Technology Eastward—A steampunk exploration
The Industrial Revolution (And How It Ruined My Sci-Fi)
(props if you get the song reference)
One of the big differences between neo-Victorian and steampunk is the level of technology incorporated in the aesthetic. Steampunk’s historical literary origins include both Victorian pulp fiction tropes and glorification of the Edisonade, the young inventor and his machinery. Perhaps, then, this is why steampunk, since its conception, has always been associated with Victorian England, and, by extension, the West: because of the apparent dearth of non-Western technological advancement. This advancement, of course, associated with the two Industrial Revolutions. (Note: There isn’t only *one* Industrial Revolution, but two historical periods of industrialization that came one after the other. The first Industrial Revolution occurred primarily in England starting as early at 1730—the dates are still up for debate—and lasting until 1850, and the Second Industrial Revolution emerged from that and lasted from 1850 through the 19th century and until the early 20th, spreading through Europe and the United States. The term “industrial revolution” itself is not limited to those historical periods either, but is a term that can be applied to any country going though industrialization. Later the 20th century, for instance, China and India went through their own industrial revolutions, and developing countries are going through their own as we speak.)
The issue isn’t the fact that these Industrial Revolutions had occurred; I’m not debating the reasons how or why modern technology developed first in the West (both questions however, have been interesting matters of academic scholarship in technology transference, history, and economics).
The issue I’m interested in exploring is the two-pronged legacy that these Industrial Revolutions created–and its effect on how we conceptualize technology in steampunk:
1) Historically, the Industrial Revolution started in Europe and spread throughout the world through Western expansion. This resulted in the spread of these technologies in the lands under European influence/dominance—which, in some cases, lead to the destruction of indigenous technology in favor of Western forms. On the other hand, however, industrialization also instigated the cross-fertilization of non-Western technology with Western tech. And, of course, this technological transference isn’t something that happened exclusively during this period of time or was exclusively one-way stemming from Europe, but had been evident throughout the history of technology between various parts of the globe.
2) Culturally, because it had come from the West under the auspices of European superiority (white man’s burden) the effects of industrialization contributed to the notion held by Westerners at the time that non-Western civilizations had to be taught how to be civilized. Moreover, it implanted the idea that Westernization equals industrialization—one that lingers on today.
That, in turn, effects how artists and writers conceptualize alternative historical civilizations and their technology. Because most writers have been introduced to tech and their trappings from a perspective of Western dominance, imaginative tech implies a Eurocentric feeling, or else they are not “legitimate” technology. And—at least for Western artists and their audiences—it is challenging to conceptualize possibilities when all of the most prominent historical examples are from the West, which contributes to the invisibility of non-European cultures in the spheres of sci-fi (and steampunk!)
So let’s spin the dial back from West to East and, in this post, start off with tech examples from China (in later posts tech from other parts of the world will be covered too). Because not only did it exist, but many iconic symbols of steampunk technology actually have their roots in the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese tech (some relevant examples for steampunks)
The first example to come to mind would be the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese, first documented in the mid-800s.
Ming dynasty-era rifles (1368 – 1644 CE)
hand cannon used during the Yan dynasty (1271-1368 CE)
Clockworks and gears oh my! – The world’s first “cuckoo” clock.
The first astronomical clock was invented by several scientists lead by Su Song during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Standing twelve meters high and seven meters wide, this wooden clock has a square shape and incorporates 3 working levels and 133 clock jack figurines all situated around a rotating wheel. Days, hours and special events were banged, gonged, or dinged on various components of the machine and ran via water power.
A scale model of the clock
Riding South on a Chariot – Ma Jun’s Mechanical Compass
Chinese have records of using the magnetic compass dating back to the early 4th century BCE, but Ma Jun figured out how to create a mechanical compass during China’s Three Kingdom’s era:
From Wikipedia entry on Ma Jun:
“While serving the Wei court, Ma Jun got into a dispute with the Permanent Counsellor Caotang Long and the Cavalry General Qin Lang at court over the concept of the south-pointing carriage, or the South Pointing Chariot. The minister and the general mocked Ma Jun for his belief in historical texts that the South Pointing Chariot had actually been invented in the past (as the legend goes, by the Yellow Emperor), something they viewed as nonsensical, non-historical myth. Ma Jun retorted against them, saying “Empty arguments with words cannot (in any way) compare with a test which will show practical results”. After being instructed to craft such a device, Ma Jun completed his fully-functional design of the South Pointing Chariot in the year 255 AD. In China the directional South Pointing Chariot was re-invented a second time by Zu Chongzhi (429-500 AD) due to the original detailed instructions being lost.”
Ma Jun’s South Pointing Chariot
In constructing this machine, Ma Jun created the first historical record of differential gear mechanism, a basic gear-power function seen in cars and other machinery today.
Before Zepplins and DaVinci’s flying machines—there were Kongming Lanterns
The Kongming Lantern is said to be invented by military strategist Zhuge Liang in the 3rd century as spy blimps against the enemy. Today, these floating lanterns are used to festival celebrations throughout east Asia, including the Chinese Mid-Autumn and Lantern festivals, Taiwan’s Pingsi festival, and Thailand’s Loi Kratong festival.
Industrious weaves—the horizontal loom:
Giant mills where hundreds of young women slaved over huge, clanking looms is one of the iconic images from the Industrial Revolution—but who invented the loom?
Chinese legend names Goddess of Silk to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC, as the inventor of the loom and silk worm husbandry. China has been recorded to have produced silk since 2640 BCE. This technology spread West, of course, with the development of the power loom by Edmund Cartwright.
And, to end, James Ng’s artistic vision of technology if the first and second Industrial Revolutions took place in the East, as he explains in this interview on Tor.com:
Hope you enjoyed reading!
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