The Four Great Inventions

China's 5000 year history has witnessed countless inventions. The Four Great Inventions refer to the four advanced achievements of science and technology from ancient China, which had a prominent position in the exchanges between the East and West. They are the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing.

The concept of Four Great Inventions was first mentioned by missionary, linguist and Sinologue Joseph Edkins (1823-1905), when he compared the contributions Japan and China made to the world in history. This was recorded in an 1859 review in the journal Athenaeum. Later in the 20th century, British biochemist, historian, and sinologist Joseph Needham (1900-1995) supported and popularized the term of the Four Great Inventions. Therefore, the idea originally came from the conclusion of western scholars, and it has been widely accepted by Chinese people for a long time, until in recent years some Chinese scholars opined that the list of 4 inventions couldn’t fully reflect the achievements of science and technology of ancient China. They thought other many inventions had also greatly advanced China’s productive forces and standard of living. This is probably true from their points of view. While if considering the influence and effect that they brought to the rest of the world, the 4 inventions undoubtedly stand an irreplaceable position for the development of the capitalism in Europe and exchanges between the East and West. In this sense, the Four Great Inventions significantly shaped the world that we live in today.

The Four Great Inventions was once featured as one of the main themes of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which has been deeply engraved on audience’s memory.


Stones, pottery, animal bones, bamboo or even expensive silk were used for writing until the invention of papermaking. According to the latest archaeological discovery, Chinese began to use primitive paper in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 8 AD). As an innovator, Cai Lun, the chief eunuch of the imperial court during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD), got the idea of making paper by using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. Mixing them in water till fibers are in diluted suspension, drain the mixture through a mesh screen so the fiber lays down and form the basic step of making paper. At the beginning, the paper was significantly stronger than the paper today, it was not until about 100 years later that paper was used for writing.

During the war between Byzantine Empire and Tang Empire, several Chinese papermakers were captured in the 700s. They were taken to Baghdad where the first Arabian paper was made in 793. The Europeans made their own paper around 13th century. The invention and use of paper brought about a revolution in writing materials, paving the way for the invention of printing technology in the years to come.

China four great inventions - papermaking


One of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China, printing is a process for reproducing text and image, typically with ink on paper using a printing press. The Chinese invention of woodblock printing dated back to Tang Dynasty around the 7th century. Cut the block along the grain of the wood then ink the block, and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper to achieve a print. Woodblock Printing replaced the original way of copying the book in handwriting, thus books can be printed out more quickly and in larger amount. Yet it has a fatal disadvantage, if one word is cut wrong, the whole wood has to be abandoned. This was a really arduous and expensive job in the ancient time. So, later movable woodblock printing was invented by a wood carving artisan - Bi Sheng between 1039 and 1048 during the Song Dynasty. He first modeled individual characters on pieces of clay and then hardened them with fire. These movable blocks could be set in place by a mixture of wax in an iron plate, then broken up with fire and redistributed for another page.

Thanks to the advanced printing tech, it is estimated that China had more books alone than the rest of the world put together in the ancient period for its easiness and low cost of woodblock printing.

Great Inventions of Ancient China


As we know, magnets can find the direction. It is the stereotype of the first compass in China - Sinan (south-pointing ladle). The first compass is believed to have been invented in China, during the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). In the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) compasses consisted of a bronze on which 24 directions were carved and a rod made from a natural magnet. In the Song Dynasty, the floating compass appeared which could be suspended in water; it is a technique minimizing the effect of motion on the instrument surface. This enabled the compass to be used for sea navigation. The invention of the compass promoted maritime undertakings, and its use soon spread to the Arab world.

Around the 10th century, the magnetic compass, one of the four great inventions of ancient China, was brought to Europe, which has played a large part in history. Columbus used a magnetic compass on his first trans-Atlantic trip. Following the arrival of the compass in Europe, there have been no major changes to the compass in about six hundred years.

Ancient Chinese Compass


Gunpowder is another great invention in ancient China, and was discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality. Unlike paper and printing, the invention of gunpowder was quite accidental, it happened to be found that a mixture of sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal could be ignited. By the Song Dynasty (960-1126), gunpowder was in extensive civil and military use. Weapons made with it included rifles and rockets. The Song army also used a kind of flame thrower which involved packing gunpowder into bamboo tubes. In the following centuries, gunpowder weapons spread from China, through the Middle East, and then into Europe. It is believed that gunpowder was introduced to Europe during the Mongol expansion of 1200-1300 AD. It is an interesting fact that Chinese used the invention mainly for firecrackers, even a remedy for skin diseases, while Europeans created cannons and guns to conquer the world, including China in the 19th century.

China four great inventions - gunpowder

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