Chinese Inventions That Changed The World

Not just “The Great Wall of China” or its silks and satin and for the scrumptious cuisine, China is also known for its contribution to the world with inventions and discoveries which continue to influence our world today as they did at their inception.

If you’ve read a book or newspaper, flown a kite, regained your sense of direction by using a compass, enjoyed a fireworks display, worn a soft silk shirt or eaten spaghetti, you’ve encountered just a few amazing Chinese inventions. Below are a few inventions worth mentioning;

  • Abacus (算盘 – Suànpán)

Although it is unknown precisely who invented the abacus, the device was developed in China around 3000 B.C. Each bead has a specific value. Reading from right to left, the beads in the first column are worth 1, in the second column the beads are worth 10, in the third column the beads are worth 100, and so on. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are performed by moving the appropriate beads to the middle of the abacus. It is highly compact and easy to use and forms the basis for modern calculators and computers.

Abacus_2

  • Compass (指南针 – Zhǐnánzhēn)

Before the compass was invented, travel by ships over long distances was not possible, because sailors had to navigate using the stars, a feat which was impossible during the day (and even on cloudy nights). Some exceptionally skilled navigators, such as the Polynesians, were able to get around these difficulties. Chinese solved these navigation problems by inventing the first compass sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries.

This early version of today’s compass came in the form of a two-part instrument, the first one a metal spoon made of magnetic loadstone, the second one a square bronze plate, which featured, in Chinese characters, the main directions of North, South, East, West.

Beijing, China --- Ancient Chinese Compass --- Image by © Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

Beijing, China — Ancient Chinese Compass — Image by © Yi Lu/Viewstock/Corbis

  • Gunpowder and fireworks (火药和烟花 – Huǒyào hé yānhuā)

Alchemists of ancient China created the first gunpowder after discovering the quick ignition of sulfur and niter. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, this gunpowder was put to use for military applications with “flying fire” — packs of launched powder lit on fire. The Chinese military went on to develop more and more sophisticated weapons using the gunpowder. Gunpowder was also used for non-military uses, especially by acrobats and magicians to create special effects during shows. This eventually developed into the complex fireworks displays that China is still known for today, and that have spread around the world.

gunpowder - Copy

  • Paper (纸 – Zhǐ)

The traditional story of origin of paper is that Cai Lun, an Imperial Court official during the Han Dynasty, created the first sheets of paper around 105 BC using mulberry fibers, broken fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. In reality, paper from China has been dated as far back as 8 BC and could even be older than that. What cannot be questioned though, is that the invention of paper greatly spread the written word across China and the world.

digitalstory_buddhasliberationscroll - Copy

  • Printing (印花 – Yìnhuā)

Six hundred years after paper was invented, the Chinese invented printing and the first printed books were Buddhist scripture during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 AD). The most basic printing techniques are older. Engraving came later and the carving, printing technique originated during the Tang Dynasty.

When we talk about paper and printing, we are talking about collecting knowledge, preserving and sharing it.

In fact, Ancient Chinese culture was preserved due to the invention of paper and these printing methods, which wouldn’t reach Europe until after 1300 AD, centuries later.

201141033436174 - Copy song-china-woodblock-printing-small - Copy

  • Kite and movable sails (风筝和移动帆 – Fēngzhēng hé yídòng fān)

Two thousand years before the European discovery of flying sails, the first Chinese kites were already in flight. Emulating the shapes of butterflies and birds, Chinese kites went further in their natural simulation by designing their kites to fly for over three days.

These kites did not represent simply an entertaining and childish pastime. Rather, they were used for such highly sophisticated purposes as military communication, referred to as magic afoot, and in some instances considered a threat.

Historians believe that the complex moving technology behind these kites allowed the Chinese to develop the first moving sails (in comparison with the mounted sails used by the Europeans and Arabs at the time) around 200 AD. These moving sails allowed ships to sail into the wind for the first time. Mariners around the world emulated the Chinese technology and eventually moving sails became standard on ships, putting journeys more under the control of the sailors themselves and less at the mercy of fickle weather.

kite-1 - Copy

  • Porcelain (瓷器 – Cíqì)

The invention of porcelain was China’s great contribution to the world civilization. The word “china” when capitalized is recognized as the name of the country. Around 16th century BC in the middle of the Shang Dynasty, the early-stage porcelain appeared in China.

It’s no coincidence that porcelain dishware is called “china.” Chinese artisans took the simple process of creating pottery and reinvented it into the artwork of today.

h2_37.191.1 - Copy

  • The Spinning wheel (纺车 – Fǎngchē)

Silk had long been a coveted import from China across the Western world. However, it was difficult for Chinese traders to keep up with the demand due to the time-consuming nature of spinning the fine silk threads into usable yarns for sewing fine clothing and tapestries. To meet the increasing demand for silk fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035. This simple machine could be easily operated by just one person and made high-quality thread for export.

Italians brought the invention to Europe in the 14th century, where the spinning wheel was put to use to create threads out of all sorts of other materials. This changed the production process for textiles all around the world.

Wang Juzheng, The Spinning Wheel, in Fu Sinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, huihua pian 3: Liang Song huihua, shang.  Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988.  pl. 19, p. 34.  Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing. handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 26.1 x 69.2 cm

Wang Juzheng, The Spinning Wheel, in Fu Sinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, huihua pian 3: Liang Song huihua, shang. Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988. pl. 19, p. 34. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Beijing.
handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 26.1 x 69.2 cm

From the list above Chinese people consider Compass, Gunpowder, Papermaking, Printing  “ The Four Great Inventions” (simplified Chinese: 四大发明; traditional Chinese: 四大發明) are inventions from ancient China that are celebrated in Chinese culture for their historical significance and as symbols of ancient China’s advanced science and technology.

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