From Mengxi Bitan: Rock Oil

Tan Mengxi

PureInsight | March 17, 2003

[] [Editor's Note: Many people think that contemporary science is so advanced that it has progressed beyond even the imagination of the people of ancient times. But, in reality, the technological achievements of the ancient Chinese people are quite astounding. There are many such examples in Mengxi Bitan [Notes Written at Mengxi], which contains a total of 30 volumes and was written by Shen Kuo (1029-1093). It records scientific discoveries that the ancient Chinese had made in the fields of archaeology, astronomy, biology, geography, geology, climatology, economics, finance, history, linguistics, literature, mathematics, music, painting, pharmacology, physics, among others. In this series, we would like to share with readers some of the scientific discoveries that the ancient Chinese people had made as revealed in Mengxi Bitan].

China was the first country in the world to discover petroleum. The earliest reference to petroleum appeared in the Book of Changes from the Zhou Dynasty (1122 - 256 BC), which stated, "It wells up from underneath the ground and is combustible." The earliest record of where petroleum was found was from the Geographical Record of the Han Dynasty, which stated that "In the region around Gaonu (today's Yanan, Shanxi Province), a liquid is combustible." In Mengxi Bitan, Shen Kuo first coined the term for petroleum that is still used today. He named this kind of black liquid Shi Yu or Rock Oil.

Hundreds of years ago when the people in the west knew nothing about petroleum, the Chinese were already making ink from it. The first written record on the properties and various uses of petroleum appeared in Mengxi Bitan. The following is an excerpt from the book, "Petroleum is produced in the regions of Lu and Yan (today's Shanxi Province and Gansu Province). In the past, it was called 'fat water.' It is normally found in a mixture with water and sand cobbles. The local people use pheasant tail feathers to collect it and then transfer it to a container. It looks like black paint. After it is burned, the residue looks like hemp. It burns with very thick smoke. When applied to curtains, draperies and tents, it dyes them black. Smoke collected from burned petroleum can be used to make ink, which appears as black and shiny as black paint and is even better than the ink made from the smoked pine resin." Shen Guo pioneered the technique of making ink from petroleum instead of burned pine resin. There is a famous ink in China called Yanchuan Petroleum Liquid, which is made using the exact same technique that Shen Guo had pioneered. He also predicted, "This substance will certainly be used widely throughout the world." He also suggested, "Petroleum is very abundant. It is produced beneath the earth in an almost endless supply." Both of these predictions have proven to be true.

Translated from:

Add new comment