Great Inventions

Chinese Inventions

Chinese history

Dr. Keith Ray surveys the four great Chinese inventions that have changed the World. It is an article reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine (2004).

Over thousands of years China has produced a great stream of inventions, ranging from the mundane chopstick and wheelbarrow, to sophisticated earthquake detectors and the advanced concept of bank notes. But in China there are four inventions traditionally referred to as the Four Great Inventions. These are paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing.


Interestingly the word 'paper' is derived from 'papyrus'. Around 2,200 BC the Egyptians in the lower Nile region discovered that a type of reed, papyrus, could be formed into a writing surface by overlapping thin strips which had been soaked for a long time in water, and then pounding and pressing it into a sheet. But it wasn't really paper as we know it, and it was difficult to write on, and expensive. But it was an improvement over the materials previously used for writing on, like bone, wood and stone. The invention of paper as we know it came in China around 105 AD. In fact the earliest paper is very similar to modern paper in concept and technology.

The inventor of paper is traditionally assumed to be Chai Lun (or Ts'ai Lun), who was the head of a royal workshop in 2nd century China. However recent archaeological evidence suggests paper was in use in China two hundred years earlier. In any event China was way ahead of the rest of the world. Chai Lum based his paper on a variety of fibrous materials, including rope pieces, old fishing nets, rags, bamboo fibres and tree bark. Modern paper is still made from rags and wood pulp. He made his paper by boiling up all the raw materials with wood ash or lime for up to 35 days. Another vital ingredient was birch leaves, from which the mucilage was drained out for strengthening the paper, and giving it evenness and smoothness. All the fibrous material, once softened, was beaten into a pulp which was said to be rather like porridge, and the birch leaf extract was added. This 'porridge' was then filtered through a flat mesh strainer made of cloth, leaving the fibres lying flat on the screen. This was then dried. Paper is still made this way. The great thing about Chai Lun's invention was that his paper could be mass-produced. It was also ideal to write on, inexpensive, light and so easy to store and to carry. So the world's first sheet of paper came into being.

Paper gradually spread from China, reaching Korea in the 3rd century AD. It was brought to Japan around 610 AD, and then moved to Vietnam and India at the beginning of the 6th century. It took a thousand years after its invention for proper paper to reach Europe. But it did not reach Britain until around 1490, when the first known paper mill in England was built in 1490. Paper reached the Americas in the 16th century, by which time it had become a truly global product. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) many varieties of paper were developed, including bamboo paper, hemp paper, hide paper and xuan paper. Xuan paper is used in Chinese painting and calligraphy because of its smoothness and durability, and its whiteness. The only significant difference between the paper you print on from your computer and the Chinese paper is the 'filler' we now use to make the paper really smooth. But ironically that filler is called ... China clay!

A 19th century depiction of the legendary
emperor Shun who is going laboriously through
files brought to him by assiduous secretaries.


The second great invention, which goes closely hand in hand with paper, was printing. Before printing was invented, knowledge could only be passed on my word of mouth, or by extremely expensive handwritten manuscripts. Not only was it expensive, but it was slow, and there was no guarantee each copy would be the same. As early as 2000 years ago, in the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD) a form of printing had been developed. This was stone-tablet rubbing, very similar to brass rubbing in principle. It was used to spread Confucian knowledge and Buddhist sutras. Building on this idea, in the Sui Dynasty (581-618AD) there developed the practice of carving text on a wooden board, which was then covered in ink, and then it was printed page by page onto sheets of paper. This became known as block printing, and was very similar in concept to the Chinese seal. This technology produced the first ever book with a verifiable printing date in 868. It was a Buddhist sutra. This was nearly 600 years ahead of the first printed book in Europe.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the technique spread across Asia, through Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.. But although it was a great advance, this block printing technology had a serious drawback. One mistake could ruin the entire block, and once used the block became useless, because it was unique. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279) a man called Bi Sheng had the idea of carving individual characters on small, identical square pieces of clay, which was hardened by slow baking. In this way the world's first ever movable type arrived. Once the printing was finished, the individual pieces were put away for future use. This new technology spread to Korea, then Japan and Vietnam, and later Europe. The next significant development of printing actually came in Europe, when Johann Gutenberg developed the movable type further by making the individual characters of metal. And so printing technology remained until the advent of the computer era.


The third great Chinese invention is gunpowder. Everything from Guy Fawke's night fireworks to modern artillery shells owe their origin to this. Ancient necromancers searching for the elixir of everlasting life on behalf of the Emperor, discovered that mixtures of certain fuels and ores could, if mixed in the right proportions and heated, produce an explosion. This led in time to the discovery of gunpowder. In 1044 Zeng Gongliang wrote “The Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques”, and in this text he recorded three formulae for gunpowder. Each was based on saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal. Joseph Needham identified these as the earliest formulae for what we now know as gunpowder. The formula for gunpowder reached the Arab world in the 12th Century and Europe in the 14th century. Common folklore states that gunpowder was first used for entertainment only, with fireworks, but the military potential was soon exploited. Indeed the earliest known illustration of a cannon dating from around 1127 was found in China, the time of the changeover from the Northern Song Dynasty to the Southern Song Dynasty. This was 150 years earlier than the cannon was developed in the west. The Song people also used gunpowder to make fire lances, or flamethrowers, and anti-personnel mines (for which we might be less grateful!). By the end of the Song Dynasty the Chinese had invented multi-stage rockets. In a way this could be seen as the idea behind the rocket, which put a man on the moon. Joseph Needham also suggests that the idea of an explosion in a self contained cylinder inspired in time the internal combustion engine.

So how did gunpowder move from East to West? Although the Song Dynasty was not particularly strong, its invention of gunpowder enabled the Chinese to repel the Mongols for decades. But eventually the Mongols were able to capture Chinese gunpowder makers and turn gunpowder back on the Chinese. The Chinese experts were employed in the Mongol army, and as the Mongols expanded their empire gunpowder went with them.


The fourth of the Great Inventions is the magnetic compass. Whilst mining for ores and producing copper and iron by smelting, the Chinese came upon a natural mineral, magnetite, which attracted iron, and also always pointed north if suspended. With development the round compass came into being.

The compass was probably invented in the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) by Chinese fortune-tellers who used the lodestones to construct their fortune telling boards. But they eventually realised that the loadstones always pointed towards the north, and the compass really came into being. The first mention of the compass was in a book entitled “Dream Pool Essays” dated 1086 by Shen Kuo, in the Song Dynasty. This was a century earlier than the compass was first mentioned in Europe in 1190.

The compass was further developed in the 8th Century AD when magnetised needles replaced loadstone, and between 850 and 1050 they became common as navigational devices on ships. The first person recorded as using a compass for navigation was Zheng He (1371-1435) from Yunnan Province, who made seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433. The compass was introduced to the Arab world and Europe between 960 and 1127. In the days before the compass navigation had to be done using the pole star, the moon and the sun. The compass gave a constant bearing, and made navigation safer. This opened up the oceans for exploration and led to the discovery of the New World.

It is not an exaggeration to say, as Francis Bacon said in his book 'The New Instruments', that paper, gunpowder and the compass reshaped the world.


These were the Four Great Inventions. For interest other Chinese inventions include:

Spaghetti; Fans; Kites; Iron casting; First to harness animals for agriculture; Blast furnace; Abacus, the first calculator; The ship's rudder; The first to make things from silk; Planetarium; Books; Ink; Paper money; Ice cream; Wheelbarrow; Medicine; Acupuncture; Brain surgery; ... and so the list goes on.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye, Issue 1, 2004