Since the dawn of civilization, humans used technology to improve their lives and to strengthen and/or beautify their empires. In sense of practicality, Egyptians, for example, used technology to build aqueducts to help supply their crops and quench the thirst of their citizens. The Greeks used technology in their architectural styles as well, building temples such as the Parthenon and Temple of Hephaestus to honor the gods and exhibit their use of innovation through engineering. With technology, the views on it can differ, especially on opposite sides of the world.
Yet, these perspectives can also agree with one another. The Han and Romans were similar in that they both used technology for water regulation and for practical use. However, their attitudes differed in that the Han was more focused on practicality, while the Romans focused equally on the functional and aesthetic parts of technology.
The Han and Romans were similar in that they both used technology to aid with water regulation.
In this anonymous Han government official’s excerpt to local officials, they express concern for water conservation of China’s districts, noting that each office should be manned with experienced deputies, officials, and staff to oversee the waterways. The government official’s purpose in writing this might be because he wants to persuade his target audience, the local officials, to take heed of this advice to not only improve efficiency of the water plants in China, but to also prevent flooding of the districts (due to lack of proper care of the water plants).
Han China’s use of technology in water conservation is similar to the Roman’s use technology to provide water for their city, Rome, by using innovative aqueducts. In Frontius’s, a Roman general, governor of Britain, and water commissioner of Rome, account of the city’s aqueducts, he describes their functions, mentioning how the aqueducts purify and measure the water before usage. He also remarks how their distribution efforts leave a surplus of water behind. The purpose of Frontius’s descriptions of the aqueducts might be because he wants to show his ‘superiors,’ the Roman government, that his efforts in providing water are beneficial to Rome. Because of technology’s role in water conservation and distribution in both the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire, they helped strengthen each of them by providing and conserving water for the public, showing care for the wellbeing of its citizens.
Another way the Han and Romans were similar was that they both used technology for practical needs. In an unknown author’s government-sponsored history book, History of the Early Han Dynasty, it describes the invention of Tu Shih, a water-powered blowing engine intended for iron casting of agricultural equipment. In this work, his creation to save labor time for his people and initiate better efficiency for farming. The unknown author’s purpose in writing this might be because he was ordered to portray Tu Shih as the “people’s emperor,” as the writing paints him only in a positive light and is government-sponsored, meaning this work wasn’t freely written; it was curated under the watch and requirements of the Han government. Another example of Han innovation for practicality would be their invention of paper. Cai Lun, a Han eunuch, politician, and inventor formulated paper and the paper-making process in 105 CE. His invention of paper resulted in a more efficient and affordable way to write, allowing Han China to grow as a civilization, as it also promoted literature and literacy within the region. The Han’s use of technology for iron casting and (ultimately) agricultural use is similar to the Roman’s creation of roads for transportation. In this modern picture by BBC, it displays a second century CE Roman road from modern-day Manchester (Mamucium) to York (Eboracum), Britain. The picture also notes that this road was part of a system of roads in Britain, equating to about 2,000 miles in total. The photographer’s purpose in capturing this might have been because they want to show the Romans used these roads to not only transport goods, but to diffuse ideas as well. With different ideas spreading throughout the Roman Empire, they were able to grow intellectually and culturally. Because of their use of innovation in a practical sense, the Han and Romans were able to grow their empires as a result of their efficient technology.
One difference in Han and Roman attitudes towards technology was the Romans turned their attention to both the aesthetic and usefulness of their innovations, while the Han primarily focused on functionality of technology. In Plutarch’s description of Gaius Gracchus, a second century BCE Roman political leader, he mentions Gracchus being anxious about road building, worried about both the utility and the grace and beauty of it. With attentive eyes, Gracchus oversaw every detail of each road, making sure the beauty of each road matched its functionality. As a Greek-born Roman citizen and high official, Plutarch’s purpose in writing about Gracchus might be because he wants to show how there’s an equilibrium between aesthetic and functionality, emphasizing how Gracchus wanted to portray the roads as both functional and beautiful; not limiting them to one characteristic. Gracchus’ approach to technology in a practical and graceful sense somewhat similar to Han China’s approach to technology. In Huan Tan’s book New Discourses, he writes about the ‘timeline’ of the mortar and pestle and how continuous improvements on it resulted in better functionality.
As a upper-class Han philosopher, Tan’s purpose in writing this might be because he wants to encourage his target audience, the Han court, to continue their emphasis on practicality, rather than aesthetics, to further the efficiency of their civilization. Although Han China seems to not include “grace and beauty” into their inventions like Gracchus, the Han’s “grace and beauty” doesn’t involve the physical aspect; the elegance of their inventions lies in the efficiency and functionality of their works. This supportive attitude of efficient technology in Han China differs from that of Cicero, who conveys his distaste for innovation. Cicero, an upper-class Roman political leader, expresses his disgust towards practical technology in his work, On Duty. In his words, Cicero believes the practice of creating functional technology is degrading and vulgar. Cicero’s purpose in writing this might be because he wants to convince his audience, the Roman government, to discourage useful innovation. As a upper-class Roman politician, Cicero might discourage practicality in favor of aesthetic innovation, as he [possibly] believes creating with artistic taste will help the Roman Empire in the long run.
In conclusion, two similarities between the Han and Roman attitudes towards technology are they both use it for water conservation and for practical use. One difference is that the Han focused primarily on the practicality of their technology, while the Romans attended to both usefulness and aesthetics.