Top Ancient Chinese Inventions and Discoveries

Top important ancient Chinese inventions and discoveries for the modern world.

The ancient Chinese are credited with having invented many things that we use today. Since we're dealing with Antiquity here (roughly the Shang to the Chin [c.1600 B.C. - A.D. 265]), rather than the period from the beginning of time through the Middle Ages, I can't simply use a list of the Four Great Chinese Inventions. So, here is my list of the most important inventions from ancient China in terms of western use today. Arguably, gunpowder, even in its ancient form, could be on top, but my choice is one that millions of us drink every day, the most popular drink in the world, and, while initially, people were suspicious of its harmful effects, a lot healthier than the other candidate for top billing.

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Image ID: 1561965 Tea bushes & picking.
Image ID: 1561965 Tea bushes & picking. NYPL Digital Gallery

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.D., 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 tisanes.) In the early period, there was confusion, too, and the Chinese for tea was sometimes used to refer to other plants, according to Bodde.

"Early References to Tea Drinking in China"
Derk Bodde
Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Mar., 1942), pp. 74-76.
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02
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Gunpowder formula in Wujing zongyao part I, vol 12
Gunpowder formula in Wujing zongyao part I, vol 12. By 曾公亮 11th century (Wujing Zongyao 武经总要) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The principle behind gunpowder was discovered by the Chinese in perhaps the first century A.D., 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 The History of Early Fireworks - Gunpowder from the Guide to Inventors at About.com. More »

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Ancient Chinese Compass
Ancient Chinese Compass. Liu Liqun / Getty Images

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 which contains iron oxide which made it align itself 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. More »

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Image ID: 1564091 [Two women threading silk from spindles onto larger spindle.]
Image ID: 1564091 [Two women threading silk from spindles onto larger spindle.]. NYPL Digital Gallery

The Chinese learned to cultivate the silk worm, 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. More »

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Paper

Chinese Calligraphy
Chinese Calligraphy. CC decafinata

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 c. A.D. 105. Should paper come before silk? Perhaps, but 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.

Papermaking - From the Guide to Inventors at About.com

Ancient Chinese Choko seismoscope from 136 A.D.
Ancient Chinese Choko seismoscope from 136 A.D. Popular Science Monthly Volume 29, 1886 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

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China and Phoenix Pot
China and Phoenix Pot. CC rosemanios at Flickr.com

A far cry from 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.

The Discovery of Porcelain - From the Pottery Guide at About.com More »

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Yellow Emperor
Yellow Emperor. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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 2nd century B.C., according to Douglas Allchin:

"Points East and West: Acupuncture and Comparative Philosophy of Science
Douglas Allchin
Philosophy of Science
Vol. 63, Supplement. Proceedings of the 1996 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part I: Contributed Papers (Sep., 1996), pp. S107-S115.

Acupuncture - From Alternative Medicine at About.com. More »

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Lacquer

Lacquer Tray with Cloud Design From the Western Han
Lacquer Tray with Cloud Design From the Western Han. CC drs2biz

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, insect and water repelling (so it can preserve wood as on boats and repel rain on umbrellas), and decorative 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.

Source: The Chinese Traditional Art of Lacquer