China held the world’s leading position in many fields in the study of nature, from the 1st century before Christ to the 15th century, with the four great inventions having the greatest global significance – papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass. Actually China contributed countless ancient inventions to the world. Ancient Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, silk, paper, and the compass were and still are prominent pieces of Chinese and global life.
1. Paper Making 105 A.C
Paper was first invented in China about 105 A.C. Its use then spread to Chinese Turkestan in central Asia, the Arab world (c. 751 A.D.), Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Spain (c. 1150 A.D.), southern France, and the rest of Europe.
2. Movable Type Printing 960-1279 AD
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a man named Bi Sheng carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay. Each movable type had on it one Chinese character which was carved in relief on a small block of moistened clay. After the block had been hardened by fire, the type became hard and durable and could be used anytime and anywhere. The movable type pieces could be glued to an iron plate and easily detached from the plate. Characters could be assembled to print a page and then broken up and redistributed as needed. When the printing was finished, the pieces could be put away for future use.
3. Gunpowder 1000 A.D
Gunpowder was invented in China c. 1000 A.D. and probably spread to Europe during the Mongol expansion of 1200-1300 A.D., but this has not been proven. The use of gunpowder in Europe was first recorded in 1313. Europeans used gunpowder for cannons, while the Chinese used it primarily for firecrackers. Despite such early knowledge of explosives and their use, China did not pursue the development of weaponry as did the West; ironically, it was through the use of cannons and guns that the Europeans were able to dominate China in the mid-to late-1800s.
4. Compass 1100 A.D.
Historians believe that the Chinese invented the magnetic compass and used it for navigation c. 1100 A.D. Arab traders sailing to China probably learned of the Chinese method of sailing by compass and returned to the West with the invention.
5. Alcohol About 2000 BC－1600 BC
The earliest alcohol makers in Chinese legend were Yi Di and Du Kang of the Xia Dynasty (about 2000 BC－1600 BC). Research shows that ordinary beer, with an alcoholic content of 4% to 5%, was widely consumed in ancient China and was even mentioned on oracle bone inscriptions as offerings to spirits during sacrifices in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC–1046 BC). After that, Chinese discovered that adding more cooked grain in water during fermentation could increase the alcohol content, so stronger drinks began to appear. Around 1000 BC, the Chinese created an alcoholic beverage which was stronger than 11%. The potent libation was mentioned in poetry throughout the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC–256 BC). Meanwhile, no beer in the West reached 11% until the 12th century, when distilled alcohol was first made in Italy.
6. Mechanical Clock 618－907 AD
According to historical research, the world’s first clock was invented by Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk and mathematician of the Tang Dynasty (618－907). Yi’s clock operated with water steadily dripping on a wheel that made a full revolution every 24 hours. As time went on, clocks were made with an iron and bronze system of hooks, pins, locks and rods, but still followed Yi Xing’s clock design. Hundreds of years later, Su Song, an astronomer and mechanist of the Song Dynasty (960－1279), created a more sophisticated clock, making him the ancestor of the modern clock.
7. Tea Production 2,737 BC
According to Chinese legend, tea was first drunk by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong around 2,737 BC. Then, an unknown Chinese inventor created the tea shredder, a small device that used a sharp wheel in the center of a ceramic or wooden pot that would slice the leaves into thin strips. During the Tang (618－907) and Song (960－1279) dynasties, tea production developed rapidly, and tea became a popular drink around the country and the world. Cha Jing, written by Lu Yu in the Tang Dynasty, is widely recognized as the world’s first scientific work about tea production.
8. Silk About 2,100 years ago
Silk was invented by China. As early as 2,100 years ago, the country had mastered the sophisticated technique of silk weaving – aristocrats in the West were willing to pay gold of the same weight for the silks. The road used to transport silk called the Silk Road. Today, China is still the largest producer of silk.
9. Practical Umbrella 386-532 AD
The first practical umbrella, invented in China during the Wei Dynasty (386-532 AD), was designed to protect from both the rain and the sun. Soon thereafter they took on a more symbolic meaning as ceremonial ornaments and momentos of the Emperor’s trust.
10. Acupunture Between the 11th and 2nd century B.C.
The Chinese system of acupuncture became one of the healing options available in the west starting in about the 1970s. Very different from the causal concept of western medicine, the needling aspect of acupuncture may stem from as far back as between the 11th and 2nd century B.C., according to Douglas Allchin:
11. Iron and steel smelting 1050 BC－256 BC
It has been confirmed by archaeological evidence that iron, made from melting pig-iron, was developed in ancient China in the early 5th century BC during the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC－256 BC). During the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC－1046 BC) to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC－256 BC), China went into a flourishing period for steel smelting. In the Han Dynasty (202 BC－220 AD), private-enterprise iron-making was abolished and was monopolized by the state, creating an iron-smelting bloom. The first famous metallurgist in ancient China is Qiwu Huaiwen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386－557 AD), who invented the process of using wrought iron and cast iron to make steel.
12. Porcelain 581 – 618 AD
Porcelain is a very specific kind of ceramic produced by the extreme temperatures of a kiln. The materials fuse and form a glass and mineral compound known for its strength, translucence and beauty. Invented during the Sui Dynasty (but possibly earlier) and perfected during the Tang Dynasty (618-906), most notably by Tao-Yue (c. 608 – c. 676), Chinese porcelain was highly prized throughout the world. The porcelain of Tao-Yue used a ‘white clay’ that was found on the edge of the Yangtze River, where he lived. By the time of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) the art of porcelain had reached its peak. In 1708 the German Physicist Tschirnhausen invented European porcelain, thus ending the Chinese monopoly. The picture above is a teabowl with black glaze and leaf pattern from the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279).
13. Earthquake Detector 132 A D
A seismograph was developed by the brilliant scientist, mathematician, and inventor Chang Heng (whose works also show he envisaged the earth as a sphere with nine continents and introduced the crisscrossing grid of latitude and longitude). His invention was noted in court records of the later Han Dynasty in 132 AD (the fascinating description is too long to reproduce here. It can be found on pgs. 162-166 of Temple’s book). Modern seismographs only began development in 1848.
14. Rocket 228 A D
Ancient Chinese rockets date back to at least the third century. In 228, the Wei State used torches attached to arrows to defend Chencang against the invading forces of the Shu State. By the late 10th century, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) had mastered the art of using gunpowder in its rockets. Paper tubes filled with gunpowder and fitted with blasting fuses were attached to arrows. Later on, the gunpowder was carried directly inside the arrow. These high-speed weapons wreaked terror on the enemy.
15. Bronze 1700 B.C.
The Chinese Bronze Age had begun by 1700 B.C. in the kingdom of the Shang dynasty along the banks of the Yellow River in northern China. The Chinese craft of bronze-casting has endured for nearly four thousand years. Scientists studied and learned the properties of the metal ore that they found in nature. Science revealed the idea and process for mining and smelting the metal. The craft of casting the hot liquid metal was born. Elaborate bronze artifacts date back thousands of years.
16. The Kite About 3, 000 years ago
Chinese inventions ran the gamut from fun to practical. The kite was invented in ancient China around 3,000 years ago and initially had purely utilitarian uses. Over time kite flying developed into a hobby for the Chinese elite and kite flying is now enjoyed worldwide. No one really knows when the first kite was flown, but legend has it that a Chinese farmer tied his hat to a string to keep it from blowing away and as a result, the first kite was created. It is also speculated that kites came to be as a result of observing wind in the sails of Chinese fishing boats. A further speculation is that the first kite was simply a huge leaf with a long string attached.
17. The Seed drill 3500 years ago
The seed drill is a device that plants the seed into the ground. It replaces the farmer to plant the seeds by hand, thus allowing the farmer to plant more acreage. The first seed drill was introduced to Europe in sixteenth century, 3500 years after the Chinese had invented it.
18. Row Crop Farming 6 Century BC
19. Toothbrush 1498 in China
The bristle toothbrush, similar to the type used today, was not invented until 1498 in China. The bristles were actually the stiff, coarse hairs taken from the back of a hog’s neck and attached to handles made of bone or bamboo.
20. Paper Money 9th century AD.
The Chinese invented paper money at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century AD. Its original name was ‘flying money’ because it was so light and could blow out of one’s hand. The first paper money was, strictly speaking, a draft rather than real money. A merchant could deposit his cash in the capital, receiving a paper certificate which he could then exchange for cash in the provinces. This private merchant enterprise was quickly taken over by the government in 812. The technique was then used for the forwarding of local taxes and revenues to the capital. Paper ‘exchange certificates’ were also in use. These were issued by government officials in the capital and were redeemable elsewhere in commodities such as salt and tea.
It is true that the Chinese are responsible for numerous inventions that have helped shape history due to their applicability and convenience. Without the advancements made by the ancient Chinese, technology and culture would have taken countless more centuries to develop to their current stage. Do you know any other influential inventions? Please share with us by adding a comment.