Technological Advancements under the Song

Learning Objective

  • Identify some of the technological advancements made under the Song

Key Points

  • Notable advances in civil engineering, nautics, and metallurgy were made in Song China.
  • Advances in moveable type made the printing of texts easier and faster, thereby making the dissemination of ideas and learning more widespread.
  • The application of new weapons using gunpowder enabled the Song to ward off its militant enemies.
  • In Song China, topographical elevation, a formal rectangular grid system, and use of a standard graduated scale of distances were applied to terrain maps.



The study and practice of making maps.


The branch of science and technology concerned with the properties of metals and their production and purification.


The Song dynasty provided some of the most significant technological advances in Chinese history, many of which came from talented statesmen drafted by the government through imperial examinations.

The ingenuity of advanced mechanical engineering has a long tradition in China. The Song engineer Su Song admitted that he and his contemporaries were building upon the achievements of the ancients such as Zhang Heng (78–139), an astronomer, inventor, and early master of mechanical gears. The application of movable type printing advanced the already widespread use of woodblock printing to educate and amuse Confucian students and the masses. The application of new weapons using gunpowder enabled the Song to ward off its militant enemies—the Liao, Western Xia, and Jin—with weapons such as cannons until its collapse to the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan in the late 13th century.

Notable advances in civil engineering, nautics, and metallurgy were made in Song China, and the windmill was introduced in China during the 13th century. These advances, along with the introduction of paper-printed money, helped revolutionize and sustain the economy of the Song dynasty.

Gunpowder and New Weaponry

Advancements in weapons technology enhanced by gunpowder, including the evolution of the early flamethrower, explosive grenade, firearm, cannon, and land mine, enabled the Song Chinese to ward off their militant enemies until the Song’s ultimate collapse in the late 13th century. The Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044 was the first book in history to provide formulas for gunpowder and their specified use in different types of bombs. While engaged in a war with the Mongols, in 1259 the official Li Zengbo wrote in his Kezhai Zagao, Xugaohou that the city of Qingzhou was manufacturing one- to two-thousand strong iron-cased bomb shells a month, dispatching to Xiangyang and Yingzhou about ten- to twenty-thousand such bombs at a time. In turn, the invading Mongols employed northern Chinese soldiers and used this same type of gunpowder weapons against the Song. By the 14th century the firearm and cannon could also be found in Europe, India, and the Islamic Middle East, during the early age of gunpowder warfare.


Trebuchet. An illustration of a trebuchet catapult from the Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044. Trebuchets like this were used to launch the earliest type of explosive bombs.

Advances in Navigation

As early as the Han dynasty, when the state needed to effectively measure distances traveled throughout the empire, the Chinese relied on the mechanical odometer device. The Chinese odometer came in the form of a wheeled-carriage, its inner gears functioning off the rotated motion of the wheels, and specific units of distance—the Chinese li—marked by the mechanical striking of a drum or bell for auditory alarm. The specifications for the 11th century odometer were written by Chief Chamberlain Lu Daolong, who is quoted extensively in the historical text of the Song Shi (compiled by 1345). In the Song period, the odometer vehicle was also combined with another old complex mechanical device known as the south-pointing chariot. This device, originally crafted by Ma Jun in the 3rd century, incorporated a differential gear that allowed a figure mounted on the vehicle to always point south, no matter how the vehicle’s wheels turned about. The device concept of the differential gear for this navigational vehicle is now found in modern automobiles in order to apply the equal amount of torque to wheels rotating at different speeds.

Mathematics and Cartography

There were many notable improvements to Chinese mathematics during the Song era. Mathematician Yang Hui’s 1261 book provided the earliest Chinese illustration of Pascal’s triangle, although it had earlier been described by Jia Xian in around 1100. Yang Hui also provided rules for constructing combinatorial arrangements in magic squares, provided theoretical proof for Euclid’s forty-third proposition about parallelograms, and was the first to use negative coefficients of “x” in quadratic equations. Yang’s contemporary Qin Jiushao (c. 1202–1261) was the first to introduce the zero symbol into Chinese mathematics; before this blank spaces were used instead of zeroes in the system of counting rods.

Geometry was essential to surveying and cartography. The earliest extant Chinese maps date to the 4th century BCE, yet it was not until the time of Pei Xiu (224–271) that topographical elevation, a formal rectangular grid system, and use of a standard graduated scale of distances were applied to terrain maps. Following a long tradition, Shen Kuo created a raised-relief map, while his other maps featured a uniform graduated scale of 1:900,000. A 3-ft squared map of 1137—carved into a stone block—followed a uniform grid scale of 100 li for each gridded square, and accurately mapped the outline of the coasts and river systems of China, extending all the way to India. Furthermore, the world’s oldest known terrain map in printed form comes from the edited encyclopedia of Yang Jia in 1155, which displays western China without the formal grid system that was characteristic of more professionally made Chinese maps.

Moveable Type Printing

The innovation of movable type printing was made by the artisan Bi Sheng (990–1051), first described by the scientist and statesman Shen Kuo in his Dream Pool Essays of 1088. Movable type enhanced the already widespread use of woodblock methods of printing thousands of documents and volumes of written literature, which were then consumed eagerly by an increasingly literate public. The advancement of printing deeply affected education and the scholar-official class; since more books could be made faster, printed books were cheaper than laboriously handwritten copies. The enhancement of widespread printing and print culture in the Song period was thus a direct catalyst in the rise of social mobility and expansion of the educated class of scholar elites, the latter of which expanded dramatically in size from the 11th to 13th centuries.


Woodblock printing. The Bencao on traditional Chinese medicine; printed with woodblock in 1249, Song dynasty.