Did the Teacup Hinder Chinese Scientific Progress?
Why China never pursued the development of glass
British comedy quiz show, QI (Quite Interesting) on BBC One, once had an episode titled: Tea Cup Changed China's History. In this episode, the host, Stephen Fry, explains how the Chinese teacup prevented China from having a scientific revolution.
The argument presented goes something like this: Since the Chinese invented porcelain teacups early, they saw no need to invent glass to have something to drink from. Europeans in contrast didn't have porcelain, but drank wine rather than tea. Glass is not very well suited for hot tea, but very well suited for temperate red and white wine. With glass, you can see the beautiful color of the wine. Thus, Europeans invented glass for their wine drinking habits. Glass led to lens grinding, which led to spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, beakers, and bottles used in chemistry. In short, glass powered the scientific revolution in Europe and China got left out.
There are several problems with this narrative:
China already had glass in the Warring States period (475 BC to 221 BC)
Wine drinking developed thousands of years before glassmaking in 6000 BC
Glassmaking was not invented in Europe but in Mesopotamia 2500 BC(what is present day Iraq)
How do we know that glass found in China was not imported from Europe and the Middle East? After all, we can find plenty of Roman and Persian glass in Chinese graves. The best evidence is the existence of glass with high contents of barium oxide (BaO) and lead (Pb), which distinguishes it from soda-lime glass made in Europe and the Middle East.
You may think that is the end of the story and Stephen Fry was simply wrong and ignorant? However, it turns out that the story is more complex and interesting. I suspect Stephen Fry was simply being pedagogical and making a simplified story that you can tell to viewers in 2-3 minutes.
To better understand how glassmaking was different in Europe and China, we need to understand what glassmaking is actually about.
What is Glassmaking?
The story of glassmaking has similarities to the story I wrote about the development of gunpowder in China and Europe.
Glass, like gunpowder, was not something that got discovered but something that evolved. The colorless transparent glass we use today did not exist 2500 BC when glass was first made in Mesopotamia. Glassblowingcame thousands of years later:
Glassblowing was invented by Syrian craftsmen in the area of Sidon, Aleppo, Hama, and Palmyra in the 1st century BC, where blown vessels for everyday and luxury use were produced commercially and exported to all parts of the Roman Empire.
Like gunpowder, humans had to experiment with different chemical compositions and techniques to control transparency, color, durability, strength, and cost.
Early evolution of glassmaking
To better understand why glassmaking had a slow evolution in China and a more rapid one in Europe, it helps to understand the beginning. Glassmaking evolved thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. From these old civilizations, glassmaking spread to the Phoenicians (Lebanon). That was an important event because the Phoenicians were seafaring people who traveled all over the Mediterranean. That meant glassmaking soon spread to Cyprus and Greece. By the 9th century BC, glassmaking had come to the Italian peninsula.
In this way, glassmaking came to the Romans. With the decline of Rome, glassmaking also declined. However, glassmaking skills continued to evolve in the Byzantine Empire (Eastern part of the old Roman Empire), where stained glass windows got introduced in the 12th century.
What is the takeaway from these historical developments? Technology tends to spread to adjacent areas or areas for which efficient communications exist. The Mediterranean worked as a superhighway to all land adjacent to it. Until the invention of railroad, water-based travel by far the most efficient and economical.
No such strong connection existed with China. While Romans and Chinese traded glass and silk with each other, that only happened through numerous middlemen along the Silk Road. Roman and Chinese knowledge and interaction with each other was very limited. The Chinese made attempts to visit Rome, but never made it. However, ancient Chinese historians recorded several alleged Roman emissaries to China.
Thus, while the Chinese knew about glass through trade, there was no good way of technological diffusion.
Why Glassmaking Evolved in Europe, But Not in China
Glassmaking was off to a good start in Europe due to the early diffusion of advanced glassmaking technologies from the Middle East. China got a late start. Chinese glassmaking likely evolved as an attempt to imitate glass imported from Europe and the Middle East. Archeologists find few sites of glassmaking in China. The glass made is primarily simply glass beads, which don't require glassblowing. I believe they have found a glass vessel, but there is no archeological record of bottles, cups, stained-glass, chandeliers, vases or glass lanterns made in China.
So, China was aware of glass, but it never really took off? Why the major divergent development between Europe and China? I believe the two Chinese technologies utterly missing Europe were responsible:
Paper – Traditionally made from milled plant and textile fibers
When glassmaking was rapidly evolving in Europe and the Middle East, China was developing porcelain and paper. Paper and porcelain were both described during the Han dynasty (25–220 AD). Like glass, porcelain went through a long process of refinement that actually began all the way back in the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC).
Porcelain filled many of the same roles as glass in Europe. The Chinese used it to make cups, vases, plates, and flasks. In Europe glass was used in windows and lanterns, but the Chinese used paper for this purpose. You have probably seen the beautiful red Chinese paper lanterns. Paper soaked in oil becomes nearly transparent and can be used as windows.
Divergent evolution happens when you have competing technologies. For instance, what few people know is that iron was known through most of the Bronze Age. People didn't suddenly discover that they could make iron, and then they ditched bronze. Iron was known, but the quality of iron tools and weapons were poor. Bronze tools and weapons were actually stronger, shaper and cheaper than early iron equivalents. For this reason, nobody bothered to put significant effort into improving iron making. After all, they had a superior metal alloy: Bronze.
The Chinese may have thought much the same about glass. Why spend all this effort to improve glassmaking when we already got a superior alternative called porcelain?
What made the Iron Age happen then? Bronze has an Achilles heel: It is an alloy made up of two metals, copper and tin, which are never in the same location. Bronze production relied on extensive trade networks. When the large sophisticated bronze civilizations collapsed, their extensive trade networks collapsed with them and thus the ability to make bronze. Thus, metalworkers were forced to work with iron, no matter how inferior they thought it was.
There are many examples of this in history. Why were the Japanese the first to build a large electronics industry based on the transistor, despite the Americans inventing it? Because the US already had a large vacuum tube industry. The vacuum tube was like the bronze of the electronics industry. The transistor was like the iron. Despite having far more promise, it was at an early stage. However, that mattered little to the Japanese, which lacked a sophisticated vacuum tube industry.
As a Norwegian living in the US in the early 2000s, in notice a similar thing with credit cards and cheques. Despite Americans inventing the credit card, they were far more widely used in my native Norway. Why? Because the US had cheques even earlier, which were well established. The cheques were the American bronze. Cheques came late to Norway and didn't manage to establish themselves, fore credit cards arrived and pushed them out.
I believe the highly developed nature of porcelain and paper in China prevented the far more primitive glass technology from evolving. In Europe because glass had a head start it was more natural for Europeans to focus their attention on improving glass technology.
A kickstart for the evolution of glass in Europe was when crusaders sacked Byzantine in 1204 and the later capture in 1453 by the Ottomans. Another contributing factor was the siege of Damascus in 1400 by Tamerlane. All these events caused an exodus of glassworkers to Venice. These events were the start of Venice as the glassmaking capital of the world.
Venice had several instances with fires starting at glasshouses. To safeguard the city, the authorities ordered all glasshouses to be moved to the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon in 1291. Accidentally, they created a Silicon Valley moment. With all the glassmakers concentrated in one place, there were a lot of synergy effects. They learned from each other, and the Venetian skills in glassmaking rapidly evolved. The Murano glassblowers created complex chandeliers for the palaces of the rich. Venice was one of the first cities to get streetlights from glass lanterns.
While glass existed in China, it never managed to work itself into the culture the way glass did in Europe. Cathedrals, city halls and the homes of the rich all used stained-glass from medieval times.
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