Home > Exchanges Between China and South Africa > Culture
Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

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 - the four great inventions of ancient China-are significant contributions of the Chinese nation to world civilization.

Four Great Inventions of Ancient China - Paper
China was the first nation to invent paper. Before its invention, words were written on various natural materials by ancient peoples-on grass stalks by the Egyptians, on earthen plates by the Mesopotamians, on tree leaves by the Indians, on sheepskin by the Europeans and strangest of all, even inscribed on bamboo or wooden strips, tortoise shells or shoulder blades of an ox by the early Chinese. Later, inspired by the process of silk reeling, the people in ancient China succeeded in first making a kind of paper called "bo" out of silk. But its production was very expensive due to the scarcity of materials. In the early days of the 2nd century, a court official named Cai Lun produced a new kind of paper from bark, rags, wheat stalks and other materials. It was relatively cheap, light, thin, durable and more suitable for brush writing. At the beginning of the 3rd century, the paper making process first spread to Korea and then to Japan. It reached the Arab world in the Tang Dynasty, and Europe in the 12th century. In the16th century, it went to America by way of Europe and then gradually spread all over the world.
Before paper was invented, Qin Shihuang, the first emperor in Chinese history, had to go over 120 kilos of official documents written on bamboo or wooden strips. A paper map in Western Han Dynasty, unearthed in Tianshui, Gansu Province, in 1986

Four Great Inventions of Ancient China - Printing
Printed in Tang DynastyA Buddhist sutra is the first book in the world with a verifiable date of printing.
Before the invention of printing, dissemination of knowledge depended either on word of mouth or handwritten copies of manuscripts. Both took time and were liable to error. Beginning 2000 years ago in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.--- 25 A.D.), stone-tablet rubbing was in vogue for spreading Confucian classics or Buddhist sutras. This led in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) to the practice of engraving writing or pictures on a wooden board, smearing it with ink and then printing on pieces of paper page-by-page. This became known as block printing. The first book with a verifiable date of printing appeared in China in the year 868, or nearly 600 years before that happened in Europe. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this technology was gradually introduced to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines. Yet block printing had its drawbacks. All the boards became useless after the printing was done and a single mistake in carving could ruin a whole block. In 1041-1048 of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a man named Bi Sheng carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay which he hardened by a slow baking process, resulting in pieces of movable type. When the printing was finished, the pieces of type were put away for future use. This technology then spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Europe. Later, German Johann Gutenberg invented movable type made of metal in 1440-1448.

Four Great Inventions of Ancient China - Gunpowder Credit for the invention of gunpowder also goes to ancient China. Ancient necromancers discovered in their practice of alchemy, that an explosion could be induced if certain kinds of ores and fuel were mixed in the right proportions and heated, thus leading to the invention of gunpowder. In the Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques, edited in 1044 by Zeng Gongliang, three formulas for making gunpowder were recorded; an explosive mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. Dr. Needham identified these as the earliest formulas of such a kind. The method of powder-making was introduced to the Arab world in the 12th century and to Europe in the 14th. Gunpowder was originally used for making fireworks and its later adaptation revolutionized warfare across the world. Ancient necromaniers put minerals and plants together, hoping to make some medecine to keep alive forever
Flying firearrows(Tang Dynasty) GrenadesSong Dynasty Bronze canonsYuan Dynasty

Four Great Inventions of Ancient China - the Compass  Sinan (Warring States Period)the earliest guide tool in the world
The compass, an indispensable navigational tool, was another significant gift from ancient China. While mining ores and melting copper and iron, people chanced upon a natural magnetite that attracted iron and pointed fixedly north. After constant improvement the round compass came into being. Dr. Needham cites one of the first books to describe the magnetic compass, Dream Pool Essays (1086) by Shen Kuo in the Song Dynasty, about 100 years earlier than its first record in Europe by Alexander Neekam in 1190. The compass was introduced to the Arab world and Europe during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Before its invention, navigators had to depend on the positions of the sun, the moon and the polestar for their bearings. The spread of the compass to Europe opened the oceans of the world to travel and led to the discovery of the New World. Thus, it was no wonder that Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, pointed out in his work The New Instruments, that the invention of printing, gunpowder and the compass reshaped the world. In his words, they outstripped any empire, any religious belief and any heavenly body in exerting an impact on all humanity.
     Three earliest compasses:

Suggest To A Friend: