From the early ages until today, the Chinese are known as innovative and determined individuals. They created some of the most important tools in history that helped civilization. The Ancient Chinese inventions date back to the Paleolithic period and were always ahead of other countries when it comes to innovation. Besides the four great inventions (papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass) that greatly promoted China’s economy and culture, they have plenty of other innovations that changed and made our life easier today and revolutionized the world.
Here are the top 10 most famous inventions you won’t believe came from the Ancient Chinese:
Before paper was invented, writing materials were extremely scarce and expensive. People used clay tablets and rocks which were unwieldy; wax and palm leaves which were fragile. Truly the world changed when the paper was invented as it is now abundant, affordable, and accessible. The invention of paper was a major step up in the literacy of the people and how history was recorded. Paper already existed in China since 105 A.D, but a eunuch named Cai Lun was the one who was able to make it significant which helped drive its widespread adoption. The word “paper” was derived from papyrus which was a type of reed discovered by the Egyptians. Papyrus was used as a writing material by overlapping thin strips after being soaked in water.
Before the emergence of the printing technique, manuscripts were all manually handwritten by scholars. The first kind of printing ever invented was the Woodblock Printing during the Tang Dynasty. Woodblock Printing was expensive and time-consuming and so it was improved by a man named Bi Sheng of the Song Dynasty, also known as “Father of Typography.” He innovated the Movable Type Printing which works by carving individual characters into fire-hardened clay. These type pieces are then glued to an iron plate to print a page and then redistributed for another page. Soon after, this kind of printing was introduced to Europeans which led to its renaissance and then spread out around the world.
Gunpowder was said to be accidentally invented by Chinese Taoist alchemists in the Tang Dynasty when they tried to find a potion to obtain immortality by mixing sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (about 1000 A.D.) in the 11th century that the formula was documented. The Chinese used this accidental discovery for firecrackers and Europeans were able to take the invention and create weapons that were used to dominate China in the mid-1800s.
Before compasses were invented, people used the position of the sun, moon, stars, and the planet orientation to tell directions. The compass was invented by the Chinese estimated between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD. It was originally used only for Feng Shui and it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty when they enhanced the compass and discovered they could actually use it for navigation. Arab traders that have been to China might have learned of this invention and brought it to the West. Compasses were made using a lodestone, a type of mineral magnetite that aligns itself with the earth’s magnetic field, to point south. The ancient Chinese discovered that a floating lodestone could freely turn and point towards the magnetic poles. Interestingly, it was used for geomancy and fortune-telling during the Han dynasty.
Silk is one of the oldest fibers that was discovered by the Ancient Chinese 6,000 years ago when a silk cocoon was found cut in half. They mastered the art of sericulture, the production of silk, and the West paid a fortune to get their hands on silk. It was considered a very important item made in China and for years, trades have been made from China to the West which formed the known Silk Road today. Besides clothing, silk was also used for writing, fishing, and musical instruments. It was predominantly used only by emperors and the upper class but soon spread to the commoners as well. During the Han Dynasty, silk is considered more than just a commodity and used to reward worthy Chinese citizens or government officials. This resulted in a rise in their economy and silk soon started to decrease in value and exports. Despite its decrease, China still dominates the luxurious silk market of today.
The abacus, also known as suan pan, was actually started by hunters (surprisingly not by scholars) through collecting trophies from animals they killed. The hunters used wooden sticks to string wooden beads to it to count the animals. The abacus is the oldest calculator that is still used today. Most Chinese learned how to use suan pan when they were young. The structure of the suan pan is simple: It is composed of stone beads, which represent numbers, and wooden sticks, which represents the decimals. The abacus is the living fossil of the Chinese mathematical discovery. Up to this day, some believe that the abacus is superior to modern calculators, especially for simple calculations.
It is widely believed that the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula were the first brewers. However, a discovery in Pingshan County of Hebei Province in 1970 revealed large amounts of wine-storing and drinking vessels. Some of these vessels contained a drink made from wheat dating to around 2,280 BC which is the oldest liquor yet discovered in history. Alcohol is called Jiu in Chinese and is often used as an offering to the gods or their own ancestors. The early Chinese used rice, hawthorn, honey, and grapes to make liquor which was popularized by Yi Di and Du Kang of the Xia dynasty. Different civilizations outside of China have also proven that liquor was consumed thousands of years ago. Whether they discovered them independently or not is unknown up to this day. But, it is a big possibility that the secret of making liquor may be passed from East to West.
In 132 AD, Zhang Heng of the Han dynasty invented the first seismograph called “Houfeng Didong” to measure the earth’s movements. The early seismograph looks like an urn made of copper with a central pendulum. On the surface, there are eight dragons with each one holding the copper in its mouth, pointing out the eight different directions: east, south, west, north, southeast, northeast, southwest, and northwest. When there is an earthquake, the dragon’s mouth that was closest to the earthquake’s source will be opened, causing the ball to drop into the mouth of the frog which would produce a sound. This invention would let people know the direction of the earthquake. In 138 AD, this seismograph was able to sense an earthquake occurring in Longxi which is a thousand kilometers away from its location. It was the first time that mankind was able to detect an earthquake. It wasn’t until 1848 when Europe was able to develop a modern seismograph.
The bristled toothbrush was invented in 1498 by the Chinese who made toothbrushes with coarse animal hairs that are attached to a bone or bamboo handles.
Paper money was first developed by the ancient Chinese between the 8th or 9th century AD. It was originally used as privately issued bills of credit or exchange notes. A person could deposit his cash in return receiving an “exchange certificate” which he could exchange for metal coins in other cities.
The Ancient Chinese revolutionized the way the world works today. The world would truly be a different place without these ancient Chinese inventions.