Ming Dynasty - Science and Technology

Science and Technology

Further information: History of science and technology in China, List of Chinese inventions, and List of Chinese discoveries

Compared to the flourishing of science and technology in the Song Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty perhaps saw fewer advancements in science and technology compared to the pace of discovery in the Western world. In fact, key advances in Chinese science in the late Ming were spurred by contact with Europe. In 1626 Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote the first Chinese treatise on the telescope, the Yuanjingshuo (Far Seeing Optic Glass); in 1634 the Chongzhen Emperor acquired the telescope of the late Johann Schreck (1576–1630). The heliocentric model of the solar system was rejected by the Catholic missionaries in China, but Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei's ideas slowly trickled into China starting with the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (1612–59) in 1627, Adam Schall von Bell's treatise in 1640, and finally Joseph Edkins, Alex Wylie, and John Fryer in the 19th century. Catholic Jesuits in China would promote Copernican theory at court, yet at the same time embrace the Ptolemaic system in their writing; it was not until 1865 that Catholic missionaries in China sponsored the heliocentric model as their Protestant peers did. Although Shen Kuo (1031–95) and Guo Shoujing (1231–316) had laid the basis for trigonometry in China, another important work in Chinese trigonometry would not be published again until 1607 with the efforts of Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci. Ironically, some inventions which had their origins in ancient China were reintroduced to China from Europe during the late Ming; for example, the field mill.

The Chinese calendar was in need of reform since it inadequately measured the solar year at 365 ¼ days, giving an error of 10 min and 14 sec a year or roughly a full day every 128 years. Although the Ming had adopted Guo Shoujing's Shoushi calendar of 1281, which was just as accurate as the Gregorian Calendar, the Ming Directorate of Astronomy failed to periodically readjust it; this was perhaps due to their lack of expertise since their offices had become hereditary in the Ming and the Statutes of the Ming prohibited private involvement in astronomy. A sixth-generation descendant of Emperor Hongxi, the "Prince" Zhu Zaiyu (1536–611), submitted a proposal to fix the calendar in 1595, but the ultra-conservative astronomical commission rejected it. This was the same Zhu Zaiyu who discovered the system of tuning known as equal temperament, a discovery made simultaneously by Simon Stevin (1548–1620) in Europe. In addition to publishing his works on music, he was able to publish his findings on the calendar in 1597. A year earlier, the memorial of Xing Yunlu suggesting a calendar improvement was rejected by the Supervisor of the Astronomical Bureau due to the law banning private practice of astronomy; Xing would later serve with Xu Guangqi in reforming the calendar (Chinese: 崇禎暦書) in 1629 according to Western standards.

When the Ming founder Hongwu came upon the mechanical devices housed in the Yuan Dynasty's palace at Khanbaliq— such as fountains with balls dancing on their jets, self-operating tiger automata, dragon-headed devices that spouted mists of perfume, and mechanical clocks in the tradition of Yi Xing (683–727) and Su Song (1020–101)—he associated all of them with the decadence of Mongol rule and had them destroyed. This was described in full length by the Divisional Director of the Ministry of Works, Xiao Xun, who also carefully preserved details on the architecture and layout of the Yuan Dynasty palace. Later, European Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault would briefly mention indigenous Chinese clockworks that featured drive wheels. However, both Ricci and Trigault were quick to point out that 16th century European clockworks were far more advanced than the common time keeping devices in China, which they listed as water clocks, incense clocks, and "other instruments... with wheels rotated by sand as if by water" (Chinese: 沙漏). Chinese records— namely the Yuan Shi (Chinese: 元史)—describe the 'five-wheeled sand clock', a mechanism pioneered by Zhan Xiyuan (fl. 1360–80) which featured the scoop wheel of Su Song's earlier astronomical clock and a stationary dial face over which a pointer circulated, similar to European models of the time. This sand-driven wheel clock was improved upon by Zhou Shuxue (fl. 1530–58) who added a fourth large gear wheel, changed gear ratios, and widened the orifice for collecting sand grains since he criticized the earlier model for clogging up too often.

The Chinese were intrigued with European technology, but so were visiting Europeans of Chinese technology. In 1584, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) featured in his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum the peculiar Chinese innovation of mounting masts and sails onto carriages, just like Chinese ships. Gonzales de Mendoza also mentioned this a year later— noting even the designs of them on Chinese silken robes —while Gerardus Mercator (1512–94) featured them in his atlas, John Milton (1608–74) in one of his famous poems, and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (1739–801) in the writings of his travel diary in China.

The encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) documented a wide array of technologies, metallurgic and industrial processes in his Tiangong Kaiwu (Chinese: 天工開物) encyclopedia of 1637. This includes mechanical and hydraulic powered devices for agriculture and irrigation, nautical technology such as vessel types and snorkeling gear for pearl divers, the annual processes of sericulture and weaving with the loom, metallurgic processes such as the crucible technique and quenching, manufacturing processes such as for roasting iron pyrite in converting sulphide to oxide in sulfur used in gunpowder compositions— illustrating how ore was piled up with coal briquettes in an earthen furnace with a still-head that sent over sulfur as vapor that would solidify and crystallize —and the use of gunpowder weapons such as a naval mine ignited by use of a rip-cord and steel flint wheel.

Focusing on agriculture in his Nongzheng Quanshu, the agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) took an interest in irrigation, fertilizers, famine relief, economic and textile crops, and empirical observation of the elements that gave insight into early understandings of chemistry.

There were many advances and new designs in gunpowder weapons during the beginning of the dynasty, but by the mid to late Ming the Chinese began to frequently employ European-style artillery and firearms. The Huolongjing, compiled by Jiao Yu and Liu Ji sometime before the latter's death on May 16, 1375 (with a preface added by Jiao in 1412), featured many types of cutting-edge gunpowder weaponry for the time. This includes hollow, gunpowder-filled exploding cannonballs, land mines that used a complex trigger mechanism of falling weights, pins, and a steel wheellock to ignite the train of fuses, naval mines, fin-mounted winged rockets for aerodynamic control, multistage rockets propelled by booster rockets before igniting a swarm of smaller rockets issuing forth from the end of the missile (shaped like a dragon's head), and hand cannons that had up to ten barrels.

Li Shizhen (1518–93)— one of the most renowned pharmacologists and physicians in Chinese history —belonged to the late Ming period. In 1587, he completed the first draft of his Bencao Gangmu, which detailed the usage of over 1,800 medicinal drugs. Although it purportedly was invented by a Daoist hermit from Mount Emei in the late 10th century, the process of inoculation for smallpox patients was in widespread use in China by the reign of the Longqing Emperor (ruled 1567–72), long before it was applied anywhere else. In regards to oral hygiene, the ancient Egyptians had a primitive toothbrush of a twig frayed at the end, but the Chinese were the first to invent the modern bristle toothbrush in 1498, although it used stiff pig hair.

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