The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

China Great Inventions: Gunpowder

One of the great inventions of Ancient China that still affects all of us to this day is gunpowder. Gunpowder was the first explosive creation that mankind had created and it all began on accident in ancient China. Like all four of the great inventions that the Chinese created, gunpowder is still being used today in the 21st Century. Gunpowder though, may be the one being used to the most effect in these days, with the majority of the world fighting a good amount of the time, swords and arrows are no longer used, guns and creations based off of guns rule the modern battlefield and our planet, but how did gunpowder become discovered? The idea of Gunpowder was first documented in 142 AD. The earliest chemical formulas were noted in the Wujing Zongyao, which was a Chinese collection of military information. He spoke of how there was a mixture of three different powders that would cause explosions. He used vivid language stating that the combination would “fly and dance”, it is unknown if he wanted to actually create, gunpowder, as a matter of fact it was documented that he was attempting to make an elixir of immortality. Nonetheless, this creation led to the first ever mention of the concoction. Second in the Chin dynasty, a scientist by the name of Ge Hong wrote down the actual mixture that created gunpowder, which was sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter, he also was able to figure out the majority of the science behind early gunpowder. The biggest evolution in terms of gunpowder happened in the Tang dynasty around 700 AD. At first, gunpowder was used recreationally, at first emperors would create gunpowder in order for firework displays (the Chinese believed that fireworks would scare away evil spirits,) it was no longer just an experiment, now it was being used to full effect. However, a separate use for gunpowder was discovered around 904AD when Chinese inventors realized that gunpowder could be used to create weapons. These weapons were originally used against one of China’s most famous enemies, the Mongols. Chinese soldiers would attach tubes filled with gunpowder’s to the tops of arrows, which would cause flaming explosions; this would strike fear into the hearts of the warriors and horses by the color of the flames, apparently it looked like magic. The first primitive versions of weapons created by gunpowder explosions were rockets. Chinese would put small stones inside bamboo tubes and then light gunpowder in order to fire it off, similar to its usage in the movie Mulan. By the mid 14th century, the explosive potential of gunpowder was perfected by increasing the amount of nitrate in the chemical formula. These improvements were used by the Chinese to develop the round shot (an explosive projectile that can be fired from a cannon) by packing hollow shells with their perfected gunpowder. Jiao Yu documented these military applications of gunpowder in his book Huolongjing. At first, China attempted to keep this development secret, in the mid eleventh century, the government attempted to make gunpowder hardy to create, by banning the sales of saltpeter to foreigners. But by the 1100AD’s the substances had been shipped from the Silk Road all the way to India, the Middle East, and Europe. Pretty soon after, Europeans and other nations were picking up on how to create gunpowder. The Islamic empire and the Roman Empire began to understand how to use gunpowder, eventually Europeans learned of gunpowder and used it to great effect, being able to conquer Countries that had no experience with the new development.


The Compass

The notion of a compass is a very simple, but obviously valuable tool that we have today, and still actively use. While the compass has changed since its invention in Ancient China, the awe surrounding its long history has not.

The core of any early compass is magnetism. While there is historical evidence to suggest that the Greeks knew about magnetism, historical records and artifacts tell us that the Chinese were the first to implement it, as well as modify and heavily use it in a compass. Prior to the compass, vikings supposedly used geographical position by landmarks and other general means. They relied on understanding the suns direction, while also using astrological knowledge. This system, while moderately effective, did not allow for travel of great lengths, and was also not entirely accurate. Naturally, we can see the utility of a compass, especially when the sky is cloudy or inaccessible to view. (Horvath et al.)

With that established, understanding ancient Chinese culture is crucial if we hope to completely understand how they developed the compass and why it developed in the way that it did. The Chinese believed in a variety of connections between the sky and the earth, and were also interested in the idea that the moon and its cycles could be used to group different days into months and also use seasons to create a year. These different cycles were eventually better explained by a variety of astrological features, leading to a 19-year calendar cycle that even accounted for leap months and noted specific features such as the equinoxes. This calendar had important predictive ability that helped lead to the compass. It also highlights how interested the ancient Chinese were in natural phenomena, and partially explains why they were the first to develop the compass. The sky was eventually divided into five “gongs” or pieces, each representing north, south, east, west and the middle. Each of these gongs were associated with different animals. North was associated with the Black Tortoise, East with the Blue Dragon, South with the Red Bird and West with the White Tiger. Each of these directions had further associations that were culturally derived. These directions were important as tombs and other structures were created, guiding many burial places. The four cardinal directions corresponded with movement of the sun, which impacted simple things like how rulers would sit or where they would stand. As will be discussed further later, once they managed to develop and discover how to identify a true north with different minerals and magnets, the Chinese already had the knowledge and history to use it for first spiritual means, and then eventually navigational purposes, (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

The first historical record of a Chinese compass was the spoon shaped “South-pointer” that is believed to have originated during the Han Dynasty, around 2nd century BCE. This compass was believed to be made from lodestone or magnetite ore (Silverman). Rumor and legend has it that this was discovered when workers were mining and working to smelt commonly produced minerals, they discovered the aforementioned magnetite, which was a natural mineral that also happened to be attracted to iron. The most important aspect about this mineral is that it always pointed north when suspend, or was naturally magnetic, (SACU, 2004). It worked by being placed on a bronze plate that had “eight trigrams (Pa Gua) of the I Ching, as well as the 24 directions (based on the constellations) and the 28 lunar mansions (based on the constellations dividing the Equator),” (Silverman). This compass was fairly symbolic and spiritualistic in nature as well, as the square plate is believed to have symbolized the earth, while the circular disc placed in the middle is believed to have symbolized heaven. On the center disc, you could find the Big Dipper, or “Great Bear” as it was referred to. Furthermore, the plate also held points that related to different constellations, which were believed to hold yet a further spiritual purpose, in that they were used to determine timing and location for spiritual and religious activities. It is believed that this was used for over 18 centuries after it was invented, into the 1800’s. Part of this reason is due to the fact that importance of ancestors and spirituality remained and necessitated it’s use long after it was first invented. Again, the focus of this compass was mainly on fortune-telling, not for the navigational purposes that we understand compasses to be used for today. It’s important to note that similar compasses, though not as advanced and numerous, have been found in North and Central America as well.

So how did this first compass work? The key factor was the fact that a magnetite ore would point to a true magnetic north. While they did not fully understand this process, they did manage to also understand that the compass pointed to the Hsuan-Yuan constellation at the south, and to the Hsiu Hsu in the north. Again, a spiritual understanding guided how they perceived this compass worked. When the needle was created from iron, they believed that mother and son forces work together, speaking to each other, meaning that the compass would point to a true north thanks to this. Clearly we can see that while the compass worked, their understanding of how and why it worked was slightly skewed. However, this in no way should take away from the marvel of managing to develop a compass that was used for so long. It’s also important to once again draw attention to the ancestral and spiritual influence that guided the creation, understanding and implementation of this compass. While we may think of a compass, in a modern context, as a survival or navigation tool, this was used in a slightly different way with slightly different uses, (Silverman).

The compass further developed into the time of the T’ang dynasty, or about 8th century china. Scholars at the time found a hydraulic way to make a compass, magnetizing needles, this time made out of iron, and suspending them in water. To make the iron magnetic, they would apply massive amounts of heat, warming them up to the point that they were red, and then holding them in line with the earths access. As the cooled, they would hold this orientation, essentially becoming magnetic. Because they could be put into water, called a wet compass, or kept in a variety of other accessible dry methods, they were understandably more useful, since they were dramatically more portable. This is where the notion of a navigational compass came into play, as travelers and individuals could take this compass with them and use it in what we consider to be a more typical means, (Silverman)

In 1000 CE, or the Sung Dynasty, ships could travel extremely far, even to Saudi Arabia with the use of this compass. Scholar Shen Kuo said in 1088 that, “ “magicians rub the point of a needle with lodestone, then it is able to point to the south…It may be made to float on the surface of water, but it is then rather unsteady…It is best to suspend it by a single cocoon fiber of new silk attached to the center of the needle by a piece of wax. Then, hanging in a windless place, it will always point to the south, (Vardalas). This quote clearly highlights the the intricacies in developing the compass. The ability to develop, tinker with and further understand how to make a functioning and effective compass, especially when this was approximately 1,000 years ago. It’s also important to note how delicate these new compasses were, even if they were portable. Since the bets compass, as Shen Kuo argued, was suspended by a cocoon fiber of new silk in a windless place, managing to use this effectively is not as we imagine today with a handheld compass or a compass on our phone. At the the time, travel of this magnitude would have been inconceivable at the time. This refined compass really set the standard for what we have today, (Vardalas).

The compass eventually would move west. While we are unsure exactly how it happened, there is record of an English Monk, Alexander Neckman, saying in his 1187 book that he found a device where a magnet, “… whirls around in a circle until, when its motion ceases, its point looks direct to the north.” With the creation of the silk road, the compass became more popular and began to be referenced much more in European books and media. It is believed that Silk Road travelers probably brought the magnetic compass to Europe. The compass, specifically the one made of lodestone that floated on water and pointed at a true north, was popular by the 14th century in Europe, and used extensively by navigators. Again, this was a large development, as individuals could navigate and travel without the stars or with cloud cover, (VMFA).



With the inventions of paper and ink, stamper gradually became popular during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), which was the early form of Carved Type Printing. Block Printing first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The text was first written on a piece of thin paper, then glued face down onto a wooden plate. The characters were carved out to make a wood-block printing plate, which was used to print the text. Wood-block printing took a long time as a new block had to be carved for every page in a book.

It took a lot of time and energy as well as materials to prepare for printing a book, but it worked more effectively afterwards. This technology was gradually introduced to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Yet, Block Printing had its drawbacks -- all the boards became useless after the printing was done and a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. The frontispiece of the world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra printed in the year 868, was discovered at Dunhuang Cave, along the Silk Road. The book, in the form of a roll, is the earliest woodcut illustration in a printed book.

Block Printing was a costly and time-consuming process, for each carved block could only be used for a specific page of a particular book, besides, a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. However movable type changed all of that.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a man named Bi Sheng carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay. Each piece of movable type had on it one Chinese character which was carved in relief on a small block of moistened clay. After the block had been hardened by fire, the type became hard and durable and could be used wherever required. The pieces of movable type could be glued to an iron plate and easily detached from the plate. Each piece of character could be assembled to print a page and then broken up and redistributed as needed. When the printing was finished, the pieces were put away for future use.

By the year 1000, paged books in the modern style had replaced scrolls. Two color printing (black and red) was seen as early as 1340.

This technology then spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Europe. Later, German Johann Gutenberg invented movable type made of metal in the 1440s. Movable Type Printing developed very fast. Based on clay type, type made of wood, lead, tin and copper gradually appeared.

The invention of paper greatly contributed to the spread and development of civilization. Before its invention, bones, tortoise shells, and bamboo slips were all used as writing surfaces, but as Chinese civilization developed they proved themselves unsuitable because of their bulk and weight. Hemp fiber and silk were used to make paper but the quality was far from satisfactory. Besides, these two materials could be better used for other purposes so it was not practical to make paper from them.

Xue fu wu che is a Chinese idiom describing a learned man. The story behind it concerns a scholar named Hui Shi who lived during the Warring States Period. He needed five carts to carry his books when he traveled around teaching. Books at that time were made of wood or bamboo slips so they were heavy and occupied a lot of space. Reading at the time needed not only brainwork but also physical strength.

In 105 A.D. Cai Lun, a eunuch during the Eastern Han Dynasty, invented paper from worn fishnet, bark and cloth. These raw materials could be easily found at a much lower cost so large quantities of paper could be produced.

The making technique was exported to Korea in 384 A.D. A Korean Monk then took this skill with him to Japan in 610 A.D. During a war between the Tang Dynasty and the Arab Empire, the Arabs captured some Tang soldiers and paper making workers. Thus, a paper factory was set up by the Arabs.In the 11th Century the skill was carried to India when Chinese monks journeyed there in search of Buddhist sutras. Through the Arabs, Africans and Europeans then mastered the skill. The first paper factory in Europe was set up in Spain. In the latter half of the 16th century, this skill was brought to America. By the 19th century, when paper factories were set up in Australia, paper making had spread to the whole world.


Papermaking is one of the great inventions in china. It is the process of making paper. Zachary Lapierre has mentioned in his article that the history of papermaking can be traced back to Han Dynasty. It was invented by an official of the Imperial Court who called Tsai Lun. He was the first recorded inventor of paper circa 105 A.D. Tsai Lun presented paper and a papermaking process to the Chinese Emperor and that was noted in the imperial court records. There may have been papermaking in China earlier than 105 A.D. According to recent research and excavations, the earliest form of paper was dated back to the Western Han Dynasty, but this type of paper was made hemp that was pounded and disintegrated. It was very coarse, had an uneven texture and it was very thick. This type of paper was unearthed in a Han tomb somewhere in Gunshu Province. However, during the Eastern Han Dynasty around 105A.D. Tsai Lun invented a new type of paper and did much for the spread of papermaking technology in China. He created a sheet of paper using inner bark of a mulberry tree and other bast fibers along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste (Needham). Tsai Lun's invention of paper is considered one of the most amazing and important inventions of all time, because it enabled China to create and develop their civilization quickly and eventually it helped us advance in our civilization as well.

For the papermaking, Tsai Lun had tried certain materials like hemp, bark, silk and even fishing net. He first took bamboo fibers and the inner bark of mulberry tree. He then added water to these and pounded them using a wooden tool. When they were pounded thoroughly, he poured the whole mixture over a flat woven cloth letting the water drain out. When it was dried, only the fibers remained and with this, Tsai Lun realized he had made a good writing surface and that it was lightweight. It was also easy to make. Emperor He was so pleased with Tsai Lun’s invention of paper that he gave Tsai Lun an aristocratic title and amazing wealth. The paper that Tsai Lun created is unlike our normal paper that we use today. According to the ….website, the paper that Tsai Lun created was very thin and translucent, so they could only write on one side of paper. It was just too thin to write on both sides (Needham).

Before Tsai Lun invented paper, writing surfaces were made from different materials such as bones, bamboo slips, wooden boards and even tortoise shells. These things are not only heavy but they also took up a lot of space and are hard to carry around. People then needed not only intelligence to study, but they needed to be strong to carry their books as well. Because of this, many thought these kinds of writing surface were unsuitable. It was probably what prompted Tsai Lun to invent a new lightweight writing surface that wasn’t too thick or too bulky (Needham).

This secret and new art of papermaking began to creep out of China to East Korea about 384 A.D. then around 610 A.D., a Korean monk took his papermaking skills with him to Japan. And during the Tang Dynasty war, the Arab empire captured and also some papermaking workers so the skills were brought to the Arab nations. Papermaking was also brought to India by Chinese monks who traveled there searching for the Buddhist sutras. In the 8th century, paper spread to the Islamic world, where the rudimentary and laborious process of papermaking was refined and machinery was designed for bulk manufacturing of paper. Production began in Samarkand, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Morocco and then Muslim Spain. In general, Muslims invented a method to make a thicker sheet of paper. This helped transform papermaking from an art into a major industry. The earliest use of water-powered mills in paper production, specifically the use of pulp mills for preparing the pulp for papermaking, dates back to Samarkand in the 8th century. The earliest references to paper mills also come from the medieval Islamic world, where they were first noted in the 9th century by Arab geographers in Damascus. Papermaking was diffused across the Islamic world, from where it was diffused further west into Europe. Paper making skills and paper then became widespread all across the globe (Loveday,2011).

Modern papermaking began in the early 19th century in Europe with the development of Fourdrinier machine, which produces a continuous roll of paper rather than individual sheets. These machines are considerably large, up to 150 meters in length, produce up to 10 meters wide sheet, and running around 100 km/h. In 1844, Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty and German inventor F.G. Keller had invented the machine and associated process to make use of wood pulp in papermaking. This would end the nearly 2000 year use of pulped rags and start a new era for the production of newsprint and eventually almost all paper was made out of pulped wood.

Through the manual papermaking, regardless of the scale on which it is done, involves making a dilute suspension of fiber in water and allowing this suspension to drain through a screen, so that a mat of randomly interwoven fibers is laid down. Water is then removed from this mat of fibers using a press. The method of manual papermaking changed very little over time, despite advances in technologies. Through the industrial papermaking, a modern paper mill is divided into several sections, roughly corresponding to the processes involved in making handmade paper. Pulp is refined and mixed in water with other additives to make a pulp slurry. The head-box of the paper machine distributes the slurry onto a moving continuous screen, water drains from the slurry by gravity or under vacuum, the wet paper sheet goes through presses and dries, and finally rolls into large rolls. The outcome often weighs several tons. Another type of paper machine makes use of a cylinder mould that rotates while partially immersed in a vat of dilute pulp. The pulp is picked up by the wire and covers the mould as it rises out of the vat. A couch roller is pressed against the mould to smooth out the pulp, and picks the wet sheet off the mould(Papermaking, 2007).

With the invention of a cheap and easy writing surface, it meant that ideas, teachings and philosophies can now be easily passed on to other people. Education became a much easier task and communication with people from a distance is now simpler. The use of paper changed the way people taught and learned. It also promoted and hastened the progress of civilization and culture, and literature. The technique of paper making had gone through different processes being refined and perfected, from its humble beginnings in the Eastern Han Dynasty to the factory made and mass produced product it is today. It truly is one of the best inventions made by man.


Papermaking. (2007). In: Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 1. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd. Volume 5, 122.
Needham, Volume 5, 1.
Needham, Volume 5, 123.
Loveday, Helen. Islamic paper: a study of the ancient craft. Archetype Publications, 2001.
Zachary Lapierre. Paper in Our Lives. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from