The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China | Sunday Observer

The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

12 June, 2021


The formula of gunpowder was initially discovered by Taoist alchemists of ancient China when they attempted to make pills of immortality. Afterwards according to the formula, some people produced black gunpowder using a mixture of niter, sulfur and charcoal in certain proportion. In the middle years of the Tang Dynasty, some books recorded the method of producing this kind of gunpowder. After its invention, the gun powder was first used to produce firecrackers and fireworks and began to be applied to military affairs until the late years of the Tang Dynasty.

In the Northern Song Dynasty gunpowder had been in extensive application in military affairs and then in weapons such as the firelock, rocket and cannon which were in use. Between 1225 AD and 1248 AD, the gunpowder and weapons using gunpowder were introduced to Europe via Arabia.

Since niter the major raw material of the gunpowder is as white as snow the Arabs called gunpowder ’Chinese Snow ’and ‘Chinese Salt ‘.After the introduction of gunpowder to Europe , it was not only extensively applied to the weapons industry but to various projects such as exploding mountains , road construction and river excavation. The invention of gunpowder accelerated the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

The Compass

The compass is a very simple, but obviously valuable tool that we have today, and still actively use. While the compass has changed since its invention in ancient China, the awe surrounding its long history has not.

The core of any early compass was magnetism. While there is historical evidence to suggest that the Greeks knew about magnetism, historical records and artifacts tell us that the Chinese were the first to use it, as well as modify and heavily use it in a compass. Prior to the compass, the Vikings supposedly found geographical position by landmarks and other general means. They relied on understanding the sun’s direction, while also using astrological knowledge. This system, while moderately effective, did not allow for travel of great lengths, and was also not entirely accurate.

Naturally, we can see the usefulness of a compass, especially when the sky is cloudy or hidden from view. With that established, understanding ancient Chinese culture is crucial if we hope to completely understand how they developed the compass and why it developed in the way that it did.

The Chinese believed in a variety of connections between the sky and the earth, and were also interested in the idea that the moon and its cycles could be used to group different days into months and also use seasons to create a year. These different cycles were eventually better explained by a variety of astrological features, leading to a 19-year calendar cycle that even accounted for leap months and noted specific features such as the equinoxes.

This calendar had important predictive ability that helped lead to the invention of the compass. It also highlights how interested the ancient Chinese were in natural phenomena, and partially explains why they were the first to develop the compass. The sky was eventually divided into five ’gongs’ or pieces, each representing North, South, East, West and the middle. Each of these gongs were associated with different animals. The North was associated with the Black Tortoise, the East with the Blue Dragon, the South with the Red Bird and the West with the White Tiger. Each of these directions had further associations which were culturally derived.

These directions were important in the construction of tombs and other structures were created as many burial places. The four cardinal directions corresponded with the movement of the sun, which impacted simple things like how rulers would sit or where they would stand. As will be discussed further later, when they managed to develop and discover how to identify a true north with different minerals and magnets, the Chinese already had the knowledge and history to use it first for spiritual means, and then eventually navigational purposes, (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)


Before printing was invented a scholar had to do the transcription word for word if he wanted to own a new book. With the invention of paper and ink, stamper gradually became popular during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), which was the early form of Carved Type Printing. Block Printing first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The text was first written on a piece of thin paper, then glued face down onto a wooden plate. The characters were carved out to make a wood-block printing plate, which was used to print the text. Wood-block printing took a long time as a new block had to be carved for every page in a book.

It took a lot of time and energy as well as materials to prepare for the printing a book, but it worked more effectively afterwards. This technology was gradually introduced to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Yet, Block Printing had its drawbacks -- all the boards became useless after the printing was done and a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block.

The frontispiece of the world’s oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra printed in the year 868, was discovered at the Dunhuang Cave, along the Silk Road. The book, in the form of a roll, is the earliest woodcut illustration in a printed book. Block Printing was a costly and time-consuming process, for each carved block could only be used for a specific page of a particular book, besides, a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. However movable type changed all of that.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a man named Bi Sheng carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay. Each piece of movable type had on it one Chinese character which was carved in relief on a small block of moistened clay. After the block had been hardened by fire, the type became hard and durable and could be used wherever required. The pieces of movable type could be glued to an iron plate and easily detached from the plate.

Each piece of character could be assembled to print a page and then broken up and redistributed as needed. When the printing was finished, the pieces were put away for future use. By the year 1000, books with pages in the modern style had replaced scrolls. Two colour printing (black and red) was seen as early as 1340. This technology then spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Europe. Later, German Johann Gutenberg invented movable type made of metal in the 1440s.

Movable type printing developed very fast. Based on clay type, type made of wood, lead, tin and copper gradually appeared. The invention of paper greatly contributed to the spread and development of civilisation. Before its invention, bones, tortoise shells, and bamboo slips were all used as writing surfaces, but as Chinese civilisation developed they proved themselves unsuitable because of their bulk and weight. Hemp fibre and silk were used to make paper but the quality was far from satisfactory. Besides, these two materials could be better used for other purposes so it was not practical to make paper from them. Xue fu wu che is a Chinese idiom describing a learned man. The story behind it concerns a scholar named Hui Shi who lived during the Warring States Period.

He needed five carts to carry his books when he travelled around teaching. Books at that time were made of wood or bamboo slips so they were heavy and occupied a lot of space. Reading at the time needed not only brain work but also physical strength. In 105 A.D. Cai Lun, a eunuch during the Eastern Han Dynasty, invented paper from worn fishnet, bark and cloth.

These raw materials could be easily found at a much lower cost so large quantities of paper could be produced. The paoer making technique was exported to Korea in 384 A.D. A Korean Monk then took this skill with him to Japan in 610 A.D. During a war between the Tang Dynasty and the Arab Empire, the Arabs captured some Tang soldiers and paper making workers.

Thus, a paper factory was set up by the Arabs. In the 11th Century the skill was carried to India when Chinese monks journeyed there in search of Buddhist sutras. Through the Arabs, Africans and Europeans then mastered the skill.

The first paper factory in Europe was set up in Spain. In the latter half of the 16th century, this skill was brought to America. By the 19th century, when paper factories were set up in Australia, paper making had spread to the whole world.


Papermaking is one of the great inventions of China. It is the process of making paper. Zachary Lapierre has mentioned in his article that the history of papermaking can be traced back to the Han Dynasty.

It was invented by an official of the Imperial Court called Tsai Lun. He was the first recorded inventor of paper in circa 105 A.D. Tsai Lun presented paper and a papermaking process to the Chinese Emperor and that was noted in the Imperial Court records.

There may have been papermaking in China earlier than 105 A.D. According to recent research and excavations, the earliest form of paper was dated back to the Western Han Dynasty, but this type of paper was made of hemp that was pounded and disintegrated. It was very coarse, had an uneven texture and it was very thick. This type of paper was unearthed in a Han tomb somewhere in the Gunshu Province.

However, during the Eastern Han Dynasty around 105A.D. Tsai Lun invented a new type of paper and did much for the spread of papermaking technology in China.

He created a sheet of paper using the inner bark of a mulberry tree and other fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste (Needham). Tsai Lun’s invention of paper is considered one of the most amazing and important inventions of all time, because it enabled China to create and develop their civilizstion quickly and eventually it helped us advance in our civilization as well.