The power of iron: China's other pillar of strength

Chinese people probably weren't the first to discover that iron was a cheaper and more effective metal than bronze for making tools and weapons. The Hittites of central Turkey are known to have mastered the technique of smelting iron ore and were hammering on the first blacksmiths' anvils by about 1400BCE, which is when the European and Mediterranean Iron Age is said to begin. The iron they first used probably came from meteorites.

But Chinese metal-smiths, from the region of Wu on the banks of the Yangtze, were the first to work out how best to harness iron found inside the ores of the Earth's rocks. The manufacturing techniques they developed for casting iron were so advanced that they weren't matched in Europe for another 1,500 years.

Iron is a natural gift of the earth that is almost as essential to the development of modern human civilisations as oxygen is to animal life. Iron is by far the most common metal in use today – about 95 per cent of all metals used today are based on it. Without it, modern civilisation would be very different indeed. Iron and steel, its derivative, are the materials of choice for making everything from cars to ships, pipes to forks, and computer disk drives to guns and skyscrapers.

Unlike copper, though, iron is not found in a pure form. Other elements like to react with it – for example, oxygen – making compounds such as a red iron oxide. To get the iron out requires effort and a little know-how, something the Chinese had attained by about 500BCE which is when they built the world's first blast furnace.

When iron ores are heated to about 1,450C a molten liquid is formed. It can then be poured into moulds to make implements of any shape and size. As it cools, the metal becomes strong and rigid. The first iron implements were almost all used in agriculture. Iron ploughs were a magical technological leap forward because they could cut through the hardest of clay soils, turning huge areas of land from scrubby waste into high-yielding fields of rice. The more food, the more people could be fed. This in turn meant a government could become strong by creating well-nourished, easily supplied, permanent standing armies.

Knowledge of how to smelt iron spread rapidly to the north. By the time of the Hà*Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), Chinese metalworking had become established on a scale that was not reached in the West until the 18th century. The Chinese government built a series of large blast furnaces in Henan Province, each one capable of producing several tons of iron a day.

While iron and rice were initially the preserve of the southern Chinese people, those from the silk-weaving north were determined not to be left behind. These were the people who provided the initial impetus to centralise, consolidate, conquer and combine the whole area into a single civilisation. For rice, silk and iron, read: food, wealth and war. It is not hard to see why such deep knowledge of how to exploit the natural world to human advantage became a magnet around which a single, powerful civilisation eventually arose, uniting the people of the two great river valleys.

The Shang Dynasty (1766BCE-1050BCE) were the first Chinese rulers to leave tangible archaeological traces in their wake. Archaeologists excavating a site called Yin in the 1920s uncovered 11 royal tombs and the foundations of a palace. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade and stone artefacts were found. They show that this was a highly advanced culture with a fully developed system of writing, ritual practices and impressive armaments that helped its people conquer and rule lands for miles around. Human sacrifice was common. Many members of the Shang royal family were buried with a complete household of servants, including chariots, horses and charioteers – all thought essential for protection in the afterlife.

Defence against enemies wasn't the only concern of these early Chinese kings of the north. Just as important was the strongly held belief that kings alone provided a critical link between the gods and mankind. Unlike any other rulers we have seen so far, Chinese kings took it upon themselves to perform detailed and highly technical fortune-telling rituals.

This was done in a most bizarre and ingenious way, using turtle shells or the bones of an ox. A heated rod would be pushed into the shell or bone, causing it to crack. Like a modern-day palm reader, the king would interpret the length and direction of the lines to reveal the answers to questions which were important to him and his people. When will it rain? Will we win the next battle? Will we have a bumper harvest this year?

Sometimes these questions would be inscribed on the shells, using a form of symbolic writing that has been easy for modern historians to decipher since they resemble modern Chinese writing so closely. This in itself is testament to how today's China has its roots sunk deep in the past and to the fact that its culture represents by far the longest surviving pattern of continuous civilised human behaviour.

Hundreds of thousands of oracle bones with ancient writing on them have been found in recent times. Most oracle bones have now been traced back to the tombs at Yin, where more than 20,000 were found during the excavations of the 1920s and 1930s. They form the earliest significant body of Chinese writing yet to have been discovered.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
i100
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model of a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution