8 Ancient Chinese Inventions the West Had Not Imagined
According to the statistics provided by the World Economic Forum, nowadays China can boast its position as the world’s second largest spender on scientific research and development, yielding only to the United States.
Yet, surprisingly enough, China is not only a producer but also an inventor of a great many things and even technologies that the US and much older nations use daily.
When numerous tribes were searching for the best lands all across Europe and couldn’t even imagine that the Atlantic Ocean separated them from the other large continents, the Chinese civilization was establishing, developing, and revolutionizing oriental science and technology.
Of course, China can’t be credited with the invention of the mobile phone, Internet or other modern technologies. But what this nation did give to the whole of humanity thousands of years ago advanced different industries and improved different aspects of human life. What’s more, the influence of all those ingenious ancient Chinese inventions can be tracked even to the 21st century.
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Today, we all can enjoy flavorful Chinese teas, present exquisite Chinese porcelain to connoisseurs, be amazed by the intricacy of Chinese silk, and improve our health with the help of Chinese medical traditions and advancements.
However, that’s just a tiny part of the enormous heritage that ancient China left for the global future.
Documenting the Chinese Contribution
Dr. Joseph Needham was one of the first and most prominent Western scientists who tried to shed light on Chinese achievements and contributions to the development of our whole world. The British biochemist and historian became captivated by China’s attitude and approach to science and technology after his trip to this country in 1942.
Needham’s admiration for Chinese history, culture and language, as well as his extraordinary intelligence, led him to work on a huge project, now widely known as “Science and Civilization in China”.
It comprises 27 published books in 7 volumes on the subject and covers each and every aspect: from mathematics to medicine.
Science and Civilisation in China (Chinese translation) by Joseph Needham. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Joseph Needham enthusiastically described dozens of ancient Chinese inventions which were (and remain) widely used in the Western world that one couldn’t even imagine they actually had come from the Far East.
So, what did this centuries-old, wise, and still mysterious civilization give us for nothing, literally?
Paper, Toilet Paper, Paper Money, and the Menu
The invention of paper allowed the invention of the other three helpful things mentioned here. So, let’s put all four of them into one category – paper invention.
Europeans were buying papyrus from Egypt and using parchment for all those centuries when the Chinese were enjoying real paper. Although it didn’t look quite like the modern paper we are used to writing on, it turned out to be a more convenient and durable material.
Historical records attribute the invention of papermaking to Cai Lun, a eunuch of the emperor’s court. Although it’s officially acknowledged that papermaking was born in AD 105, recent investigations have traced it back to the 2nd century BC.
Some may argue that papyrus had been produced in Egypt since 3000 BC and served its purpose well for many centuries. However, in the 14th-15th centuries Europe also opted for paper. And this choice speaks for itself.
Obviously, if China invented papermaking, it must be the creator of… toilet paper. The first recorded use of it dates back to AD 851, during the Tang dynasty. But it was the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the popularity of toilet paper among the imperial court increased.
In the Western world toilet paper became commercially available only in the second half on the 19th century, after it was “reinvented” by Joseph C. Gayetty in 1857.
In the 9th century AD the Chinese started using paper to print money. The first paper bills served as credit or exchange notes. Merchants could receive them for deposing metal coins, without any losses in the value of “cash”.
A printing plate and banknote. The Yuan dynasty. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
China has always been a grand trader, welcoming merchants and adventurers from all around the world. The large number of foreigners who couldn’t speak the Chinese language is said to be the reason for inventing… a restaurant menu as early as the times of the Song dynasty (960–1279). The Chinese already had paper, so using it to make menus was a reasonable idea, wasn’t it?
Despite the availability of much earlier artifacts of printing in the Far East, the Diamond Sutra is considered to be the very first book printed on paper at regular size. According to the records, it was made in AD 868, during the Tang dynasty. At that time woodblock printing was gaining popularity, simplifying the spread of religious texts without modifications.
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A page from the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first printed book. (Public Domain)
Early masters put ink on an inscribed wooden block. The ink rolled over the surface of characters carved into the wood. After printing, a reversed picture of the wooden block was left on paper that took the ink easily. A single block could produce about 20,000 copies.
One century later Bi Sheng upgraded this technique by introducing movable type printing. Movable individual characters, carved on clay pieces and hardened with fire, could be attached to an iron plate to print one page of text. It was then broken up and reorganized to print another page.
By the way, Johann Gutenberg used almost the same technology to print the first Bible in the 1450s.
The 2004 research by University of Pennsylvania claimed that the Chinese might have been the first nation to discover fermentation and distillation processes used to create alcohol. The team of scientists studied dried organic materials that they found in ancient jars. The results of a complex analysis allowed them to state that the Chinese drank alcoholic beverages as early as 9,000 years ago.
Traditional Chinese rice wine containers. (Pantira /Adobe Stock)
The legend has it that Yi Di, the wife of Yu the Great, who was the emperor of the mystical dynasty Xia, was the first to prepare an alcoholic drink for her husband. That might have happened around 2000 BC.
So, the history of wine and beer making takes its roots from China, which nowadays is, ironically, not so well known for the production and export of alcohol.
Surely, chopsticks make an integral part of Chinese exotica. But the finds from the recent excavation of the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first non-mythical emperor of China (259 BC - 210 BC), prove that the Chinese created forks of quite a modern design many hundreds of years ago. Why the Chinese didn’t and don’t use them is another question.
Nonetheless, the West can thank this nation for their creativity and practicality. At the end of the day, it’s quite difficult for us to imagine our traditional breakfasts and dinners without forks.
Arab traders are likely to have brought the compass to Europe. Thus, our distant ancestors started using it in navigation to find the right direction in the stormy seas and to discover new lands.
However, the compass is one of the greatest ancient Chinese inventions. It was created around the 3rd century BC and initially used by… fortunetellers. Chinese navigators began to use it in ships not earlier than during the Song dynasty, that is around the 10th century AD.
Chinese compass of the Han dynasty. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By the way, unlike the modern compass that points north, the ancient Chinese compass pointed south. The “needle” of the Chinese compass was made from lodestone in the form of a spoon. Lodestone naturally points south, and that gave Chinese sailors an additional strategic advantage: south is always the direction of the sun when it’s midday. So there’s no wonder why smart Chinese navigation became a model for the whole world.
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The prototype of our mechanical watches and clocks existed first in China too. Its creator was Buddhist monk Yi Xing. He came up with the first model of the mechanical clock in AD 725, two centuries before the idea of it struck Westerners.
According to his design, dripping water powered a big wheel which made one full revolution in one day – 24 hours.
During the Song dynasty, official Su Song modernized the clock so it could tell not only the time of the day but also the day of the month, the phase of the Moon, and the positions of some stars and planets. Su Song built a clock tower and added a chain-driven mechanism to the sophisticated system of gears and wheels that made the clock turn.
We may know it better as a seismograph, though almost 2,000 years ago it looked more like a beautiful bronze vase. What was its secret?
Zhang Heng’s seismometer. (Muséum de Toulouse/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Inside the vessel there is a pendulum that can be moved by an earth tremor. The swing of the pendulum sets in motion the internal levers inside the vessel. This triggers the release of a small ball held by a dragon that faces the direction of the epicenter of the tremor. This ball falls into the mouth of a frog right below it, hence heralding the danger.
In China earthquakes are frequent, so the stylish device did stand this country in good stead for hundreds of years.
The Western prototype of the modern seismograph was designed in Persia in the 13th century and in France no earlier than in the beginning of the 18th century.
China’s recent achievements in space exploration are impressive. Probably, in the 3rd century AD the inventors of rockets couldn’t even dream that their descendants would once see the Earth from the skies. But the memory and historical records about their innovation inspired distant generations to build huge and powerful spacecrafts.
Drawing of an early Mongolian soldier lighting a rocket. (Public Domain)
But let’s go back to the ancient times and see how it worked there.
The counter-force, required to set a rocket in motion, was produced by ignited gunpowder, which is actually another Chinese invention. For example, during the Song dynasty, the Chinese stuffed a paper tube with gunpowder and attached this tube to an arrow that they could launch with a bow.
Obviously, such invention was widely used in military. But it also became an integral part of traditional Chinese entertainment – fireworks.
Updated September 22, 2021.
Briony Harris. China is an innovation superpower. This is why. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/these-charts-show-how-china-is-becoming-an-innovation-superpower/.
Howard Bennett. Ever wondered about the history of toilet paper? Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/31/AR2009053102217_2.html.
John Sexton. Knife and fork found in first emperor's tomb. Available at: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2010-04/01/content_19732414.htm.
Sarah Lyall. Joseph Needham, China scholar from Britain, dies at 94. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/27/obituaries/joseph-needham-china-scholar-from-britain-dies-at-94.html.