Important Inventions and Discoveries from Ancient China

The ancient Chinese are credited with having invented many things that we use today. Though we're dealing with antiquity (roughly the Shang to the Chin, ca. 1600 B.C. to A.D. 265), these are the most important inventions from ancient China in terms of western use today.

01
of 09

Tea

Close-Up Of Human Hands With Teapot
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Tea has been so important in China that even the story of silk includes a probably anachronistic cup of it. Legend says silk was discovered when a cocoon fell from a mulberry bush into a cup of imperial tea. This is similar to the legend of the discovery of tea where an emperor (Shen Nung, 2737 B.C.) drank a cup of water into which leaves from an overhanging Camellia bush had fallen.

Tea, no matter what country it comes from, is from the Camellia sinensis plant. It seems to have been a new beverage in the third century, a time when it was still regarded with suspicion, much as the tomato was when it was first brought to Europe.

Today we refer to beverages as tea even though there is no real tea in them; purists call them infusions or tisanes. In the early period, there was confusion, too, and the Chinese word for tea was sometimes used to refer to other plants, according to Bodde.

02
of 09

Gunpowder

19th-century Chinese bronze dragon matchlock pistol, called a hand cannon

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The principle behind gunpowder was discovered by the Chinese in perhaps the first century, during the Han Dynasty. It wasn't used in guns at the time but created explosions at festivals. They mixed together saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust, which they put into bamboo tubes, and threw into fires — until they found a way to propel the matter on its own as a rocket, according to our history of early fireworks.

03
of 09

Compass

An ancient Chinese compass made of metal
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A Qin Dynasty invention, the compass was first used by fortune-tellers before it was applied to the cardinal directions. At first, they used a lodestone containing iron oxide which made it align north-south before they realized a magnetized needle would work as well. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that compasses were used on ships.

04
of 09

Silk Fabric

A domesticd scene painted on silk in the seventh century by Wei-ch'ih I-seng

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The Chinese learned to cultivate the silkworm, reel out its silken thread, and create silk fabric. Not only was the silken fabric useful in heat or cold as clothing, but, as a highly sought-after luxury item, it led to commerce with other peoples and the spread of culture all the way to and from the Roman Empire.

The story of silk comes from legend, but the period in which it was created is what is considered the first historical dynasty in China, the Shang.

05
of 09

Paper

Ancient forms of Chinese paper and movable type

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Paper was another Han invention. Paper could be made from a sludge made from fabrics, like hemp, or rice. Ts'ai-Lun is credited with the invention, although it is thought to have been created earlier. Ts'ai-Lun gets the credit because he showed it to the Chinese emperor ca. A.D. 105. With the decline in newspapers and print books, as well as the use of email for personal communication, it doesn't seem quite so important as it did, say 20 years ago.

06
of 09

Earthquake Detector

Ancient bronze seismograph from China

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Another Han Dynasty invention, the seismoscope or seismograph could detect tremors and their direction, but could not detect their severity; nor could it predict them.

07
of 09

Porcelain

Ancient porcelain Chinese vase in a temple

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After the potentially life-saving seismographic invention of the Chinese comes the aesthetically pleasing discovery of porcelain, which was a type of pottery made with kaolin clay. The fortuitous discovery of how to make this type of ceramic material also probably came during the Han Dynasty. The full form of white porcelain came later, probably during the T'ang Dynasty. Today porcelain may be better known as a material used in bathrooms than crockery. It is also used in dentistry as a crown replacement for natural teeth.

08
of 09

Acupuncture

Doctor's accupuncture charts in a Chinese medical herbalist clinic

Christopher Pillitz/ In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

The Chinese system of acupuncture became one of the healing options available in the west starting in about the 1970s. Very different from the causal concept of western medicine, the needling aspect of acupuncture may stem from as far back as between the 11th and second century B.C., according to Douglas Allchin.

09
of 09

Lacquer

Bowl for Soup
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Coming from perhaps as early as the Neolithic era, lacquer use, including lacquerware, has been around since the Shang Dynasty. Lacquer produces a hard, protective, decorative, and insect and water repelling (so it can preserve wood as on boats and repel rain on umbrellas) surface that can last indefinitely. Created by adding thin layers of the material over each other and onto a core, the resulting lacquerware is lightweight. Cinnabar and iron oxide were commonly used to color the material. The product is the dehydrated resin or sap from the Rhus verniciflua (lacquer tree), harvested by a method similar to mapling.

Sources

  • "Taiwan: Country Study Guide: Strategic Information and Developments". I, International Business Publications, 2013.
  • Allchin, Douglas. “Points East and West: Acupuncture and Comparative Philosophy of Science.” Philosophy of Science, vol. 63, Sept. 1996, pp. S107-S115., doi:10.1086/289942.
  • Bodde, Derk. “Early References to Tea Drinking in China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 62, no. 1, Mar. 1942, pp. 74-76., doi:10.2307/594105.