The world-historical pertinence of Ancient Chinese civilization is clearly manifested in the diverse contributions that this ancient culture has made to the peoples of the world. Such contributions extend their influence throughout a vast range of fields, insofar as Chinese civilization has made decisive interventions in fields of technology, industrial production, culture, medicine, the arts, religion and gastronomy. According to the sheer number of Chinese inventions, any concise summary of these discoveries will inevitably include crucial omissions. Nevertheless, when considering this question from the perspective of the impact that the discoveries of Chinese civilization have made on everyday life, it becomes possible to delineate those precise achievements that represent quantum leaps in the form of existence of human beings as a whole. These achievements evoke changes on the social as well as on the subjective and personal levels.
Accordingly, fundamental Chinese breakthroughs can be classified into the aforementioned categories, which not only show the extent of these contributions, but also evince their diversity. Within the crucial field of industry and technology, the Ancient Chinese contributions are arguably most evident. Crucial breakthroughs in this area include the development of fundamental staples of contemporary life, shaping what can be defined as modernity itself. In this regard, we may include inventions such as gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass, objects whose effectivity on existence is lucid. Regarding gunpowder, it developed as an outgrowth of Chinese alchemical studies. In a demonstration of the advances of Chinese science, the main ingredients of “sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and charcoal” (Yinke, 2010, p. 18) were discovered to have explosive properties. This clearly revolutionized the conception of defense. Furthermore, the development of the compass essentially marked an opening of civilizations, as exploration and the encountering of other cultures was now made plausible. Insofar as “the compass revolutionized open water sailing by allowing accurate, all-weather open sea navigation”, (Haven, 2006, p. 15) this can be viewed as a decisive step to the globalization of the human consciousness. Whereas printing is commonly associated with the European development of the Gutenberg press, Chinese culture had developed a form of block printing approximately 600 years earlier, with the “earliest existing work produced by block printing in China is the Jin Gang Jing (Diamond Sutra) printed in 868 during the Tang Dynasty.” (Yinke, 2010, p. 24) Printing was thus obviously decisive in preserving cultural documents, allowing for education and the spread of information. Lastly, in regards to such technological and pragmatic advances, the development of paper became a foundational monument in intellectual history, allowing for the transmission of language, culture and transcending the boundaries of time with communication. Paper as “a lighter and cheaper material” (Yinke, 2010, p. 20) enabled information and thus knowledge to become more widely spread and more thoroughly collected, cementing the importance of Chinese culture and opening other cultures to the potential of the efficient recording of their most important cultural accomplishments.
Chinese observations also opened the horizons of humanity beyond the world itself, while remaining closely rooted to everyday existence in a spiritual manner. Chinese star catalogues carefully mapped the heavens, providing detailed descriptions of the visible cosmos. The earliest star catalogues, “were draw up in the fourth century B.C.” and “were still in use a thousand years later”, (Ronan & Needam, 2000, p. 115) testifying to their accuracy and detail. Concomitantly, such longing for exploration and the stars does not mean the neglect of issues of everyday quality of life in Chinese culture. The long tradition of Chinese medicine demonstrates a commitment to herbal and natural treatments, as well as to innovative procedures such as acupuncture. (Yinke, 2010, p. 95) The fact that every year more in the West turn to such medicine as an alternative to the Occidental health system demonstrates the continual viability of Ancient Chinese medical practice and theory. Yet quality of life does not only entail health, but also leisure. In this regard, Chinese contributions in the development of wine and tea evince that relaxation, rest and the enjoyment of the gastronomical gifts that nature offers are as much a part of Chinese culture as technological breakthroughs. (Yinke, 2010, p. 58) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all such developments can be said to rest upon a philosophical tradition, whereby the Ancient Chinese contributions of, for example, the Dao de jing, which is the “primary treatise…of Daoism, the Chinese mystical school of thought…(and) deeply embedded in nature.” (Sayre, 2011, p. 11) This philosophical orientation places humans in relation to the world in such a manner, that he or she wishes to discover it through their own spiritual development.
When considering the most important of these aforementioned inventions, four come to immediate mind for various reasons. Firstly, the discovery of paper resembles a decisive revolution in human knowledge. Human knowledge can be more facilely recorded and disseminated. Education expands from the immersion in the texts of the past that are now preserved. Furthermore, a culture becomes more aware of its heritage, as it can directly read the words of its ancestors, thus developing a historical consciousness. In this regard, paper is also closely related to the availability of information. Here, knowledge can become freer and more widely spread, becoming democratic. The availability of texts on paper essentially encourages literacy, since because of its low cost, it can be easily disseminated, thus expanding the intellect of the greater community. This invention of knowledge compliments the second crucial invention of star maps. The careful recording of the heavens demonstrates a commitment to transcendence and the discovery of outer worlds. Humans become infatuated by that which is transcendent to them, and thus develop a spiritual consciousness, as they understand the vastness of the universe, while also more firmly grasping the position of humanity within the cosmos. Such transcendence is made all the more balanced by the belief in the traditions of ancient Chinese medicine, which show a dedication to well-being and good living. Ancient Chinese medicine simultaneously represents a commitment to the natural forms of healing, such as herbs, and experimental and innovative treatments like acupuncture. This synthesis has made Chinese medicine a powerful alternative to the mechanistic and unnatural pharmaceutical practice emphasized in the West. From a purely subjective perspective, it is often the minor inventions that can have the most impact on day to day life. The Chinese discovery of tea and the invention of tea culture are deeply personal rituals and habits that enrich daily life. This contribution shows a commitment to good living, which, alongside technological advances, the quest for transcendental spiritualism, and the health of general body, shows the overall completeness of the Chinese worldview, a completeness that is reiterated in the diversity of their ancient contributions.
Whereas it is difficult to choose the most important contribution from a personal viewpoint according to the sheer diversity of Ancient Chinese Culture, I would nevertheless cite the philosophical and religious teachings of the Dao as an example of an element of Chinese culture that I could not live without. Such texts present to a reader such as myself a profound peace when reading them, as their succinct examples of wisdom open subjective consciousness to alternative forms of life. It seems that the foundation for any significant culture is precisely such a deeply philosophical work, one which expands the possibilities of existence, an expansion that is clearly a type of precondition for the creation of great cultural contributions, as the Chinese culture clearly evinces. As the Dao de jing itself states: “The secret waits for the insight.” (Sayre, 2011, p. 218)
Haven, K. (2006). 100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Ronan, C. & Needham, J. (2000). The Shorter ‘Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge,
MA: University of Cambridge.
Sayre, H.M. (2011). The Humanities: Culture, Continuity And Change. Vol. 1 2nd ed.,
London, UK: Pearson Education.
Yinke, D. (2010). Ancient Chinese Inventions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.