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The four great inventions of ancient China

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2016/12/16

Ancient China's Gift to the World (Four Great Inventions)

Some of the greatest contributions to civilization stem from ancient China. Four of these are the invention of the compass, the invention of papermaking, the invention of gunpowder (for good or for worse!), and the invention of printing. Others may have improved upon the idea, either inspired by the Chinese example or in parallel (many of mankind's discoveries have occurred - and continue to occur - simultaneously in different parts of the world, which can only attest to the ingeniousness of the species), but it was the Chinese who first arrived at these four bright ideas.

The Invention of the Compass

Though the particular application of the compass that was first employed in China differed from the much later European compass application (the European compass was a dry affair - the same compass that is universally used today, i.e., a "hand", or needle, that is attached to a post near its center, allowing it to rotate - whereas the first Chinese compass appears to have been a metal device in the shape of a fish (a goldfish, no doubt!) that floated in a bowl of water, thus allowing it to line up in a north-south direction), and although there are competing claims regarding the possible use of lodestone (iron with a magnetic property) as a compass by the Olmecs (a Mesoamerican civilization that flourished from about BCE 1400-400), the first recorded use of a compass-like direction-finding device was incontestibly the Chinese "goldfish" compass whose use was first mentioned in the book, Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques, written during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, and dated somewhere between CE 1040-1044. The book's author, Wujing Zongyao, recommended using the device "[w]hen troops encountered gloomy weather or dark nights, and the directions of space [i.e., the stars] could not be distinguished...".

And indeed, the first published reference to the use of a "dry" compass (a needle whose tip had been rubbed against a lodestone so as to magnetize it, then suspended by a piece of thread that was secured to the needle's midpoint with the help of a dab of wax) as a navigational device can be found in the book, Pingzhou Table Talks, by Zhu Yu, published in CE 1119, though written between 1111-1117: "The navigator knows the geography, he watches the stars at night, watches the sun at day; when it is dark and cloudy, he watches the compass."

For a fuller discussion of the fascinating details regarding the history of the compass, as well as the origin of the other three inventions listed below, see Wikipedia, from whence these descriptions are borrowed.

The Invention of Paper

Though the first "paper" (cyperous papyrus (aka papyrous antiquorium), to use the Greek designation, since we learned of this "paper" through the Greeks) was already in use around BCE 3000 in Egypt, it bears little resemblance to modern-day paper, which, in contrast, bears significant resemblance to the paper developed in China in CE 105, circa, by T'sai Lun, the Chief Eunuch of Emperor Ho Ti of the Eastern Han (CE 25 - 220) Dynasty.

Papyrous antiquorium, which was made from marsh grass, was cut into thin strips, then soaked in water until softened, after which the strips were arranged into a mat that was first beaten thin, then sun dried.  The paper made by T'sai Lun involved mascerating the fibers of plants until each fiber strand was separated, then placing the proper quantity/ density of fiber mass into a large vat of water. The fiber mixture was thoroughly mixed, resulting in the fibers crisscrossing each other, after which a screen was dipped into the vat and lifted gently, leaving a super-thin "mat" of intertwined fibers. When dried, the result was a thin, strong, paper sheet not unlike the product we know of as paper today.

The Invention of Gunpowder

Like so many other great discoveries and inventions, the invention of gunpowder was accidental, or rather, its use as an explosive substance was arrived at incidentally: a 9th century Taoist monk and alchemist - like numerous alchemists elsewhere throughout the world, both before and after - was in search of "the elixir of life" when he combined saltpeter and sulphur. The earliest recorded reference to this "gunpowder" is the Taoist text, Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, which dates from the middle of the 9th century: "Some have heated together sulfur, realgar [an arsenic sulfide mineral, also occurring naturally in powder form and which burns with a bluish flame] and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down." [Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, And Pyrotechnics: The History Of The Explosive That Changed The World by Jack Kelly]

Not surprisingly, Chinese military leaders quickly realized the potential of gunpowder as a weapon. During the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, tubes that could shoot flames when gunpowder was ingited were used, though probably mainly for defensive purposes, i.e., when the fortress walls were under siege. By the 13th century, the first hand cannon using gunpowder was in use in the Muslim world (one should remember that it was the Muslims who were the "middlemen merchants" between China and Europe during much of the lucrative, Silk Road trade period). Though the Europeans were late in developing sophisticated weapons such as hand guns utilizing gunpowder, they used the cannon with devastating effect as a weapon of seige. In fact, this weapon, which made it prohibitively expensive for a city, or a city state, to build a durable, cannon-deflecting fortress wall, changed the face of Europe (changed its political structure), as it strengthened the case for centralized power at the expense of decentralized power.

The Invention of Moveable Type (Printing)

Printing, or the process of reproducing text and images to a printing medium such as cloth or paper, was developed in China. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving Chinese examples date from the beginning of the 3rd century CE, while, in contrast, the earliest Egyptian example dates from the 4th century CE. The first printing "press" (i.e., using the wood block method described below) was invented in China in 593, while the first printed newspaper appeared in Beijing in 700.

Printing can be divided into two different methods, woodblock printing and moveable type printing, both of which originated in China. Wood block printing was used initially to print images and text on cloth, only later being used to transfer text and imagery to paper. Wood block printing involves carving an impression "in relief" of the images and text to be reproduced, by which is meant that areas that are intended to be white are cut away, leaving the remaining raised impression to receive the ink that will be applied to the woodcut, to be thereafter transferred to the cloth or paper printing medium. The first book ever published, Vajracchedika ("Diamond") Sutra, was printed by means of wood block in 868, the 9th year of the reign (CE 859-873) of Emperor Yizong, during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty.

Printing by means of moveable type, or typesetting (each character - letter or number - was set into its relevant slot), was invented by the Chinese printer, Bi Sheng, in 1041. Bi Sheng's clay type was quite fragile, but could presumably be easily fabricated. In any case, it was first 150 years later, in 1298, that another Chinese printer, Wang Zhen, carved a more durable system of wooden type, though a printer in Korea, Choe Yun-ui, during the Korean Goryeo (CE 918-1392) Dynasty, had already developed metal moveable type.* Wang Zhen's typesetting method involved a complex system of revolving tables and number-associations which greatly improved the technique of printing in China.

Metal moveable type did not make its debut in China until 1490, when it was developed by the Chinese printer, Hua Sui. However, the German goldsmith, Johan Gutenberg, had already invented his later much acclaimed printing press in 1439. It is not known whether Hua Sui was aware of the metal moveable type of his Korean counterpart or of the Gutenberg printing press, though the likelihood of the former is of course greater than the latter, nor is it an established fact that Johan Gutenberg was aware of the metal moveable type of the Korean printer, Choe Yun-ui, although contact between "east and west" had long since been established.

* Historical records suggest that books were being printed in Korea using metal moveable type as early as 1234, though the first book to be printed by this means, Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Son Masters, now part of France's National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) collection, was printed in 1377.