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Made In China: Amazing Chinese inventions of the ancient world

Hands up, those who associated ‘Made In China’ with cheap, faulty, and poor quality products that disintegrate after a couple of uses? You may wonder if there’s such a thing as good quality or ingenious inventions by the Chinese. Surely, one of the oldest civilizations on earth couldn’t only be capable of making knock-offs? 

Check out these four ancient Chinese inventions that have changed the course of history.  

Paper

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Image Credit: Pexels


It’s nearly impossible to imagine civilizations progressing without the paper. And even today with paper-less everything, the humble sheet of paper remains an important tool in education, communication, and a whole lot of other areas. 

We do have one brilliant Chinese man to thank for his contribution - Cai Lun. Before the invention of paper, there was papyrus and parchment. The paper was invented by Cai Lun, who was in charge of manufacturing instruments in the imperial court of Emperor Han Ho Ti over 2000 years ago.

The first paper was made by mixing finely chopped mulberry bark and hemp rags with water before mashing it flat, pressing out the water and drying it in the sun. Needless to say, this method of papermaking was a great success and the use of paper spread all over China. It became a closely guarded secret until the Ottoman Turks defeated the Chinese armies in the 8th century, and learned papermaking from the Chinese prisoners of war. It wasn’t until 1150 AD that papermaking arrived in Europe through Spain.

While you may be perplexed by the lack of toilet paper in public toilets in China, it’s worth noting that the Chinese invented paper for toilet purposes in 6th century AD, though at that time it was more of a luxury item for upper class families. 

Printing

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Image Credit: Flickr

Woodblock and Moveable type printing originated in China during the Tang and Song dynasties respectively.

Woodblock printing started around AD 600 and involved the laborious craving of letters on a wooden board before pressing onto paper. The earliest printed book known in history is the Diamond Sutra from the Tang Dynasty, when the process of woodblock printing was said to have been perfected.

Later on in the Song dynasty, the process of printing became more sophisticated. Bi Sheng (990-1051) was the developer of the first-known moveable type printing system where individual characters were carved on clay and each moveable type had only one Chinese character. Ironically, this system didn’t work as well for the large Chinese character system, but was much better for the Roman alphabet. 

Compass

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Way before Google Maps, world explorers have been sailing around the world with compasses. And guess who invented the compass? Yes, the Chinese.

The compass was invented in China as early as the Qin dynasty in (221BC-207BC).  Interestingly, navigation wasn’t the priority when they invented it. The first compasses were developed for the use of geomancy (feng shui) and fortune telling, so that they could construct buildings and were in harmony with nature and to bring good fortune. Early compasses were made with lodestone, a naturally occurring magnet that aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field.  It turns out that the compass didn’t just point you in the right direction spiritually, but also literally in the physical world.

Admiral Zheng He was the first to use the compass as a navigational tool between the 14th and 15th century. The court eunuch was an explorer and a diplomat who made seven ocean voyages from 1405 to 1433. 

Gunpowder

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Nobody can deny the fact that the sheer impact that the gunpowder has made in world history.

The invention of gunpowder can be traced to Chinese alchemists, who were apparently in search of a potion for longevity. The earliest reference to gunpowder actually appeared as early as 142 AD during the Han dynasty, when Chinese alchemist and author described a substance that was a mixture of three powders that could “fly and dance” violently. The development of gunpowder progressed from then on and as used in the Tang dynasty for beautiful fireworks display.

It was only in 10th century AD that gunpowder began to be used in warfare. It was used in the form of rockets, where small cannonballs were placed in bamboo tubes and shot out y lighting gunpowder on one end of the tube.

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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