An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物

Jun 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物 "The exploitation of Heavenly treasures" is a compendium on industry, agriculture and artisanry written during the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644) by Song Yingxing 宋應星 (1587-c. 1666).

The book of 18 juan length was written between 1634 and 1637. It was printed in 1637 by Tu Boju 涂伯聚, during the Kangxi reign-period 康熙 (1662-1722) by Yang Suqing 楊素卿, and in 1771 by the Eisei Studio 營生堂 in Japan. The Tiangong kaiwu is not recorded in the imperial bibliography of the official dynastic history Mingshi 明史 and was almost lost. The Japanese edition was the only surviving copy. Modern editions have been published by the Zhonghua Shuju Press 中華書局 in 1959 and the Guangdong Renmin Press 廣東人民出版社 in 1976. The latter includes a commentary and translation into modern Chinese by Zhong Guangyan 鍾廣言. There are numerous translations into other languages.

Song Yingxing, although coming from a distinctive family, had never the chance to pass the state examinations and only occupied posts as a district magistrate in Fujian and Anhui. After the downfall of the Ming he dedicated himself to authorship. Apart from the Tiangong kaiwu, he wrote many smaller books that are not very renowned, like Tantian 談天 "Discussions about Heaven", Lunqi 論氣 "Discussions about air", Yeyi 野議, Silianshi 思憐詩, Huayin guizheng 畫音歸正, Zase wenyuan hao 雜色文原耗 and Yiyan shizhong 巵言十種, of which the last three are lost.

The Tiangong kaiwu is just one of a whole series of scientific books that were written between the Song 宋 (960-1279) and the Ming periods, like Xinren yizhi 梓人遺制, Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談, Bianmin tuzuan 便民圖纂, Gengzhi tupu 耕織圖譜 or Yuanxi qiqi tushuo 遠西奇器圖說.

The term tiangong 天工 first appears in the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" (ch. Gao Yao mo 皋陶謨), where it describes the forces of nature. The concept of kaiwu 開物 is derived from the Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", where it is used to refer to human processing of the products of nature. The title of the Tiangong kaiwu thus expresses the joint forces of Heaven and man to produce useful objects out of the products of nature. Man plays a central role because without him, "grains would not grow".

Song Xingying was not the typical literate-official who wrote in his study without access to practical matters, but he was a person interested in the reality of industrial production and manufacture and had personally observed what he described in his book. The chapters are arranged in a sociological concept that puts the "five grains" (wugu 五穀), i. e. agriculture, at the front, and the metals, i. e. artisanry and commerce (money), at the back of all themes. The Tiangong kaiwu includes 123 excellent illustrations (the Taosheyuan edition 陶涉園 contains 162).

The chapter Naili 乃粒 describes the cultivation of rice and wheat, the use of various agricultural tools, water-driven machines used in agriculture, and also some other fruits of the field, like different kinds of millet (shu 黍, ji 稷, su 粟) or beans (shu 菽). The chapter Naifu 乃服 is dedicated to sericulture (silk production). It describes the raise of silkworms, the use of tools to spin the threads of the cocoons and the weaving of yarns to textiles. It also includes information on other textile products, like cotton (mian 棉), hemp (ma 麻, used for linen), and wool (mao 毛). The chapter Zhangshi 彰施 described the dyeing process and various dyeing stains, especially indigo (landian 藍澱), including the cultivation of the plant, the extraction of the dye. The chapter Suijing 粹精 switches back to grains and describes the harvest of rice and wheat and the processing of the grains, like de-spelting and milling.

The next chapter, Zuoxian 作鹹, is a description of the various methods of salt production, like evaporation of sea water (haiyan 海鹽 "sea salt"), boiling down brine from salt lakes (chiyan 池鹽 "pond salt"), or the so-called "well salt" (jingyan 井鹽) which is hauled from deep wells. The chapter Ganshi 甘嗜 describes the production of sugar from sugar cane, but also deals with honey (fengmi 蜂蜜) and the production of sugar-plums or sweatmeat (yitang 飴糖).

The chapter Taoyan 陶埏 is the first chapter of industrial products. It deals with the production of bricks (zhuan 磚), tiles (wa 瓦) and white porcelain (baici 白瓷), beginning from the raw material, the firing of the sherd (pi 坯) and the application of the glaze (you 釉). It provides information on the erection of kilns (yao 窯) and pays a special attention on the imperial porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen 景德鎮. The chapter Yezhu 冶鑄 describes the casting of metal objects, like iron woks (tieguo 鐵鍋), bronze bells (zhong 鐘) and mirrors and of brass coins (tongqian 銅錢). Interestingly enough, coins were only cast in China without further processing by pressing or punching. In the chapter, the lost-wax technique (shila 失蠟) is described, by which a wax model is melted away after the clay mold is ready. Other types of molds are permanent dies or coquilles (shimo 實模) or lost-shape molds (wumo 無模).

The chapter Zhouche 舟車 describes the production of boats and ships, as well as carts, with all their many different parts. The focus lies on boats for the transport of grain on the Grand Canal, but sea-going ships are described as well.

The chapter Chuiduan 錘鍛 is dedicated to the description of the production of all different kinds of iron and copper tools, like knives, toes, files, bodkins, saws, planes, chisels, or needles. The chapter Fanshi 燔石 describes the processing of coal (mei 煤) and other minerals, like chalk (shihui 石灰), alum, vitriol (fanshi 礬石), sulphur (liuhuang 硫黃) and arsenic ores (pishi 砒石). Concerning coal, the methods of mining are described, as well as different kinds of coal, like anthracite (mingmei 明煤), bituminous coal (suimei 碎煤) and powdery coal (motan 末煤).

The chapter Gaoye 膏液 described sixteen different kinds of oils extracted of plants, how the fruits are processed and which methods are used to recover the oils, like pressing or extraction by water. The chapter Shaqing 殺青 describes the production of paper out of different raw materials, like bamboo (zhuzhi 竹紙) or the bark of mulberry trees (pizhi 皮紙). The chapter Wujin 五金 is an overview of the use of six different metals, namely gold (jin 金), silver (yin 銀), copper (tong 銅), iron (tie 鐵), pewter (xi 錫) and lead (qian 鉛), their desposits, ores, processing and use. The chapter Jiabing 佳兵 describes the production of weapons, like bow and arrows, crossbow, shields, muskets, grenades and mines, as well as the production of gunpowder. The chapter Danqing 丹青 describes various colour pigments like cinnabar (zhusha 朱砂), ink (mo 墨) and their production out of quicksilver ores and pine wood, respectively. The chapter Qubo 麴蘗 describes the production of yeast and alcoholic beverages, and the last chapter, Zhuyu 珠玉, the collection and processing of pearls, jades, agates, crystals and other jewels.

The Tiangong kaiwu is not only interesting because it contains a vast arrange of industrial and agricultural production methods. It furthermore provides a lot of information on where certain materials were to be found and were mainly produced. It thus give an excellent overview of the proto-industrial situation of China during the early 17th century. It is very rich in content and especially valuable for the many illustrations which excellently picturise what is described in the texts. The scientific value of the Tiangong kaiwu can not be overrated. It gives a picture of the high level of practical scientific knowledge of late Ming China. Arsenic (pishuang 砒霜), for example, was used to protect the roots of rice against rat biting and harmful vermin. The results of cross-breeding in silkworms are observed for the first time, corresponding to the Mendelian inheritance law. It is described, which kind of looms were used to produce real brocade textiles with patters woven into the structure of the cloth. In the field of metallurgy, the books describes how to transform the hot metal of pig iron (shengtie 生鐵) into malleable iron (shutie 熟鐵) by the addition of clay powder and by agitation with poles of willow wood. A mixture of both types of iron will result in steel (gang 鋼). In mining, it is described how carbon monoxide (duqi 毒氣 "poiseonous air") was removed through bamboo tubes, and how the galleries were stablised against collapse by inserting a wooden shoring and wooden jacks. Concerning yeast, the Tiangong kaiwu describes how "red yeast" (danqu 丹麯) can be applied to perishable foods to preserve it for a longer time.

In the field of agriculture, it is described how important water was for the growing of rice. The Tiangong kaiwu is mainly based on real experience and less on cosmological speculations, as was often the case in earlier writings. It therefore also provides the reader with a lot of practical information, including measurements and proportions, like 80 per cent of ox fat (niuyou 牛油) and 20 per cent of wax for creating models for casting. Water power was the most effective way of watering field, because they could operate day and night, while human power was only able to fulfil a twentieth of the work a waterwheel could provide, an ox the tenth part of it. It was also of importance which kind of millstone was used. The northern "cold stone" (lengshimo 冷石磨) would yield 80 per cent more of flower than other stones. The production of silk yarn (simian 絲綿) cost eight times the time – and the price – of fresh reel silk (saosi 繅絲). The yield in oil of sesame (huma 胡麻) was higher than that of hemp (huoma 火麻), and it could not only be used in the kitchen, but the by-products were also useful a fertilizers for fields. It is described, where certain raw materials had to be transported from, like hard clay from Wuyuan 婺源 and soft clay from Qimen 祁門 that were brought by ship to the porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen, or tung oil (tongyou 桐油) from Hebei and Henan that was brought to Huizhou 徽州 as a surrogate for the expensive pine resin. Song Yingxing also explains why gold was not used to produce coins because it was too precious to be used in daily life. For this purpose, the cheap copper coins were of great value. He observes at the same time that there was not sufficient silver in circulation to supply the monetary markets. Transport was of important means for the distribution of goods among the empire. Tools of transport were therefore a crucial means for the distribution of wealth. Overseas trade is also dealt with in the chapter on ships.

The Tiangong kaiwu is one of the most important early books on Chinese science and technology. With its wide range of topics describes, it can serve as an encyclopaedia on early modern crafts and industry in China. Later books therefore often quoted text and copied the illustrations in the Tiangong kaiwu, like the vast Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) encyclopaedia Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成, the agricultural book Shoushi tongkao 授時通考, Wu Qijun's 吳其濬 (1789-1847) Diannan kuangchang tulüe 滇南礦廠圖略 (on mining in Yunnan), Zhiwu mingshi tukao 植物名實圖考 (on plants and their economical use), Li Yueyun's 劉岳雲 (jinshi degree 1886) Gewu zhongfa 格物中法, or Wei Jie's 衛傑 (fl. 1894) Cansang cuibian 蠶桑萃編 (on silkworm breeding).

Modern scholars were likewise highly interested in the Tiangong kaiwu. There were several prints made during the early 20th century. Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929) called the Tiangong kaiwu, along with the Xu Xiake youji 徐霞客遊記, one of the most important books of the last few centuries. Ding Wenjiang 丁文江 (1887-1936) praised Song Yingxing's vast knowledge and his excellent power of observation. There are, nevertheless, some erroneous traditional ways of thought reflected in the Tiangong kaiwu, the most outstanding of which might be the belief that coal grew again inside the mountain some 30 years after the layers had been exploited.

In 1952 the first modern print of the Tiangong kaiwu was made, based on the edition of the Mohai Studio 墨海樓 of Master Li of Ningbo 寧波李氏. In 1959 a facsimile was reprinted by the Shanghai Zhonghua Shuju Press 上海中華書局. The Tiangong kaiwu is included in the series Xiyongxuan congshu 喜詠軒叢書 and Zhongguo gudai keji tulu congbian 中國古代科技圖錄叢編, but not in the Siku quanshu 四庫全書. There is a "guided" edition published by the 20th-century scholar Pan Jixing 潘吉星 (1931-2020), called Tiangong kaiwu daodu 天工開物導讀.

Table 1. Contents of the Tiangong kaiwu 天工開物
1. 乃粒 Grains
2. 乃服 Clothing
3. 彰施 Dyeing
4. 粹精 Processing grains
5. 作鹹 Production of salt
6. 甘嗜 Sugar
7. 陶埏 Ceramics
8. 冶鑄 Casting metals
9. 舟車 Ships and carts
10. 錘鍛 Forging and hammering
11. 燔石 Roasting ores
12. 膏液 Vegetable oils and fats
13. 殺青 Paper
14. 五金 The five metals
15. 佳兵 Excellent weapons
16. 丹青 Dyestuffs
17. 麴蘗 Ferments
18. 珠玉 Pearls and jades
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蜀漢 (221-263)