China: The Land of Invention

How has the inventive spirit of the ancient Chinese culture influenced the Western World ?

Here’s a look.


I often say that we in the Western world are often oblivious to just how Oriental our technology really is.

And I don’t mean IPODs, phones, computers and such.

I mean fundamental technology — on which more advanced technologies are built.

I’m not sure a modern Westerner would recognize his culture , if suddenly, the discoveries of the Orient were somehow to be withdrawn– especially those of China.

I asked a co-worker last night if he could name three ancient Chinese inventions —

He replied : “gun powder“, “spaghetti“, and “fortune cookies“.

Fortune Cookies notwithstanding,
( well, it was an Oriental invention– Japanese, before 1878. ) ,

It’s hard to visualize what society would look like without Gun Powder having been invented….

I can’t even imagine my Saturday dinner without the 4000 year old Chinese invention of Spaghetti.

And , to be fair, these are three pretty common answers.

But the Chinese contribution to Western science and culture goes deeper than that.

Much deeper.


Near the Anhua Bridge in Beijing, at the China Science and Technology Museum-

There was an exposition recently on the “Four Great Chinese Inventions”–

…. the technological breakthoughs that have most impacted world economies and culture .

They are: Gunpowder, Paper-making, Printing, and the Compass .

Gunpowder was discovered by accident by alchemists looking for an immortality pill, somewhere around the 7th Century AD .

It’s ironic that research in search of something that would extend life would result in discovering something that could shorten it, but then, that’s pretty much how it’s gone through history.

After all, the Nobel Peace Prize is named after an armaments manufacturer, right?

So, of course, the discovery’s potential military applications didn’t go unappreciated very long–

A military manual called the “Wujing Zongyao” from 1044 AD lists many uses, including incendiary bombs for lobbing over city walls using a trebuchet.


Paper Making

Most people remember the ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a material readily available to them , and used widely before the invention of paper.

The word paper is derived from the Greek word ‘ πάπυρος ‘ – their word for papyrus.

However, paper making from pulp does not rely on papyrus , but on wood pulp.

The Chinese developed it in the second century BC–

They had been using several materials- including Silk, (another Chinese invention) which was a valuable trade commodity….

so, paper changed writing in China forever…

and of course, led to the later development of printing.

Ingredients to a paper making recipe recorded by a court scribe named Cai Lun around 80 AD included boiled mulberry tree bark, hemp, linen, and fish nets, all pounded into a thick, watery paste ….

…….. a thin woven screen was then drawn through the paste and sun dried.



The first type of printing developed by the Chinese was wood-block printing.

The earliest samples of this type is a copy of a Buddhist sutra printed on hemp paper, found in the city of X’ian– the easternmost point on the Silk Road, and also where the Terra Cotta Army of Qin Shi Huang was found.

The single sheet “Dharani Sutra” was produced in the seventh century AD–

Improvements in this form of printing followed quickly, and the first woodblock printed periodical- the “Kaiyuan Za Bao”, appeared in 713.

The first book of this type — the “Diamond Sutra” , beautifully engraved and illustrated, was produced in the year 868.

Moveable type printing, using characters made of wood, was first described by Shen Quo in 1088, but numerous improvements were required before it came into regular use, during the Yuan Dynasty (ca 1300 ) .

Type made of metal – bronze – came along around 1490 , and vitreous enamel type in 1718.


The Magnetic Compass

The principles for this device were discovered by the Chinese early in the third century BC, and it is mentioned in a first century document called the “Lunheng“:

” This instrument resembles a spoon, and when it is placed on a plate on the ground, the handle points to the south. “

But it wasn’t until the “Dream Pool Essays” of 1088 by Shen Kuo that the practical uses of the instrument are talked about….

Before that time, the Chinese magnetic compass, made of lodestone- a naturally magnetized ore of iron, seems to have been only used for geomancy and devination.

And, in 1119, a writer named Zhu Yu mentioned the use of a compass for navigation purposes.

It arrived in Europe about 70 years later, in 1187.


It’s easy to see how these four great inventions were destined to change the world.

But there are so many other Chinese innovations that also play a big part in today’s society.

One can barely look around a room without seeing or experiencing one —

The 4000 year old invention of TEA, for instance.

Tea has been drunk in China for medicinal purposes since at least the second millennia BC –

A writer named Wang Bao wrote about every-day tea drinking around 59 BC.

Paper Money:

During the Song Dynasty, around 1270, a nationwide paper currency was adopted–

But before that, paper currency was in use in China as far back as the eleventh century.

The Fork:

Pre-dating the chopstick, forks have been found in tombs and burial sites dating back to around 2000 BC.

Chopsticks date back to 1000 BC.


Lacquerware, and Porcelain China:

Glazed ceramics date back to 300 BC ,

and a red lacquered bowl was found at Hemudu that goes all the way back to around 5000 BC.

Small Pox Immunizations:

Chinese author Wan Quan wrote in his 1549 treatise called “Douzhen Xinfa , about how powdered smallpox scabs were blown up the noses of the healthy, to prevent smallpox viralization.

The patients would get a mild case of the disease from it, and then developed immunity.

Other very important Chinese innovations include:

The Iron Blast Furnace, and Cast Iron.

The Bristle Toothbrush.

Fishing Reels.

Playing Cards.

The Stirrup.

Gas Cannisters.

Land mines, hand grenades, and a bunch of war stuff.


The hand-held Cross-Bow.

Civil Service Examinations.

Belt and Chain Drives.

The first Seismograph.


And, the curator of the China Science and Technology Museum, Professor Wang Yusheng, says that the Chinese penchant for inventions has not waned , but is still very much at work today.

I know some cutting edge research has been done by Chinese scientists in the field of Magnetic Levitation (MAGLEV) wind power generators — which should double the amount of power produced for the same cost per kilowatt.

In 1972, their studies of the ancient Chinese medicinal herb ‘sweet wormwood’ (artemisia annua) yielded an extremely effective and lost cost anti-malarial drug called Artemisinin….

A joint Sino-American study has been making great strides working with auto-immune diseases….

And I read recently in Science about the important advance in particle theory made at the Daya Bay experiment — they were able to isolate the measurement of ‘parameter θ13′whatever that might mean.

As for Professor Wang, he feels that the four most important Chinese inventions for the 21st Century will be:

Wu’s Method: a computerized method for geometrical theorem proving, developed by Wu Wenjun.

It applies a traditional Chinese mathematics to Geometry.

Hybrid Rice : called a “second green revolution”,

Research led by Yuan Longping hopes to develop a high yield hybrid rice that will feed Asia’s booming population.

A rice hybrid could mean that a large part of the world’s population need no longer go hungry.

Synthesized Crystalline Bovine Insulin:

A breakthrough by Chinese scientists made on Sept 17, 1965– the first time zoetic protein had been synthesized in the laboratory.

This was said to have the same crystalline form and biological activities as natural insulin.

Unfortunately, the closed nature of Chinese society during that Maoist period kept the discovery from getting the recognition it deserved.

Land-Faces Oil-Formation Theory:

I do not pretend to understand this one, but as Professor Wang explains:

“The theory that big oil fields can be formed in land facies stratum if conditions are appropriate”.

What it means is that, since there are now over 100 million cars in China, their tanks need not run dry….

Well, at least that’s the theory, anyway.

I think.

Thanks for reading.

I hope you enjoyed this post,

………..drop me a line and let me know what you think !