Type: History
Pages: 5 | Words: 1285
Reading Time: 6 Minutes

The people of China have a rich history, from the ancient times up to the Modern Era. Great dynasties ruled over large territories of the world’s biggest continent – Asia, for over four thousand years. The Chinese were also very innovative people, who have presented the world with amazing discoveries and inventions time and again. Many of these discoveries are still used today and many more are the basis for things we cannot imagine contemporary life without. We shall examine some of the most important, in my opinion, inventions, which originated from the Chinese.

Chinese Four Great Inventions

I would like to start with the Four Great Inventions as they are internationally recognized – they have become symbols of the advanced level of science and technology in China. Some scientists today suggest that the fact that the Four Great Inventions were the most important is arguable. Indeed, many other inventions may seem more sophisticated and have had a greater impact on civilization. However, the Four Great Inventions hold a special place in the technological relations between the areas of the Old World – the East and the West.

One of the most important inventions made in China is paper. Cai Lun of the Easter Han Dynasty made paper using tree bark, pieces of rags, rope and old fishing nets. The paper was thin, smooth and very fine. In fact, when discovered in the eighteenth century, it was still very clear and the characters written on it were comprehensible. With time, paper development became more and more advanced and eventually completely replaced the old writing materials – bamboo, wood, bones, silk, pottery etc. In addition, the discovery and usage of paper was an important step to creating the technology of printing.

Another great invention is printing. In the 1940’s Bi Sheng of the Northern Song Dynasty presented his innovative model that caused a great sensation and was a turning point in printing history – movable type printing. This print system consisted of four stages: creating the “types”, composing the text, the printing itself, and, finally – recovering the types. Bi would carve each of the types by hand out of clay and then bake them. Then, to compose a text Bi would put a special frame on a sheet of metal. Next, he would arrang the types into words and text on the frame. It was possible to arrange one plate, while another one was printing. After print, the types were stored away and could later be reused. Moveable type printing served as a basis for the development of printing methods later on, such as wooden, copper and lead type printing. In fact, Bi Sheng created the method of moveable printing a whole four hundred years before it was discovered in Europe.

Gunpowder was also invented in China. It turned out to be one of the most noteworthy inventions of the Middle Ages. Gunpowder had been in use in China for a while in much simpler forms, such as basic hand grenades. But in the ninth century a new formula was discovered, which comprised of a combination of niter, sulfur and carbon. This formula was used to create rifles and rockets.  Eventually, this new formula led to the invention of cannons. Over time gunpowder prescriptions were perfected and cannons became powerful enough to breach stone walls. Gunpowder was also used to create fireworks.

The Fourth Great Invention is the compass. The Chinese were the first to use natural magnets as a directing device. The first compasses were used in architecture. According to Chinese geomancy, building a house facing north would put one in harmony with nature and bring goodwill. With the perfection of the compass it was employed in sea navigation. New expeditions and maritime undertakings were made possible with this new device.

Other Important Innovations in China

Besides the Four Great Inventions, the Chinese people introduced many other important innovations to the World Heritage.

The invention of pasta is often mistakenly attributed to Italy. However, pasta had been invented and eaten in China for four thousand years before European explorers discovered it and brought it home.

The Chinese achieved great success in their agriculture, thanks to a few ingenious inventions of their own. The Chinese are the authors of the iron plow. They also perfected it by inventing the adjustable strut, which allowed the setting of an exact plow depth. The horse collar was also invented in China. In fact, when the Europeans invented a harness for the horse, it was not as efficient as its Chinese prototype. While the European version squeezed the horse’s neck, so it had difficulty breathing, the Chinese collar allowed the horse to push with its shoulders, breathe better and as a result – work more efficiently.

Paper money was also invented in China, ninth century AD. Originally the Chinese called it the “flying monkey” because of its lightness, it could be blown out of one’s hand by the wind. It quickly gained popularity and was used by merchants, as well as the government.

Out of the above described inventions I would highlight four I consider the most used in the modern world. Those are paper, printing, the iron plow and paper money. My choices are based on the inventions’ relevance to me as a contemporary person. Paper and print are invaluable to me. As a student, I constantly rely on them for information in books and other materials, as well as use them for my homework, term papers etc. The iron plow is important because it is necessary for growing food I eat. And food is an absolute necessity for humans. And lastly – paper money. Money is a driving force in the world today. It is very hard to get around and get by without money. Today, more and more people use credit cards and electronic money instead of cash. But paper money is still very much in use today and will be for a long time.

There are also reasons why I, as a contemporary person, did not choose other inventions in my top four. You hardly ever see anybody walking with a compass. There are many other ways people can find their location or their destination today – GPS, Internet, road signs, simply asking someone for directions or using public transportation with known departure and destination locations. Gunpowder is something irrelevant to me as a modern person. The only place I ever see its use is in fireworks. I love pasta, but I can do without it. Horse harnesses are of little interest to me today. This is not only because I am not involved in the agriculture sector, but also because in the world today, machines have replaced horses in many functions. Tractors plow the fields, horses only do so on small farms and simply because the farmer chooses to do so.

This is not to minimize the role of other great inventions. In their time, they were invaluable discoveries and astounding break-through turning points in the evolution of culture, society, industry etc. The world today would not be where it is now without them. But they are not things that have an immediate effect on me today.

And my top choice in great Chinese inventions would have to be paper. Where would we be without paper today? It is everywhere – in books, advertisements, magazines, brochures, birthday cards, notebooks, papers etc. And even though more and more books and documents are being digitalized, I do not think computers will ever be able to completely replace the written or printed word.


  1. Chinese inventions. (2012) Asia Society. Retrieved from <http://asiasociety.org/education/resources-schools/elementary-lesson-plans/chinese-inventions>
  2. Formation of the Chinese civilization: The Four Great Inventions. (2001). china.org.ua. Retrieved from <http://www.china.org.cn/e-gudai/8.htm>
  3. Timeline for Chinese inventions. (n.d.). China: a teaching workbook, Asia for educators, Columbia University. Retrieved from <http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/readings/inventions_timeline.htm>
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