How Modern Science Came to China

Based on Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Harvard, 2008), and Jerry Liu and Kent Deng, eds., Chinese Technological History: The Great Divergence (A Special Issue of History of Technology, 2009), and Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Princeton, 2016)

China was reclusive during the Scientific Revolution, and indeed for centuries before it. It would not be exposed to Euclid’s Elements, or the idea of deductive proof, until the arrival of the Jesuits in the late sixteenth century. It would not encounter Newtonian mechanics until 1849, more than 160 years after the publication of Principia.

Although it is clear that China fell increasingly far behind the West from the time of Galileo, it is difficult to determine the state of Chinese science in the preceding decades or even centuries. There are two reasons for the lack of clarity. The first is that non-specialist discussions of Chinese science often confound science and technology. Many important inventions came out of China — gunpowder and the compass, paper and printing, ships with sternpost rudders and watertight compartments — and it is often assumed that a society that could produce such things must be scientifically advanced. Yet, it is difficult to find anything in Chinese technology that could not have been produced by fortunate accident (as gunpowder and the compass likely were) or by intelligent craftsmanship.1 Indeed, in light of China’s populousness and long history, it would be surprising if it did not produce many such inventions.2

The second reason is the scrupulousness of specialists in the history of science. They argue that every culture’s science should be evaluated by its own standard, not by some external standard, and most certainly not by a Western standard. This doctrine allows them to argue that China led the world in science for centuries, without acknowledging that very little of China’s science was ultimately incorporated into modern science. Their approach to the history of science is problematic for those of us who are interested in the interplay of science and technology and in human material well-being. For us, when and how a culture embraced modern science is the central issue. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed,” and if you don’t know nature’s rules, you can’t obey them.

The observation that little of China’s traditional science was integrated into modern science is not surprising, for the same observation can be made of Western science. Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy were the first casualties of the Scientific Revolution, and entire disciplines (numerology, alchemy, astrology) were later abandoned. The doctrine that health depended on the balancing of the humours, and the associated therapy of bloodletting, persisted into the nineteenth century. The concept of phlogiston was not put forward until the early eighteenth century, but was discarded late in the same century, when atomic chemistry began to develop. What separates modern science from traditional science is its ability to prune away bad ideas, and a lot of pruning was required everywhere.

The Philosophical Basis of Science in China and the West

Still, the question of why Chinese and Western science developed in such different ways must be asked. Both Jerry Liu and Patrick K. O’Brien suggest that the answer lies in deep philosophical differences. China embraced a humanistic culture based on Confucianism and the Buddhist idea of self-cultivation. Humans and nature were imagined to be an integrated and indivisible whole, and morality was founded on human feelings, not imposed upon humanity by a supernatural entity. A natural world that was ethically neutral, capable of being explained by mere mechanics, was incompatible with this outlook. Western theology, by contrast, encouraged precisely this kind of worldview.

All natural phenomena, including the human body, could be investigated, comprehended and interrogated as cases or instances of universal laws of nature. Furthermore, these laws…were the manifestations of the intelligent designs of a divine creator…[who] created a natural world that was rational and explicable.3

This explanation has some appeal, but it does overstate the inevitability of the Western worldview. The Islamic understanding of the relationship between God and his creation was not markedly different from the Christian one, and yet religious considerations ultimately became an obstacle to Islamic scientific progress (here). Western science might have been similarly blocked, had Western thinkers not been more open to pagan ideas (here). Nevertheless, by the time that Western science came to China, the idea that there were discoverable and comprehensible laws of nature had taken firm hold in the West.

For the Chinese, the purpose of knowledge was to better manage the world, not to decipher it. Their emphasis was on agriculture, statecraft and military strategy, and to a lesser degree, on artisanal skills. The purpose of knowledge, said Wang Guonan, was “to nurture, to grow, to harvest, and to preserve the natural world.” Feng Yingjing likewise sought to “employ the talents beneath the heaven and maintain the order of the world.”4

The maintenance of the world required a knowledge of the classics, and in particular, of the writings of Confucius. Confucian scholars were China’s intellectual elite, and more mechanical disciplines — mathematics, medicine, military affairs — were accorded lower status. Such matters were often left to foreigners. The emperors attached great importance to the calendar, their connection to the heavens, but nevertheless recruited Muslim and (later) European astronomers to maintain it. The Chinese scholars who did study mechanical matters often worked alone, and as often as not, their completed work would sit untouched on a library shelf. By contrast, scientific investigations were routine in the West, knowledge was intrinsically valuable, and scientists were connected with one another through learned societies and the “republic of letters.”

When the arrival of the jesuits exposed the Chinese to Western science, they saw little reason to adopt it. Some of it was useful for the maintenance of the world; but the jesuits, adopting the principle that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, entwined science and Christianity. Christianity was so foreign to the literati’s worldview that very few of them were willing to accept it; most of them preferred Western science to be one of those things that foreigners did on their behalf. In the end the Jesuits’ gambit did not work out very well for them. Some jesuits became very highly placed, revising the calendar and casting cannon for the state, but few high-ranking officials made the switch to Christianity.

Liu points out that the West’s science developed in an atmosphere of intellectual turmoil, while

[China’s Confucian ethic] had never been challenged: not any artistic renaissance, not any sort of religious reforms, not the scientific disproval of the Earth as the center of the Universe, and not even the doubt of God’s existence.5

What the jesuits had to offer was simply too little to shake the placidity of Chinese philosophy. This placidity would not be dispelled until the nineteenth century, when China’s independence and geographical integrity were threatened.

The Jesuits

The jesuits came to China to win converts to Christianity, but made little headway. The Chinese were immersed in their own culture, and expected foreigners to assimilate.6 The jesuits conformed to this expectation, learning the Chinese language and adopting Chinese dress and manners, but these concessions did not give them the leverage that they wanted. They found that leverage in their knowledge of astronomy and cartography.

The emperor’s role as mediator between heaven and earth was based on an astronomical system called the Grand Concordance, for which an accurate calendar was a prerequisite. The official calendar was produced by the Astrocalendrical Bureau, with much of the technical work being performed by foreigners (Indians, Persians, and Arabs). The prediction of eclipses and recurrent meteors was an important part of their work.

Celestial events that imperial officials could not predict, as well as earthquakes, famines, and so on, were portents that potentially pointed to the emperor’s lack of virtue and his possible loss of the Mandate of Heaven.7

In 1592 the court astronomers miscalculated the date of an eclipse, which caused a furor within the court and raised questions about the astronomers’ competence.

The court astronomers’ failure played into the jesuits’ strength. The jesuits had been involved in the design of the Gregorian calendar (1582), and many of them were skilled in mathematics and astronomical observation. Matteo Ricci was one of these, and his knowledge of mathematics and cartography had already brought him to the attention of the governor of Zhaoqing. It was in Zhaoqing that he had produced, in 1584, a European-style map of the world with Chinese annotations. In 1601, on the recommendation of two high-ranking converts, Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao, the emperor summoned Ricci to the Forbidden City to act as an astronomical advisor.

A Japanese copy of the 1602 revision of Matteo Ricci's 1584 map.
A Japanese copy of the 1602 revision of Matteo Ricci’s 1584 map.

Xu and Li were already collaborating with Ricci on scientific matters, and continued to be important figures in Chinese astronomy until their deaths, in 1633 and 1630 respectively. Ricci himself died much earlier, in 1610. His role among the jesuits was taken over by Johann Adam Schall, who reached Macau in 1619 but was long barred from the mainland.

Calendar reform was one of the responsibilities of the Jesuits and their Chinese collaborators. Reform was more difficult than it had been in the West, because the Chinese calendar was based on twelve lunar months and needed to be constantly adjusted to synchronize it with the solar year. The calendar revisions were still incomplete when the Ming dynasty was ended by the Manchu invasion of 1644.

The ongoing work on calendar reform were accompanied by a thorough revision of all aspects of Chinese astronomy. Ricci published the first Chinese translation of Euclid’s Elements in 1607. Then, in 1628, Li published First Collection of Celestial Studies, introducing the Chinese to Ptolemaic astronomy. Tychonic astronomy was subsequently introduced as a compromise between the Ptolomaic and Copernican systems. European logarithmic and trigonometric tables were published to aid in astronomical calculations. The telescope was introduced, and also “the quadrant for measuring the altitude of celestial bodies, the parallactic ruler for measuring time, the celestial globe, the sextant, the equatorial astrolabe to observe the movement of the stars, the ecliptic or an equatorial armillary sphere to measure planetary motions, and gnomons to find the declination of the sun through the year.”8

The Imperial Observatory
The Imperial Observatory

Xu assured the emperor that the adoption of European methods and devices would yield a comprehensive astronomical system in which Chinese and European learning were harmonized — it was essential that European methods not be seen as replacing Chinese methods. This claim was maintained in various forms until 1900.

Many of Aristotle’s studies of the natural world were also translated into Chinese. The jesuits believed that these works would appeal to the literati, who had a long history of nature study. The jesuits also introduced European clocks and clockwork devices. The emperor’s workshops began to build clocks under European supervision. Most of these clocks were highly decorated, suitable for gift exchanges among the literati. Clocks did not become commonplace household items, as they had in Europe.

Schall was more appealing to the Qing emperor than he had been to the Ming emperor: he was appointed head of the new dynasty’s Astrocalendrical Bureau in 1645. Except for a single five-year period, a jesuit remained in charge of the Bureau until 1775.

As time passed, this connection became less valuable to both parties. The court jesuits failed to win the converts among the literati that they had long coveted. The Chinese had learned a great deal from their first exposure to Western science, and what they had learned served their needs as they themselves perceived them, but the jesuits could not take them to science’s frontiers. The West’s astronomy moved forward; but the jesuits, handicapped first by their theological qualms about the Copernican system and then by their isolation from Europe’s centers of learning, did not keep up with it. They continued to rely on Euclidean geometry, even as calculus and analytical geometry became the new tools of astronomy and physics. The shift away from static arguments and toward dynamic ones eluded them.

The most treasured dogmas of both parties gave rise to inescapable frictions. The jesuits were committed to the Biblical creation story and Biblical history, neither of which placed the Chinese at the center of things where they believed they belonged. The Chinese doctrine of the five phases of change could not be reconciled with Western physics; and the concept of qi, a life force that permeated everything, seemed to the jesuits to be a throwback to pantheism. By 1670, the jesuits were no more than tolerated by China’s ruling class.

The final break was initiated by Rome, which came to believe that the jesuits were insufficiently strict in imposing Catholic dogma upon their Chinese converts. In 1701 the pope took steps to ensure that the converts did not practice traditional Chinese rituals, such as those related to ancestor worship. The emperor retaliated by deporting missionaries and, after 1706, requiring all resident missionaries to obtain an imperial certificate and abide by its conditions. He also revoked the Edict of Toleration (1692) which had recognized Roman Catholicism, protected its churches and missions, and permitted Chinese people to adopt Christianity. In 1717 he banned all missionary work in China.

In 1773 the pope abolished the jesuits, citing as his reason the averred Jesuit practice of placing Chinese and Christian rituals on an equal footing. The last jesuit to learn that his order had been dissolved must have been far, far away from Rome. Perhaps he was in the Forbidden City, leading the Astrocalendrical Bureau.

Protestant Missionaries

Protestant missionary societies, largely of British and American origin, arrived in China in the early 1800s. They brought their printing presses with them and began to publish Chinese-language books. Their first books were mostly religious tracts, but the missionary presses soon became China’s primary source of Western scientific knowledge. The London Missionary Society (LMS) Press was particularly important. It was established in Malacca in 1818, but moved first to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai, where it was renamed the Inkstone Press. In this guise it published numerous books on Western science.

Europeans initiated the early translations and carried them out with the assistance of the Chinese. Later, these roles could be reversed, with the Chinese taking the initiative but relying on European assistance. For example, in the late 1830s, Karl Gützlaff published the Eastern-Western Magazine with the assistance of the staff of a senior official, Lin Zexu. Lin later began his own journal, Gazetteer of the Four Continents, which borrowed material from Gützlaff’s journal. Still later, he translated Western books on law and military power, and became a key figure in the Westernization movement of the late nineteenth century.

Medical missionaries such as Daniel Macgowan and Benjamin Hobson trained Chinese students in Western medicine. They translated many medical and scientific works to facilitate this training. Hobson’s Treatise on Physiology (1851) was the first Chinese-language book to present modern anatomy. The textbooks were later supplemented by Chinese-language medical journals: the first such journal began its operations in 1886 under the auspices of the Medical Missionary Association. However, Western medicine did not replace traditional Chinese medicine. Both branches of medicine were unaware of germs and parasites, which limited their usefulness.

Traditional Chinese medicine did not face a serious challenge from Europe until the middle of the nineteenth century. Except for smallpox inoculations, quinine therapy for malaria, and a number of herbal medicines unknown in China, the European medicine brought by Jesuit or Protestant missionary physicians did not achieve superior therapeutic results — that is, until a relatively safe procedure for surgery combining anesthesia and asepsis was developed at the turn of the twentieth century.9

Hobson’s many books by themselves constituted a broad introduction to western science, albeit one that was imbued with missionary zeal. In 1849 he published the first Chinese-language explanation of celestial movements in terms of Newtonian mechanics, but identified God as the author of it all. Likewise, his chemistry textbook described the 56 elements that were then known, but made God responsible for all change. The problem of reconciling science and Christianity was not Hobson’s alone. Darwin’s discussion of the evolution of species presented a challenge to all missionaries, and was glossed over as well as possible. Lyell’s geology was also problematic, in that it contradicted the Biblical creation story.

Illustration of a steam engine from Hobson's Treatise of Natural Philosophy (1855)
Illustration of a steam engine from Hobson’s Treatise of Natural Philosophy (1855)

The Protestant missionaries put significant emphasis on mathematics. They extended the study of algebra, and introduced both analytical geometry and calculus. This knowledge would be invaluable to the practitioners of a profession that would soon establish itself in China: engineering.

War, Technology, and Science

The Protestant missionaries sought converts to Christianity, but they also had a social mission, namely to improve the welfare of the Chinese through medical and scientific knowledge. Their students were often members of the literati, or failed aspirants to that class, but the missionaries did not prioritize influence with China’s rulers as the Jesuits once had. Western science was something that they offered and that some Chinese accepted. It did not become something that China’s rulers actively sought until war demonstrated an existential need for it.

A History of European and Chinese Gunpowder Weapons

In the middle of the nineteenth century, European arms were significantly more effective than Chinese arms. How did such a disparity come about?

Gunpowder was developed by the Chinese long before the invention of the gun. Its nitrate content was initially quite low. Since nitrate provides oxygen for combustion, the paucity of nitrate in early gunpowder meant that it burned rather than exploded. Moreover, it burned well only in open air: it could not be used in containers or tubes. Gunpowder was used in warfare before 1000 AD, but only as an incendiary. The “fire arrow” was a prominent application.

Gunpowder and gunpowder weapons evolved together. Gunpowder’s nitrate content was gradually increased, and the weapons began to be more explosive. The fire lance appeared before the middle of the twelfth century. It was initially an incendiary weapon, but as gunpowder’s explosiveness increased, it became a proto-gun that ejected shrapnel. The first effective bomb was the iron bomb, which appeared early in the thirteenth century. It was shaped like a gourd and made of thick pig iron that fragmented when the bomb exploded. It was often launched by catapult.

Gunpowder weapons were also effectively used by the peoples living on China’s northern borders. The Jin used them in the wars that forced the Song dynasty southward, and the Mongols used them in their wars against both the Jin and the Song. It was during the Song’s 45-year battle with the Mongols that the first true guns appeared. The characteristic of the true gun is that the projectile fits the barrel, trapping the explosion behind it and harnessing all the power of the explosion to drive the projectile forward. This innovation greatly enhances the gun’s accuracy, range and power. The oldest extant true gun has been dated to 1298, but it shows signs of advanced design and was the product of organized manufacturing. The first true guns must have appeared at a somewhat earlier date.

The Mongols displaced the Song and established the Yuan dynasty in 1279. The Mongols themselves were then driven from China by Zhu Yuanzhang, who established the Ming dynasty in 1368. Having defeated the Mongols, Zhu engaged in wars on all of China’s borders. The gun was further developed and became a fairly standard weapon: by the middle of the fifteenth century, 30% of China’s soldiers were armed with them. Guns tended to be small, weighing 2-3 kilograms, with a very large gun weighing about 75 kilograms. Despite their small size, guns were normally fired from mounts. They had wide mouths and short barrels, giving them low accuracy and short range. Their primary purpose was to kill the enemy; structures were still destroyed by catapults.

The gun reached the West within fifty years of its invention. The similarity in gun design, and in the composition of the gunpowder, leaves little doubt that the first Western guns were modelled on Chinese guns. Even early guns were powerful enough to penetrate armour. As in China, guns were used to kill the enemy, not to destroy structures.

An illustration of a European gun, dated to 1326
An illustration of a European gun (1326)

At this point in time, the European and Chinese militaries had access to comparable technologies. Europe, with its unsettled borders and rivalrous kings, was almost constantly at war. And before 1450, so was China:

The transition from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) to the Ming dynasty lasted nearly a century, from around 1350, when statelets emerged and began fighting, through the bloody interstate wars of the famous “field of rivals” (1352-1368), through the violent campaigns of consolidation by the first Ming emperor (r. 1368-1398), through the bitter succession war that erupted after his death, through the reign of his bellicose son, the famous Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424), who launched huge expeditions into Vietnam and Mongolia, and, finally, through a period of intermittent warfare that ended only in 1449. In total the warfare around the Ming dynastic transition lasted a century, from around 1350 to around 1450. The wars were frequent, intense, and of a scale far exceeding anything in Western Europe at the time, with armies of hundreds of thousands clashing throughout East Asia, armed with gun, bombs, grenades, and rockets.10

The pressure of war caused gunpowder technology to develop in both China and Europe, and until 1450, their military technologies remained roughly comparable.

After 1450, China was at peace while Europe remained embroiled in war. China shifted its focus away from weapons. Europe underwent a weapons revolution.

In Europe the main impediment to an offensive war was the stone walls of castles and fortified cities. The attackers, unable to breach the walls, were forced to lay siege. A well-prepared city could hold out for a year. Keeping an army in the field for that length of time was so costly, and the logistics so difficult, that sieges were often lifted once the defenders had demonstrated their resolve. Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy (r. 1363-1404), recognized that gunpowder could end the stalemate. He built bombards that were large enough to break down castle walls. His strategy was so successful that it was copied by other rulers, and an arms race ensued. By 1431, there were bombards that could fire 300-kilogram projectiles. Castle walls began to fall quickly and regularly.

The bombard evolved into the cannon, which attained its classic shape by 1480. The early bombards had been about eight times as long as their muzzles were wide. The longer, leaner, lighter cannons were forty times as long as their muzzles were wide. Longer barrels gave the gunpowder more time to accelerate the projectile, vastly increasing its impact. The lightness of the cannon meant that it cooled more quickly, so that a cannon could fire more shots in an hour than an old-style bombard could fire in a day. Gunpowder also changed. The old-style powder had been loaded into a cannon with a space left above it, where the ignition took place. The new “corned” or granulated powder allowed ignition to occur between the granules, giving a faster but more controlled explosion. The pressure changes within the barrel were moderated, reducing the likelihood of cracking and making possible the cannon’s long, thin walls.

In the early 1520s the military adventures of the Portuguese forced the Chinese — and also the Japanese and the Koreans — to acknowledge that Europe’s cannons were far superior to their own. They quickly remedied this deficiency by copying the European designs.

If Europe’s stone walls provided less protection, its armies had to provide more. The pressure to improve the soldier’s weapons led to the appearance, by 1480, of the matchlock gun.11 Its advantage over earlier guns was that it was handheld rather than mounted, and that a soldier could aim it by sighting along the barrel. Matchlock guns were brought to China and Japan by pirates and castaways, and again, it was at once evident that they were far superior to the existing Asian weapons. As with cannons, the deficiency was remedied by copying the European designs.

Chinese matchlock gun
Chinese matchlock gun

China had fallen behind in weapons technology over the period 1450-1520, but the technology gap was quickly closed and not terribly costly to Chinese interests. A rough parity was again maintained over the period 1550-1680. Europe was at war during this period, but so was China:

Interdynastic warfare erupted in the 1610s and continued until 1683, when the last holdouts of the Ming dynasty finally fell to the Manchu Qing dynasty. Afterward, warfare continued into the early eighteenth century, when the famous Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) carried out campaigns of consolidation in Northern and Central Asia. In fact, this is a conservative periodization: intense warfare actually began around 1550 and included the Korean War of 1592 to 1598, the most destructive Sino-Japanese conflict before World War II.12

Once again, the pressure of war ensured that weapons development continued in both Europe and China.

Then, over the period 1680-1840, China again fell behind. This time the technology gap was not easily closed.

The second gap had the same cause as the first: China entered a period of relative peacefulness and shifted its attention away from military technology, while European nations kept fighting and kept improving their weapons. The figure below shows the extent of warfare in Europe and China: the “Qing peace” running from 1680 to 1840 is clearly visible.

The extent of warfare in Europe and China, from Andrade, *The Gunpowder Age*, p. 6.
The extent of warfare in Europe and China, from Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 6.

The second technology gap was different from the first because it developed during the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to technologies that had immediate military spin-offs: steam engines powered ships and gunboats; cheaper and higher quality iron led first to iron-hulled ships and then to armoured ships; precision tooling improved the construction of every weapon. The Scientific Revolution introduced research methodologies that could be applied to military problems. As a result of the scientific study of ballistics, for example, a cannon fired by British gunners was more powerful and more accurate than the same cannon fired by Chinese gunners. The upshot of all this was that modern technologies were no longer fully embedded in the hardware. Copying a cannon didn’t tell the Chinese anything about ballistics, and examining the fit of British weapons didn’t tell them anything about precision tooling. “Catch-up by copying” was no longer a viable strategy.

War and Modernization

British forces dominated Chinese forces on both land and sea during the Opium War (1839-1842). The Chinese recognized that their military technology had fallen behind, and the emperor urged his officials to modernize the military. Some important steps were taken, but ultimately they led nowhere. Most high-ranking officials were literati, who had studied the Confucian classics since childhood. They did not know enough about science and technology to modernize the military; they did not even understand the scope of their own ignorance. There were some officials who had studied with the Protestant missionaries, and others who had some awareness of Western science, and these officials did make some progress. Lin Zexu, then Governor General of Shanxi and Gansu, experimented with artillery and explosive shells. Gong Zhenlin experimented with steam ships and the casting of cannon. Ding Gongchen also experimented with steam, and was the first Chinese person to successfully explain steam engines in writing. Ding even constructed a miniature steam boat as a demonstration, but he did not attempt a full-size vessel because, he complained, the Chinese “have no machines for making machines.” An even more basic problem was that they did not know how to make technical diagrams, so design could not be separated from production. According to one historian, “it took the Chinese two decades of experimentation to finally appreciate that they had to import from the West both its technology and its engineering tradition.”13

Another reason for China’s failure to modernize was that the emperor himself became complacent.

After such a long period of unprecedented peace, the Opium War was not in itself significant enough to shock the Qing into the deep-seated reform it needed. The British investment of Nanjing in the summer of 1842 caused Qing officials to fear dismemberment, but only temporarily, and once it became clear that the British could be mollified with concessions — an indemnity, the right to trade in certain ports, the retention of Hong Kong — the fear lifted. As the anti-reform faction succeeded in propounding the idea that defeat was caused by treasonous officials, the focus of reform shifted from technology to personnel.14

But China’s wars were just beginning.

The Taiping Rebellion (1851-64) was a critical juncture. The rebels fought with Western arms and would have handily defeated the emperor’s own archaic troops. The emperor responded by authorizing regional officials to form their own armies and to organize them as they saw fit. A number of officials chose to equip their armies with Western weapons, and were even manufacturing some of these weapons locally before the end of the war. The battlefield success of the newly formed armies vindicated the use of Western weapons. The emperor’s delegation of authority to local officials who supported modernization would also have significant repercussions.

The Taiping Rebellion overlapped with the Second Opium War (1856-1860), in which Anglo-French forces marched to Beijing, forcing the emperor to flee. China’s government was able to deal with internal threats, but was defeated by foreign military forces.

China’s exposure to both internal and external threats led to the self-strengthening movement of the 1860s. Its primary purpose was to modernize China’s military, but its proponents were aware that modernization required an understanding of Western science. As Ding Richang explained,

The Westerners…have been expending their intelligence, energy, and wealth on things that were completely vague and intangible for hundreds of years; the effects are now suddenly apparent.15

The self-strengthening movement was carried forward by Chinese officials who had been exposed to Western science; it was opposed by traditionalists.

Newly created arsenals were at the center of the movement. The first attempt to give China “machines that create other machines” was Zeng Guofan’s creation of the Anqing Arsenal in 1861. Zeng Guofan was at that time Viceroy of Liangjiang. He had come to prominence as a military leader — he was one of those who had built an army to fight the Taiping — and his staff included Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang. His influence ensured their appointments as, respectively, Governor of Zhejiang (1862) and Governor of Jiangsu (1864).

In 1865 Li Hongzhang and Ding Richang (then customs intendant for Shanghai) acquired an American factory in Shanghai, imported more machinery from abroad, and absorbed the Anqing Arsenal to create the Jiangnan Arsenal (formally known as the Jiangnan Machine Manufacturing General Bureau). The arsenal’s purpose was to develop the Chinese capacity to build warships and weaponry. It built China’s first modern steamship, and it also manufactured modern firearms. It trained many Chinese in the skills required for modern manufacturing. However, the arsenal’s costs were high and its activities were gradually curtailed.

The Jiangnan Arsenal also had a department that translated books and trained translators. Many of its staff members had previously been associated with the missionary presses. Its most important translator was the missionary John Fryer, who came to the arsenal in 1868 and remained until 1896, completing 129 translations. The arsenal itself published 77 of these translations, of which 57 were in the natural sciences, including the first Chinese edition of Lyell’s Elements of Geology. Fryer was also at the forefront of a move to standardize Chinese scientific terminology. Since the translators had been working more or less independently, a single concept could be translated in several different ways, making it difficult for students to develop a coherent understanding of a scientific field. Newtonian mechanics, for example, had been described both as the study of “weight” and the study of “force.”

John Fryer
John Fryer

Meanwhile, Zuo Zongtang established the Fuzhou Shipyard, which relied on its own foundry and factories for its materials. It also had a School of Naval Construction, where the subjects included technical drawing, mathematics, and engineering. Many of the school’s graduates were sent to France for further training. The shipyard itself initially operated with European (mainly French) technical assistance. Although it started with relatively small vessels, it quickly became a source of high-quality warships. By 1873, its gunboats were thought to be at least as good as British gunboats. By 1878 it was producing iron-hulled warships. In 1888 it launched the Longwei, an armour-plated 2100-ton warship driven by two 1200-horsepower steam engines. The shipyard’s Japanese counterpart was the Yokosuka Shipyard; foreign observers believed that the Fuzhou Shipyard produced the better ships.

Longwei, later renamed Pingyuan
The Longwei, later renamed the Pingyuan

The Longwei marked the zenith of the Fuzhou Shipyard’s accomplishments. The shipyard did not receive funding from the central government; instead, it operated on funding cobbled together from various provincial sources. After Zuo’s death in 1885, the shipyard’s funding began to collapse and its options dwindled. By contrast, the Yokosuka Shipyard had dedicated funding from its national government, enabling it to take on increasingly sophisticated projects and, eventually, match or exceed Western shipbuilding prowess.

Science in Its Own Right

The purpose of the self-strengthening movement was to close the technology gap between the Chinese and European militaries. The movement failed in this regard, but it nevertheless had a very positive impact on China’s future. China learned how to build steam engines and how to harness their power; it trained thousands of people as machinists; it embraced Western-style engineering. And, perhaps most importantly, it began to adopt modern science. Modern science had initially been treated as a stepping stone to modern weapons, but it was soon understood to be valuable in its own right.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese began translating Japanese mathematics and science books. Japanese notation and terminology was more easily understood by the Chinese, and unlike the missionary textbooks, Japanese textbooks did not overlay science with Christianity. Japan also became the default destination for advanced studies.

Over ten thousand Chinese traveled to Japan to study from 1902 to 1907. Some 90 percent of the foreign-trained students who joined the Qing civil service after 1905, for instance, graduated from Japanese schools.16

Other students went to Europe and the United States to continue their educations. For all of these students, science became a single discipline: the distinction between traditional Chinese science and modern science was abandoned. Any part of traditional science that was incompatible with modern science withered away.

As foreign-trained students returned home and worked their way up the civil service hierarchy, their understanding of science became the government’s understanding of science. Over time, China’s education system was reformed, with a greater emphasis on science, and institutions of higher learning were established. Modern science became an integral part of China’s culture. With the exception of the Cultural Revolution era, it has remained so ever since.


  1. The observation that there is no necessary connection between science and technology is, of course, one that has long been made about the Industrial Revolution. “[The Industrial Revolution] created a chemical industry with no chemistry, an iron industry without metallurgy, power machinery without thermodynamics. Engineering, medical technology, and agriculture until 1850 were pragmatic bodies of applied knowledge in which things were known to work, but rarely was it understood why they worked.” (Joel Mokyr, “The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870-1914,” manuscript, August 1998, p. 1.)
  2. The impact of time and populousness on invention is discussed in Michael Kremer, Population growth and technological change: one million B.C. to 1990, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1993. Kremer argues that the melting of the ice at the end of the last ice age divided the world into five regions: Eurasia, the Americas, Australia, Tasmania, and Flinders Island. These regions had roughly equal technologies at that time. When they were reunited by the Age of Exploration, the sophistication of their technologies correlated exactly with their initial population: Eurasia at the top, followed by the Americas, Australia and Tasmania in that order. The society of Flinders Island had regressed technologically and then died out. The conclusion that he draws is that bigger populations have faster technological progress. There are more ideas that can be linked together in novel and interesting ways, and more people to do the linking.
  3. Patrick K. O’Brien, “The Needham Question Updated: A Historiographical Survey and Elaboration,” in Chinese Technological History: The Great Divergence, p. 23.
  4. Jerry Liu, “Cultural Logics for the Regime of Useful Knowledge during the Ming and Early-Qing China c. 1400-1700,” in Chinese Technological History: The Great Divergence, pp. 40 and 43.
  5. Jerry Liu, “Cultural Logics for the Regime of Useful Knowledge during the Ming and Early-Qing China c. 1400-1700,” p. 49.
  6. This policy had been successful for centuries in dealing with the tribes along its northern borders, but its greatest success would not occur until the middle of the seventeenth century, when Manchu invaders pushed aside China’s Han rulers. The Manchu’s dynasty, known as the Qing, soon adopted the Confucian culture of the preceding Ming dynasty.
  7. Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China, p. 17.
  8. Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China, p. 22.
  9. Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China, p. 109.
  10. Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 3.
  11. In these guns, a lever lowered a burning fuse into a pan of powder, triggering the explosion. In earlier guns, the powder was ignited by inserting a red-hot iron into a touch hole.
  12. Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 4.
  13. Hsien-Chun Wang, “Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s–1860s.” Technology and Culture (2010), pp. 31-2. Quoted in Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 271.
  14. Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 271.
  15. Quoted by Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age, p. 280.
  16. Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China, pp. 198-9.