Chinese Innovation History

HackneyedScribe

Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
6,587
In wiki's article "List of Chinese inventions", I've counted the number of inventions and separated them into eras. In this way we can have a rough idea of the innovative degree of each era. The weakness of this study is apparent, as I did not discriminate between minor/major innovations. Long as the list is, it is also not comprehensive. I also left out the things that Chinese discovered rather than invented, but you can find them here: [ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_discoveries"]List of Chinese discoveries - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

What I did do was leave a number of innovations uncounted, but with good reason. For example, authors disagree on just when "true celadon" was invented, because they have different criteria for what a celadon is. This could mean celadon was invented anywhere between the Han to Song dynasty, so I ventured to drop the innovation from the count altogether. I also dropped obscure inventions that is hard to verify. What I didn't drop was inventions that the Chinese came up with independently (ie the Chinese invented something that was actually invented beforehand in another part of the globe). This is because we are measuring the degree of Chinese innovation by era, so as long as they developed it from scratch and had no prior knowledge of similar inventions, I would consider it innovative. Inventions that probably wouldn't help anyone at all, such as jade burial suits, were also included. For me, the opposite of innovation is stagnation/incubation, and useless inventions at the very least still imply a non-stagnant society. The list is as follows:

Pre-Shang ------------------------------------18
Shang/Eastern Zhou ---------------------------5
Western Zhou/Spring&Autumn/Warring States --20
Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin ------------------ 37
Southern and Northern Dynasties -------------- 4
Sui/Tang/5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms ---------15
Song/Jin/Liao/XiXia --------------------------- 20
Yuan/Ming ----------------------------------- 6
Qing/Empire of China -------------------------- 0
ROC/PROC ------------------------------------ 8

The Qin-Jin period (221 BC - 420 BC) takes a major lead. However, this is quite unfair as each era existed for different lengths of time. I will give another list showing the average number of years it would take in each era for something to be invented. Please take note that a larger number means that the era is less innovative, for it means they need more time to invent things. The peak of innovative eras is highlighted.

Shang/Eastern Zhou ---------------------------165.8 yrs
Western Zhou/Spring&Autumn/Warring States ---25.6 yrs
Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin --------------- 17.32 yrs
Southern and Northern Dynasties -------------- 42.25 yrs
Sui/Tang/5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms --------- 26 yrs
Song/Jin/Liao/XiXia ------------------------- 15.92 yrs
Yuan/Ming ------------------------------------ 62.167 yrs
Qing/Empire of China -------------------------- (none)
ROC/PROC ----------------------------------- 12.5 yrs

This list shows a more accurate degree of innovation by era. It seems that Chinese innovation reached a peak from 200BC to 400 AD, but dropped with the fall of the Jin dynasty. Note that this runs in parallel with the Roman empire. However, society recovered quickly and reached another peak by the Song era, but stagnated again after the Mongol invasion. The Qing era was at an all time low, but China quickly reached another peak under the ROC/PRC era. In fact, considering that all 8 inventions of the ROC/PRC era came from after 1960, the actual innovative ability of modern China should be 5 years per invention rather than 12.5 years per invention. This is not surprising as we are entering a new era of exponential innovation, and China is only just a very recent member.

One problem with the list is seperating them by eras determined by me. Each era may include multiple dynasties, which de-emphasize the importance of any single dynasty. For example, out of the 37 inventions of the Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin era, 27 of them were invented during the Han. This would make the Qin, Three Kingdoms, and Jin era look more innovative than they really were, while the Han dynasty would look less innovative than they really were. Indeed, the Three Kingdoms and Jin era was a period of decline and in this sense might be better suited to be labeled with the Southern/Northern dynasties era. However, if you have a good grasp of Chinese history then you would probably understand the reason I separated the eras as so, even if you may not agree.

Another weakness is that the article List of Chinese Inventions claims it "does not include technologies developed elsewhere and later invented separately by the Chinese, such as the [ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odometer"]odometer[/ame] and [ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chain_pump"]chain pump[/ame]." However, a few independently invented objects(Edit: actually, it's just one now that I checked again. This is the gimbal, and the subject is up for debate) were in the article, and I counted them into my list. This would throw my list off balance (Edit: since it's only one out of one hundred thirty three inventions it probably won't affect my conclusions by that much).
 
Last edited:
Feb 2012
73
In wiki's article "List of Chinese inventions", I've counted the number of inventions and separated them into eras. In this way we can have a rough idea of the innovative degree of each era. The weakness of this study is apparent, as I did not discriminate between minor/major innovations. Long as the list is, it is also not comprehensive. I also left out the things that Chinese discovered rather than invented, but you can find them here: List of Chinese discoveries - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

What I did do was leave a number of innovations uncounted, but with good reason. For example, authors disagree on just when "true celadon" was invented, because they have different criteria for what a celadon is. This could mean celadon was invented anywhere between the Han to Song dynasty, so I ventured to drop the innovation from the count altogether. I also dropped obscure inventions that is hard to verify. What I didn't drop was inventions that the Chinese came up with independently (ie the Chinese invented something that was actually invented beforehand in another part of the globe). This is because we are measuring the degree of Chinese innovation by era, so as long as they developed it from scratch and had no prior knowledge of similar inventions, I would consider it innovative. Inventions that probably wouldn't help anyone at all, such as jade burial suits, were also included. For me, the opposite of innovation is stagnation/incubation, and useless inventions at the very least still imply a non-stagnant society. The list is as follows:

Pre-Shang ------------------------------------18
Shang/Eastern Zhou ---------------------------5
Western Zhou/Spring&Autumn/Warring States --20
Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin ------------------ 37
Southern and Northern Dynasties -------------- 4
Sui/Tang/5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms ---------15
Song/Jin/Liao/XiXia --------------------------- 20
Yuan/Ming ----------------------------------- 6
Qing/Empire of China -------------------------- 0
ROC/PROC ------------------------------------ 8

The Qin-Jin period (221 BC - 420 BC) takes a major lead. However, this is quite unfair as each era existed for different lengths of time. I will give another list showing the average number of years it would take in each era for something to be invented. Please take note that a larger number means that the era is less innovative, for it means they need more time to invent things. The peak of innovative eras is highlighted.

Shang/Eastern Zhou ---------------------------165.8 yrs
Western Zhou/Spring&Autumn/Warring States ---25.6 yrs
Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin --------------- 17.32 yrs
Southern and Northern Dynasties -------------- 42.25 yrs
Sui/Tang/5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms --------- 26 yrs
Song/Jin/Liao/XiXia ------------------------- 15.92 yrs
Yuan/Ming ------------------------------------ 62.167 yrs
Qing/Empire of China -------------------------- (none)
ROC/PROC ----------------------------------- 12.5 yrs

This list shows a more accurate degree of innovation by era. It seems that Chinese innovation reached a peak from 200BC to 400 AD, but dropped with the fall of the Jin dynasty. Note that this runs in parallel with the Roman empire. However, society recovered quickly and reached another peak by the Song era, but stagnated again after the Mongol invasion. The Qing era was at an all time low, but China quickly reached another peak under the ROC/PRC era. In fact, considering that all 8 inventions of the ROC/PRC era came from after 1960, the actual innovative ability of modern China should be 5 years per invention rather than 12.5 years per invention. This is not surprising as we are entering a new era of exponential innovation, and China is only just a very recent member.

One problem with the list is seperating them by eras determined by me. Each era may include multiple dynasties, which de-emphasize the importance of any single dynasty. For example, out of the 37 inventions of the Qin/Han/Three Kingdoms/Jin era, 27 of them were invented during the Han. This would make the Qin, Three Kingdoms, and Jin era look more innovative than they really were, while the Han dynasty would look less innovative than they really were. Indeed, the Three Kingdoms and Jin era was a period of decline and in this sense might be better suited to be labeled with the Southern/Northern dynasties era. However, if you have a good grasp of Chinese history then you would probably understand the reason I separated the eras as so, even if you may not agree.

Another weakness is that the article List of Chinese Inventions claims it "does not include technologies developed elsewhere and later invented separately by the Chinese, such as the odometer and chain pump." However, a few independently invented objects(Edit: actually, it's just one now that I checked again. This is the gimbal, and the subject is up for debate) were in the article, and I counted them into my list. This would throw my list off balance (Edit: since it's only one out of one hundred thirty three inventions it probably won't affect my conclusions by that much).
I skimmed your post. Didn't even try to think of the methodological problems. I want to say this before I start thinking about the viability of your exercise: You Sir, are awesome. I love when people thinks out of the box and tries to quantify the unquantifiable! :)
 
Dec 2011
3,492
Mountains and Jungles of Southern China
The innovations of ancient Chinese were consistent with the two golden ages of Chinese history, the first was QIN/HAN/JIN, and the second was SUI/TANG/SUNG.

Chinese innovations dropped significantly after the Mongol and Manchu invasions. It seems that these two nomadic invasions had a very bad impact on Chinese civilization.
 

HackneyedScribe

Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
6,587
1279, 1644, and 1949

Three disasters of Han China
As according to my list, only the Mongolian invasion is true. I'm not seeing how you concluded the rest. Although the Qing had 0 innovations, we can see that this process of stagnation already started by the Mongol invasion and was occurring throughout the Ming. The Qing merely took over riding the same tired horse that the Ming was riding all along. The PRC period was/is actually more innovative than any other period of Chinese history by a long shot, at least for now.

You Sir, are awesome.
I, sir, agree to your statement.
 
Jan 2012
100
Read Joseph Needham on Science and Civilization in China. This man is the greatest single-encyclopedist in history of Western literature. He was a British scientist/author from Cambridge University who is considered the most famous Sinologist in modern history.

Also read "The Genius of China: 3000 years of Science and Technology" by Robert Temple. Simon Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China: Unlocking the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom" (which is a biography about Joseph Needham).

These great books reveal the real truth about China's history of inventions, innovations and discoveries and dispels many myths concerning them and also dispelling myths about many inventions wrongly credited to certain peoples.

.........But all in all, I think the present and future is most exciting, as China is re-awakening into re-emergence.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said about China....:D
 
Nov 2019
16
Mexico
Could you specify which are the innovations you included of the Ming and Yuan dynasties? i only know inoculation, rocket artillery, metal movable type.