In 1933, a bone needle was found in the ruins of Dragon Bone
Hill at Zhoukoudian, Fangshan, Beijing. Apart from one crack,
the 18,000-year-old needle's body was intact. To make bone needles,
a piece of bone has to be split into strips, polished, ground
to fine point and perforated at one end. This earliest sewing
device ever discovered in China is proof that during the late
years of the Old Stone Age women were already stitching animal
skins to make clothes using bone needles.
China began to make jade objects during the New Stone Age, 7,000
years ago. A jade dragon made after carving and grinding from
a single piece of dark green jade unearthed in Chifeng, in the
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, in 1971 is a shiny object in
the shape of a dragon's body, curved like a C. On the back of
the dragon is a small hole through which a string can pass so
that the piece can be hung up. The highly expressive dragon was
shaped using the methods of sculpture-in-the-round and relief.
Among the funerary objects belonging to the Liangzhu Culture
of the New Stone Age, some 6,000 years ago, is a square cylinder
made of jade. This superbly processed item is marked off into
nineteen sections. Studies suggest that that it was either a ritual
object for sacrificial ceremonies or a burial object. A recent
deduction was offered by Nobel laureate C. N. Yang, who believes
that jade objects like this were used by the ancient Chinese as
tools to observe the sky.
In 1976, the excavation of a tomb in Anyang, Henan Province,
belonging to a noblewoman who lived more than 3,000 years ago
caused a sensation in archaeological circles. According to written
records, Fu Hao, the owner of the tomb, was a woman general and
wife of Wu Ding, king of Shang. The tomb yielded a large amount
of arms made of bronze, which proves that during the Shang Dynasty
(16th-11th centuries BC), soldiers were already armed with bronze
The Chinese began to smelt bronze in the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th
centuries BC). About 5,000 years ago, people began to extract
brass from ore to make small objects with the cold-forging technique.
Then they added a certain percentage of tin to lower the melting
point and increase solidity. Tin gave brass a bluish tinge, and
the alloy became known as bronze, which in Chinese simply means
bluish copper. In the Shang Dynasty, bronze smelting became the
most important branch of the handicraft industries. Shang bronzes
come in many varieties, chiefly ritual objects, wine vessels,
weapons, musical instruments and food containers. Many ritual
bronzes were engraved with records of the military exploits of
rulers, which are extremely valuable for historical research.
Bronze working reached its prime in the Spring and Autumn Period,
which covered the period from 770 to 476 BC, with the creation
of the lost-wax method. This method used easy-melting wax sprinkled
with fine mud and refractory materials. When the wax solidified,
it was made into molds. After baking, the wax melted and flowed
away, creating a vacuum which was filled with bronze liquid to
eventually produce a bronze ware item. The tripod which Wang Ziwu,
son of the prince of Chu, offered when he prayed for longevity
is regarded as one of the first bronze wares made with the lost-wax
During the Shang Dynasty, Chinese people began to learn to use
iron. The iron-edged bronze sword unearthed at Liujiahe Village
in Pinggu, Beijing, is one of the earliest iron-containing objects
discovered in China. The iron blade was cast from smelted meteorite
iron, and then inlaid into the bronze handle. The sword is testimony
to the fact that people had mastered the fairly advanced technique
of iron smelting and casting iron with bronze.
Iron smelting technology made breakthroughs during the Warring
States Period (475-221 BC). Technologies for cast-iron forging,
and carburized bronze from "block iron" showed a marked
improvement. Malleable cast iron products show greater hardness
and better ductility. An iron mold from the Warring States Period
excavated in Xinglong, Hebei Province, was a standard white-iron
Qin, a ducal state of the Warring States Period, experienced
speedy development of productivity. Bronze pliers unearthed in
Fengxiang, Shaanxi Province, previously part of the State of Qin,
are very similar to the same type of tools used today.
Handicrafts such as lacquer, textiles, leather processing, jade
carving and the making of gold and silver wares all achieved great
progress during the Warring States Period. In the late years of
this period, the art of adding a metal edge to the mouth, middle
part and lower end of lacquer wares not only increased the durability
of the objects but also had a highly decorative effect, making
lacquer wares more valuable.
Iron smelting in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) made further
progress, as indicated by the appearance of various kinds of furnaces,
the use of refractory materials and bellows which were made of
leather and powered by human strength. Bellows drastically increased
the temperature of the furnace, and further promoted metallurgy.
The Han Dynasty yielded another highly valuable cultural relic-bronze
calipers carved with the year when they were made. In order to
measure things, one simply pulled a ring on the movable part to
change the gauge. Very similar to the modern vernier calipers,
it is the earliest such measuring instrument found in the world
to date and valuable material for the study of the science of
measurement and the ancient history of mathematics.
Carts and boats were the two major types of transportation in
ancient times. Horse-drawn carriages of the Han Dynasty showed
great improvements in both appearance and construction techniques.
Carriages in the Shang and Zhou dynasties had two wheels but one
shaft while those of the Warring States Period acquired two shafts.
By the Eastern Han Dynasty, double-shaft horse-drawn carriages
had become very common. The pottery carriage excavated at Yangzi
Hill in Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1954 is rectangular in shape, and
has a canopy which, in the real thing, could be rolled up. The
two shafts are straight but the ends are S-shaped.
Depictions of horse-drawn carriages with a great variety of shapes
and appearances have been found on Han Dynasty brick and stone
carvings. A stone carving with vivid images of carriage wheels
has been excavated at Jiaxiang, Shandong Province.
The fact that Han Dynasty carriages could carry heavy loads,
as they often could accommodate four to five people each, was
largely due to the advanced harness used. Studies of the history
of the harness have shown that in 1,000 BC, Europeans used the
throat-and-girth harness, which did not allow beasts of burden
to pull a weight of more than 500 kg. The reason was that the
animal's neck could only withstand so much pressure.
In the early Han Dynasty, around 200 BC, China already had the
breast-harness, which allowed the animal to breathe easily while
pulling heavier loads. In the 11th century, the yoke was introduced
to Europe from China, which enabled horses to pull plows instead
of physically weaker cattle, greatly facilitating agricultural
production in Europe.
The single-wheel barrow invented in the early days of the Eastern
Han had a simple structure, was easy to handle and could be used
on flat surfaces, hilly areas or narrow paths. It could carry
both people and cargo, making it an economical and practical means
of transportation at the time. The barrow marked an important
invention in the history of transportation in China. This type
of barrow is still in use in some areas of China.
In the Jin Dynasty (265-420) a kind of odometer was used on carriages.
It was a wooden figure connected to the wheels by a series of
gears, and which beat a drum to indicate the distance covered.
The wheels had a circumference of five meters, and so with every
100 revolutions the carriage had covered 500 meters, and the figure
would strike its drum.
China led the world in shipbuilding in ancient times. Canoes
first appeared during the period of primitive society, and large
warships were made during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States
periods. Shipbuilding technology made breakthroughs during the
Han Dynasty, as evidenced by the invention and application of
helms and anchors. An Eastern Han pottery boat unearthed at Xianlie
Road, Guangzhou, 1954, shows that the helm was installed in the
stern. Underneath the bow of the ship hangs a Y-shaped anchor,
which would have been made of stone for a real ship. These technological
improvements raised the navigational accuracy and safety levels
when the ship was sailing and stability when it anchored.
The first mechanical crossbow appeared during the Spring and
Autumn period, and this type of weapon grew in popularity during
the Han and Jin periods. Some of the mechanical devices on crossbows
of the Han Dynasty bear marks which allowed the archer to take
aim by following the appropriate mark. This helped raise accuracy.
In 1979, such a mechanical device was excavated in Zibo, Shandong.
The gilded parts on the device, which was a burial object in the
tomb of Duke Liu Xiang, indicate that the original owner of the
crossbow was a man of unusually high social status.
The tradition of having jade burial objects goes back a long
way in ancient China, and jade objects had been found in tombs
of the New Stone Age. The tradition became more fashionable during
the Han Dynasty. Apart from traditional concepts at work, perhaps
another reason for this custom was the habit of elaborate burials
and superstitious practices. People at the time believed that
jade could prevent the corpse decaying and hence ensure the chance
for rebirth. As a result, jade burial suits made by linking up
jade pieces with metal or silk thread were prepared for emperors
and his empresses as well as some of the nobility in the Han Dynasty.
According to the volume on rituals in the History of the Later
Han Dynasty, the burial suits for dead emperors were sown
with gold thread, those for the princes, first-generation dukes
and marquises, nobles and princesses were woven with silver thread,
while those of the sons of the first-generation nobles and daughters
of princes, with copper thread. Silk thread was used for the grave
clothes of people of subordinate ranks. Ordinary officials and
the common people were forbidden to have jade burial clothes.
The jade burial suit belonging to Prince Huai of the Western
Han Dynasty, unearthed in Dingxian, Hebei, in 1973, was made with
a total of 1,203 pieces of jade and 2,580 grams of gold thread.
The suit consists of parts for the head, body, arms, legs and
feet. The jade pieces are in trapezoid, rectangular, square and
triangular shapes. All of them were well ground and polished,
reflecting advanced jade carving techniques.
Zhang Heng was the leading scientist of the Eastern Han period
(25-220). In 132, he built the world's first seismograph. The
original of the device has long been lost, but based on the volume
on Zhang Heng in the History of the Later Han Dynasty and
archaeological research findings, Mr. Wang Zhenduo reconstructed
Zhang Heng's seismograph in 1951.
The seismograph looked like a huge wine jar with a diameter of
1.9 meters. Eight dragon figures representing the eight directions
(east, west, north, south, northeast, northwest, southeast and
southwest) were arranged on the outside of the jar. In the mouth
of each dragon was a small bronze ball, and underneath each dragon's
head was a toad with its mouth gaping upwards. In the center of
the seismograph was a sort of pendulum, surrounding which were
eight groups of lever mechanisms distributed in the eight directions
and connected to the mouths of the dragons. If a tremor occurred
in any direction and seismic waves were transmitted to the seismograph,
the pendulum would incline to one direction and trigger a lever
in the dragon's head. The dragon would then open its mouth, and
release its bronze ball, which would fall into the mouth of the
toad underneath. Thus, the direction in which the earthquake had
occurred was known. Making clever use of the mechanical theory
of inertia, the seismograph had a high degree of sensitivity.
According to the History of the Later Han Dynasty, one
day in 138 the dragon in the west direction spit out its bronze
ball, but people did not feel any tremor. Several days later,
however, a horseman galloped to the capital, bringing the news
that an earthquake had struck Longxi, in western Gansu Province,
some 500 kilometers from the capital city of Luoyang. This anecdote
is evidence that the seismograph was not only very sensitive,
but also accurate.
Zhang Heng's seismograph was 1,700 years earlier than similar
devices built in Europe, demonstrating ancient China's advanced
level in earthquake studies.
From the 1st to the 3rd centuries, ethnic
minorities in China's north and northwest gradually migrated southward
to areas south of the Great Wall and along the Yellow River. Among
them were the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di and Qiang tribes. North
China's tribal people were good at riding and shooting from horseback.
Under their influence, the Han people saw increasing sophistication
of their horse gear, particularly with the appearance of double
stirrups. Two gilded bronze stirrups which were unearthed in Beipiao,
Liaoning, in 1965 are in the shape of round triangles with long
perforated handles. The stirrups were made of mulberry wood in
a triangular shape, with triangular wood pegs to facilitate steadying
the feet while riding. The surface of the stirrups is covered
in gilded bronze. With improved horse gear, cavalrymen found it
easier to control and tame horses, gaining greater flexibility
for fighting on horseback.
People have commented that a handful of inventions, such as stirrups,
which were so simple exerted an enormously catalytic impact on
the history of mankind. Joseph Needham, once a professor at Cambridge
University and a specialist in China's history of science, believed
that stirrups allowed the rider and the horse to form an entity,
greatly facilitating the cavalry charge. Once stirrups were introduced
to Europe, they soon helped the class of knights to stabilize
the feudal system.
From the 3rd to the 6th centuries, iron
smelting made further progress, as it became possible to mix cast
and wrought iron together. Copper-iron so smelted could be used
to produce swords, but more often than not, it was used to make
production tools and daily life utensils, greatly facilitating
people's production activities and daily life.
The Zhaozhou Bridge, which was built during the Sui Dynasty (581-618)
and is still in use today, is one of the architectural wonders
that artisans of ancient times have left us. The single-arch bridge,
50.82 m long and 9.8 m wide, stretches from north to south over
a span of 37.37 meters. Its low arch and gentle surface made it
easy for both vehicles and pedestrians to cross. On each side
of the arch are two small spandrel holes, which reduce the weight
of the bridge, but also divert floodwaters and save building materials.
They also add to the elegant appearance of the bridge.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) has left us a treasure trove of splendid
gold and silver wares. At the time, simple lathes were used for
cutting and polishing. Many complicated industrial processing
arts, including metal shaping, were employed. The patterns on
the wares were meticulously executed and covered a wide range
of subjects with strong influence from foreign cultures. Brass
mirrors of the Tang Dynasty are highly representative in their
shapes and decoration methods. Increasing amounts of silver and
tin were used in the brass alloy. The surface of the mirrors is
shiny and smooth. On the basis of highly developed mirror making
technology, artisans in the Tang Dynasty used optical theory to
successfully produce mirror-like implements used to generate fire
from the sun, which was an unusual invention 1,300 years ago.