Ancient Chinese Inventions and Discoveries that Shaped the World
Long recognized in the West for its natural and man-made monuments, for its silks and its satins and for its delectable cuisine, China is also credited with inventions and discoveries which continue to influence our world today as they did at their inception.
For the better part of fifteen hundred years, the Chinese civilization has given birth to developments in navigation, spiritual balance, mathematics and natural prevention and diagnosis;
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 a just a few amazing Chinese inventions.
When the Italian merchant Marco Polo visited China during the Song Dynasty in 1271, he found a place far more technologically advanced than anywhere in Western Europe.
Here are just a few and far-reaching contributions of the Chinese:
Abacus: The Chinese developed the abacus, a counting device, around 100 AD. By the 1300’s it was perfected and given the form it still has today.
The instrument consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with parallel rods. Each rod holds beads as counters. The rods are separated into upper and lower parts by a crossbar. Each bead above the crosspiece is worth five units, and each below is worth one. The rungs or rods from right to left indicate place value in powers of ten — ones, tens, hundred, and so on.
Note: While the first documentation of a Chinese Abacus has been dated around the 14th century, some form of the abacus or counting rods have appeared in history as early as 2700 BC in ancient Sumaria. Mentioned in ancient Roman texts, as well as among Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek artifacts dated as early as 300 BC, the abacus has survived the centuries with its purpose intact. It is basically a tool for counting and performing basic arithmetic. Most often constructed of a wood frame with beads sliding on wire or wooden pegs, the abacus is still used today in many cultures.
Alcohol: Newly unearthed evidence suggests that we have the Chinese to thank for inventing alcohol. Analysis of 9000-year-old pottery shards found in the Henan province revealed the presence of alcohol, 1000 years before inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, previously believed to be the first brewers. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania used a combination of chemical, archaeo-botanical and archaeological techniques to study dried organic material found at the base of the jars.
A large number of pottery wine vessels were discovered in Shangdong at the runis of the Dawenkou culture which dates back 5,000 years. Recorded history tells about wine-making techniques of more than 4,000 years ago.Many alcoholic beverages have been used in China since the prehistoric times. Wine jars from Jiahu which date to about 7000 BC are the earliest evidence of alcohol in China. The fermented drink was produced by rice, honey and fruit. In China, alcohol is known as Jiu and is considered to be a spiritual food which played an important role in their religious life. As per a Chinese imperial edict at around 1116 BC it was believed that the use of alcohol in moderation was prescribed by heaven.The earliest wines were made from food grains, mainly various kinds of rice, broomcorn and millet. As a result of improvements in brewing skills, the yellow wine made its appearance probably in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). From an ancient tomb of the Warring States in Pingshan County of Hebei Province, large numbers of wine-storing and drinking vessels were excavated in the 1970s. Two of them contain an alcoholic drink made from wheat 2,280 years ago. It is probably the oldest liquor ever brought to light in the world.
Canals and Locks: Imperial China’s construction of waterways to connect different parts of its vast territory produced some of the world’s greatest water engineering projects. One of the most impressive was the building of the Grand Canal. Construction of the first Grand Canal began in the early 600’s to connect the Yellow River (Hwang He) in the north with the Yangzi River (Chiang Jiang) in the south. The project lasted for many centuries as it was constantly enlarged and repaired. Once the Grand Canal was in use, people could carry messages and ships could carry rice back and forth. Canal locks were another innovation in the 10th century. These allowed boats to go uphill and downhill, by raising or lowering the water level within the lock. Click here to see how a lock works. This invention allowed boats to travel farther inland. Today locks are used in places like Niagara Falls and the Panama Canal.
Clock: One of the greatest inventions of the medieval world was the mechanical clock. The difficulty in inventing a mechanical clock was to figure out a way in which a wheel no bigger than a room could turn at the same speed as the Earth, but still be turning more or less continuously.
If this could be accomplished, then the wheel became a mini Earth and could tell the time. Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, made the first model of a mechanical clock in 725 AD. This clock operated by dripping water that powered a wheel which made one full revolution in 24 hours. An iron and bronze system of wheels and gears made the clock turn. This system caused the chiming of a bell on the hour. Su Sung’s great ‘Cosmic Engine’ of 1092 was 35 feet high. At the top was a power driven sphere for observing the positions of the stars. The power for turning it was transmitted from the dripping water by a chain drive. A celestial globe inside the tower turned in synch with the sphere above. It was two more centuries before the first mechanical clock was developed in Europe.
Compass: Recognized in Chinese as Si Nan, 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, etc., symbols from the I-Ching oracle books, and the finer markings of 24 compass points with the 28 lunar mansions along the outer edge.
These two components were spiritual and physical opposites, the spoon representing Heaven and the plate representing Earth, which, when brought into contact, would guide the observers in the right direction. The original lacquered earth plate, dating to the 4th century BCE, is currently on display at the Museum of Chinese History.
Crossbow: The use of the bow and arrow for hunting and for war dates back to the Paleolithic period in Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was widely used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Americas, and Europe until the introduction of gunpowder.
However, over two thousand years ago in China, the crossbow was invented as an innovation to the basic bow and arrow that extended the use of mechanical hand weapons throughout the world. Arrowheads were first made of burnt wood, then stone or bone, and then metals. Various woods and bones were used for the bow itself. However, it was not a powerful weapon until the invention of the compound, or composite, bow around 1500 B.C. on the steppes of Central Asia. A composite bow is made of various materials (wood, horn, sinew) glued together so as to increase their natural strength and elasticity. Bows and arrows were among the dominant weapons used by Assyrian chariots, Parthian cavalry, Mongol horsemen, and English longbowmen.
Chinese literary records, such as Zhao Ye: The Romance of Wu and Yue, place the invention of the crossbow in China during the Warring States period in the kingdom of Chu about 500 BCE. Many contemporary writers, for example Yang Hong and Zhu Fenghan contend the that the often cited inventor, Ch’in, improved upon a trigger mechanism, and that the crossbow may have existed from the seventh century BCE or even much earlier. Some archeological evidence indicates support the time of development of the crossbow in China to the eneolithic or chalcolithic period around 2000 BCE. One of the earliest representaions is found in the Smith College Virtual Museum of Ancient Inventions.
In China, the crossbow revolutionized warfare. A crossbow is a bow set horizontally on a stock. It fires arrows or bolts propelled by the mechanical energy of a taut bowstring. It could be more powerful than the ordinary bow and could fire multiple arrows, darts, or stones. Some designs were slower to fire than the longbow while others were small and useful for close combat.
Gunpowder and Fireworks; Gunpowder is the first explosive substance mankind learnt to use and also one of the four great inventions of ancient China. The invention of gunpowder should in a way be attributed to alchemists of ancient China, who drew inspiration from the fire-ignition of pill-making process during which sulfur, niter and other substances were used. They subsequently created the formula for gunpowder. When the formula was in the hands of strategists, the gunpowder was turned into black powder used in warfare.
The military applications of gunpowder began at the end of the Tang Dynasty. According to record, there were siege-breaking battles using “flying fire” at that time. People used a stone-projector to send off lit gunpowder packs to burn the enemy. In the Song Dynasty, the government set up gunpowder workshops, where flammable or explosive weapons like “fire cannon”, “rocket” and “missile” etc were produced in various periods. In 1,259 AD, something called “erupter” was introduced. It was a device with bamboo pipes, in which gunpowder was loaded. In the Yuan Dynasty, a weapon named bronze cannon came into being. In mid-16th century, a new type of rocket called “the Fire Dragon Issuing from the Water” was introduced. The rocket is regarded as the earliest ancestor of two-stage rockets. In the Ming Dynasty, there was a military rocket called “flying crow with magic fire” with rather strong explosive power. These primitive firearms propelled by gunpowder explosion demonstrated unprecedented power in warfare. They are the originators of modern-day weapons.
Gunpowder was also used in acrobat and puppet shows to decorate the stage and create a mysterious atmosphere. People of the Song Dynasty used gunpowder in stunning performances like spraying fire, invisiblizing stage characters and conjuring up things etc. The audience couldn’t help but marvel the magic.
In the 12th and 13th century, gunpowder was introduced to Arab countries before its journey to Greece and other European countries. Gunpowder put an end to the “cold weapon era” and ushered in a new chapter in war history, causing a far-reaching impact on the development of human history. Gunpowder was also used in other areas, such as the making of fireworks and firecrackers, making people’s life more colorful.
In the year 1161, the Chinese used explosives for the first time in warfare with the invention of cannons and guns. They also used gunpowder to make primitive flamethrowers and even explosive mines and multiple-stage rockets. The use of gunpowder in weapons gave those with access to the technology a greater ability to protect themselves from enemies or to conquer and control others. It greatly affected the balance of power in many parts of the world. Chinese firearms, fireworks and gunpowder were popular items of trade along the Silk Road to Europe.
Iron and Bronze: Coming much earlier than it did in other civilizations; the Bronze Age in Chinese history was especially significant. It was during this period around 3000 BC that Chinese metal workers discovered how to make bronze from copper and tin, producing an easier casting method that allowed them to make sharper cutting tools. Bronze has been especially associated with the Chinese culture, and it became the medium used by sculptors who crafted such masterpieces as the elephant drinking vessel.
Blast furnaces existed in Scandinavia in the eighth century AD, but cast iron was not widely available in Europe until the 14th century. The Chinese practiced the technique already in the fourth century BC. Two factors helped greatly. First, good clay allowed the Chinese to build walls for blast furnaces. Second, the Chinese used ‘black earth’, which contained iron phosphate, to reduce the melting temperature of iron from 1130 C to 950 C. In the third century BC the Chinese were able to hold iron at a high temperature for a week, which made it almost as good as steel, good enough to produce iron plowshares and in the year 1105 to build an iron pagoda 78 feet high.
Kite: 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.
Movable Sails & Rudder: The Chinese maritime forces, therein including the sailors as well as the shipbuilders, had no comparable equals in the ancient world. They were learned, widely traveled and technically advanced. The Cape of Good Hope, Australia, trade with Africa, a possible landing in the Americas-all of these achievements have at one time or another been attributed to these formidable men. In addition, the ancient Chinese maritime forces were responsible for the invention of the rudder and watertight compartments for ship’s hulls. Likewise, they are credited with innovating the use of masts and the replacement of the basic square sail with the fore-and-aft rig allowing the ship to sail into the wind. Without these inventions, and many more maritime-related discoveries, the Western world, always a couple of steps behind, would have found it impossible to travel, conquer and rule; and, again, the course of world history would have been dramatically altered.
China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. By 100 AD, Chinese shipbuilders invented the stern post rudder and watertight compartments for ship’s hulls. By 200 AD, they used several masts and the redesigned the basic square sail with the fore-and-aft rig. This allowed the ship to sail into the wind. With these inventions, the Chinese trader and explorer Zheng Ho sailed as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433. Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions.
Musical Breakthroughs: The Chinese court musician Ling-lun created the first reed instrument, the bamboo pipe, sometime between 3000 and 2501 B.C. By 2500 B.C., Chinese music grew more complex, employing a five-note scale. The music of China dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization with documents and artifacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC &SHY; 256 BC). Today, the music continues a rich traditional heritage in one aspect, while emerging into a more contemporary form at the same time. The legendary founder of music in Chinese mythology was Ling Lun, who made bamboo pipes tuned to the sounds of birds.
Dynasty era (1122 BC – 1911) – According to Mencius, a powerful ruler once asked him whether it was moral if he preferred popular music to the classics. The answer was that it only mattered that the ruler love his subjects. The Imperial Music Bureau, first established in the Qin Dynasty (221-07 BC), was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC) and charged with supervising court music and military music and determining what folk music would be officially recognized. In subsequent dynasties, the development of Chinese music was strongly influenced by foreign music, especially Central Asia. The oldest known written music is Youlan or the Solitary Orchid, attributed to Confucius (see guqin article for a sample of tablature). The first major well-documented flowering of Chinese music was for the qin during the Tang Dynasty, though the qin is known to have been played since before the Han Dynasty.
In ancient China music was seen as central to the harmony and longevity of the state. Almost every emperor took folk songs seriously, sending officers to collect songs to inspect the popular will. One of the Confucianist Classics, Shi Jing, contained many folk songs dating from 800 BC to about 300 BC.
Paper, Printing and Publishing: In almost every respect, the Chinese were at the forefront of developing the printed word. In 105 A.D., Ts’ai Lun invented the process for manufacturing paper, introducing the first use in China.
The paper was superior in quality to the baked clay, papyrus and parchment used in other parts of the world.By 593 A.D., the first printing press was invented in China, and the first printed newspaper was available in Beijing in 700 A.D. It was a woodblock printing. And the Diamond Sutra, the earliest known complete woodblock printed book with illustrations was printed in China in 868 A.D. And Chinese printer Pi Sheng invented movable type in 1041 A.D. Exported to the Western world, it is similar to the technology that German printer Johann Gutenberg used in the 1450s to produce his famous editions of the Bible. And in 1155 A.D., Liu Ching produces first printed map in China. The impact these inventions had on the educational, political and literary development of the world is simply incalculable.
Paper Money: The Chinese invented paper money in the 9th century AD. Its original name was flying money because it was so light it could blow out of one’s hand. As exchange certificates used by merchants, paper money was quickly adopted by the government for forwarding tax payments. In 1024, the Song government took over the printing of paper money and used it as a medium of exchange backed by deposited “cash,” a Chinese term for metal coins. The first Muslim bankers used a checking system by the 1200’s, followed by Italian bankers in the 1400’s. Paper money is still the most common form of currency around the world.
Porcelain: 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 (17th – 11th century BC), the early-stage porcelain appeared in China.
The firing techniques were rough in both the bodies and the glazes and the firing temperature was comparatively low, so porcelain of that time is called primitive porcelain for its primitive and transitional nature. Porcelain derived from pottery. The ancient Chinese ancestors invented porcelain, drawing on the experience of firing the white pottery and the hard stamped pottery. The Chinese probably made the first true porcelain during the Tang dynasty. The techniques for combining the proper ingredients and firing the mixture at extremely high temperatures gradually developed out of the manufacture of stoneware. During the Song dynasty, Chinese emperors started royal factories to produce porcelain for their palaces. Since the 1300’s, most Chinese porcelain has been made in the city of Jingdezhen.
Collectors regard many porcelain bowls and vases produced during the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty as artistic treasures. Porcelain makers perfected a famous blue and white underglazed procelain during the Ming period. Painting over the glaze with enamel colors also became a common decorating technique at this time. During the Qing period, the Chinese developed a great variety of patterns and colors and exported porcelain objects to Europe in increasing numbers. By the 1100’s, the secret of making porcelain had spread to Korea and to Japan in the 1500’s. Workers in these countries also created beautiful porcelain objects. A Japanese porcelain called Kakiemon was first produced during the 1600’s.
Roads and Relay Hostels: Roads and relay hostels, or inns, greatly improved communication and trade throughout the vast land of China. By the late 700’s, inns offered horses and food to travelers, and provided places for government officials to stay for the night during long journeys. The system of roads allowed government inspectors, tax collectors, and postal messengers to move long distances. Messengers delivered mail across hundreds of miles. Merchants could carry trade goods such as rice, tea, silk, and seafood without fear of bandits.
Sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, seismology, technology, engineering, and mathematics can trace their early origins to China. Scholars routinely discovered scientific principles and invented new ones. A number of notable astronomical discoveries were made prior to the application of the telescope. For example, the obliquity of the ecliptic was estimated as early as 1000 BC by Chinese astronomers. From 600 AD until 1500 AD, China was the world’s most technologically advanced society. The history of science and technology in China is both long and rich with many contributions to science and technology. In antiquity, ancient Chinese philosophers made significant advances in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. The first recorded observations of comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae were made in China.
Ancient Chinese scientists already possessed knowledge of alchemy. When it comes to scientific achievements and developments in ancient China, alchemy would be placed in the first chapter of the history book of chemistry. According to the ancient Chinese Taoist concept of making dan, an energy cluster in a cultivator’s body, collected from other dimensions, in the furnace, once dan is formed, it has the capability of changing any tangible substance into gold or silver. Dan can also transform the physical body and bodies in other dimensions, thus promoting a cultivator to transcend time, space, and the human body and enter into higher levels of cultivation.
The first seismograph, credited to the Royal Astronomer of the late Han Dynasty, Chang Heng, was designed as a cast bronze vessel with nine dragons facing different directions, each of which held a ball in its mouth. Any seismic activity detected by the vessel would prompt the balls to fall into the corresponding mouths of the nine frogs sitting below the dragons, which would point to the direction of the earth tremor. This natural measuring tool did not appear in the West until approximately 1,500 years later, where it has since been instrumental in measuring and predicting earthquakes in places like California and Mexico.
Smallpox Inoculation: Inoculation works by introducing a weak form of a disease to stimulate the human body to fight off the disease. Smallpox, a deadly virus characterized by skin blisters drying to crater-shaped scars, existed in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The technique of inoculation was first publicly recognized when the son of Prime Minister Wang Dan (957-1017) died of smallpox. Hoping to prevent the same thing from happening to other family members, Wang Dan summoned physicians from all over China. A Daoist monk introduced the technique of inoculation to the physicians in the capital. By the 16th century it was widely practiced against smallpox in China. The technique was unknown in Europe until the 1800’s, when it was introduced by Doctor Louis Pasteur.
Spinning Wheel: Silk was first made by the Chinese about 4000 years ago. Silk thread is made from the cocoon of the silkworm moth, whose caterpillar eats the the leaves of the mulberry tree. Silk spinners needed a method to deal with the tough, long silk threads.
To meet the increasing demand for silk fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035. This simple circular machine, easily operated by one person, could wind fine fibers of silk into thread. The invention used a wheel to stretch and align the fibers. A drive belt made the wheels spin. Italians who traveled to China during the Mongol dynasty brought the invention to Europe in the 14th century.
Stirrups:The invention of the stirrup was timely and appreciated. Before its appearance, riders had to hold on tightly to the horse’s mane to avoid falling off, in addition to having to mount the horse by a flying leap or a pole vault. This invention, one that did not appear in the West until 400 years later and one without which military and non-military equestrian use would never have progressed, led to the development of another unique Chinese invention: water polo.
Umbrella: In written records, the oldest reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 A.D., when Wang Mang had one designed for a ceremonial four-wheeled carriage. The 2nd century commentator Fu Qian added that this collapsible umbrella of Wang Mang’s carriage had bendable joints which enabled them to be extended or retracted. A 1st century collapsible umbrella has since been recovered from the tomb of Wang Guang at the Korean site of the Lelang Commandery, illustrated in a work by Harada and Komai.
However, the Chinese collapsible umbrella is perhaps a concept that is yet centuries older than Qin’s tomb. Zhou Dynasty bronze castings of complex bronze socketed hinges with locking slides and bolts, which could have been used for parasols and umbrellas, were found in an archeological site of Luoyang, dated to the 6th century BCE. An even older source on the umbrella is perhaps the ancient book of Chinese ceremonies, called Zhou Li (The Rites of Zhou), dating 2400 years ago, which directs that upon the imperial cars the dais should be placed. The figure of this dais contained in Zhou-Li, and the description of it given in the explanatory commentary of Lin-hi-ye, both identify it with an umbrella. The latter describes the dais to be composed of 28 arcs, which are equivalent to the ribs of the modern instrument, and the staff supporting the covering to consist of two parts, the upper being a rod 3/18 of a Chinese foot in circumference, and the lower a tube 6/10 in circumference, into which the upper half is capable of sliding and closing.
The Chinese character for umbrella is san and is a pictograph resembling the modern umbrella in design. Some investigators have supposed that its invention was first created by tying large leaves to bough-like ribs, the branching out parts of an umbrella. Others assert that the idea was probably derived from the tent, which remains in form unaltered to the present day. However, the tradition existing in China is that it originated in standards and banners waving in the air, hence the use of the umbrella was often linked to high ranking (though not necessarily royalty in China). On one occasion at least, twenty-four umbrellas were carried before the Emperor when he went out hunting. In this case the umbrella served as a defense against rain rather than sun. The Chinese design was later brought to Japan via Korea and also introduced to Persia and the Western world via the Silk Road. The Chinese and Japanese traditional parasol, often used near temples, to this day remains similar to the original ancient Chinese design.
A late Song Dynasty Chinese divination book that was printed in about 1270 CE features a picture of a collapsible umbrella that is exactly like the modern umbrella of today’s China. Umbrellas in China were not simply used to protect the skin from the sun’s rays: made from oil paper produced by the bark of the mulberry tree, 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.
I-Ching and Yin Yang: Written by King Wen and his son, Duke Chou, nearly 3,000 years ago, the ancient book of “I-Ching” (Book of Transformations) to this day provides guidance to those seeking the true organization and balance of the Universe’s natural elements. The “yin” and the “yang,” representing all the possible sets of naturally paired opposites, is incorporated into this philosophical work, which has become part history and part eternal spiritual guide.
Zero: It is recognized the world-over that the Chinese took the first step in developing the concept of zero, necessary for carrying out even the most simple of mathematical computations. As early as the 4th century BCE, the Chinese started leaving a blank space for the zero symbol, used in conjunction with the traditional Chinese counting board and the smaller abacus; and evidence exists attributing to the Chinese the use of the actual “0” before 686 AD.
China is not only a land rich in culture, history, art and beauty, it is a land rich with innovative inventions without which world history would have been drastically altered. The Chinese have contributed innovative ideas that continue to help shape technology worldwide.
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- Ancient China Mathematics