An Inventive History
How Chinese Thinkers and Tinkers Changed the World
Life in 21st Century Minnesota has been greatly shaped by many inventions and innovations that had their birth in ancient China and are still used today all over the world.
If you’ve read a book or newspaper, flown a kite, regained your sense of direction by using a compass, ooohed and aaahed at a fireworks display, worn a soft silk shirt or eaten spaghetti, you’ve encountered a just a few amazing Chinese inventions.
When the Italian merchant Marco Polo visited China during the Song Dynasty in 1271, he found a place far more technologically advanced than anywhere in Western Europe. Here are some of the most important and far-reaching contributions of the Chinese.
Gunpowder and Fireworks
You may think that fireworks are as American as the Fourth of July, but we would not have them without Chinese inventiveness. The first fireworks might have been an accident. Legend tells that a cook discovered the ingredients for black powder, and quickly the Chinese were entertaining themselves with beautiful displays in the night sky.
In the year 1161, the Chinese used explosives for the first time in warfare. And who invented cannons and guns? The Chinese, of course. They also used gunpowder to make primitive flamethrowers and even explosive mines and multiple-stage rockets.
The use of gunpowder in weapons gave those with access to the technology a greater ability to protect themselves from enemies or to conquer and control others. It greatly affected the balance of power in many parts of the world. Chinese firearms, fireworks and gunpowder were popular items of trade along the Silk Route (or Silk Road) to Europe.
Paper, Printing and Publishing
In almost every respect, the Chinese were at the forefront of developing the printed word.
In 105 A.D., Ts’ai Lun invented the process for manufacturing paper, introducing the first use in China. The paper was superior in quality to the baked clay, papyrus and parchment used in other parts of the world.
By 593 A.D., the first printing press was invented in China, and the first printed newspaper was available in Beijing in 700 A.D. It was a woodblock printing. And the Diamond Sutra, the earliest known complete woodblock printed book with illustrations was printed in China in 868 A.D. And Chinese printer Pi Sheng invented movable type in 1041 A.D. Exported to the Western world, it is similar to the technology that German printer Johann Gutenberg used in the 1450s to produce his famous editions of the Bible. And in 1155 A.D., Liu Ching produces first printed map in China.
The impact these inventions had on the educational, political and literary development of the world is simply incalculable.
Around the Third Century B.C., China produced the moldboard plow for tilling farmland. This ground-buster had a wing-shaped cast-iron blade that turned up the soil more easily and efficiently. Eventually, these plows would revolutionize agriculture in the Western world.
Chinese farmers greatly improved the ability of horses to pull wagons or plows with the “collar harness.” Unlike the “throat harnesses” used in Europe, the collar harness did not choke the animal. When horses breathed easier, they could pull more weight greater distances.
The wheelbarrow is another laborsaving device invented by the Chinese during the First Century B.C. These one-wheeled wonders wouldn’t even exist in Europe before the 11th or 12th Centuries.
When Chinese invented the magnetic compass it was originally a religious device. People believed their homes should face north to be in harmony with nature. So, they used the compass before they built. Later, the compass was used for navigation on land and sea, and there’s no telling how long human progress and discovery would have been delayed without it.
Hoping to help predict oncoming earthquakes, a Chinese scientist and mathematician named Chang Heng invented the world’s first seismograph – in the Second Century A.D.
By 1080 A.D., Chinese scientists were advancing theories that the Earth’s climate had changed over time, based on their studies of plant fossils. Two decades later, they explained the causes of solar and lunar eclipses.
As early as the 2nd Century B.C. there is evidence that Chinese scholars advanced the idea of blood circulation, long before William Harvey “discovered” it in 1628.
The Chinese used the decimal system in the 4th Century B.C. The first evidence of decimals in Europe is in a Spanish manuscript of 976 A.D.
Cast iron made its appearance in China during the 4th Century B.C. It was not widely available in Europe before 1380 A.D.
No one knows for certain where the kite originated, but many believe it was invented in China a couple thousand years ago. Many credit the Chinese with the kite because they had bamboo to build the frame and silk to make the sail and flying line. Both materials were strong enough and light enough to fly.
There are many legends about the origins of the kite. One suggests the idea came to a Chinese farmer who tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away. Kite maker Kungshu P’an is said to have made bird-shaped kits that could fly for up to three days.
The earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 B.C., when the Chinese General Han Hsin used a kite as a kind of tape measure. He flew it over a walled city he wanted to attack as a way to measure how far his army would have to tunnel underground to enter undetected.
Another story tells of a Chinese general named Huan Theng, who got an idea after a gust of wind swept his hat from his head. One night, the general flew noise-making kites over an enemy camp. The shrieking from the sky so frightened the enemy soldiers that they fled in terror.
Other Chinese legends tell how kites were used to lift observers into the sky to survey a battlefield before fighting began and were used to send messages during wartime.
Kites were introduced to Europe by explorers returning from Asia. Italian merchant Marco Polo carefully documented how kites were built and flown.
The Chinese court musician Ling-lun created the first reed instrument, the bamboo pipe, sometime between 3000 and 2501 B.C. By 2500 B.C., Chinese music grew more complex, employing a five-note scale.
When you think of pasta, you think of Italy, but it was the Chinese, not the Italians, who used their noodles to invent noodles. The Chinese had been eating pasta for four thousand years. Early European explorers to Asia learned the delicious and nutritious value of noodles during their encounters with the Chinese. They quickly brought back the taste for noodles to the cooks of their homeland.
The Fortune Cookie
Gotcha! That clairvoyant sweet served in many Asian restaurants in the United States isn’t a Chinese invention at all. The fortune cookie was invented by an American advertising company. While the Chinese have lots of proverbs, they don’t keep them tucked into cookies wrapped in clear plastic!
The abacus was a great invention in ancient China and has been called the world’s first calculator.
The sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, seismology, technology, engineering, and mathematics can trace their early origins to China.
Chinese culture can be credited with several very important inventions. This web site explores many of these inventions.
Learn about ancient Chinese inventions technology and the history of Chinese inventors.