Although some historians may argue that the Zhou, Qin, and Han Dynasties did not contribute to the advancements made in technology, these Ancient Chinese Dynasties all saw progress in terms of their inventions and innovations, agricultural advancement, and progress in trade and commerce. Many of the innovations created during these dynasties, laid the foundation for future advancements to the new innovations.
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One of China’s characteristics is its diverse geographical landscape. For example, Southwest of China lies the Himalaya Mountains and at China’s western border lies the Kunlun and Tien Shan ranges. Additionally, China’s borders include the Gobi desert and the Taklamakan desert. As a result, the Chinese could not reside in desert-like areas due to the infertile land. Instead, Chinese civilization based their borders near the Yellow and Yangtze River because of the rich soil allowing them to produce edible goods. The Yellow river would flood about two times per year allowing the Chinese to grow their crops and use them for trade. The Chinese used different farming methods like crop rotation: the process of cycling different crops so the soil could restore nutrients. They also used a form of irrigation through canals and floods in order to transport water to grow a variety of products like rice, peaches, soybeans, peas, and bamboo shoots. The Chinese also added iron to their plows around the 3rd century B.C. This allowed the Chinese to make more durable and efficient plows. They also used the seed drill to plant seeds efficiently. Rice and millet were the two most crops grown in China, so when the process of flooding the rice fields helped the growth of rice was discovered, it became a common practice. The Chinese also built levees, which are like mini-dams, to protect the crops so they don’t die. They designed tools like the small shovels called spades, to make planting and harvesting easier. Many of China’s natural resources available to them included coal, iron ore, tin, lead, copper, gold, salt, clay, jade, pine, and bamboo. China would trade teas, salt, sugar, porcelain, spices, and silk on the silk road to get resources that are not grown naturally in their area. Consequently, the Chinese relied drastically on their agriculture and livestock to survive.
1. 500 BC: Use of Cast Iron
The use of cast iron was an innovation developed during the Zhou Dynasty. Cast iron was used for developing tools which further improved technological methods. To make the cast iron, charcoal and iron ore were heated together and mixed until melted. The mixture was then let to it cool into a brittle form of iron known as “pig iron”. After, the brittle material could be melted with iron scraps then let to cool into a hard metal known as cast iron. Newly devised weapons from the cast iron greatly increased the army’s strength with the new and improved weapons allowing for more protective gear. Long-lasting, more effective gear such as spears, pikes, battle axes, and knives could now be supplied to soldiers in the army.
2. 256 BC: Irrigation and Canals
The engineering of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Lingqu Canal were both constructed during the Qin Dynasty. The new irrigation systems and canals, allowed for agricultural advancement as the water was able to reach more lands. Li Bing was a Chinese engineer who oversaw the construction of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. This irrigation system harnessed the Min River using a new method of channeling and dividing the water. The project not only handled the floods that were a major conflict but also made Sichuan (a province in southwest China) the most productive agricultural area in China. The Lingqu Canal was ordered to be constructed by Qin Shi Huang in order to attack the Baiyue tribes in the south. The canal connected Xiang and the Li rivers.
3. 221 BC: The Great Wall of China
The original Great Wall was built by the Qin Dynasty and covers much of the northern border of China. It serves as an innovated form of protection from China’s northern invaders. However, the wall was later rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty. Over the years, smaller walls were built, but Qin Shi Huang, who was the Emperor of the time, decided that he wanted one giant wall to serve as the sole protection from his northern threats, hence the Mongols. Peasants, slaves, criminals, and other people that the emperor decided to punish built the Great Wall. Soldiers guarded the wall as well as managed the workers building the wall. The first walls were built with compacted dirt surrounded by stone. Later on, the wall was constructed with bricks. This shows improvement in building methods and materials over the years.
4. 130 BC: The Silk Road
Promoted by the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road allowed for trade and commerce to flourish until the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed the route in 1453 A.D. The trade routes expanded from China to Eastern Europe and not only allowed ideas, religion, art, philosophy, and science, culture, and inventions, to spread, hence allowing trade and commerce to prosper. Some of the many products traded by the Chinese included silk, tea, salt, sugar, porcelain, and spices. In return, the Chinese bought, products like cotton, ivory, wool, gold, and silver.
5. 105 AD: Paper
Paper was invented by Imperial court official Cai Lun. Paper allowed the government to keep records and pass on instructions throughout the empire in a more efficient way. Bark, hemp, and bamboo were used to create paper. First, the bamboo or bark was cut and soaked in water. After, a screen was dipped in the pulp, then pressed and dried into paper. To finish, the paper was then peeled off the screen and could be used for writing.
The Zhou, Qin, and Han Dynasties all saw progress in technology mostly through their many inventions and innovations. The Zhou Dynasty that reigned from 1045 BC to 256 BC laid the foundation of inventions that later dynasties perfected. The Zhou produced many iron and bronze goods including bells, coins, weapons, and appliances. Following weapons, the Zhou improved the design of the crossbow and developed large navy ships resembling fortresses. In addition, the well-field system of agriculture was developed. Basically, a public field was surrounded by six privately owned fields, organized in a square formation; the crops were planted and harvested in rows. Furthermore, medical records were recorded and kept during the Zhou Dynasty. Medical records were essential for passing on medical knowledge to the next dynasty and allowed for improvements to medicine be made. Moving forward, with the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, after about 800 years, came the Qin Dynasty. The Qin rule lasted from 221 BC to 206 BC. In this time period, numerous innovations prospered. A universal form of currency was established. A universal currency came with many benefits: easier commerce, faster production of the currency, and brings the country together. The last benefit being even more important, especially after the Warring States era. This new form of currency was still a coin, but had a hole through the middle. This allowed the coins to be carried along on a belt with a string for convenience. Furthermore, as improvements were made, a new network of roads and canals throughout the land with the addition of the Great Wall of China. The wall was established for protection from northern invaders. Although the wall wasn’t completed during the Qin Dynasty’s rule, construction began. Additionally, wide use of iron swords instead of the old bronze swords and the use of crossbows in comparison to traditional bows all delineate the influence of the Qin Dynasty. Moreover, with the innovations in irrigation technology, the efficiency of farming increase, resulting in more prosperity during the Qin Dynasty. Following the fall of the Qin Dynasty, came the Han Dynasty which ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD. During this golden age, countless amounts of transformations occurred. For example, the use of cast iron was perfected. Now, furnaces were used to convert iron ore to pig iron and eventually into cast iron which could be used for more durable weapons and agricultural tools. This modernized technique shows the improvement of the making of cast iron from the Zhou and Qin Dynasties. Additionally, one of the major products that the Han Dynasty is most known for was the creation of silk. Silk was an expensive article at the time and was also considered a luxury. More notably, the establishment of the Silk Road allowed for trade and commerce to flourish. Trade on the Silk Road was not limited to silk: crops, tools, precious stones, and works of art traveled the routes of the Silk Road. However, one of the most impressive ancient Chinese inventions was the creation of paper during the Han Dynasty. Prior to the invention of paper; heavy bamboo, wooden strips, or expensive silk were used as writing platforms. The creation of paper was ultimately a lighter and cheaper alternative. Plant fibers were pressed together and dried into sheets. With these innovations, also came agricultural improvements. The plow that previously contained one blade and one handle, now had two blades and two handles which made it more suitable than before. The use of the wheelbarrow allowed farmers to load and deliver products more easily and irrigation systems were greatly improved by the use of mechanized pumps. Through each dynasty of Ancient China, came improvements to previous inventions and alongside new inventions. From the humble irrigation techniques of the Zhou Dynasty to the massive canals of the Han Dynasty, Ancient China continued innovating and inventing new technology.
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The Han Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of Ancient China due to the era’s peace and prosperity. The Han consisted of two dynasties, the Western Han and the Eastern Han which saw a total of 24 emperors. It all began as a peasant revolt by Liu Bang, who sought to rid the Qin Emperor. Liu Bang won, and overthrew the Qin Emperor, Xiang Yu. Liu Bang changed his name to Han Gaozu and started the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty is known for its advancements in science, medicine, mathematics, building, agriculture, engineering, innovations, including the invention of paper. Some of the other goods produced in Han’s economy included iron, salt, copper work, and silk.
In 105 A.D. Cai Lun, who was an Imperial Court Official of the Eastern Han Dynasty, invented paper using hemp fibers. Prior to this, writing platforms included bark, silk, wood, bamboo strips, and leather. The new invention of paper allowed for a cheaper and lightweight material the proved to be more convenient. To make the paper, hemp fibers were soaked in water and pounded with a mallet. The mixture was then placed over a loose piece of cloth to be dried. Once, dried, the paper was peeled off the cloth and could be used as a writing platform. One of the most common formats of paper was its use as a scroll. The spread of paper-marked traveled to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and India. Paper was so highly valued in ancient China that it was used to pay tribute and taxes to the state. The use of paper was not only used as a writing utensil, but also could transform into fans and umbrellas. The invention of paper helped the spread of literature and literacy. The making books more convenient to use and was cheaper. Scholars at the Imperial academies were given thousands of sheets of paper each month by the government.
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