The earliest form of the Chinese compass was not used for navigation at sea and didn’t have a needle, but it was rather a magnetic piece of lodestone for land navigation. The text “The Devil Valley Master” mentions a compass in the 4th Century BC. It said, “When the people of Cheng go out to collect jade, they carry a south-pointer with them so as not to lose their way.” It is worth noting that it is a “south-pointer,” which would explain why the Chinese drew the south at the top of their maps.
Also, the compass is mentioned in the “Book of Master Han Fei” from the 3rd Century BC. It said:
“Subjects encroach upon the ruler and infringe his prerogatives like creeping dunes and piled-up shores. This makes the prince forget his position and confuse west and east until he really does not know where he stands. So the ancient kings set up a south-pointer, in order to distinguish between the directions of dawn and sunset.”
Robert Temple then has evidences of the compass on a 2nd, Century Han Dynasty stone relief. Magnetized needles were first used as a pointer on a dial for geomantic purposes According to C.A.S. Williams in his “Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives, “This compass is also called the reticulated plate and consists of a baked clay disk, six or more inches in diameter, with a magnetic compass about one inch in the centre. The disk is covered in yellow lacquer and is inscribed with sixteen or more concentric circles, subdivided by radial divisions, with appropriate lettering. It synthesizes all the accepted Chinese theories as to the cosmic harmonies between the quasi-living energies of nature (see Yin and Yang and Five Elements), time-relation as indicated by the sun and moon and the directions in space from any point on the earth” (82). By using the astrological compass, Feng Shui masters could decide how to arrange buildings, roads, and even cities. This method is still followed when building sky-scrapers in cities like Hong Kong (though there was some commotion over a building that didn’t employ Feng Shui principles). Chao Ta may have been the first to use the astrological compass during the Three Kingdoms Period.
The compass was finally associated with maritime navigation at around 1086, though Daniel Boorstin claims that it occurred in China during the 10th Century (220). In his 1086 book Dream Pool Essays, the medieval Chinese scientist Shen Kua wrote:
“Magicians rub the point of a needle with the lodestone; then it is able to point to the south . . . . It may be balanced on the fingernail, or on the rim of a cup, where it can be made to turn more easily, but these supports being hard and smooth, it is liable to fall off. It is best to suspend it by a single cocoon fibre of new silk attached to the centre of the needle by a piece of was the size of a mustard-seed—then, hanging in a windless place, it will always point to the south. Among such needles there are some which, after being rubbed, point to the north. I have needles of both kinds by me.”
It’s interesting that “Magicians” are the ones who magnetize the needle.
One of the best descriptions details not only the compass but shipping regulations in general. It is from Canton in Chu Yu’s “P’ingchow Table Talk and dates from 1117: He wrote:
“According to the government regulations concerning sea-going ships, the larger ones can carry several hundred men, and the smaller ones may have more than a hundred on board. . . . The ship’s pilots are acquainted with the configurations of the coasts; at night they steer by the stars, and in the day-time by the sun. In dark weather they look at the south-pointing needle. They also use a line a hundred feet long with a hook on the end, which they let down to take samples of mud from the sea-bottom; by its appearance and smell they can determine their whereabouts.”
It’s significant that they used the compass, but it seems that they used it as a last resort, preferring visual methods instead. They probably viewed the “magic” of the needles suspiciously, especially if a “Magician” had to magnetize it first.
Later, this mariner’s compass became a water compass and seems to be the primary method of navigation, which was a small stone bowl filled with water. The needle was attached to a piece of straw or cork and floated in the water and was unaffected (relatively…) by the listing ship. During the infamous Zheng He expedition, they used the water compass and measured time by burning graded incense sticks to navigate (Levathes 93).
Now, the unknown didn’t hinder exploration. Mariners now knew where they were going without recognizing familiar coasts, sea floors, or even smells. Because explorers utilized this invention, I, or European descent, can write to you from the Americas. Thanks Chris for bumping into my continent, and to everybody else who knew what he did
Edited by Publius, 06 November 2006 - 03:57 PM.