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The earliest Chinese text documenting the use of a compass is the Book of the Devil Valley Master, which describes a path-finding tool used by the people of the State of Zheng in the 3rd century B.C., which points permanently to the south.

compass, four great inventions of ancient china
A more representative image of a Chinese compass, known as "si nan", is a piece of lodestone carved in the shape of a ladle that is balanced on a bronze plate. (see the image on the right.) The circular center of the bronze plate represents Heaven, and the square plate represents Earth. The ladle symbolizes the constellation of the Great Bear. Chinese characters denoting the eight main directions are inscribed on the square plate. The ladle, made of lodestone and subject to the magnetic force of the earth, automatically points to the south.

Later improvements were to be made, as the Chinese found iron can become magnetized after being rubbed with magnetite. Magnetized iron needles were suspended in water, or placed on a pointed shaft, as simple versions of compasses.

Thanks to the use of compass, the ancient Chinese developed fairly advanced navigation techniques. During the Song Dynasty, Chinese ships were able to sail to as far as Saudi Arabia.


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