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Our knowledge of science in medieval China is still very inadequate, but active research into this subject is going on and it is hoped that a fuller picture of events may soon be perceived. Scientific progress in China was not delayed so effectively by Confucianism as it was in Europe by the rise of Christianity, and since Taoism was not unfavorable, there was sufficient interest to carry forward and develop the ideas of antiquity. This led to certain remarkable technical achievements, such as the manufacture of paper and of gunpowder and the invention of block printing and of, possibly, the magnetic compass -- though in the last instance the Muslim sailors may actually have adapted it for navigational purposes. The first of these occurred early.

In the first year of the Yuan-Hsing period (AD 105), paper was made by Ts'ai Lun, an inspector of public works, from tree bark, hemp, rags and fish-nets. In the biographical section of the History of the Later Han Dynasty, written by Fah Yeh in the fifth century, it was stated that henceforth, paper was in general use and called 'the paper of Marquis Ts'ai'. Pure rag paper of AD 150 has been found in a spur of the Great Wall of China by the famous Central Asian Explorer and archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein.

The Chinese were not lacking in appreciating the economic uses of the plant and animal kingdoms. The earliest description of the banana (pa-chiao) plant was written at the end of the second century AD in the book I Wu Chih (Records of strange things) by Yang Fu. Caravans carried Chinese silk to the west in Roman times and the true mulberry silkworm was introduced from Khotan in AD 552 in the reign of Justinian. The Chinese author Lu Yu (late eight century) was the first to produce a treatise on tea, Ch'a Ching, and in the late twelfth century Han Yen-Chih wrote the first work on citrus fruits, a comprehensive study of oranges and their cultivation.

Alchemy continued to flourish in both East and West. A book Poo P'o Tzu was written by Kung Hung. It deals with the theory and practice of alchemy, and amongst many remarks which are in no way scientific, we do find illuminating passages showing that the scientific mind was groping its way forward. An excerpt is given here: "Indeed the diversity is boundless, and some things which appear different are in fact the same. Sweeping laws should not be formulated too soon ... If a generalization is driven too far it always ends in error, if you drink an extract of hair and skin it will not cure your baldness."

Although alchemical theory frequently ended in verbal nonsense, the practical handling of substances produced useful discoveries like real black ink (Indian ink) from lampblack and red ink from mercury sulphide (cinnabar). It is interesting to note that the Egyptians used both of these before the Chinese and the discoveries seemed to have been made independently.

A great civilizing influence came with the journeys of Buddhist pilgrims from China to India. Professor Sarton says: The main point to emphasize is that the diffusion of Buddhism had for central and eastern Asia the same tremendous significance as the diffusion of Christianity for Europe. In both cases religion was the vehicle of a higher civilization; and, however much these two religions may have opposed or impeded the progress of science at later periods, we must not forget that it is they who made its birth possible and stimulated its first efforts in many and vast regions of the world. It is literally true that Christianity and Buddihism brought light and science with them, whenever they penetrated uncivilized countries.

  1. (a) Why do we hope to know more about China's scientific progress soon ?
    (b) Compare the attitudes towards science of the two Chinese philosophies on the one hand and of Christianity on the other.
    (c) What were the consequences of the supportive attitudes of the Chinese religions ?
  2. (a) Trace the discovery of paper in China.
    (b) Describe the earliest contact between China and the West.
    (c) What are the three treatises on plant products.
  3. (a) How does the author illustrate that the scientific mind was groping its way forward ?
    (b) How is Buddhism compared with Christianity ?
  4.   For each of the following words give one word or short phrase ( not more than seven words ) which has the same meaning as it has in the passage.
      i.   sufficient   v.   groping
      ii.   henceforth   vi.   generalization
      iii.   flourish   vii.   tremendous
      iv.   illuminating   viii.   penetrated
  5. Write a brief summary, in 160 words or less, on the early developments of science in China -- paragraphs 1 to 3.


  1. (a) A lot of research is being carried out into China's past so we can hope to have more information on the subject soon.
    (b) Confucianism and Taoism were more supportive of scientific progress in China than Christianity was in the western world.
    (c) As a consequence of the support by religion, scientific progress in China thrived because of sufficient interest in the discoveries.
  2. (a) Ts'ai Lun, an inspector of public works in AD 105, made paper from help, rags and fish nets. Pure rag paper was probably in use in AD 150.
    (b) Chinese silk arrived in Rome in AD 552; this was probably the earliest known east-west contact.
    (c) There three are :

1. Yang Fu's description of strange things contained a description about the banana plant.

2. Lu Yu's treatise on tea in the eight century.

3. Han Yen-Chih's treatise on citrus fruits in the twelfth century.

  3. (a) The example given says that 'Indeed the diversity is boundless and some things which appear different are in fact the same. Sweeping laws should not be formulated too soon ... if a generalization is driven too far, it always ends in error'.
    (b) Just like Christianity helped science spread throughout the western world, Buddhism helped to spread it in the orient.
  4. i enough
    ii from then onwards
    iii grow
    iv enlightening
    v feeling
    vi common thought
    vii great
    viii went into
  5. The two main religions of China, Confucianism and Taoism, were supportive of scientific progress. This led to a lot of scientific enquiry and technical achievements. The earliest achievements were the discovery of gunpowder, paper, block printing and the magnetic compass. Paper was made by Ts'ai Lun, an inspector of public works. He used bark, hemp, rags and fish nets. The economic use of plants were appreciated as early as the second century AD. Writings described the banana plant and there are treatises on tea and citrus fruits. Chinese silk reached Rome in 552 AD. Alchemy flourished and a book was written on the subject by Kung Hung. In its beginning stages was scientific enquiry but generalization ended up in error. Although alchemy often led into error, there were practical results like the discovery of black ink. Just like Christianity diffused science all over Europe and Buddhism did the same for China and the other oriental countries. ( 158 words )

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Comprehension 1



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