China: Inventions                                                            

Among many of the Chinese inventions, below are some of the most well known:

  • Compass
  • Medicine
  • Gunpowder
  • Printing
  • Paper
  • Embroidery
  • Silk
  • Abacus


The earliest documentation that refers to the compass dates back to the 3rd century. "When the people of the State of Zheng go out in search of jade, they carry a south pointer with them so as not to lose their way in the mountains." The world’s first compass was first made in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), by balancing a piece of loadstone carved into the shape of a ladle on a round bronze plate. The first person to use the tool was Zheng He (1371-1435), a Muslim from the Yunnan province. By order of the emperor he made seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433 with the help of his compass, naturally.



Chinese medicine evolved with the contribution of many people over the years. The Book of Rites, a manual for ceremonies written in the Zhou dynasty (11th c.-256 B.C.), records the court physicians' division of medical teaching into internal medicine, surgery, nutrition and veterinary practice. The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine presented distinct areas of medicine including physiology, pathology, diagnostics, treatment and preventive medicine. Bian Que, a noted doctor at the time, was the first man in the world to use the pulse for diagnostic purposes. Hua Tuo was also a famous doctor in the 2nd century who was the first to apply an anesthetic powder during abdominal surgery.



Taoist alchemists were some of the most important contributors to the invention of gunpowder. During the reign of Emperor Wu Di (156-87 B.C.) of the Han dynasty, extensive research was done on Eternal Life and some of the substances used by the alchemists were sulfur and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and, as a result, many accidental fires were started. By the 8th century, in the mid Tang dynasty, alchemists combined sulfur and saltpeter and then mixed in charcoal. The discovery was an explosive mixture that they called huoyao or gunpowder.



The technique of printing with carved wooden blocks appeared at about the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Block printing reached it's golden age during the Song dynasty which was in the years 960-1279 as the imperial patronage encouraged the publication of large numbers of books by the central and local governments. Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng, of the Song dynasty, between the years of 1041 and 1048.



It was in the year 105 A.D that the invention of paper was first reported by Ts'Lun. However, it is not known whether Ts'Lun was the actual inventor or just the court official who presented the invention to the Emperor. Nonetheless, he is a key figure recognized as having taken part in the early invention of papermaking.



Chinese embroidery is yet another important Chinese contribution to society. Archaeological evidence of embroidery dates back to the Western Zhou period (11th-8th centuries B.C.). Archaeologists found evidence of embroidery in a tomb that was excavated in 1974 in Baoji Shaanxi Province. It contained impressions of plaited stitch embroidery. By the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), embroidery was widely used for decorating garments and articles of daily use.



One of China's greatest contributions to the world is the production of raw silk and the raising of silkworms. Legend says that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor of China, was sitting under the mulberry trees in the garden of her palace when she heard a rustling in the leaves. She looked up and saw silkworms spinning their cocoons. She took one in her hand and found that the silken thread was shinny, soft and flexible. She then had the idea that, if she could wind the silken thread, she could weave into clothes. Her idea worked!



The abacus is a mechanical aid used for counting. The standard abacus can be used to perform addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 14th century AD. The top of the abacus is called the heaven and the bottom is called the earth. The Chinese abacus, known as the suànpán, is typically 20 cm tall and comes in various widths. It usually has more than seven rods. There are two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads each in the bottom for both decimal and hexadecimal computation. Modern abacuses have one bead on the top deck and four beads on the bottom deck. The beads are usually rounded and made of a hardwood. The beads are counted by moving them up or down towards the beam. If you move them toward the beam, you count their value. If you move away, you don't count their value.