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7 Most Important Chinese Inventions in History

Several of the most important inventions of human history, which still have an impact on modern society, had their origin in ancient China.

Apart from the Four Great Inventions – papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass – which are celebrated for their significance in history and for how the represent the technological and scientific advances of the ancient Chinese people, there are countless other inventions that originated in ancient China and over time spread to the rest of the world. Here’s a look at some of the most important inventions that came from ancient China.

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Paper (105 CE)

The first written texts in China were carved in turtle shells, animal bones, and pottery. It was around two thousand years ago that a court official known as Cai Lun found a way to make thin sheets of cellulose that could be used to write on.

He mixed tree bark, hemp, and rags with water in a vat, dissolved the mixture until it became a pulp, and then pressed out the water. Once the sheets were dried in the sun, they were ready to be used.

In the 8th century B.C., Muslim invaders captured a Chinese paper mill and learned the secret to paper making. Later on, they took the information with them to Spain and it was from there that it spread throughout Europe and to the rest of the world.

Movable Type Printing (C. 1000 AD)

Centuries before Gutenberg invented the printing press in Europe, the Chinese had already invented not one type of printing, but two.

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Movable type is a system of printing in which every element of a document is cast as an individual component. Since it was hardly suitable for a language that used thousands of characters and combinations, the first printing press the Chinese invented involved the use of wooden blocks. The text or image to be printed was carved in a block of wood, inked, and then pressed against cloth or paper.

Centuries later (around 1040 AD), during the reign of the Northern Song Dynasty, a man by the name of Bi Sheng began to use small clay pieces that could be moved around to make prints. He baked the clay letters and signs, arranged them in rows on a wooden board, and used them to print on paper. It was a tedious process, but thousands of copies of each page could be made from a single set of type and so the invention quickly gained popularity.

Gunpowder (ca. 850 AD)

Gunpowder was another popular invention that awarded its controllers an almost sure victory in combat. However, it was invented for a different reason.

Around the year 850 CE, Chinese court alchemists were searching for an elixir of immortality, one that would guarantee their leaders eternal life.

When a mixture of sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate they were experimenting on exploded after coming into contact with a spark, the Chinese realized that they had made a valuable discovery. It took them years to master the art of making and storing gunpowder.

In 1280, a gunpowder arsenal at the town of Weiyang caught fire, producing a huge explosion that instantly killed one hundred guards. Wooden beams and pillars were later found over three kilometers from the explosion site.

The Compass (11th or 12th Century )

Together with papermaking, gunpowder, and printing, the compass formed part of what the Chinese call their ‘Four Great Inventions’ of the ancient times. Without the compass, most of the voyages that connected the world at the end of the Middle Ages would have been impossible.

The Chinese used the compass to find the correct direction, first for city planning, and later for ships.

The characteristics of magnetite were studied by the ancient Chinese. After experimenting thoroughly, scientists in the Northern Song Dynasty eventually developed the round compass that we still use today. At first a needle floating in a bowl filled with water, the first dry compass used a magnetic needle inside a turtle shell.

Umbrellas (11th Century BCE)

Although Ancient Egyptians were already using parasols to protect themselves from the sun around 2,500 BC, it was only in the 11th century BCE in China that waterproof parasols were invented.

Chinese legend speaks of a certain Lu Ban, carpenter and inventor, who was inspired when he saw children holding lotus flowers above their heads in order to shelter from the rain. He then developed a flexible bamboo framework, covered by a cloth circle. However, some sources say that his wife invented it.

The Book of Han, a history of China finished in the year of 111 AD, mentions a collapsible umbrella, the first of its kind in history.

Toothbrushes (619-907 CE)

Again, it may have been Ancient Egyptians who first invented toothpaste, but the credit of inventing toothbrushes goes to the Chinese. During the Tang Dynasty (619-907 CE),

Toothbrushes were first made of coarse Siberian hog or horse hairs, tied together, and fastened to bamboo or bone handles. Not long after, Europeans brought the revolutionary invention to their own lands.

Paper money (7th Century CE)

It is only logical that the peoples who invented both paper and the world’s first printing processes, also invented paper money. Paper money was first developed around the 7th century during the Tang dynasty and was refined during the Song Dynasty almost four hundred years later.

Paper bills were originally used as private notes of credit or exchange but were soon adopted by the government because of how convenient and easy it was to carry it.

Instead of heavy pouches full of metal coins, people then started carrying paper bills that were both lighter and easier to conceal from thieves and robbers. Merchants could deposit their money in the national banks in the capital city, receiving an ‘exchange certificate’ in printed paper that they could afterwards exchange for metal coins in any other city bank.

Eventually, they started trading directly with paper money, instead of needing to exchange it first, and the central government became the only institution that could legally print money.

In Brief

Countless inventions we use every day come from China. When and how they reached us was often a matter of luck or of haphazard historical events. Some were immediately imported, while others took thousands of years to be adopted by the rest of the world. However, it is clear that most of the inventions described in this list shaped our modern world, and we would not be the same without them.

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Sebastian Francisco Maydana
Sebastian Francisco Maydana

I'm a PhD candidate in History, with a specialization in ancient Egyptian history. My main field of interest is Egyptian art and religion, especially during the Predynastic period. I also write film reviews and narrative, and have a passion for sailing.