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Pre-modern technology in the Asia-Pacific region

[This article does not claim superiority of Asian peoples over European peoples or other peoples. Nor does it aim to discount the achievements of non-Asians. Its purpose is to highlight some lesser-known achievements of the people of continental Asia and the Pacific region.]

A man of South Asian descent once wrote to a newspaper, commenting: "It is true that civilization and technology came from the West." ("West" meaning Europe/Euro-America) Such a statement is grossly inaccurate, but hardly surprising in this day and age when the achievements of Europeans are taught to the world while the innovations of other races are conveniently forgotten.

It is ironic that an Asian man made this statement, considering that South Asia is home to civilizations older and grander than those of Western Europe. But his response is hardly surprising - many 'educated' Asians know more about the history of Europe than they do about the history of Asia and the Pacific.

Since ancient times, Asians enjoyed the conveniences of technology in many endeavors. They also preceded Europeans in various technological breakthroughs. This article presents a tiny sample of Asian firsts in science and technology:

Urban planning, architecture and water control

South Asian urban planning and sewage systems are the world's first known

The pre-Aryan Harappan civilization of India produced the city of Mohenjo-Daro. (dated between 3000 and 2500 BC) It was destroyed by the Aryans in about 1500 B.C. The ruins still stand today. The city was build in a gridlike fashion with a large main street. It would take Romans another few thousand years to reach a similar level of city planning and another thousand years would pass before municipal planning was seen on the earth again. Harappan homes were two or more stories high; each home had bathrooms with drains which carried waste to sewers under the main streets. Each household also had a rubbish chute which channeled trash into small tunnels which emptied into a covered central sewage system. Even other contemporary high civilizations of Egypt and Sumer failed to achieve the same standards of living. 1

Cambodians built world's largest stone monument

Angkor Wat, built by the Khmers of Kampuchea in the 12th century, is called "the largest stone monument in the world."2

Southeast Asian water control systems precede Venice

The Southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, (3rd to 6th centuries AD) located in modern southern Cambodia and Vietnam, used an elaborate network of waterworks and canals designed to control annual flooding and encroachment by the sea. This precedes the famed canals of Venice by centuries.3 By the 6th century, the neighboring Khmer kingdom of Chenla had a hydraulic system with 40 mile long canals . In the late 9th century, the Khmers constructed the vast artificial lake Indratataka.4

Book technology

One of China's most widely-used contributions to the world is the invention of paper. Chinese paper-making techniques transformed book-making in the Arab world during the Abbassid/Tang era. The Arabs then transmitted the technology to Europe, which benefited greatly from the use of paper.

Korea invented the world's first movable printing metal type, which Koreans had been using at least by 1234 and possibly earlier. This preceeded the European Gutenberg's printing press by at least two centuries. Wooden printing block technology was first introduced from China to Korea in 991 AD.

Military and weapons technology

In 1592, the Korean admiral Yi Soon Sin invented the Turtle Boat, the world's first ironclad warship. Arabs invented the first gun in 1304.5 And the Chinese invented gunpowder. For more on the history of gunpowder invention in China, see Xinhuanet - Clue found to uncover mystery of gunpowder invention.

Scientific and mathematical standards

Chinese found Pi first

The ancient Chinese calculated pi to 5 decimal places, exceeding the Greek record of 3 decimal places.

Arabs knew earth was round before Europeans did

Abbasid (Baghdad-based Muslim empire from 8th-13th century) astronomers accurately measured the circumference and dimensions of the earth 800 years before Europe realized the earth was not flat.6

Arab medical science sets standards for Europe

The Arab world also set the standards for medical training for Europe to emulate. 9th century medical school students in Baghdad had to pass a final exam after a four year course before being allowed to practice. Arabic textbooks on medicine and ophthalmology were standard works in European universities until the 16th century.7

Naval technology

Chinese naval technology advancements precede Europeans

Writings from the Chinese 3 Kingdoms Period (221-265 CE) record 4-masted and even 7-masted ships being used by the Chinese of Canton and Annam. A naval architect Yang Su was already building long-haul vessels with as many as five decks and measuring more than 100 feet by about 600 CE.8 Christopher Columbus's 15th century ship would only have 3 masts.

Chinese Tang (618-907 CE) sailors could sail into the wind with taut mat-sails that could go round the masts like a door on its hinges, enabling ships to bear windward. This was beyond the reach of Mediterranean sailors for a long time thereafter.9

Aboriginal Australians were once world leaders in technology

When European immigrants came across native Australians using Stone Age technology during the modern era, they came to the conclusion that the Aborigines were an inferior race, and perhaps even the missing link between humans and apes. But does the technology gap between Europeans and Australians reflect European genetic superiority? National Medal of Science awardee Jared Diamond does not believe so. He wrote:

.. as of 40,000 years ago, Native Australian societies enjoyed a big head start over societies of Europe and other continents. Native Australians developed some of the earliest known stone tools with ground edges, the earliest hafted stone tools (that is, stone ax heads mounted on handles), and by far the earliest watercraft, in the world.10

If technology advancements were indeed related to genetic advantage, then Australian Aborigines were certainly superior to Europeans. How, then, did the order of technology ascendency amongst the different continents change over the centuries? Professor Diamond gives a brilliant explanation of how this occured in his book Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies.

This article carries only a few examples of Asian achievements in old times. It is important to point out how Asian standards of living have exceeded those in Europe to dispel the myth of the "superior European civilization". People's innovations are the products of their environments. Africans, Asians, Australians and Europeans have adapted to unique conditions on their continents.

  1. Wayne B. Chandler, "The Ethiopian Presence in the Indus Valley Civilization", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, pp. 91-92
  2. New Scientist, 14 Oct 1989, p. 52
  3. Runoko Rashidi, "Africans in Early Asian Civilizations: An Overview", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 51
  4. Runoko Rashidi, "The Black Presence in Classical Southeast Asian Civilizations", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 332
  5. Richard Poe, Black Spark White Fire, p. 357
  6. Wayne B. Chandler, "Ebony and Bronze: Race and Ethnicity in Early Arabia and the Islamic Work of Asia", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 300
  7. Wayne B. Chandler, "Ebony and Bronze: Race and Ethnicity in Early Arabia and the Islamic Work of Asia", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 300
  8. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, p. 183
  9. Davidson, p. 184
  10. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 297