The Greatest Chinese Inventions

In Chinese history, there are four great inventions (四大發明, ​sì dà fā míng): the compass (指南针, zhǐnánzhēn), gunpowder (火药, huǒyào), paper (造纸术, zào zhǐ shù), and printing technology (活字印刷术, huózì yìnshuā shù). Since ancient times, there have been dozens of other noteworthy inventions which have made people’s lives easier around the world.

Learn more about Chinese inventions and their origins, how they work, and where to purchase them.

 

Compass

Ancient Chinese Compass
An ancient Chinese compass. Getty Images/Liu Liqun

Before the compass was invented, explorers had to look at the sun, moon, and stars for directional guidance. The Chinese first used magnetic rocks to determine north and south. This technique was later incorporated into the design of the compass.

Paper

Paper mill
Paper mill. Getty Images/Robert Essel NYC

The first version of paper was made of hemp, rag, and fishing net. The course paper was created in the Western Han Dynasty but it was too hard to write on so it wasn’t widely used. Cai Lun (蔡倫), a eunuch in the Eastern Han Dynasty court, invented a fine, white paper made of bark, hemp, cloth, and fishing net that could easily be written on.

Abacus

Hong Kong Woman Uses Abacus
Getty Images/Kelly/Mooney Photography

The Chinese abacus (算盤, suànpán) has seven or more rods and two parts. There are two beads on the top part and five beads on the bottom for decimals. Users can add, subtract, multiply, divide, find square roots and cube roots with the Chinese abacus.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture
Acupuncture treatment. Getty Images/Nicolevanf

Acupuncture (針刺, zhēn cì), a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine in which needles are places along the meridians of the body that control the flow of , was first mentioned in the ancient Chinese medical text Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經) which was compiled during the Warring States Period. The oldest acupuncture needles were made of gold and found in Liu Sheng’s (劉勝) tomb. Liu was a prince in the Western Han Dynasty.

Chopsticks

Little girl having noodle with chopsticks
Getty Images/Images By Tang Ming Tung

Emperor Xin (帝辛), also called King Zhou (紂王) made ivory chopsticks during the Shang Dynasty. Bamboo, metal and other forms of chopsticks later evolved into the eating utensils used today.

Kites

Black girls flying kites on beach
Flying kites on beach. Getty Images/Blend Images - LWA/Dann Tardif

Lu Ban (魯班), an engineer, philosopher and artisan created a wooden bird in the fifth century BC which served as the first kite. Kites were first used as rescue signals when Nanjing was attacked by General Hou Jing. Kites were also flown for fun starting in the Northern Wei period.

Mahjong

Mahjong gambling
Getty Images/Allister Chiong's Photography

The modern version of mahjong (麻將, má jiàng), is often attributed to Qing Dynasty diplomatic official Zhen Yumen though the origins of mahjong stretch back to the Tang Dynasty as the tile game is based on an ancient card game.

Seismograph

Seismometer
Seismometer. Getty Images/Gary S Chapman

Though the modern seismograph was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, Zhang Heng (張衡), an official, astronomer, and mathematician of the Eastern Han Dynasty invented the first tool to measure earthquakes in 132 AD.

Tofu and Soymilk

Tofu, soya milk and soya beans in tray, close-up
Tofu, soya milk and soya beans in tray. Getty Images/Maximilian Stock Ltd.

Many scholars attribute tofu’s invention to Han Dynasty King Liu An (劉安) who prepared tofu in essentially the same way it is prepared today. Soymilk is also a Chinese invention.

Tea

Serving Chinese tea into ceramic tea cups
Serving Chinese tea into ceramic tea cups. Getty Images/Leren Lu

The tea plant comes from Yunnan and its tea was first used for medicinal purposes. Chinese tea culture (茶文化, chá wénhuà)began later in Han Dynasty.

Gunpowder

Loading a Hunting Rifle With Gunpowder
Getty Images/Michael Freeman

The Chinese first used gunpowder to make explosives used by the military in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (五代十國, Wǔdài Shíguó). The Chinese invented cannons made of cast iron, cast iron landmines, and rockets, and gunpowder was used to make bamboo fireworks in the Song Dynasty.

Moveable Type

Moveable type lettering
Moveable type lettering. Getty Images/southsidecanuck

Moveable type was invented by Bi Sheng (畢昇), a craftsman who worked in a book factory in Hangzhou in the eleventh century. Characters were carved onto reusable clay blocks which were fired and then arranged in a metal holder brushed with ink. This invention contributed greatly to the history of printing.

Electronic Cigarette

Person smoking e cigarette
Getty Images/VICTOR DE SCHWANBERG

 Beijing pharmacist Hon Lik invented the electronic cigarette in 2003. It is sold through Hon’s Hong Kong company Ruyan (如煙).

Horticulture

Woman planting seedlings.
Getty Images/Dougal Waters

Horticulture has a long history in China. To improve the shape, color, and quality of plants, grafting was used in the sixth century. Greenhouses were also used to cultivate vegetables.