been a great success.
Another set of people, also with rather a makeshift education (but they had some good technicians as well) in Northern Chiangsu built a highway bridge of thirty-nine arches, about a mile long, over the Hsin-yi River with pre-cast concrete units and arch-topped flanges. If you talk about segmental arches then you don't really go back to the Romans. The Romans were very assiduous bridge builders but they had one of those bees in their bonnet that you must have semi-circular arches-it would fall down if you didn't have the complete semi-circle. Everybody thought this, the Persians and the Indians as well. It was only in China that someone had the nerve -in the +7th century you had to have nerve to get away from a conviction like that- but in +610 Li Chu in Southern Hopei realised that if he had really strong abutments, he didn't need to have a semi-circular arch. He could have what you might call a flying bridge, with most of the semicircle gone, just shooting out from each side on really strong abutments.
Nowadays there are hundreds of them on railway lines all over Europe and America, steel-and-concrete bridges, flying from side to side of the valley. And not only that, when you look at those modern concrete segmental-arch bridges, most of them are empty; you have the main bridge-arch itself, and then you have just emptiness; and you have concrete pillars going up from it to lighten the weight, and then the deck on the top. Well, Li Chu did that too, because on each side he put two enormous spandrels in, perfectly empty, in order to let the flood waters go by: when the waters rose, instead of carrying away Li's bridge they'd just shoot through these spandrels. And this was really a glorious achievement for +610. It was the oldest segmental-arch bridge in any civilisation, and there wasn't another one until the 14th century, when the Italians started it. You can go to Florence now and look at the Ponte Vecchio or the Ponte della Trinita to see what they were doing in the +14th century. I myself have a firm conviction that it was people in Marco Polo's time at the end of the +13th century who saw or heard about these flying-arch bridges in China, and said 'it can be done'. They might not actually have seen them, but they convinced their friends in Italy and they started to make them. It's really a great achievement: if you go to Southern Hopei, you can see many of them, built not only during one, but several later periods; I dare say there are about a dozen of them altogether from the old times still in use.
And when you think about bridges you think about ships. The Chinese have now made, in 1969, the Hai-phin 101, a very fine 3 1/2 thousand-ton ice-breaker for the northern ports, the first of its kind. This embodies a number of quite new features, which certainly can't have owed much to the Russians, because they were not there, but it seems to be a great success. And another thing they've done is on a far bigger scale-of course not as big as some of the tankers that are being built in the rest of the world, but still not at all bad-a 15,000-ton oil tanker, the Taching 27, which was launched from the Hung Chhi shipyard in 1969.
That again brings up a rather interesting question: could it be that tankers in general were really a Chinese idea? Of course most oil engineers would say nonsense, it's absolutely impossible. But one of the historians of shipping, Peter Watson, wrote to me recently raising the question of whether the whole idea of a tanker isn't a Chinese one originally. He pointed out that from the mouth of the Liao River, in the North-East, there was a very great export of soya-bean oil from Ming times onwards.
There's a place called Niuchuang which had a special type of junk, a wooden sailing-ship, which worked its way across the Yellow Sea bringing the oil down to Shanghai. And according to some of those who lived and worked in Shanghai in the old days, this was in fact nothing less than a wooden tanker. As you know, Chinese ship-building has never been the same as Western ship-building. It never used the stem-post, stern-post and keel; it always worked in terms of transom stem and stern, and bulkhead construction with flat bottom, so that you have in a way a tanker ready-made, with a whole series of different holds. And as the Chinese were quite able, with the aid of layers and layers of oiled silk to carry oil about in baskets, it may well be that we'll find that the Niuchuang oil freighter was really the oldest tanker in any civilisation.
While we are talking about oil, again I have something to say about the great success of the Chinese in recent times. Already by 1963 they reached internal self-sufficiency, more or less; but now they've fully reached it, and they'll have to keep on going as their motor transport increases. The Taching oilfield, the model one, was built in 1960 in three months, and has continually increased its production since.
Another point that has come up is that the world drilling record was won by the Chinese in the last year or two. The United States record was said to be 90,300 with the best apparatus that there is, and the Soviet Union's, 52,000 metres per annum; but the Chinese have done 100,000 metres of drilling through rock in a year, which is a subject for congratulation. But of course deep drilling itself is a Chinese invention. It goes right back to the Han, that is, to the first and second centuries (the minus first and second, not the plus first and second). The reason is that they wanted the brine. In Szechuan, which is a couple of thousand miles from the sea, people want salt. They want salt in Tibet, they want salt everywhere, but the sea is a long way away. It happens that underneath Szechuan, about 2000 feet down in many places, there are colossal fields of natural brine which have been worked for these two thousand years. The brine is not only there, but is also accompanied by natural gas, which has been pouring forth from these deep bore-holes for the last two thousand years. The Chinese began to burn the gas to evaporate the salt around them, and they have continued to do so right up to the present day. I had the great good fortune to visit Tzu-liu-ching (Self-Flowing-Well) in Szechuan during the war. It was a wonderful place, an industrial centre right in the middle of a mainly pre-industrial civilisation.
Similarly I think we must admit that the first Artesian wells (so called because the first in Europe were drilled in Artois in France) were of Chinese origin. This is not necessarily because anyone brought the technique as a person, but so often what the anthropologists call stimulus diffusion can take place. People get convinced that something has been done, and then they swear on their honour or by the bones of some saint, as Marco Polo certainly did, that such-and-such things were so. Then intelligent and up-and-coming technicians in the other civilisation say: Well, if it really has been done, it can be done, let's see how to do it, and they do it a different way. Actually I think this is what happened with the windmill, but I mustn't get into that now.
What is more interesting, perhaps, and more to the point, is that the beginnings of the oil industry in the United States were made with Chinese methods. Before the steam-engine was applied to deep drilling in Kentucky or Kansas, the first American boreholes for oil were made by the Chinese method, which is known as 'kicking her down'. This involves a team of people jumping on and off a beam and at the same time a drilling-tool rotates down below; or you may have a wheel with people walking inside it; but the essential point is that 'kicking her down' is the old Chinese method, and it was used in the beginnings of the American oil industry. I think it's extremely likely that the Chinese workers, who were imported to help build the transcontinental railroad in the early nineteenth century (also at earlier dates for working and prospecting mines) brought the technique with them. Here is a case where we do have positive reason for thinking that the Chinese people themselves went abroad and transmitted the know-how.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 1970, reprinted in SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 5, 2005
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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