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Ancient Chinese Innovations

Updated on May 5, 2012
A Picture From Ancient China
A Picture From Ancient China | Source

A Seat of Innovation

With history going all the way back before 2100 BC China boasts one of the oldest histories, however many people don't think about some of the amazing things that ancient China brought us. There are four big creations that people usually forget about, and then a plethora of other useful items that people use daily but never think about where they came from.

White Rice Paper with Gold Flecks.
White Rice Paper with Gold Flecks. | Source


If you ask most people where paper came from you would usually hear an answer about papyrus or the Egyptians, however having found paper fragments dating back to the second century BC, we know paper and the process of making paper via pulp was created in China. Interestingly enough, the process of making paper was traditionally thought to be created by the eunuch Cai Lun who was in the Han court during the second century AD, but these fragments put the correct date together. This would have increased the rate of information sharing by a vast amount, causing innovation to spread a lot faster.


After paper was made people would logically want to create letters and books faster, rather than copying them down by hand. Sometime before 868 - which is the year of the first dated book - the invention of Woodblock Printing came about. This would have led to an explosion in the speed in which books were printed. Woodblock printing was a lot more logical for the Chinese than movable type because of the writing style of the language. They did create movable type as well, but it did not move into popularity as it would in the western world. Printing on paper did not start for the western world until 1400 when paper became more available.


Around the ninth century was when gunpowder was created by alchemists who were on a quest for the elixir of immortality. This of course was refined and by the 14thcentury was perfected. Along with this creation the Chinese started working on military applications of gunpowder, creating bombs and explosive round shots. This would lead to the Chinese having an upper hand in combat and trade for quite some time.

Man With Loaded Gunpowder Rocket
Man With Loaded Gunpowder Rocket
South Pointing Fish, Original Water Compass
South Pointing Fish, Original Water Compass

The Compass

The problem of getting lost was a big problem. In the dark, without stars or the sun it is easy to not know which direction you are traveling. In a Song Dynasty book from 1040-1044 there is a curious description of an iron item in a bowl of water which was magnetized and pointed south. This was promptly used to find the way at night when the sun and stars were not visible. The interesting thing is that this kind of water compass was the popular kind of compass because the dry compass was by suspension, had a wooden frame, and had a piece of iron covered with wax which would always point north.

And More...

These are the largest inventions, though there were many others that China can boast. Do you know where your fork originated? China. The noodles that are so easily grabbed with such a fork originate from China as well. Many instruments have been attributed to ancient China as well such as the drum and bell, and a lot of food cultivation methods as well. The next time you read a book, have noodles, or use a compass think about what marvels the ancient Chinese came up with and see if you can come up with any of your own!


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    • Danieljohnston profile image

      Daniel Johnston 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      You're welcome and thank you. I was trying to make it shorter than I am used to writing for a history article so that it would be more readable for everyone. I usually write much larger research papers, so I was worrying about condensing it so much.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      While I knew most of those things already, it was nice to have the facts presented so engagingly.