Ancient Chinese inventions have changed the course of history, from combat weapons like gunpowder to pioneering devices like the compass. Ancient Chinese philosophers achieved great advancements in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy, independently of Greek philosophers and other cultures. Comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae were first observed and documented in China. Chess, the cannon, silk, the umbrella, acupuncture, porcelain, the seismometer, the kite, and even the toothbrush were all popular because of the Silk Road’s growth.
The oldest innovations were the abacus, the “shadow clock,” and the early flying machines like kites and Kongming lanterns. However, the ‘Four Great Inventions’ – paper, gunpowder, the compass, and printing were the most important technological advancements, only recognized in Europe by the Middle Ages. The Tang dynasty (618 – 906 CE) was a period of tremendous invention. Up to the Qing Dynasty, there was a lot of trade between Western and Chinese discoveries.
List of Ancient Chinese Inventions
Ancient China was a world leader in several aspects of natural science research. Apart from the four famous innovations of papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass, Ancient China gave innumerable additional achievements to the globe; how many do you know?
The following is a list of ancient Chinese inventions, some of which may surprise you:
Tea is so significant in China that even the myth of silk includes a cup. Silk was supposedly found when a cocoon from a mulberry shrub dropped into a cup of imperial tea, according to legend. This story is comparable to how the emperor Shen Nung, 2737 BCE, discovered tea by drinking a cup of water with leaves from an overhanging Camellia shrub. During the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 CE, tea became extremely popular. Everyone in the society appreciated it.
The tea plant is endemic to the Chinese province of Yunnan. The Lin Cang in China is home to the world’s oldest live tea plant. This plant is very ancient, with an estimated age of 3,200 years. For centuries, tea was a secret commodity among the Chinese. However, it would go on to become popular all across the world, inspiring the British Empire to go to war over tea trade imbalances.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Paper
Before developing paper, humans wrote on other materials such as wood, stone, and bone. The Egyptians discovered papyrus, a form of reed that they were using to write on by overlapping thin strips soaked in water, around 2200 BCE. Papyrus is the source of the word “paper.”
One of the essential inventions of all time is paper. According to archives, paper recognition in China happened as early as 105 CE. However, it wasn’t extensively accepted until one eunuch, Cai Lun, improved the papermaking process significantly. He also pushed for its wider adoption in China.
The technology eventually made its way to Europe via the well-known Silk Road. As a result, its development had massive implications for information recording and dissemination and significantly impacted future technological advancements.
However, according to a new archaeological survey, the development of paper happened 200 years earlier and was in use by the ancient Chinese military.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Compass
The Chinese belief was that south was the cardinal direction, and the first compass was made with a lodestone pointing south. The south pointer was its name. A lodestone is a form of magnetite mineral that aligns itself with the earth’s magnetic field. A hung lodestone may revolve freely and point towards the magnetic poles, as discovered by the ancient Chinese. It was primarily in use for geomancy and fate telling during the Han era.
In the 11th century, the Chinese happened to discover that the lodestone could indicate a direction for travels during the Song dynasty. So the Chinese started to use the compass for navigation during the 9th and 11th centuries.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of the Movable Printing Press
The discovery of the first example of woodblock printing happened in a Tang tomb in Xi’an in 1974. It is a Buddhist chant in Sanskrit print on a hemp paper between 650 and 670 CE. Woodblock printing grew popular and widespread during the Tang dynasty, despite being costly and time-consuming.
Bi Sheng, a man from the Song Dynasty, was the first to design movable type printing. He sculpted individual characters into clay and then fired them to solidify them. These fragments were later bonded to an iron plate to print a page, then detached and reformed for another. This method swiftly expanded across Europe in the years leading up to the Renaissance, and it was eventually in use globally.
Silk was first created in the fourth millennium BCE, during the Neolithic period. It had a wide use in various industries, including writing, fishing, musical instruments, and apparel. Emperors and high-class society were the first to utilize silk, but it eventually extended to the rest of the populace. Silk became more than a commodity during the Han era (202 BCE–220 CE). A deserving Chinese person or government official got silk as a prize.
Silk has become a significant aspect of China’s economy. Around 300 CE, Japan and the Middle East began cultivating silk, and the Crusades introduced the notion of silk manufacture to Western Europe.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Gunpowder
The development of gunpowder, sometimes known as ‘black powder,’ was by Chinese Taoist alchemists in 1000 BCE. Then, in 142 CE, Wei Boyang, popularly known as the “Father of Alchemy,” defined it as a material that could ‘fly and dance’ fiercely.
Ironically, Alchemists continued to research it to create a chemical that would grant perpetual life. The goal of the experiments was to change the body by heating 10% sulphur and 75% saltpetre.
Employment of black powder happened in pyrotechnics and signalling by the 10th century. It gradually found its way west, where it was commonly in use as a weapon. It was also in use as an explosive to break up coal and rock reserves until the discovery of dynamite in the early twentieth century.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of the Crossbow
The crossbow has its association with medieval battlegrounds. They were, however, a Chinese creation dating back over 2.5 millennia. According to historical documents, the crossbow was widely in use in China by 500 BCE. Other evidence suggests that the technology dates back to roughly 700 BCE.
Other archaeological discoveries suggest that the invention of the crossbow was in 2000 BCE. Whatever the case may be, its development would have a huge long-term influence on combat. Metal triggers and bolts, generally formed of bronze, are the most common early evidence. In China, repeating crossbows were popular in the 4th century BCE.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Porcelain
Following the Chinese’s possibly life-saving seismographic breakthrough comes the aesthetically attractive discovery of porcelain, a sort of kaolin clay pottery. During the Han Dynasty, the serendipitous discovery of how to produce this ceramic material occurred. White porcelain in its complete form appeared later, most likely during the T’ang Dynasty. However, porcelain has its association now with bathrooms more than dishes. It’s also in use in dentistry to replace natural tooth crowns.
Centuries of historical earthquake stories show that China’s earthquake issues were and continue to be substantial. Tall mountains fall away as the ground tremors, and the distortion of great swaths of land occurs. Sima Qian, ancient China’s famed Grand Historian, wrote in his Annals in 91 BCE about how a massive earthquake in 780 BCE changed the flow of three rivers. Over 600 earthquakes are recorded in the Taiping Yulan, a 10th-century manuscript.
Zhang Heng (78-139 CE), a Chinese physicist, mathematician, and inventor, invented the seismograph, still used to measure earthquakes today. A big ‘fine cast bronze’ jar with a cover served as the seismograph. Eight dragons’ heads are evenly distributed around the vessel, with bronze balls in their jaws. Eight bronze toads with their jaws wide open surround the vessel’s base. If pushed or shaken, the ball would fall into the mouth of its corresponding toad.
Discovery of Alcohol
Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Chinese are also responsible for the invention of alcohol. For example, in China’s Henan region, the discovery of 9000-year-old ceramic shards happened containing signs of alcoholic contents. If this is accurate, it will put it over 1,000 years ahead of the Arabian peninsula, regarded as the first brewers.
The discovery of alcoholic drinks and fermentation has also happened outside of China in Georgia (about 6,000 BCE), ancient Egypt (3150 BCE), and Babylon (3000 BCE). However, it’s unclear if these discoveries happened independently.
In 1970, vast quantities of wine-storing and drinking jars were discovered in Pingshan County, Hebei Province. Two of them held a wheat-based beverage from about 2,280 BCE. This beverage might very well be the oldest liquor ever discovered.
Because the banknote, or paper money, was initially so light that it might blow out of your fingers, hence, it got its name “flying money.” Because copper coins were heavy and unwieldy to handle during significant commercial transactions, establishing them as merchant deposit receipts happened first in China during the Tang Dynasty. The government immediately embraced paper money for sending tax payments. In the 10th century, China adopted real paper money exchangeable for metal coins. On the other hand, Sweden was the first country to issue Western money in 1661.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Kites
The Chinese stood ahead of the rest of the world in silk production, and they utilized it to build kites by combining high tensile strength silk with a robust and lightweight bamboo framework. The reporting of the first kite happened in ancient China by Chinese philosophers Lu Ban and Mozi in the fifth century BCE. Paper kites were in use to transmit messages for rescue operations by 549 CE. The Chinese utilized kites to test the wind, estimate distance, and communicate militarily during the Middle Ages.
Iron and Steel Casting
The Chinese employed stone arrowheads for fishing and hunting throughout the Paleolithic period. However, conflicts between different groups began to emerge during the Neolithic period, and the Chinese began to transform their agricultural and fishing equipment into lethal weapons. The development of bronze smelting happened throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties to manufacture various weaponry and farming implements.
During the Zhou dynasty (1050 BCE–256 BCE), an Iron Age began in ancient China, when the employment of iron was to make weapons, farming and household items. However, private iron production was illegal under the Han dynasty, and the state began to control the iron smelting business.
Iron and steel weapons were made by the Chinese using various processes. China’s iron and steel industry grew rapidly due to its creative processes. They developed several casting methods to manufacture crude iron, cast iron, tempering, and steel, putting them ahead of other civilizations.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Wheel Barrow
Wheelbarrows were in use in ancient China in the Han period. We can see this evidence in Hui’s tomb paintings and brick tomb reliefs. On the other hand, the wheelbarrow is assigned to Shu Han Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181–234 CE) somewhere between 197 and 234 CE. Liang invented the wheelbarrow to transport military weaponry and injured and dead men from the battlefield.
The two most prevalent variants were the front-wheeled wheelbarrow and the centrally placed wheelbarrow. Because the wheelbarrow’s weight was well divided between the wheels and pullers, it didn’t take a lot of work to draw it. This set-up made it easy to use, and builders, warriors, traders, and farmers mostly utilized wheelbarrows.
Around 500 BCE, the invention of the abacus happened by the Chinese. However, it’s also worth noting that other historical documents suggest the Sumerians invented a different type of abacus far earlier, about 2,700 BCE.
Later Roman literature, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Greek artefacts from circa 300 BCE also mention Abaci. Whatever the case, by the 1300s, the technique had been refined and remains virtually unmodified today.
The device’s simplicity and utility would make it a long-term investment. However, many societies throughout the world still utilize the abacus. In addition, many people claim that they are better than current digital calculators for simple computations.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Umbrellas
The first mention of a foldable umbrella, according to historical documents, originates from approximately 21 CE. The creation of this umbrella most likely happened for a ceremonial four-wheeled chariot of the time.
In the 1st century, the discovery of an authentic specimen happened in the tomb of Wang Guang. There may even be proof of them dating back 2,400 years. According to legend, a Chinese carpenter and inventor named Lu Ban invented the umbrella after seeing children use lotus leaves as a rain cover.
More convincing evidence suggests that the invention of umbrellas happened during the Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century. Complex bronze socketing hinges with locking sides and bolts are said to have been employed to hold parasols and umbrellas.
Lacquer usage, especially lacquerware, dates back to the Shang Dynasty, maybe as early as the Neolithic era. Lacquer creates a long-lasting, hard, protective, ornamental, insect and water repellent surface. In addition, lacquerware is lightweight because it is made by layering tiny layers of material over each other and onto a core. The usage of colours such as cinnabar and iron oxide regularly happened. Finally, the lacquer tree’s dried resin or sap, extracted by a procedure akin to mapling, is the product.
According to archaeological evidence, the practice of acupuncture has been existing in ancient China since the Paleolithic period. The discovery of stone knives, bamboo or bone needles, and other materials in use as therapeutic implements happened in China. Also, during the reign of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor (2697–2597 BCE), the revolution in acupuncture happened. The Nei Jing, the first book of Chinese medicine, had its composition between 305 BCE and 204 BCE. Huang Di and his physicist Qi Bo had a conversation on the entire gamut of Chinese medicinal skills.
The Decimal System
An inscription from the thirteenth century BCE shows how the Chinese adopted the decimal system, with ‘547 days’ inscribed as ‘Five hundred plus four decades plus seven days.’ Instead of using an alphabet, the Chinese used characters. It’s tempting to continue writing using terms like eleven when using a Western alphabet with more than nine letters. However, ten is ten-blank in Chinese characters, while eleven is ten-one; thus, zero was left blank. It was easier than coming up with a new character for each number, and having a decimal system from the start aided mathematical progress significantly. A 976 CE Spanish text contains the first evidence of decimals in Europe.
Ancient Chinese Inventions of Rockets
The invention of rockets happened in China by ancient Chinese innovators using counter-force produced by burning gunpowder. According to Chinese legend, the Wei State employed torches affixed to arrows to defend Chencang against the Shu State’s invading armies in 228 CE. Later, the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) developed gunpowder rockets. A gunpowder-filled paper tube was linked to an arrow that a bow could throw. In China, old rockets and modified versions were frequently in employment in military and recreational operations.
Ancient Chinese inventions transformed many businesses that we take for granted today. For example, there would be no books without paper; travel will be difficult without the compass and no paper money without printing. During medieval times, the Chinese developed many things. Without these ancient and medieval Chinese technologies, the world would be different.