Support Provided ByLearn More
Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

China's Age of Invention

Printing, paper money, porcelain, tea, restaurants, gunpowder, the compass—the number of things that Chinese of the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1280) gave to the world is mind-boggling. This vibrant period in Chinese history was marked by economic prosperity and remarkable technological innovation. In this interview, China expert Robin D. S. Yates, Professor of History and East Asian Studies at McGill University, describes this exceptional era and how it influenced the course of world history.


Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Song Dynasty elegant party
This detail of a Song Dynasty painting called
Support Provided ByLearn More
An Elegant Party shows a small banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials.
public domain/Wikimedia

a cosmopolitan culture

NOVA: Let's begin by providing a worldwide context for the Song Dynasty. In 1271, the Italian merchant Marco Polo is believed to have visited China. What was his impression of this very different world?

Robin Yates: Well, there's a debate as to whether Marco Polo ever did, in fact, visit China. However, assuming Polo's account is real, what comes across most obviously is that he was utterly astonished at the size of the cities and the extent of commercial activity in China. The number of ships on Chinese canals and rivers far exceeded what Polo was familiar with in the cities of Italy, such as Venice or Genoa.

The Chinese had a very cultured and civilized society. Song Dynasty silks, for example, were remarkably advanced. The Chinese were using very sophisticated looms with up to 1,800 moving parts. China was simply far more developed technologically and culturally than any state in the West.

But one wonders whether Polo had actually visited, because of the things that he doesn't write about at all. He doesn't mention paper money and the bank note, which were both invented during the Song Dynasty. You would have thought that if he'd lived there for 20 years, he might have noticed it, because Western Europe didn't have it.

What are some of the things that made these large, bustling Chinese cities unique in their time?

There is a strong connection between the increasing urbanization and the burgeoning commercialization of Chinese culture at this time. Merchants traveled from one place to another, and a new group of scholar-officials was appointed to administer the country. The traveling merchants and officials wanted to eat the cuisine that they were used to in their local region. And people with some extra wealth in the urban centers also wanted to try food from different regions. So what developed was a new urban type of culture that included eating out in restaurants and the drinking of tea.

tea leaves
Tea drinking in China dates back to at least the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), when its medicinal use was recorded, but it reached new heights during the Song Dynasty.
© Ivan Kmit/iStockphoto

It was really in the Song Dynasty that tea reached its cult status. It was drunk out of very beautiful, extraordinarily exquisite tea bowls made from porcelain, one of the glories of the Song Dynasty. The word "china" is appropriate for porcelain, because the Chinese developed the technology for its production. The Song Dynasty ceramic industry was basically the first commercialized industry. They produced the pieces in mass quantities for the imperial palace, but also for this newly arisen class of scholar-officials and an urban elite and for these restaurants. Eventually, two of the main products the West wanted in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were porcelain and tea, so much of the trade between East and West was based on those items.

porcelain box
A Song Dynasty porcelain box with a flower design, now preserved at the Nanjing Museum in Jiangsu Province, China
Courtesy Gary Lee Todd

With restaurants, common folk could eat out very, very cheaply on food such as fried noodles, which, it is said, Marco Polo introduced to the West. Although there's a lot of debate about that, the idea of spaghetti probably comes from China at about the time of the Song, possibly carried across the ocean by Arab traders, who are known to have established themselves in ports such as Canton by the ninth century.

the power of gunpowder

Tea and restaurants are certainly two important gifts the Song people gave to the world. What were some of the other Chinese inventions of this period that had a profound influence on the course of civilization?

Gunpowder completely transformed the way wars were waged and contributed to the eventual establishment of might over right. In my own research, I have been able to refute the common notion that the Chinese invented gunpowder but only used it for fireworks. I'm sure that they discovered military uses for it. I have found the earliest illustration of a cannon in the world, which dates from the change-over from the Northern Song to the Southern Song around 1127, which was 150 years before the development of the cannon in the West. The Song also used gunpowder to make fire lances - actually flame throwers - and many other gunpowder weapons, such as anti-personnel mines, which are thankfully now being taken out of general use.

Needless to say, the cannon was used by the kings of Europe to fundamentally alter the social structure of the European world. It enabled kings to destroy the castles of the feudal lords. And it enabled, therefore, the centralized nation-state to develop.

By the end of the Song Dynasty, the Chinese invented multiple-stage rockets. If we hadn't had that, maybe we would not have been able to put a man on the moon. It was that fundamental an idea. Joseph Needham, an historian of Chinese science and technology, also argues that the notion of an explosion in a self-contained cylinder also permitted the development of the internal combustion engine and the steam engine. Our basic modes of transportation would not have been possible without this Chinese invention.

The Chinese used gunpowder for more than mere entertainment. In addition to fireworks, it fueled weapons of war during the Song Dynasty.
© Anton Zagorulko/iStockphoto

How did the Chinese invention of gunpowder move from East to West?

Although scholars often consider the Song Dynasty to have been very weak, its use of gunpowder was the reason it was able to hold off the Mongols for many decades. Eventually, the Mongols were able to capture Chinese artisans and use the latest gunpowder technology against the Chinese. The Mongols used those people who had a special knowledge of technology and employed them in their own armies as engineers. They carried that technology to the West very rapidly because it was very helpful in their conquests.

What was interesting with this transfer of technology is that it goes both ways. After the introduction of the cannon and gunpowder to the West, Westerners very quickly became expert with cannons. They cast bronze cannons that were eventually much better than those the Chinese could produce. The Western bronze cannon was then brought back to China by the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ming Dynasty, which fought the Manchus, employed Jesuit priests to cast cannons that were more advanced than the Chinese had at that time.

impact of the printed word

You've made a strong case for the impact of gunpowder all over the world. But were there major non-military inventions during the Song Dynasty that had an impact worldwide?

Printing and movable type were certainly two of them. Printing was actually invented by the Buddhists in the eighth century for dissemination of religious images and texts. But in the Song Dynasty, the government promoted the publication of the Confucian texts called "The Canons." These texts had to be studied by examination candidates. Once you passed the examinations you were eligible to become an official. So many copies of the Confucian texts were published at this time. In addition, the government popularized the use of printing for the dissemination of technical manuals, such as agricultural manuals and works on medicine. Eventually, private printing presses started, which fundamentally altered the world of letters and dissemination of knowledge.

In the 11th century, a famous literary artist by the name of Shen Gua records the invention of movable-type printing by a man by the name of Bi Sheng. It was this invention that was eventually taken over to the West and used by Gutenberg for the printing of the Bible. Needless to say, this had a profound effect on the nature of knowledge and the development of literature. So this is probably the number-one invention of the Song Dynasty.

The Song Dynasty was a time of remarkable change in so many different ways.

Did the development of printing change China the way it would change Europe?

The effect of printing was different in East and West because of the nature of the Chinese language. The Chinese language, when it is written, uses characters or graphs, sort of like ideograms. It is not an alphabet like we know it. As a consequence, there are literally thousands of Chinese characters. Obviously for most types of writing, you don't need the 48,000 different Chinese characters. You only need to use 3,000 to 10,000, something like that.

Movable-type printing was more practical, with a very limited number of symbols, such as the letters used in European alphabetic languages. In Chinese writing, you had to have a very large number of characters, each individually carved to set in the press. So even though they invented movable type, it actually was never as useful as wood-block printing—carving the blocks of each page separately and independently. So that was the reason why there were some books printed using movable type, but it never really replaced wood-block printing in the way it did in the West.

printed page
The Pen ts'ao, printed with wood block and dated to 1249, is an illustrated book that describes Chinese herbal medicine. Printing not only enabled the spread of cultural wisdom but also allowed Chinese officials to distribute important documents.
public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Was movable type another example of technology moving from East to West, or was it an example of an innovation developing in the East and West simultaneously?

It's very unclear, but it does appear that there was a transfer from East to West. The Mongol invaders of China were able to use their highly developed organization and cavalry to conquer all of Central Asia, including parts of India, the Middle East, and Europe. So the invention was probably transferred to the West as a result of the opening up of the trade routes and the lines of communication established by the Mongols. I'm not saying that Gutenberg actually had access to a Chinese press; that's highly unlikely. Rather, he probably got wind of the idea of printing through some unknown and lost source. It's rather ironic that Gutenberg was recently voted the man of the millennium, when it was the Chinese who actually invented the technology.

What influence did these printing innovations have on Chinese history?

Well, that's a question that brings us into the political realm. One of the major social changes that took place in the Song Dynasty was that the old aristocratic order ended and the nature of the social elite changed dramatically.

Specifically, a new class of scholar-officials came to the fore. To a large extent, they were chosen on the basis of their success in the official examinations. The scholars had to be very familiar with the Confucian classical texts, which were originally produced more than 1,000 years earlier. As a consequence, political power and social dominance were dependent upon knowledge of the written text. Printing allowed books to be very much more widely disseminated and therefore allowed political power to be shared on a much broader scale than it had been in the past. The class of so-called literary or scholar-officials that evolved basically dominated China until the 20th century with the founding of the Republic in 1911.

Was it a type of meritocracy?

That's right. Official status was open to individuals who studied hard and passed the examination. A very important development that Joseph Needham points out is that doctors were tested on their medical knowledge. It would be impossible to measure people's ability and skill and knowledge without examinations. Could you imagine education without examinations?

Without exams, you might be out of a job.

Yes. And our society would not be able to survive. We depend on this Chinese examination system that was brought to the West. Before the introduction of examinations and the bureaucratic system that came from China, society was very much hierarchical and dependent upon who you were, in what family or occupation you were born into, and your social status. In democratic systems, you know, your status ideally depends upon equality of opportunity, and that's really one of the things that the Song ultimately gave to the rest of the world, along with all these other technologies.

a booming economy

Did printing play a role in the economic boom of the Song Dynasty?

A major role. The Chinese political philosophy held that the emperor and his officials were responsible for the welfare of the people - and that included the country's economic welfare. With that in mind, they took the agricultural innovations being made in one small region of China and disseminated printed texts about it across the entire Empire.

One of the major agricultural innovations that we talk about in the NOVA documentary is that a new type of rice was introduced from Vietnam that grew faster. It prevented famine and allowed people to grow a double crop of rice each year, giving them a surplus that they could sell on the open market. This led to more wealth in the rural sector.

They became more than subsistence farmers and began growing crops they could sell in the open market for cash. This spurred on the development of a commercial and agricultural economy, and also fed the increased urbanization that Marco Polo is reputed to have seen. So it was a very complex process.

rice paddy
Then, as now, rice was the staple of the Chinese diet. Faster growing rice distributed during the Song Dynasty helped prevent famine.
© elwynn1130/iStockphoto

It sounds like these technological innovations and the economic boom went hand in hand.

That's right. In order for the markets to develop and the circulation of goods to be achieved, for example, you needed a good system of communication. So one of the other major developments in the Song Dynasty was the rapid expansion of the canal and of the waterway system, which was particularly true in the southeast and southern parts of China.

To move goods from place to place in the open seas the Song developed the mariner's compass. Originally, the compass had been developed for divination purposes, a sort of magnetic spoon going back as early as the Han Dynasty 1,000 years before. The Song began to trade with Southeast Asia, because in the north they were cut off from the Silk Road by other empires. So they started to use the compass for navigational purposes to help them know the direction in which to sail.

Gradually the Chinese people traveled to Southeast Asia and into Taiwan, of course, and into the Philippines and places like that. In the early part of the Ming Dynasty, after the Mongols, the Chinese Admiral Zheng He led several significant expeditions around to India and even as far as Africa. Chinese porcelains have been found as far south as Zanzibar and Tanzania. This was just before the Age of Exploration in the West.

Accompanying the invention of the compass were other inventions, such as the development of new types of locks along the canals. The Chinese previously had invented the sternpost rudder, actually in the Han Dynasty, but the sternpost rudder was very, very important for controlling a vessel. They'd also invented sails that could move. In earlier times, in the Mediterranean, sails were fixed. They had to wait for the wind to change in order to be able to move. But the Chinese invented sails that could be trimmed so that they could travel regardless of which way the wind was blowing. They also developed the structure of the ship's hold, dividing it into different watertight compartments. The result was that if one chamber in the hull sprang a leak, then it wouldn't damage the rest of the cargo.

If all oil tankers had double hulls like this, they wouldn't cause the kind of ecological problems that they've caused. All of these technological developments were interconnected with the commercialization and urbanization.

rainbow bridge
This Rainbow Bridge, built by a NOVA team of experts, was modeled after one designed during the Song Dynasty.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

We can't end our discussion of innovations of the Song Dynasty without mentioning the Rainbow Bridge that the team of NOVA experts reconstructed in "China Bridge."

That's right. During the Song Dynasty, the population of China grew to about 100 million people, which made it a very large country. With the expansion of the waterways, you needed bridges so that people could get from one side of the river to the other in an easy way. So that's why you had the development of the bridge, and specifically the Rainbow Bridge. It was developed in Shandong province, which has mountainous terrain and where previous bridges were often washed away in spring floods.

So a retired prison guard designed a Rainbow Bridge that was built up from the banks. It could span a waterway without having any central pillars that could be washed away by the floods. The bridge that NOVA built was imitating one in Kaifeng, the capital of northern Song China, that was built over the Bian Canal, which was used to bring grain up from the rich rice-growing regions of Southeast China. All of this was connected - transportation, commercialization, technological innovations, and urbanization. The Song Dynasty was a time of remarkable change in so many different ways.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Secrets of Lost Empires.