Land of Discovery
The list of Chinese contributions to world culture and development is outstanding. Contributions to medicine, agriculture, martial arts, warfare and philosophy are described.
From paper to playing cards, the list of Chinese contributions to world culture and development is staggering.
Seventeenth-century British philosopher Francis Bacon once argued that three inventions had done more to propel the world into the modern era than any others: the printing press, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder. The first promoted learning and literacy; the second led to exploration and discovery; and the last brought the capability of mass destruction.
All of these inventions came from China.
In fact, the list of Chinese contributions to world culture and development is staggering: Matches. Masts and sailing. The decimal system in mathematics. The use of petroleum and natural gas as fuel. The umbrella. Paper money. The wheelbarrow. The mechanical clock. The fishing reel. Playing cards. The parachute. Kites. The seismograph. The list goes on and on.
"Possibly more than half of the basic inventions and discoveries upon which the 'modern world' rests come from China," says historian Robert Temple, author of The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention.
Many Chinese inventions, such as mechanical printing, have been incorrectly credited to Europeans, who either came upon them independently at a later date or "borrowed" the idea from travelers who had been to China, Temple says. As a result, "the technological world of today is a product of both East and West to an extent which until recently no one had ever imagined."
Here are a few of China's contributions to the world, many of which remain quite foreign to Westerners:
By the year 200, long before the concept of nutrition was recognized in the West, Chinese doctors discovered that certain human diseases--scurvy, rickets, beriberi--resulted from vitamin deficiencies. In the 14th century, dietician Hu Ssu-Hui wrote, "Many diseases can be cured by diet alone."
Even today, the Chinese adhere to their belief in medicinal foods, using such folk remedies as crushed sea horses and sliced deer antlers the way a Westerner reaches for aspirin. Typically, the Chinese use these elements in soups or teas.
In recent years, with the surge of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and the growing American interest in natural medicines, herbal remedies have been gaining in popularity here.
The Chinese also pioneered the practice of acupuncture, a 3,000-year-old treatment for pain relief and other health problems. In acupuncture, doctors stick hair-thin needles into precise points on the body to enhance the flow of what they call qi, the body's natural energy system.
Acupuncture has gained wide acceptance throughout Asia; Chinese surgeons even use it in place of anesthesia when performing brain surgery. But Western medical experts have traditionally viewed the practice with suspicion; after all, there is still no definitive explanation for why acupuncture works. Recently, however, a growing number of doctors here have begun to accept acupuncture as a legitimate alternative to Western medicine, using it, for example, to ease withdrawal from addictive drugs.
The Chinese began planting crops in rows in the sixth century B.C. Now taken for granted, this practice gave the crops more room to grow, and thus mature more rapidly.
Around the same time, the Chinese also invented the hoe, which helped preserve soil moisture and cut down weeds, and the iron plow, whose design was far sturdier and more efficient than plows developed in Europe.
When European farmers finally adopted these practices in the 18th century, the European agricultural revolution began.
"Since the agricultural revolution of Europe is generally thought to have led to the Industrial Revolution, and to the West's superior power over the rest of the world," Temple writes, "it is ironic that the basis of it all came from China."
To the ancient Chinese, there was no such thing as exercising to build muscles. One could only attain a healthy body--and a healthy life, they believed--through a system that developed strength, self-discipline, and self-knowledge. Thus were born the martial arts.
Many Westerners picture the martial arts as simply a way of fighting. While many of the arts center on combat styles, the rigorous training they require is usually undertaken as a means toward attaining wisdom. The ultimate goal, writes Deidre S. Laiken in Mind, Body, Spirit, is to produce "a calm mind in a strong, healthy body."
The arts have since spread throughout much of Asia, and evolved into hundreds of different styles. The main systems in China are known as kung fu, which means "skill" or "ability," and tai chi chuan. The other main forms have evolved out of Japanese and Korean adaptations. These include karate, judo, and tae kwon do.
Over the last 20 years, the martial arts have become increasingly popular in the U.S., spurred by the films of such martial arts performers as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Von Damme, and such movies as The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Long before the Chinese invented gunpowder, they had invented the crossbow, the most deadly weapon of its era. The crossbow, which dates back to about the fourth century B.C., was so feared for its ability to pierce through armor that contemporaries thought it would end civilization.
Gunpowder, invented in the ninth century, was even more destructive. Ironically, its inventors were said to have been seeking a chemical mix for the secret to eternal life.
Following the invention of gunpowder, the Chinese developed a whole series of explosive devices; in the 10th century alone, they introduced flares, fireworks, bombs, grenades, land mines, and sea mines. In succeeding centuries, they invented guns, cannons, mortars, and repeating guns. "No nation in the world could match the Chinese expertise in warfare for two millennia," says Temple.
Simply put, the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism has influenced more people over the ages than any other way of life the world has known. It pervades virtually all aspects of Chinese society and has spread widely throughout Asia.
The principles of Confucianism come from a man named K'ung Futse, or Confucius. Born in 551 B.C., he was a teacher who advised rulers and taught students so they might become advisers to the Chinese government. The China of his day was a corrupt society, and Confucius sought to establish high moral standards. He believed that if people followed simple rules of kindness, respect, selflessness, and obedience, China could be a harmonious society.
One of his basic principles he called shu, or reciprocity. Through shu, Confucius meant: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
Confucius did not talk about God. In contrast to Western religions like Christianity, Confucianism considers the human being, not an invisible god, the highest form of life. In Confucian philosophy, there is no worship or prayer dedicated to any spirit or gods.
The ancient Chinese believed that the world was completely unified, containing interacting forces they called yin and yang, which roughly translate as positive and negative. All objects, they said, have both yin and yang. The unity of yin and yang together make up tao, or the ultimate way of the universe.
Confucius taught that if people cultivate the tao in themselves, society will achieve harmony in five areas: (1) rulers will rule their people wisely, and the people will be loyal to their rulers; (2) parents will be kind to their children, and children will honor their parents; (3) husbands will take care of their wives, and wives will obey their husbands; (4) older children will set a good example for younger children, and younger children will respect older children; and (5) friends will be responsible for the way they behave with one another.
From those simple teachings, the philosophy spread through all classes of Chinese society, and later, throughout Asia. Today, the people of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam all have incorporated Confucian ideals into their institutions and daily lives.
With such a tremendous following, Confucius is often perceived today as the leader of a religion, even though he himself never believed in a god.