Virtually any young Westerner you ask will reply that the Muslims, the Chinese…(fill in the blanks) were vastly more sophisticated than the backward Europeans in medieval times. This is true in some cases, but not in others.
In his interesting book Technology in World Civilization, Arnold Pacey claims that the Song Dynasty was "an especially creative period for Chinese technology. In 1100, China was undoubtedly the most technically 'advanced' region in the world, particularly with regard to the use of coke in iron smelting, canal transport and farm implements. Bridge design and textile machinery had also been developing rapidly. In all these fields, there were techniques in use in eleventh-century China which had no parallel in Europe until around 1700."
Indeed, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was one of the most dynamic periods in Chinese history, and China has perhaps never enjoyed a greater global technological leadership than she did in the eleventh century. Pacey admits, though, that this technological leadership became less pronounced in later times. After the sixteenth century,
the most significant developments in Asia were the technical books published in Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a handful of Chinese scientific works, and very occasional episodes in India such as the use of models in the design of the Taj Mahal in the 1630s, and the systematic use of scale drawings by some shipbuilders by the end of the eighteenth century. But such examples are few and isolated. The great preponderance of new technological potential generated by increased ability to conceptualize technical problems was accruing in the West.
China was always significantly better at applied technology than she was in the theoretical sciences. And no, science and technology didn't merge until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and then only in Europe. According to Toby E. Huff in his excellent book The Rise of Early Modern Science, if we consider the main fields of scientific inquiry to be astronomy, physics, optics and mathematics, then the Chinese lagged behind not only Europeans, but also Muslims from the eleventh century onwards, if not before.
Even Joseph Needham in his monumental Science and Civilisation in China concluded that "the Chinese had very little systematic thought in this domain." While one can find "Chinese physical thought," one "can hardly speak of a developed science of physics."
Many Westerners to this day are convinced that medieval Europeans thought the earth was flat. They never did, at least not the educated ones. Here is David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science:
It must be emphasized that the arrangement of the elements is spherical. Earth collects at the centre to form the earth, and it too is spherical. Aristotle defended this belief with a variety of arguments.
Arguing from his natural philosophy, he pointed out that since the natural tendency of earth is to move toward the centre of the universe, it must arrange itself symmetrically about that point. But he also called attention to the observational evidence, including the circular shadow cast by the earth during a lunar eclipse and the fact that north-south motion by an observer on the surface of the earth alters the apparent position of the stars.
Aristotle even reported an estimate by mathematicians of the earth's circumference (400,000 stades = about 45,000 miles, roughly 1.8 times the modern value). The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin.
And here is the leading scholar Edward Grant in Science and Religion:
Perhaps the most powerful illustration of bias against the Middle Ages concerns Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery to the New World in 1492. Many came to believe that the most significant achievement of Columbus' voyage was the discovery that the earth is not flat – as was universally believed in the Middle Ages – but round.
This is utterly false. No educated person in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth (Russel 1991). They all knew it was round. Their authority was Aristotle.
In his major cosmological treatise, On the Heavens, Aristotle emphatically declared the earth a sphere and even presented an estimate of its circumference. All who were educated in the universities of the Middle Ages would have read that passage. But it could be found in many other treatises they might also have read. No one would have doubted it.
And yet, nineteenth-century authors were able to construct a falsehood still widely believed that everyone in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth until Columbus' voyage proved its sphericity.
The ancients Greeks knew about the sphericity of the earth at least from the fourth century BC. In the third century BC, Eratosthenes, a mathematician who headed the library in Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt, became the first person we know of to make a realistic estimate of the circumference of the earth. His value of 252,000 stades became widely known.
There were several different stades in use in antiquity, but his estimate was nevertheless in the right range. Eratosthenes' value never dropped completely out of sight. It reappears, for example, in the influential Sphere by the English astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco/ John of Holywood, a thirteenth-century introduction to astronomy that was widely used in medieval European universities.
In the early Middle Ages, a number of Muslim astronomers, following translations of Greek scientific works, made measurements of the circumference of the earth. According to James Evans in The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy:
One motive for making new measurements was that the Arabic astronomers of the ninth century had no idea (any more than we have) of the length of the stade used by Eratosthenes or Ptolemy.
In the later Middle Ages, both Greek and Arabic estimates of the size of the Earth were in circulation in Europe. As the variety of estimates were compounded by uncertainties over the values of the Greek and Arabic units of measure, the European geographer was left with considerable freedom of choice.
When Columbus tried to convince himself and others of the practicality of his proposed voyage to Asia, he deliberately selected the smallest of the available estimates for the size of the Earth and the largest possible estimate for the width of the Eurasian continent.
That made the western ocean as narrow as possible and the voyage as attractive as possible. By sheer luck, it turned out that Columbus's voyage was of about the distance he expected. He counted on a trip of under 3,000 miles between Europe and Asia. In 3,000 miles he did, indeed, reach land. The true distance to Asia was more than 10,000 miles.
One of the most famous geographical mistakes in history was when Columbus and his crew arrived in the Americas and believed they were in India, hence the natives became known as "Indians" or "red Indians." Maybe if Maya adventurers had arrived in Europe in search of China, native Europeans would be known as "white Chinamen" today. Nevertheless, although Columbus was wrong, his misunderstanding was not as ridiculous as is sometimes believed.
The idea that the earth is round was also known among Muslims in medieval times, but maybe not accepted by everybody. Ibn al-Haytham (965– ca. 1039), or Alhazen as he was known in Europe, had written the best optical treatise in the world in the eleventh century, while relying heavily on Greek mathematics and natural philosophy.
Yet his work was carried on more in Europe than in the Islamic world. So what happened to it in the Middle East? This quote by Ibn Warraq in his modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim is enlightening:
A disciple of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, relates that he was in Baghdad on business, when the library of a certain philosopher (who died in 1214) was burned there. The preacher, who conducted the execution of the sentence, threw into the flames, with his own hands, an astronomical work of Ibn al-Haitham, after he had pointed to a delineation therein given of the sphere of the earth, as an unhappy symbol of impious Atheism.
In India, too, estimates of the circumference of the earth were made in the Early Middle Ages. The period of the Guptas, from the fourth to seventh centuries AD, was a golden age for classical Indian civilization. It was during this time period the decimal numeral system we use today, including the zero, was adopted and developed by mathematicians such as Brahmagupta.
In the Indian caste system, the Brahmins monopolized education, yet India remained more open to outside influences than China, and was penetrated by Persian and Greek ideas following conquests of northwestern India. James E. McClellan and Harold Dorn state the following in Science and Technology in World History:
Unlike astronomy in China, the Islamic world, or Europe, where consensus generally united scientific traditions, some six regional schools of Indian astronomy-astrology competed for intellectual allegiance and material patronage. Despite its limitations and divisions, Indian astronomy became highly technical and mathematical in the period of the Guptas.
From the fourth through the seventh centuries various Indian astronomers produced a series of high-level textbooks (siddhanta or 'solutions') covering the basics of astronomy: the solar year, equinoxes, solstices, lunar periods, the Metonic cycle, eclipses, planetary movements (using Greek planetary theory), seasonal star charts, and the precession of the equinoxes. Aryabhata I (b. 476 CE) lived in Pataliputra, composed a siddhanta, trained students, and held the unorthodox view that the earth rotates daily on its axis….
In his siddhanta in the following century the astronomer Brahmagupta (b. 598 CE) repudiated Aryabhata's notion of a moving earth on the grounds that it violated common sense and that, were it true, birds would not be able to fly freely in every direction. Brahmagupta's estimate of the circumference of the earth was one of the most accurate of any ancient astronomer.
So, all the civilizations that were exposed to the learning of the ancient Greeks – Europe, the Middle East and to some extent India – were aware of the fact that the earth is round. Did none of the major civilizations of Eurasia believe that the earth was flat? Yes, the Chinese did.
The general consensus among Chinese scholars well into the seventeenth century AD, more than two thousand years after the Greeks had demonstrated that the earth is spherical, was that the earth is flat. The error wasn't corrected until the Chinese were confronted with European astronomy. As Benjamin A. Elman puts it in his largely pro-Chinese book A Cultural History of Modern Science in China:
Since the early Han period (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), two ancient Chinese models had shaped Chinese thinking about their place in the cosmos. According to one, the 'vaulted heavens' (gaitian) cosmology, the heavens arched over a flat, square earth like a hemispherical dome, or an umbrella-like canopy.
Its classical alternative, beginning in the transition from the early to later Han, was called the 'spherical heavens' (huntian) cosmology. In this view of the universe, an egg-white-like cosmos surrounded the yellow yolk-like earth. This view became influential between 100 and 180 C.E. but was not further elaborated. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Copernican system replaced the Tychonic system in Protestant European astronomy, but in China the Tychonic system continued to be used, hampering advances in astronomy.
The Jesuits failed to introduce the Copernican system in a timely fashion, even though, for example, a few of Galileo's discoveries (albeit not his support of heliocentricity) were noted in Ming Jesuit translations. Nevertheless, the Tychonic age in the Astrocalendrical Bureau meant that by the 1630s Chinese specialists had available to them a rich toolkit of new computational techniques, more accurate observations, a new view of the cosmos, and the latest precision instruments.
Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), born in Scania (Skåne) in what is today southern Sweden but was then a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, was the last of the great astronomers of the pre-telescopic era. Brahe never accepted the heliocentric model of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). He was influenced by some technical elements of the Copernican system, but developed an alternative geo-heliocentric system in which the planets all went around the sun, while the sun moved around a stationary earth.
Yet even though the Jesuits brought an understanding of astronomy that was already outdated in Europe, they were still so far ahead of the Chinese that the Chinese mathematical-astronomical tradition virtually ceased to exist following extended exposure to the European tradition. As Elman says:
For instance, the first translated edition of Matteo Ricci's map of the world (mappa mundi), which was produced with the help of Chinese converts, was printed in 1584. A flattened sphere projection with parallel latitudes and curving longitudes, Ricci's world map went through eight editions between 1584 and 1608. The third edition was entitled the Complete Map of the Myriad Countries on the Earth and printed in 1602 with the help of Li Zhizao. The map showed the Chinese for the first time the exact location of Europe.
In addition, Ricci's maps contained technical lessons for Chinese geographers: (1) how cartographers could localize places by means of circles of latitude and longitude; (2) many geographical terms and names, including Chinese terms for Europe, Asia, America, and Africa (which were Ricci's invention); (3) the most recent discoveries by European explorers; (4) the existence of five terrestrial continents surrounded by large oceans; (5) the sphericity of the earth; and (6) five geographical zones and their location from north to south on the earth, that is, the Arctic and Antarctic circles, and the temperate, tropical, and subtropical zones.
According to Toby E. Huff, "Geometry as a systematic deductive system of proofs and demonstrations was virtually nonexistent in China, as was trigonometry." In their attempts to comprehend celestial motions, Chinese astronomers shifted from strictly numerical procedures to geometric models of successive locations in space following contact with Europeans.
Calculus, developed by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and the Englishman Isaac Newton (1643-1727) in the late seventeenth century, was not available to the Chinese until the nineteenth century. Calculus is an invaluable tool for solving dynamic mathematical problems, motion, etc.
Despite the adoption of Chinese terminology borrowed from traditional mathematics, the introduction of the calculus shocked Chinese literati because traditional mathematics contained nothing similar. Some scholars tried to show that many essential ideas of the calculus came from Chinese mathematical classics by building on earlier claims about the Chinese origins of algebra.
From the Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, after Europeans had assimilated external advances such as the Indian numeral system, which arrived via the Middle East, until the twentieth century, almost all global advances in mathematics were made by Europeans. It is interesting to notice that our numeral system came from Asia, but from India, not China.
I would claim that the axis which developed what was to become global mathematics (prior to Renaissance Europe) consisted of India, the Middle East and the ancient Greeks. East Asia was less significant in this. The one religion that influenced almost all regions of Asia, Buddhism, also came from India. As scholar Thomas T. Allsen writes in Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia:
Millennia before the movement of Chinese silk to the West, there was certainly a long-distance trade in prestige goods, principally semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, nephrite, and turquoise. Whether this constituted a Bronze Age 'world system,' an extended network of interactive economic exchange, is now being debated.
More conventionally, scholars have argued that regular exchange came much later, with Alexander the Great's campaigns or with Chang Ch'ien's mission to the Yueh-chih. Most would agree, however, that the so-called 'Silk Route' was in operation by the century before Christ and that it reached an early peak during the period from 50 - 150, when the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires dominated the political landscape of Eurasia. In addition to the commercial goods, mainly silk, coming west, many cultural wares, from folklore motifs to alphabets and religions, moved eastward.
Almost all of the major religious movements originating in the Middle East - Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeanism, and Islam - reached China, while Chinese ideological systems made no inroads in the West. This intriguing and persistent pattern, which has never been explained, was apparently established quite early.
In the long line of history, it is tempting to conclude that China has had less of an ideological impact on world culture than her great size and wealth should indicate. Perhaps the 21st century will see a return to this traditional pattern: China may be the world's largest economy, but new ideas will primarily be developed elsewhere.