Mechanical engineering in ancient China has
been described by some scholars. Here I would like to talk about
the modernization of China's mechani cal engineering
under the influence of the West since the middle of the 19th century.
My paper is divided into four parts:
I) Early introduction of western mechanical engineering (1581-1840).
II) The introduction of modern mechanical engineering (1840-1914).
III) An embryonic system of mechanical engineering takes shape
IV) The establishment of the system of contemporary technology
In brief, the history of technology in
modern China has not been one of inventions, but one in which
modern technology has been imported to China and implanted there.
China was hindered in developing its basic industry and technology
because of wars, political chaos, conservative ideas, ideological
conflicts, and so on. In the 1950s, China massively imported technology
and established its technology system and basic industry. However,
its industry, which has lacked rational co-operation with research
institutes and universities, has not achieved the ability to create
varied advanced techniques, and thus its technology has basically
remained at the stage where it merely copies foreign products.
INTRODUCTION OF WESTERN MECHANICAL ENGINEERING
The introduction of
the western clock technology
Traditional Chinese mechanical engineering
had basically come to being by the Qin and Han dynasties (221
BC-220). In the 11th century traditional technology matured to
the point where complicated water-powered mechanical clock and
astronomical instruments were developed. Yet, by the 15-16th century,
however, the Chinese made hardly any mechanical clocks and knew
virtually nothing about the development of western technology.
In the 1550s, Jesuits started their religious
missions to China, but they were forbidden by the Ming Government
to preach beyond Macao. In 1578, Alexandre Valigani, a Jesuit
in charge of Indian and Far-eastern affairs, arrived in Macao
and developed new strategies. He encouraged his missionaries to
learn Chinese and local customs. In the following years, Michel
Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci used clocks and prisms to amuse and
flatter Guangdong governors, and as a result, were allowed to
build a church in Zhaoqing. In Jan. 1601, Matteo Ricci came to
Beijing and presented gifts such as clocks to Emperor Wanli of
the Ming Dynasty, who then showed strong interest in European
civilization. All emperors of the subsequent Qing Dynasty took
a fancy to European time-pieces. They invited European craftsmen
to come to the royal workshops and make clocks upon their requirements.
Royal clock-making reached its height during the reign of Emperor
Qianlong (1736-1796). Although the chief crafts-men were Europeans,
many Chinese were also involved, blending Western techniques with
China's traditional arts. European clocks were first copied between
1620 and 1630, and some individual clock producers in Suzhou and
Guangzhou (Canton) became well-known for their works.
The introduction of
western mechanical knowledge
After contact with the Jesuits, some
Chinese believed that Western technology would benefit Chinese
society. They began studying Jesuit scientific knowledge and worked
with them to translate it into Chinese. In 1612, Xu Guangqi and
Italian Jesuit Sabbathin de Ursis jointly published Hydraulic
Technology of the West, giving detailed introductions to the Archimedean
screw pump and piston pumps. In 1626, Wang Zheng asked Johann
Terrez to help him translate practical mechanics into Chinese.
A year later, they published Diagrams and Explanations of Wonderful
Machines, which covers statics and dozens of mechanical structures.
However, majority of the new knowledge was not used by the Chinese
because traditional Chinese machinery satisfied the practical
needs at that time. In the late 1670s, Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand
Verbiest demonstrated his small four-wheeled wagon driven by an
impact steam turbine to the Qing emperor in Beijing, but this
machine was not taken up by the Chinese.
In the 16th Century, Chinese scientists
focused on the structure and functions of machines, while western
scholars sought to analyse simple machinery with the aid of mechanical
concepts and geometric theories, in order to proceed to a better
understanding of complicated machines. Herein lies one reason
for the future gap between Chinese and Western developments in
engineering. While the Chinese might improve their mechanisms
through their experience, Westerners began to combine their technology
Before 1840, the introduction of Western
science and technology into China depended mainly on activities
of Western missionaries. However, missionaries came to China to
preach their religious doctrines, and science and technology was
but a key to China's closed doors. The Qing government expelled
them from China in 1723, cutting its only link with Western technology
for the following 100 years. China did not again witness modern
technology until European armies came to China in the mid-19th
INTRODUCTION OF MODERN MECHANICAL ENGINEERING
Response to modern steamships and guns
The first steamship appeared in Chinese
waters in 1830, but it was the Opium Wars, which showed the Chinese
how powerful British ships and cannons could be. Some Chinese
tried to study this modern equipment. Lin Zexu, the Qing envoy
sent to Guangdong to eliminate the opium trade, insisted on using
European rifles and guns. Meanwhile, a well-known scholar, Wei
Yuan, proposed that Chinese should "learn from advanced foreign
technology and use it to beat foreign invaders ". However,
their proposals were not adopted by the government. China had
occupied a dominant position in East Asia for a long period, with
the result that the Chinese felt superior in civilization and
economy to other countries. The Qing Dynasty still held onto this
historical sense of superiority and would not admit to its backwardness
or learn from the "barbarous" foreigners. Although the
Qing army lost the first Opium War in 1842, many Chinese still
believed their traditional weapons were invincible.
In 1851, a large-scale rebellion against
the Qing government broke out in south China. Two years later,
rebels declared that Nanjing became capital of their Taiping Heavenly
It was not until China lost the Second
Opium War and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom controlled the greater
part of south China in 1860 that it began to take modern guns
seriously. In Jan. 1861, Zeng Guofan proposed to" learn foreign
knowledge for making guns and ships" and was supported by
both the court and other pro-western bureaucrats. They suggested
establishing a modem military industry, but were strongly opposed
by conservatives, who belittled the functions of western machines.
However, because the conservatives had no way of countering domestic
rebels and foreign invaders, their opposition was blunted. Finally,
the government permitted adoption of limited Westem technology
to meet its urgent need.
The pro-western faction, however, stuck
to the principle of "using Chinese theories as a core, and
western technology for reference ". They refrained from copying
civilian machines, saying it would undermine the social and economic
order. After the Qing army was defeated by Japan in 1895, foreign
goods poured into the Chinese market. The Qing government then
had to declare "making domestic machines" as one of
its national strategies. After 1898, it issued policies to encourage
inventions and the copying of imported machines. Clearly, it was
always when they had no other choice that the Qing authorities
moved a step forward towards modernization.
The introduction of machines and early
In Dec. 1861, Zeng Guofan established
the Anqing Arsenal, where, depending on traditional handicraft
techniques, Chinese experts built a working steamship. In 1864,
Li Hongzhang purchased his Suzhou Arsenal machines, which had
previously equipped the British fleet.
In Nov. 1863, Rong Hong, returning from
the US, advised Zeng Guofan to set up a "parent factory"
and then sub-plants producing basic machinery. Soon, Zeng sent
Rong abroad to buy equipment. He and Li also established the South
China Arsenal in 1865. Later, the Qing Dynasty imported machines
and set up more than 20 factories engaged mostly in military production.
One ofthem, the Fuzhou Shipyard, began producing military ships
and steam engines from 1869. In 1883, Chinese engineers assembled
China's first cruiser there. Another factory, South China Arsenal,
made a Yangtze passenger steamship with 3000 horsepower, the best
of that period. To train more people in Western technology, two
factories opened schools. South China Arsenal also opened a translation
The pro-western faction focused their
attention only on weaponry production, and did not establish any
basic industries or manufacture machines on a massive scale, so
that the military industry continued depend upon imports and landed
itself in a passive position.
Of course, a small number of people stressed
the importance of machines in civilian production. In 1873, Chen
Qiyuan reeled silk on modem machines. A year later, Li Hongzhang
first proposed using machines to tap iron ore. In 1878, Zuo Zongtang
imported machines from Germany to build a woolen cloth factory
in Lanzhou. However, society at large was reluctant to accept
new things. Most of people were accustomed to outmoded customs,
and traditional forms of production and old technology, and chaos
of the times made development impossible. From the 1860s, small
privately-run machine factories had emerged in cities like Guangzhou
and Shanghai. When they repaired machines, they gradually learned
how to reproduce some of them, following models to produce lathes
and steamships. In the early 20th Century, they copied internal
combustion engines. However, because China had lost sovereignty
over its tariffs, domestic mechanical products were not protected,
and private businesses could not compete with foreign manufacturers.
EMBRYONIC SYSTEM OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING
The changing distribution of mechanical
In 1911, the National Revolution broke
out. Finally, the Republic of China replaced the Qing Dynasty,
but the development of industry and technology was hindered by
civil wars and the War of Resistance Against Japan before 1950.
China's privately-owned businesses in
the mechanical industry improved during World War One, when Western
powers sharply decreased their exports of machines and other commodities
to China. From 1928, the National Government implemented a number
of policies to encourage the private mechanical industry. In Shanghai
and neighbouring coastal areas and the Yangtze River valley, some
factories were in operation under the supervision of engineers,
but they had only old machines and they were unable to guarantee
the quality of their products.
In 1919, Sun Yat-sen suggested using
foreign technology to set up state-owned machinery factories.
His proposal had a direct impact on the industrial policy of the
Republic of China. After Japan occupied Northeast China in 1931,
the government initiated an industrial programme to strengthen
national defense. The Construction Plan of Heavy Industry drafted
by the Resources Commission in 1936 advocated importing manufacturing
technology and building machine works in inland Hunan Province.
The mechanical industry suffered heavy
losses after 1937 when the Japanese launched an out-and-out invasion
against China. The National Government was forced to move some
of these factories to the economically backward areas in the Southwest
and Northwest. In 1938, the Machine Works of the Resources Commission
moved to Kunming, Southwest China, but it could no longer maintain
its planned production. Some important materials could not be
imported during the war, forcing the factories to seek substitutes.
Unfortunately, in 1946 the civil war broke
out again. The Construction Plan of Heavy Industry virtually failed
to materialize, and private businesses could in no way turn the
A basic grasp of copying techniques
After 1914, state-run factories started
importing technology and assembling machines so as to achieve
self-reliance. In 1920, the South China Shipyard made for the
US a transportation ship with a capacity of 14,000 tons. Importing
technology from Germany's Benz, the China Automobile Manufacturing
Co. began assembling lorries in 1937. It even made engines by
itself during the anti-Japanese war. Private factories, meanwhile,
also improved their copying techniques. For instance, Xinzhong
Co. made internal combustion engines based on models. Unfortunately,
production failed to grow due to the destruction of the war.
The National Machine Works of the Resources
Commission was the largest of its kind during the war. Its products
included machine tools, water turbogenerators and internal combustion
engines. The production of the countless private factories was
small-scale, but they could copy many kinds of machines to replace
By 1950, China had been able to copy
ordinary machine tools, power generating machines of low power,
and other machines. However, most of them were unable to compete
with imported items in terms of power, precision, functions and
The establishment of educational and
During the late Qing and Nationalist
period, sporadic attempts were made to develop education and academic
From 1872, the Qing authorities sent
some 220 students to the U.S. and Europe to study new technology.
In the early 20th Century, more students went abroad to major
in engineering. This modern education broke down the traditional
Chinese belief that scholars should distance themselves from technology.
Again, we see that was conservative attitudes and other factors
prevented the development of a sound educational basis for mechanical
engineering, industry and research.
In 1895, the Zhongxi College in Tianjin
started a mechanics course, the first in China's higher-learning
institutions. The Qing Dynasty worked out The Platform of Universities
in 1903 to unify its school systems and curricula. In 1921, both
the Communications University and the Southeast University initiated
the departments of mechanical engineering. After that, such courses
became widespread in China, with most of the lecturers being Chinese
and textbooks in foreign languages. By Oct. 1936, 17 universities
had opened such courses and 1,500 students had graduated. Teachers
wrote textbooks in Chinese, Professor Liu Xianzhou compiling Terminology
in Mechanical Engineering in Chinese, unifying the terminology
for the first time.
During the war against the Japanese,
major universities were moved to inland areas, and mechanical
engineering received more attention. The Central University enrolled
3 graduate students in mechanical engineering from 1939 to 1950.
To build the post-war economy, the National Government sent a
large number of college graduates to the USA and the UK to further
their studies in universities or factories. Most of them returned
around 1949 to lead the country's technological development.
In 1912, China's first engineers' society
was founded under the auspices of Zhan Tianyou and other scholars.
In 1936, the China Mechanical Engineering Society was born. Engineers
first made experiments on materials, internal combustion engines
and substitute fuels in some simple laboratories of the National
Bureau of Industrial Research in the thirties. During the war
against the Japanese, they moved their labs from Nanjing to Chongqing,
and then built their own factory.
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE SYSTEM OF CONTEMPORARY TECHNOLOGY
After a four-year civil war, the People's
Republic of China replaced the Republic of China in 1949.
In the fifties, Western policies of isolation
forced China to import technology only from the Soviet Union and
East Europe. China managed to set up systems in research, design,
manufacture and education, and was able to produce the majority
of the machines it needed on its own. However, in the 1958 "Great
Leap Forward" movement, the country blindly pursued the quantity
of grain, steel and machine production, ignoring their quality.
Following the breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations in the early
1960s, China depended only on itself to develop its science, technology
and industry. After the start of the "Cultural Revolution"
(1966-1976), both the professional training and development of
manufacturing technology came to a halt. Under the slogan of "opposing
the worship of foreign things", China stopped its imports
of advanced technology. As a result, its development of mechanical
engineering lagged even further behind the West.
The development of research in mechanical
The government of the P. R. China set
up a planned economy after 1949, which included the development
of science and technology. In 1952, universities and colleges
followed the Soviet model and set up different majors in mechanical
engineering. Four years later, China made The Long-term Program
for Science and Technology bet3veen 1956-1967. It covered the
development of precision machines, jet engines, etc. The First
Ministry of Mechanical Industry set up a series of academies and
institutes, including the Academy of Machinery Science and Technology,
either on its own or together with universities. Some major enterprises
also had their own research units. In 1958, China and the Soviet
Union signed an agreement under which the latter promised to either
work with or aid China in major scientific research projects,
including the design and manufacturing technology of large-scale
equipment, precision machines and precision instruments. From
1950 to 1965, China sent more than 16,000 students to the Soviet
Union and East Europe.
China started research in mechanisms
and mechanical transmission in the 1950s. The research aimed primarily
at developing new products. In the sixties, research centred on
large sets of high precision, high quality and high technology
equipment, and digesting the technology imported from the Soviet
Union and East Europe.
Owing to some injudicious decision-making,
and the huge demand of the market, the mechanical industries paid
great attention to products and equipment, with the result that
basic technology and machining techniques remained backward. Although
some research made early advances, it took years for results to
be put into use. For example, numerical-controlled machine tools
were first made in 1958 and marketed in early 1960s, but they
had not been popularized by mid 1970s. Meanwhile, research in
some important spheres, such as superhigh precision machining
and mechanical liability, was not started until the seventies.
Since China adopted its policies of reform
and opening-up, it has established a number of new laboratories
which train graduate students and conduct research in some pioneering
subjects. Some research has come up to advanced world levels.
However, there still exist many problems. For example, experimenting
means are backward, original and creative research and research
based on huge amounts of data are still insufficient, and manufacturing
industry still lacks some necessary technology.
The achieving of designing capability
In the early 1950s, China mostly copied
Soviet products, including their design, machining technology
and technological standard. When it used foreign technology, China
gradually grasped some critical techniques and designing methods
which were still centred around copying. It promoted the 3-phase
designing method which covered project design, technological design
and construction work design. But such an experimental designing
method was still close to copying, analogy and magnifying.
After Sino-Soviet ties were cut, the
Chinese mechanical industry transformed its basis of designing
from mere experience to research, calculation and analysis. It
also increased the percentage of high-level products and complete
sets of equipment. By the early 1970s, China had succeeded in
making high precision machine tools, such large equipment as 30,000-ton
hydraulic press, 300,000-kilowatt hydropower or thermal generators,
complete sets of oil refining equipment and fertilizer production
equipment. But the overall designing capability had yet to improve.
By the late 70s, few machines made in the 50s had been updated.
For instance, the technology used for the Jiefang lorry was only
that of advanced nations in the 1940s.
Since the 80s, computers have been applied
to mechanical designing. On the whole, however, designing upon
experience rather than scientific data still prevails. In addition,
designing standards are obsolete. Naturally, it is difficult to
renew old designs in time. Among 50,000 mechanical products in
129 kinds, about 60% are found to involve pre-70s technology of
Grasping of fundamental manufacturing
In the fifties, China speeded up its
process of industrialization and focused on the development of
state-owned industries. Meanwhile, it brought private businesses
under government plan and transformed them gradually into state-owned
assets. Under a 1952 agreement, the Soviet Union helped China
build 141 industrial projects, which increased to 156 in 1955.
Among them, 26 were related to the mechanical industry. In the
latter half of the fifties, the mechanical industry focused on
its attention on metallurgical equipment, power-generating units,
transportation machines, metal cutting machine tools, etc., laying
the foundation for manufacturing technology. Domestically made
machines accounted for more than 60% of the national total.
In 1964, China started construction in
the inland areas to avoid possible attack by the West or the Soviet
Union. Machining technology only improved slowly because of backward
research, the slow spread of achievement and the lack of technological
imports. New projects followed the technology of those aided by
Soviet Union in the fifties. By the late 70s, China's complete
sets of equipment had lagged two or three grades behind foreign
equivalents in terms of scale, parameter and production.
Since reform took root in China, the
government has continued working on major research projects and
introducing technology, and increased its ability to develop crucial
equipment and complete sets of equipment. Meanwhile, the mechanical
industry has equipped itself with new equipment, including numerical-controlled
machine tools and industrial robots. By the late 1980s, 85% of
China's mechanical products were made domestically.
With the increase of technological imports,
both mechanical products and technology have improved. But on
the whole, the introduction of technology is still in the stage
where it copies foreign technology and makes products which the
West was already able to. Compared with advanced countries, Chinese
products are less admired in technology, reliability, energy consumption
and durability. They can last for 1/3 to 1/2 of the time of Western
products. The exports of China's mechanical products occupy only
0.5% of the word total.
1. Technology and industry has not been able to develop smoothly
in modem China because of the instability of society and the economy.
Since 1840, this country has been repeatedly plunged into wars
or political chaos. Its mechanical industry still can not meet
the demands of national economic development and defence, and
input into the industry has been limited. This has forced decision-makers
to take measures which can bring immediate benefits, but ignore
fundamental research and mastering all imported technology.
2. China has been following in the footsteps of advanced countries
and trying to catch up with them. Generally, it has taken technology
introduced from developed counties as a starting point for further
improvement. Based on assimilating imported technology, an independent
capacity for developing new technology can gradually come into
being. Nevertheless, its development of technology has easily
fallen into a vicious circle of "importing-lagging behind
-reimporting" due to the lack of basic technology and basic
industry over a long period.
3. A certain times, the introduction of the western technology
into China was hindered or suspended. During the second half of
the 19th century, China delayed total acceptance of modem mechanical
engineering mainly because the conservatives strongly opposed
learning from the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, China could not
make use of the latest achievements of the West and the Soviet
Union to improve its technology because its link with developed
countries was cut by contrasting ideologies.
4. Research has been divorced from application. Universities
and research institutes have focused on theories and experiments,
while factories, where design was close to copying and experience,
paid attention to production of machines. In addition, state-run
factories and research institutes were inefficient. Since 1979,
the government has been trying to set up a new system to combine
the creative power of engineers, researchers and technicians with
the imported technology.
1. Zhang Baichun, "The Importation of European Clock
and Watch Technology into China and the Questions Related during
the late Ming and Qing Dynasties (1580-1911)", Journal of
Dialectics of Nature, vol. 17, n. 2 (1995), 38-46.
2. Zhang Baichun, "A New Study on "Diagrams and Explanations
of Wonderful Machines of the West" Written by Wang Zheng
and J. Terrez in 1627 ", Journal of Dialectics of Nature,
vol.18, n. 1 (1996), 47-53.
3. The Whole Story of Arrangement of Diplomatic Affairs (during
the Reign of Emperor Xian Feng), vol. 8 (1979), 2669.
4. Zhang Baichun, A Brief History of Modern Machinery in China(1840-1949),
5. Rong Hong, My Life in America and China,1991,83-86.
6. State Natural Science Foundation, Mechanics, 1994, 75,
32; Jing Xiaochun, Mechanical Industry in Contemporary China,
vol. 1 (1990),39-60.
7. Jing Xiaochun, Mechanical Industry in Contemporary China, vol.
1, op. cit., 39-60.
8. State Natural Science Foundation, Mechanical Manufacture (Cold
Working), 1994, 21.
9. State Natural Science Foundation, Mechanics, Science Press,
1994, 75,32; Jing Xiaochun, Mechanical Industry in Contemporary
This paper was published in: Proceedings of
The XXth International Congress of History of Science (LiĘĘge,
20-26 July 1997), Volume XVII. ENGINEERING AND ENGINEERS. Edited
by Michael Ciaran Duffy. Brepols Publishers n.v., Turnhout, Belgium,