Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

In more than a millennium from the Qin Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese science and technology took the lead in the world. The Four Great Inventions are the great contributions of ancient china to the development of the world’s civilization. They reflected and represented the brilliance and prosperity of the ancient Chinese civilization.

Joseph Needham, an English science historian, pointed out, “In many important respects the Chinese made scientific and technological inventions ahead of the legendary figures who created famous ‘hopeful miracles’. The Chinese were abreast with the Arabs when Arabs possessed all the cultural wealth of the Western world. Between the 3rd century AD and the 13th century AD, the Chinese kept scientific knowledge at a level far above that of the western world.”

Paper Making

Papermaking stemmed from the necessity of cultural development and exchange. Prior to its invention, the Europeans wrote on sheep skin (and it is said that the copy of the Bible needed 300 or more pieces of sheep skin), the Egyptians wrote on thin barks of stalks of papyri, and the Chinese resorted to animal bones, tortoise shells and bronze and stonewares in the Shang Dynasty and later on silk, wood and bamboo. The earliest Chinese books were made from flat strips of bamboo or wood, inscribed and then threaded together. They were heavy and bulky, inconvenient for reading and carrying. Necessity is the mother of invention.

In the Western Han Dynasty, inspired by the process of silk-reeling, people learned to process silk fiber into thin pieces, called silk fiber paper (which is called “bo”), which was rudimentary paper making. Because silk was very scarce and expensive, people began looking for a new kind of writing material that is both cheap and available in large quantities.

It was generally believed that paper was first made by a man called Cai Lun, a court eunuch during the Eastern Han Dynasty, which was not exactly true. It should be precise to say that Cai Lun assimilated the previous experiences, and, based on them, carried out many experiments and improved paper-making techniques. Eventually, he succeeded in inventing a new kind of plant fiber paper, making full use of scrap materials including bark, ramie combings, worn cloth, fishing nets, and other raw materials which were, comparatively speaking, cheap, light, thin and durable. Thus, the source of raw materials was enlarged and the cost was reduced. He popularized this papermaking process throughout the country, thus giving an impetus to the papermaking industry. His new technique spread quickly, and he was recognized by the later generation as the inventor of paper.

By the Jin Dynasty, the paper was widely used, taking the place of bamboo slips and silk cloth. At the beginning of the third century, the Chinese paper-making technique was introduced in Korea, India, Vietnam, and Japan. It was during the reign of Tang Xuanzong that it reached Arabia, and from Arab countries into Europe and the rest of the world, thus putting an end to the history of writing on sheep skin for the Europeans. In 1150, the first European paper factory was established in Spain, lagging behind Cai Lun’s invention by over 1000 years.

The importance of the invention of paper can hardly be exaggerated. It gave a great impetus to cultural progress not only in China but throughout the world. “No matter how high the effect of the invention of paper making upon the whole course of later Western inventions is evaluated, the evaluation is never an overestimation.” (Derk Bodde: The History of the Westward Spread of Chinese Articles). In medieval Europe, parchment was still the main carrier of information. Cultural information spread very slowly due to the scarcity of carrier material. The production of paper provided a most advantageous condition for the flourishing of education, politics, commerce, etc., in Europe at that time. In this sense, “The world has benefited more from Cai Lun than from other more well-known celebrities.”


The compass is an instrument showing direction. In the process of mining ores and smelting copper and iron, people chanced upon lodestone, which attracted iron and pointed fixedly in a north-south direction. The magnetic property of the lodestone was known to the Chinese as early as the Warring States Period. Making use of its special property, people then invented a variety of south-pointing instruments. The primitive compass was invented in the shape of a spoon cut from an intact piece of natural magnetite. The spoon was put in the center of a level tray and rotated. When the spoon stopped, its handle pointed to the south, its head to the north.

Then the Chinese learned to magnetize the iron and invented the “Pointing-to the-South Tortoise or Fish”, a piece of thin iron sheet cut into the shape of a tortoise or fish, magnetized in a geomagnetic field and put into water, floating and lying north-to-south.

Another method was that people made iron needles and rubbed them on a piece of natural magnetite so that they would become magnetized. Then one such needle was hung with a thin thread, or put on something light that floated on the water in a bowl. It pointed south when floated on water or suspended. This was the earliest compass. And finally, the round compass came into being after constant improvements. The legendary compass-guided vehicle in which Emperor Huang Di rode was most probably the result of using the compass on a chariot. Later it was used extensively in navigation and military operations.

The invention of the compass was epoch-making in navigation. In the Northern Song Dynasty, the mariner’s compass was invented. It was made by putting a magnetic needle on a wooden disk called luopan. In the Northern Song Dynasty luopan compass was widely used on merchant’s vessels plying between China and the Malay Archipelago or India.

The luopan compass

Before the compass was invented, people had to determine direction by the position of the sun in the daytime and the stars at night. When it was cloudy and rainy, this had become impossible. The problem remained unsolved until the invention of the compass. The use of the luopan compass overcame many difficulties connected with navigation on the high seas. In the early Ming Dynasty, the navigator, Zheng He, made seven voyages going as far as the east coast of Africa. For each voyage, he brought with him a fleet of 100-200 boats. The compass played an important role in long-distance voyages in ancient China. It is said that China was the first country in the world to use the compass on seagoing ships. Historical records show that in 1099-1102 compass was used on ships sailing to or from Guangzhou.

Compass spread to Arabia in the 12th century, where it was known as the “friend of sailors”. The Arabic people learned to use the compass from trading with China, and through the Arabians, the compass spread to Europe in the 13th century. From the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 16th century, European navigators opened many new routes. Without the invention and the application of the compass, the epoch-making ocean voyages, such as the voyage to India by Vasco da Gama of Portugal, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Western Hemisphere, Ferdinand Magellan’s earth-round voyage, and Zheng He’s 7 voyages to the “western ocean”, all would be inconceivable. To some degree, the invention of the compass has helped bring about economic and cultural exchanges between various countries of the world.


Known as the “mother of civilization”, the art of printing is the technology of producing printed images according to the original script or picture. In 1900, a scroll of Diamond Sutra was discovered in Dunhuang grottos, which was printed in the 9th year of Xiantong in the reign of Emperor Yi (868 AD) in the Tang Dynasty. It consists of seven adhered sheets with a total length of 533 centimeters, clearly printed, showing superb carving skill. It is the earliest printed matter existent now in the world. The earliest carved plate printed matter with a definite date now existent in Europe is the portrait of St.Christopher in the South of Germany, later than the printed scroll found in China by about 600 years.

Before the invention of printing, the circulation of books depended totally on hand-written copies of manuscripts. This was not only a slow process but was liable to mistakes. The first method of printing in China was the seals—in relief or intaglio. Seals were cut in relief to produce a clear effect—black characters on white paper, but their small size prevented them from printing many characters at a time. The stone tablets were cut in intaglio, inked and impressions are taken off, first on silk and later on paper when it was invented, but the impressions were less clear—white characters on a black background. In the Spring and Autumn Periods and Warring States Periods, seal engraving and stone-tablet rubbing were very much in vogue.

This, then, led in the Sui Dynasty to the practice of engraving writing or pictures on a wooden board, smearing ink on it and then printing on pieces of a paper page by page. The page was printed when the paper was removed. This was called block printing, combining the two methods used for seals and stone rubbings. In the Tang Dynasty, this technology was already very popular and was introduced successively to countries like Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Iran. Although with this method the speed of printing was much higher than before, block printing had its drawbacks. That is all the boards became useless after the printing was done and a single mistake in carving would cause a whole board to be wasted. And it was time-consuming, too, for it would take several years to finish making the blocks for a thick book.

By the end of the 11th century during the Song Dynasty, it occurred to a printing carver named Bi Sheng blocks printing that was time-consuming, strenuous, and wasteful, and he was resolved to make innovations. He invented movable type printing, which had a far-reaching influence. Bi Sheng first engraved characters on clay dice and put them on fire to turn hard. He arranged these according to sound and tone in a wooden case divided into many sections. At the time of printing, one needed only to pick out the words as required by the manuscript, have them arranged on iron galleys and daub them with ink. When the printing was finished, the pieces of movable type were distributed and put back in the type case for future use. In this way, book printing was made much easier and both the speed and the quality were greatly improved. One county magistrate of the Yuan period had over 30,000 wood characters carved, with which he printed a book he had written. It was a book of more than 60,000 words, and he finished printing 600 copies in less than a month.

Economical and convenient, the use of these types brought about a revolution in printing. This was the beginning of typography. Later, people also made types with tin, copper and other metal.

Before long, typography spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and then gradually to Europe. The technique of typography emancipated education and learning out of Christian abbeys. From then on the learning centers of Europe moved from abbeys to colleges in various cities. Typography was a powerful weapon for carrying out Religious Reformation and anti-feudalism campaigns in Europe. It promoted the establishment of the capitalist production mode and the exchanges and dissemination of ideologies and culture.

The printing technology today using movable type made of metal is based on Bi Sheng’s clay type. Hence we must say that Bi Sheng has indeed made extraordinary contributions to human cultural development and exchanges.


The Chinese invented gunpowder about 1,100 years ago.

China was a home of alchemy. As a by-product of alchemy, the invention of gunpowder was due to the ancient Chinese Taoists’ attempt to make “pills of immortality” or elixir and to turn cheap metals into gold. In their pursuit of impossibilities, the chemists and alchemists found that saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal powder mixed together in the right proportion and heated was explosive. The date of this discovery is unknown since the alchemists liked to operate in secret. The first to record the method of making gunpowder was Sun Simiao, a well-known pharmacologist of the Tang Dynasty, who also tried to make “pills of immortality”.

Originally, gunpowder was used in China for making fireworks and firecrackers for the sake of amusement. Gunpowder was not used for rock-blasting and military purposes until the end of the Tang Dynasty and at the beginning of the Five Dynasties, thus bringing about a revolution in the making of firearms. As far back as 904 AD, besieged cities were attacked with what was then called “shooting fire” or “flying fire”, that is, tying a packet of powder to the shaft of an arrow, igniting the fuse and shooting the arrow so as to cause an explosion and set enemy barracks on fire when the target was hit. During the Song period, the making and use of gunpowder reached a new level. Different formulas were already in use for the making of different kinds of powder as a result of constant experiments and weapons involving the use of gunpowder, including the thorn fireball, the smoky fireball and the cannon, were invented. Towards the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, weapons with even higher explosive power were made, such as “thunderbolt cannons”, “sky shaking cannons”, etc. The Song, Jin and Yuan armies all used these weapons in war.

In the 13th century, the Yuan troops used various kinds of weapons in the war with the Arab countries in Central Asia, spreading firearms and their manufacture to these countries. Arab military primers of that time recorded the primitive guns and hand grenades used by the Mongols. In this way, gunpowder was introduced to the Arab world. During medieval times Europeans translated many Arabic books from which they learned about gunpowder. In 1325 the Arabs attacked a Spanish city using a projector to fire “flaming balls” which sounded like thunder. The Westerners became familiar with gunpowder and started studying and manufacturing it. Some European countries began to make gunpowder weapons with methods they had learned from the Arabians. By the 15th century cannons using gunpowder were being invented by the Europeans.

It was a tremendous impetus to the progress of European history because the application of gunpowder made feudal separation impossible, thus speedily leading feudalism to its doom in Europe. The invention of gunpowder meant a far-reaching technological revolution that transformed heat energy into mechanical energy, greatly promoting the progress of global civilization.


Today the cultural value of the four great inventions is universally acknowledged. Decker Hyde, an American scholar, said, “If there were no paper and no typography we would still be living in medieval times. If there were no gunpowder, the world would probably suffer less, but the medieval European knights in helmets and armor would still act as lords in their moat-surrounded castles, and our society would still be subject to feudalistic slavery. Finally, without the compass, the era of great geographical discoveries would never have arrived. It was these discoveries that stimulated the material and cultural life of the Europeans and brought them knowledge of the world yet unknown to them, including our America.”

Compass, paper making, gunpowder and printing were great technological achievements that ancient China dedicated to the world, which altered the historical course of the human being. They reflected and represented the brilliance and prosperity of the ancient Chinese civilization.

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