Baichun ZHANG


   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 (1914-1949).
IV) The establishment of the system of contemporary technology (1949-1985).

    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.


    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.[1]

    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[2]. 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 with science.

     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 Century.


    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 Kingdom.

    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[3]. 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[4].

    The introduction of machines and early industrialization

    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[5]. 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 institute.

    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.


    The changing distribution of mechanical industry

    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 tide.

    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 imports.

     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 durability.

    The establishment of educational and academic institutions

    During the late Qing and Nationalist period, sporadic attempts were made to develop education and academic institutions.

    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.


    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 engineering

    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 developed countries[6].

    Grasping of fundamental manufacturing technology

    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[7].

    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[8].

    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[9].


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), Beijing, 1992,16.
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 China,vol.1,op.cit.,39-60.

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, 2002. pp.133-142.