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Four great Chinese inventions

Written by Daniel Otero

Paper making, printing, gunpowder and the compass


By: Daniel Otero



These four processes made an impact on the entire world till the present.  And to be perfectly honest, it has taken hundreds of years for Western Europe and North America to admit that all these inventions were certainly Chinese.


When I was going to school in the mid-1970s, there weren’t books like today’s Jonathan Spences book on China.


Take for example, the printing press, I was taught and learned in history that the idea had been invented in Gutenberg, Germany.


However, by the 1980s, these incorrect notions of history began to change.  And by the 1990s, greater credit was given to the Chinese and their four greatest inventions.


Let’s begin with paper making.  First developed during the Western Han Dynasty in 105 BCE (Before the Common Era).  Inventors like Cai Lun used tree barks, ropes, fishnets and rags.  These materials placed together made for a strong-bonding paper. It made for a document durable enough, one to record historical events and could last as a testimonial throughout the centuries, etc.


Later, in medieval China two types of printing presses came to be.


The first was the woodblock printing process to hold characters on strips of wood, then the wood was bonded with small-slider ropes and rolled together.  Keeping historical records and other documents around for millennium.  Some say the woodblock was invented long before the medieval period and goes as far back as ancient China.


Then by 1040 CE (Common Era), Bi Sheng employed a technique using baked-clay pottery.  The characters were baked onto an iron frame.  How cool is that!


Gunpowder was another great invention.  Its conception came to be in the 9th Century.  Sadly, it’s the most tragic!  Since gunpowder was first developed for fireworks and used by 919 in the art of warfare.  Causing since then unnecessary deaths and destruction.  Although, the Emperor and Chinese intended like the manufacturing of silk to keep it a secret; the word still got out.


Many say it was Marco Polo who lived 20 years in China and once he left, secretly took through the Silk Road not only the invention of gunpowder.  It’s believed that Polo also took the ideas for making noodles into what’s today, pasta and what’s presently a sorbet version of ice cream or as it is known in Italy as gelato.


Last but not least, and this one is disputed between the Arabs and Chinese.  The magnetic compass or as it is called in ancient China, zhinan zhen.  The compass’ first use was recorded during the period of the Warring States (475 to 221 BCE).  Used in contemporary times by armies, explorers and sea adventurers.


Well, there it is, four great inventions which came from China.  These four greats are finally getting their credit were credit is due.


You may agree or disagree with me, but one thing is an undeniable truth.  Peoples ideas are starting to shift more in agreement towards the Chinese.  Without them, there wouldn’t be an impact in our history and the world.

About the author

Daniel Otero

A New Yorker who has been living in China for the past 10 years. He's a freelance writer/journalist and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

A former member of the military with extensive travel to 50 countries and has lived in six.

Lover of life, good food, travel, writing and dealing with social issues.