Song Yingxing — Great Scientist, and the Writer of Tiangong Kaiwu

Song Yingxing (1587 — 1666), courtesy name Changgeng, was a great scientist and a loyal official of the late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644). 

He was a loyal official, and a brilliant scholar who wrote Tiangong Kaiwu, a great technological encyclopedia.  

However, with the fall of the Ming Empire, everything changed.

He and his brother’s life experiences were representatives of those talented and loyal people living at the end of the empire. 

Part of Painting "Prosperous City Nanjing of the Ming Dynasty"  (Nan Du Fan Hui Tu), By Artist Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — National Museum of China

Song Yingxing's Happy Life in His Early Years

Song Yingxing was born into an ordinary family and had a happy childhood.

He and his brother went to school together; they were both very smart kids and highly appreciated by their teachers.

Then, they participated in the Imperial Examination of their province, Song won third place while his brother won the sixth.

They were very happy and participated in the National Imperial Examination for several times, but they all failed. 

Therefore, Song Yingxing and his brother decided to take political positions that the government assigned them, which were based on their scores in the province’s examination.

Jade Tablet Carved with Exquisite Landscape Patterns of the Ming Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Scientist Song and His Masterpiece Tiangong Kaiwu

Song Yingxing worked as a teacher for four years, when most of his important books were written in this peaceful period, including Tiangong Kaiwu.

This book documented over 130 detailed agricultural and manufacturing technologies, most of the contents were first-hand information and combined with explicit illustrations, including paper-making, gunpowder weapons, coal mining, metallurgy, mechanisms, etc. 

The name of the book means humans using specific technology to exploit the wealth of nature, which was also the fundamental philosophy and purpose of his works.

After one of his friends supported him published the first edition, this masterpiece became popular.

Later, he and his brother both got promoted because of their good performances.

Illustrations of Paper Making Procedure in Tiangong Kaiwu, GIF Provided by Morning2k.

Fall of the Ming Empire and Song Yingxing's Broken Family

In the year 1644, Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide, and the Ming Dynasty was ended.

Song Yingxing and his brother quitted their jobs and came back to their hometown.

Soon, another king from Ming’s royal clan organized another Ming Empire in southern China, Song Yingxing and his brother both planned to move southward to serve this new empire.

However, their province was occupied by the Manchu army of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) soon. 

When the Manchu army marched into their city, his brother Song Yingsheng committed suicide.

Song Yingxing escaped away and refused to serve the new empire, and lived in seclusion and poverty till he passed away.

In his late years, he wrote many other articles and poems, and a biography of his brother.

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Those Buried, Ruined Masterpieces 

Decades later, Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799) commanded to compile the Siku Quanshu (Complete Book Collection in Four Sections), which includes approximately 800 million Chinese characters.

The ruling class, then found that Song Yingxing and his brother were loyal to the Ming Empire and had written many articles that were disrespectful to the Qing Dynasty, so they destroyed and banned all of their works.

Together with many other exceptional masterpieces, their books and glorious ideas were all burnt into dust.

However, Song Yingxing's Tiangong Kaiwu was spread and well preserved in Japan and some other countries.

Until the Qing Dynasty was ended three hundred years later, this remarkable technical encyclopedia spread back to China,  when people finally got to know this great scientist. 

His other articles, however, were unfortunately buried in the dark forever.

Song Yingxing finished most of his great books only within the first four years when he was working as a teacher; soon the chaos, wars, and perishing of the Ming Dynasty made him stopped his scientific researches.

No one could know what else he would have achieved if the society was stable, or the transition of dynasties was not that cruel. 

Auspicious Animal (Lu Duan) Shaped Censer of the Ming Dynasty — Guangdong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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