The Four Great Inventions

China's 5000 year history has witnessed countless inventions, among which four are stressed out and given the honor "The Four Great Inventions" -  Papermaking, Printing, Gunpowder, and Compass. As the most influential contrivances, those four inventions had a compound influence on the development of Chinese science and technology and a far-ranging global impact.


Stones, pottery, animal bones, bamboo or even expensive silk were used for writing until the invention of papermaking. Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), got the idea making paper 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. 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.


Printing is a process for reproducing text and image, typically with ink on paper using a printing press. The Chinese invention of Woodblock printing produced the world’s first print culture. 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 an 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. So, Typography appeared. Typography cuts one word in a wood, and then adjusts the spaces between groups of letters. Later, it involves more selection as typefaces, point size and line length.

Great Inventions of Ancient China


Gunpowder 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 nitre, sulphur and carbon could be ignited. By the Song Dynasty (960-1126), gunpowder was in extensive 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 centuries following, gunpowder weapons spread from China, through the Middle East, and then into Europe.


As we know, magnets can find the direction. It is the stereotype of the first compass in China - Sinan (south-pointing ladle). 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, and thence to Europe.

Ancient Chinese Compass

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