Foundations of Chemistry in Ancient China
It is widely known that the ancient Chinese were highly accomplished
in the arena of science. In fact, there were outstanding scientists in almost
every Chinese dynasty. However, in sharp contrast to the systematic development
of modern times, the overall development of science in ancient China was rather
sporadic. Generally speaking, the most obvious reason is that the technology was
not always preserved, leading to the loss of many valuable Chinese discoveries.
It is unthinkable to modern people, who understand that "science and technology
bring wealth," that valuable technologies were not preserved in ancient China.
Actually, this issue has to do with the underlying assumptions of the scientific
theories and moral attainments of scientists in ancient China. I will begin a
series of discussions on various disciplines of chemistry in ancient China by
first talking about the ancient Chinese theories regarding "substances."
understanding of matter in ancient China was essentially the "Theory of the
Five Elements." The ancient Chinese discovered that metal, wood, water, fire,
and earth constitute all matter in the universe. When did this understanding of
matter actually begin? Chances are that no history book can answer this question
because the Theory of the Five Elements seems to have co-existed with the Chinese
culture. It can even be described as one of the cornerstones of Chinese culture
in the long course of history. According to the chapter "Hong Fang"
of the book Shang Shu, the Five Elements refers to metal, wood, water, fire, and
earth. Shang Shu is also known as Shu Jing, or The Book of History. It was one
of the six classics that Confucius compiled and commented on. It is a collection
of ancient Chinese political literature with records dating back as early as the
reign of Huang Di (a legendary ruler in ancient China) approximately 5,000 years
ago. In other words, the Chinese developed an understanding of the five elements
even prior to the creation of Chinese characters. There is also evidence of knowledge
of the five elements in the book, Guo Yu, from the Chou Dynasty: "Different
combinations of earth, metal, wood, water and fire form everything in the world."
These early records prove that the Theory of the Five Elements is the foundation
of ancient Chinese science, similar to how the theory of the atom and molecule
is the foundation of modern science's discoveries about the universe and matter.
was an even more microscopic understanding of matter than the Theory of the Five
Elements in ancient China: "The Theory of Yin and Yang." Confucius said,
"One Yin and One Yang are called Tao(1)" (the chapter "Xi Chi Zhuan,"
The Book of Changes). He also said, "Interactions between hard and soft matter
result in changes." Lao Tzu (Lao Zi) said, "Tao gave birth to One, One
gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to all the myriad
things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in
their embrace" (Chapter 42, Tao Teh Ching or Classics of Tao and Virtue).
These statements appear to be within the realm of modern high energy physics.
Lao Tzu not only talked about the microscopic fundamental particles, but also
the formation of substances. Therefore, the myriad of things constituted by the
five elements have both the characteristics of Yin and Yang and of the five elements.
The different characteristics of matter were described in the Chapter "Hong
Fan" of The Book of History: "Water corresponds to moisture and the
direction of down. Fire corresponds to blaze and the direction of up. Wood is
curvy or straight in nature. Metal is unstable under fire. Earth is necessary
for agriculture. Water becomes salty when travelling down. Fire becomes bitter
when blazing upward. Wood may turn acid when it changes shape. Metal may turn
bitter when it becomes unstable. Earth may turn sweet when used in agriculture."
Because of their natural characteristics, the five elements promote and restrain
one another at the macroscopic level. These are the restraining interactions among
the five elements: "Water restrains fire. Fire restrains metal. Metal restrains
wood. Wood restrains earth. Earth restrains water." These are the promoting
interactions among the five elements: "Wood promotes fire. Fire promotes
earth. Earth promotes metal. Metal promotes water. Water promotes wood."
This summarises the famous Theory of Mutual Promotion and Restraint (also known
as the Theory of Mutual Generation and Mutual Inhibition) among the five elements.
The unique scientific knowledge in ancient China, ranging from astronomy, geography,
calendars, physics, medicine, pharmacy, to chemistry, originated from the Theory
of the Five Elements and the Theory of Ying and Yang. These theories even had
effects on the development of Chinese music, architecture, art, and culture.
the modern scientific point of view, there are many abstract and non- quantifiable
elements within these theories, thus making it difficult for them to be accepted
as science, despite many proven achievements in traditional Chinese herbal medicine
and acupuncture. What is the crux of the problem? Perhaps this question will baffle
many modern scholars! Perhaps we can find some clues to the issue by reading a
passage from the Classics of Tao and Virtue. "All things under heaven are
born of the corporeal: The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal" (Chapter
40). "Tao gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three,
and Three gave birth to all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the
Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace, deriving their vital harmony
from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths" (Chapter 42, Tao Teh Ching).
"Tao gives birth to one, two, three and corporeal is born of the Incorporeal."
After studying and thinking over these two passages, we can see that modern theories
of chemistry are very much in line with ancient Chinese science. The following
is my interpretation of Lao Tzu's theories of matter in layman's terms: A given
substance is constituted of many layers of substances. In other words, matter
is composed of layers of particles, while each particle is composed of multiple
microscopic bits of matter. Each microscopic bit of matter is then composed by
the particles of finer microscopic bits of matter. It follows that each corporeal
substance is actually composed by a multitude of incorporeal substances. It means
that a higher layer of microscopic matter is incorporeal to those in lower layers.
do we understand the theory of Ying and Yang then? Lao Tzu said, "Three gave
birth to all the myriad things. All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs
and hold the Yang in their embrace, deriving their vital harmony from the proper
blending of the two vital Breaths." With the naked eye, we see all matter
on earth composed by three kinds of microscopic matters. In addition, the myriad
things all have the characteristics of "carrying the Yin on their backs outside
and holding the Yang in their embrace inside." Doesn't this sound like atomic
theory? Every kind of atom on the Periodic Table of Elements is composed of protons,
neutrons, and electrons, and the atomic characteristic is that the negative electron
(Yin, meaning "negative" in Chinese) circles the positive atomic nucleus
(Yang, meaning "positive" in Chinese). Let's put aside for a moment
the question of how the ancient Chinese were able to observe the structure of
the atom. Actually, it is relatively easy to explain to a modern audience the
ancient Chinese concept of corporeal matter, more so than to explain the abstract
concept of incorporeal matter, described in the next sentence. "Deriving
their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths." This
is where Chinese science significantly differs from modern science. "Deriving
their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths" is
not the corporeal phenomenon in this dimension, thus making it difficult to explain.
Put in layman's terms, it means the following: The forming of matter (as a result
of interactions between Yin and Yang) can result in harmonious energy flow. "Harmony"
has the meaning of unification, which means that a matter exists in the form of
incorporeal energy. For example, by dissecting human bodies, modern anatomists
have learnt about the existence of muscle tissues, blood vessels, and bones, etc.
On the other hand, the ancient Chinese observed not only corporeal tissues made
of flesh but also incorporeal distributions of energy flows. The discovery of
energy flow led to the knowledge of the energy channels and the acupuncture points
in traditional Chinese medicine, although channels and acupuncture points cannot
be seen in our physical dimension. Based on the knowledge of the incorporeal energy
flow, the ancient Chinese developed Qigong(2) exercises as a method of disease
treatment. Where is the Qi(3)? What is the Qi? The general public does not see
Qi or precisely describe Qi, but the healing effect proves the existence of Qi.
Take another example. Recently, a researcher in Japan showed that distilled water
exposed to praises or insults form different shaped water crystals. The responses
of water were marvellous manifestations of Lao Tzu's theory of incorporeal matter,
"Deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths."
Mind-intent seems to have no effect on a human body, but it is actually, as is
said in a Chinese saying, "moving the Qi in the body." In other words,
it is impacting the incorporeal energy flow in the human body. Lao Tzu's theories
are extremely scientific from the perspective of the law of conservation of energy.
Here, I have made a brief comparison between the knowledge of matter in ancient
Chinese science and modern science.
This is also why the Chinese understanding
of substances incorporates both the spiritual (Qi) and material aspects simultaneously,
and encompasses the concept that "every matter in the universe has a soul."
For instance, the water in the water crystal experiment was capable of perceiving
human sentiments, as if it had a soul. Like human beings, all matter, once formed,
will "Derive their vital harmony from the proper blending" to have a
soul. With this in mind, one will understand why mathematics was not an important
tool of research in ancient Chinese science. The main reason is that mathematics
is useful for quantitative studies of corporeal matters, but it is useless for
studies of the incorporeal Qi. For instance, a mathematical model is close to
useless in modern scientific tests that simulate the variations in human moods.
That is why it became a standard approach for ancient Chinese scientists to observe
and analyse the variations of corporeal and incorporeal matters in the universe
using the theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements. As to how the ancient
Chinese scientists were able to observe the matters "deriving their vital
harmony from the proper blending," I whole-heartedly suggest that readers
read the section entitled, "The Issue of the Celestial Eye," in Chapter
Two of Zhuan Falun by Teacher Li Hongzhi. In general, most outstanding scientists
in ancient China had supernormal abilities. They directly witnessed the variations
in substances in multiple dimensions. Also, the levels of their moral characters,
or xinxing (heart and mind nature), were positively correlated to their supernormal
abilities. The xinxing level of scholars in later generations has important impacts
on their abilities to understand the technologies of previous generations. Put
simply, the truth of the universe can only be unveiled to those with noble morals.
If a scientist does not have high xinxing, he will not be able to understand the
technology, least of all will he be able to preserve it. This is the reason why
many valuable technologies in ancient China were lost. Many skills cannot be obtained
via diligent pursuit alone. Morality is a requirement that has been ignored by
With the ancient Chinese people's theories of matters in
mind, one will surely find it interesting to re-study the scientific development
in ancient China. Perhaps we will even come out with new theories of matter.
(daow) 1. Also known as "Dao," a Taoist term for "the Way of nature
and the universe"; 2. enlightened being who has achieved this Tao.
(chee-gong) A form of traditional Chinese exercise which cultivates qi or "vital
energy." At a low level, Qigong is used for healing and fitness.
(chee) In Chinese culture, it is believed to be "vital energy"; but
compared with gong, it is a lower form of energy .