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Science and technology of the Tang dynasty

The Tang dynasty (618–907) of ancient China witnessed many advancements in Chinese science and technology, with various developments in woodblock printing, timekeeping, mechanical engineering, medicine, structural engineering, cartography, and alchemy.


  • Woodblock printing 1
  • Clockworks and timekeeping 2
  • Mechanical delights and automatons 3
  • Medicine 4
  • Structural engineering 5
  • Cartography 6
  • Tang poetry 7
  • Alchemy, gas cylinders, and air conditioning 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10

Woodblock printing

The Diamond Sutra, printed in 868, is the world's first widely printed book (using woodblock printing).

Woodblock printing made the written word available to vastly greater audiences. One of the world's oldest surviving printed documents is a miniature Buddhist dharani sutra unearthed at Xi'an in 1974 and dated roughly from 650 to 670.[1] The Diamond Sutra is the first full-length book printed at regular size, complete with illustrations embedded with the text and dated precisely to 868.[2][3] Among the earliest documents to be printed were Buddhist texts as well as calendars, the latter essential for calculating and marking which days were auspicious and which days were not.[4] With so many books coming into circulation for the general public, literacy rates could improve, along with the lower classes being able to obtain cheaper sources of study. Therefore, there were more lower-class people seen entering the Imperial Examinations and passing them by the later Song dynasty.[5][6][7] Although the later Bi Sheng's movable type printing in the 11th century was innovative for his period, woodblock printing that became widespread in the Tang dynasty would remain the dominant printing type in China until the more advanced printing press from Europe became widely accepted and used in East Asia.[8] The first use of the playing card during the Tang was an auxiliary invention of the new age of printing.[9]

Clockworks and timekeeping

Technology during the Tang period was built also upon the precedents of the past. The mechanical gear systems of Zhang Heng (78-139) and Ma Jun (fl. 3rd century) gave the Tang engineer, astronomer, and monk Yi Xing (683-727) inspiration when he invented the world's first clockwork escapement mechanism in 725.[10] This was used alongside a clepsydra clock and waterwheel to power a rotating armillary sphere in representation of astronomical observation.[11] Yi Xing's device also had a mechanically timed bell that was struck automatically every hour, and a drum that was struck automatically every quarter hour; essentially, a striking clock.[12] Yi Xing's astronomical clock and water-powered armillary sphere became well known throughout the country, since students attempting to pass the imperial examinations by 730 had to write an essay on the device as an exam requirement.[13] However, the most common type of public and palace timekeeping device was the inflow clepsydra. Its design was improved c. 610 by the Sui-dynasty engineers Geng Xun and Yuwen Kai. They provided a steelyard balance that allowed seasonal adjustment in the pressure head of the compensating tank and could then control the rate of flow for different lengths of day and night.[14]

Mechanical delights and automatons

There were many other mechanical inventions during the Tang era. This included a 0.91 m (3 ft) tall mechanical wine server of the early 8th century that was in the shape of an artificial mountain, carved out of iron and rested on a lacquered-wooden tortoise frame.[15] This intricate device used a hydraulic pump that siphoned wine out of metal dragon-headed faucets, as well as tilting bowls that were timed to dip wine down, by force of gravity when filled, into an artificial lake that had intricate iron leaves popping up as trays for placing party treats.[15] Furthermore, as the historian Charles Benn describes it:

Wooden statues of tomb guardians; mechanical-driven wooden statues served as cup-bearers, wine-pourers, dancers, and others in this age.[16]
Midway up the southern side of the mountain was a dragon...the beast opened its mouth and spit brew into a goblet seated on a large [iron] lotus leaf beneath. When the cup was 80% full, the dragon ceased spewing ale, and a guest immediately seized the goblet. If he was slow in draining the cup and returning it to the leaf, the door of a pavilion at the top of the mountain opened and a mechanical wine server, dressed in a cap and gown, emerged with a wooden bat in his hand. As soon as the guest returned the goblet, the dragon refilled it, the wine server withdrew, and the doors of the pavilion closed...A pump siphoned the ale that flowed into the ale pool through a hidden hole and returned the brew to the reservoir [holding more than 16 quarts/15 liters of wine] inside the mountain.

Although the use of a teasing mechanical puppet in this wine-serving device was certainly ingenious, the use of mechanical puppets in China date back to the Qin dynasty (221–207 BC)[17] while Ma Jun in the 3rd century had an entire mechanical puppet theater operated by the rotation of a waterwheel.[17] There was also an automatic wine-server known in the ancient Greco-Roman world, a design of Heron of Alexandria that employed an urn with an inner valve and a lever device similar to the one described above. There are many stories of automatons used in the Tang, including general Yang Wulian's wooden statue of a monk who stretched his hands out to collect contributions; when the amount of coins reached a certain weight, the mechanical figure moved his arms to deposit them in a satchel.[18] This weight-and-lever mechanism was exactly like Heron's penny slot machine.[19] Other devices included one by Wang Ju, whose "wooden otter" could allegedly catch fish; Needham suspects a spring trap of some kind was employed here.[18]


A square bronze mirror with a phoenix motif of gold and silver inlaid with lacquer, 8th century

The Chinese of the Tang era were also very interested in the benefits of officially classifying all of the medicines used in pharmacology. In 657, Emperor Gaozong of Tang (r. 649-683) commissioned the literary project of publishing an official materia medica, complete with text and illustrated drawings for 833 different medicinal substances taken from different stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits, and cereal crops.[20] In addition to compiling pharmacopeias, the Tang fostered learning in medicine by upholding imperial medical colleges, state examinations for doctors, and publishing forensic manuals for physicians.[21] Authors of medicine in the Tang include Zhen Qian (d. 643) and Sun Simiao (581-682), the former who first identified in writing that patients with diabetes had an excess of sugar in their urine, and the latter who was the first to recognize that diabetic patients should avoid consuming alcohol and starchy foods.[22] As written by Zhen Qian and others in the Tang, the thyroid glands of sheep and pigs were successfully used to treat goiters; thyroid extracts were not used to treat patients with goiter in the West until 1890.[23]

The Dunhuang map, a star map showing the North Polar region. circa 700.[24] Constellations were divided into three "schools" distinguished with different colors: white, black and yellow for stars of Wu Xian, Gan De and Shi Shen respectively. The whole set of star maps contained 1,300 stars.

Structural engineering

In the realm of technical Chinese architecture, there were also government standard building codes, outlined in the early Tang book of the Yingshan Ling (National Building Law).[25] Fragments of this book have survived in the Tang Lü (The Tang Code),[26] while the Song architectural manual of the Yingzao Fashi (State Building Standards) by Li Jie (1065–1101) in 1103 is the oldest existing technical treatise on Chinese architecture that has survived in full.[25] During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (712-756) there were 34,850 registered craftsmen serving the state, managed by the Agency of Palace Buildings (Jingzuo Jian).[26]


In the realm of cartography, there were further advances beyond the map-makers of the Han dynasty. When the Tang chancellor Pei Ju (547-627) was working for the Sui dynasty as a Commercial Commissioner in 605, he created a well-known gridded map with a graduated scale in the tradition of Pei Xiu (224-271).[27][28] The Tang chancellor Xu Jingzong (592-672) was also known for his map of China drawn in the year 658.[28] In the year 785 the Emperor Dezong had the geographer and cartographer Jia Dan (730-805) complete a map of China and her former colonies in Central Asia.[28] Upon its completion in 801, the map was 9.1 m (30 ft) in length and 10 m (33 ft) in height, mapped out on a grid scale of one inch equaling one hundred li (Chinese unit of measuring distance).[28] A Chinese map of 1137 is similar in complexity to the one made by Jia Dan, carved on a stone stele with a grid scale of 100 li.[29] However, the only type of map that has survived from the Tang period are star charts. Despite this, the earliest extant terrain maps of China come from the ancient State of Qin; maps from the 4th century BC that were excavated in 1986.[30]

Tang poetry

《旅夜书怀》 杜甫 细草微风岸,危樯独夜舟。 星垂平野阔,月涌大江流。 名岂文章著,官应老病休。 飘飘何所似?天地一沙鸥。

Fu Du Slender grasses, breeze faint on the shore; Here, the looming mast, the lonely night boat. Stars hang down on the breadth of the plain, The moon gushes in the great river's current. My name shall not be known from my writing, Sick, growing old, I must yield up my post. Wind-tossed, fluttering—what is my likeness? In Heaven and Earth, a single gull of the sands.

Alchemy, gas cylinders, and air conditioning

A rounded ceramic plate with "three colors" (sancai) glaze design, 8th century

The Chinese of the Tang period employed complex chemical formulas for an array of different purposes, often found through experiments of alchemy. These included a waterproof and dust-repelling cream or varnish for clothes and weapons, fireproof cement for glass and porcelain wares, a waterproof cream applied to silk clothes of underwater divers, a cream designated for polishing bronze mirrors, and many other useful formulas.[31] The vitrified, translucent ceramic known as porcelain was invented in China during the Tang, although many types of glazed ceramics preceded it.[32][33]

Ever since the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the Chinese had drilled deep boreholes to transport natural gas from bamboo pipelines to stoves where cast iron evaporation pans boiled brine to extract salt.[34] During the Tang dynasty, a gazetteer of Sichuan province stated that at one of these 182 m (600 ft) 'fire wells', men collected natural gas into portable bamboo tubes which could be carried around for dozens of km (mi) and still produce a flame.[35] These were essentially the first gas cylinders; Robert Temple assumes some sort of tap was used for this device.[35]

The inventor Ding Huan (fl. 180 AD) of the Han dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 m (10 ft) in diameter and manually powered.[36] In 747, Emperor Xuanzong had a "Cool Hall" built in the imperial palace, which the Tang Yulin (唐語林) describes as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains.[37] During the subsequent Song dynasty, written sources mentioned the air conditioning rotary fan as even more widely used.[38]

This Tang yellow-glazed pottery horse includes a carefully sculpted saddle, which is decorated with leather straps and ornamental fastenings featuring eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves.


  1. ^ Pan 1997, pp. 979–980.
  2. ^ Temple 1986, p. 112.
  3. ^ Needham 1986d, p. 151.
  4. ^ Ebrey 1999, pp. 124–125.
  5. ^ Ebrey, Walthall & Palais 2006, p. 159.
  6. ^ Fairbank & Goldman 2006, p. 94.
  7. ^ Ebrey 1999, p. 147.
  8. ^ Needham 1986d, p. 227.
  9. ^ Needham 1986d, pp. 131–132.
  10. ^ Needham 1986a, p. 319.
  11. ^ Needham 1986b, pp. 473–475.
  12. ^ Needham 1986b, pp. 473–474.
  13. ^ Needham 1986b, p. 475.
  14. ^ Needham 1986b, p. 480.
  15. ^ a b c Benn 2002, p. 144.
  16. ^ Needham 1986b, p. 160.
  17. ^ a b Needham 1986b, p. 158.
  18. ^ a b Needham 1986b, p. 163.
  19. ^ Needham 1986b, p. 163 footnote c.
  20. ^ Benn 2002, p. 235.
  21. ^ Adshead 2004, p. 83.
  22. ^ Temple 1986, pp. 132–133.
  23. ^ Temple 1986, pp. 134–135.
  24. ^ Xi 1981, p. 464.
  25. ^ a b Guo 1998, p. 1.
  26. ^ a b Guo 1998, p. 3.
  27. ^ Needham 1986a, pp. 538–540.
  28. ^ a b c d Needham 1986a, p. 543.
  29. ^ Needham 1986a, p. Plate LXXXI.
  30. ^ Hsu 1993, p. 90.
  31. ^ Needham 1986e, p. 452.
  32. ^ Adshead 2004, p. 80.
  33. ^ Wood 1999, p. 49.
  34. ^ Temple 1986, pp. 78–79.
  35. ^ a b Temple 1986, pp. 79–80.
  36. ^ Needham 1986b, pp. 99, 151, 233.
  37. ^ Needham 1986b, pp. 134, 151.
  38. ^ Needham 1986b, p. 151.


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  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999), The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge:   (paperback)
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  • Guo, Qinghua (1998), " 
  • Hsu, Mei-ling (1993), "The Qin Maps: A Clue to Later Chinese Cartographic Development", Imago Mundi 45 (1): 90–100,  
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  • Needham, Joseph (1986e), Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 4, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories and Gifts, Taipei: Caves Books 
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  • Wood, Nigel (1999), Chinese Glazes: Their Origins, Chemistry, and Recreation, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,  
  • Xi, Zezong (1981), "Chinese Studies in the History of Astronomy, 1949-1979", Isis 72 (3): 456–470,  
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