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Ancient Chinese Inventions

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1635 words Published: 23rd Feb 2017

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Ancient Chinese Inventions

Early Chinese civilization invented numerous basic and vital necessities that are presently used around the world. Some of the most valuable ancient Chinese inventions include but are not limited to the following: silk, printing, paper, mathematics, Seismograph, the compass, gunpowder, bamboo and medicine (About.com, 2012). It is wildly accepted that the four greatest inventions or contributions to the world were: the compass, the discovery of gun powder, papermaking and printing.

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One of the Chinese culture’s first inventions was paper. During the 2nd century the earliest form of paper was made from hemp fibers. Even before the end of the ancient times, the Chinese had already acquired a level of expertise with papermaking. During the Qin (221-206 BC) and Western Han (206 BC -220 AD) dynasties, the art of making floss (rough silk) from inferior cocoon was greatly utilized. The basic process of making the floss (named Piao Xu) included continuous “thrashes” and “stamp crushing” (which involved a mill for crushing). Afterwards, the same procedure was used in papermaking. During ancient times, Chinese people used limewater or plant ash water to separate raw silk from the gum component. This system paved the way for future papermaking, which utilizes degumming vegetable fiber in the papermaking process (ChinaCulture.org, 2012).

During the Eastern Han dynasty, approximately 104 AD, a “eunuch” of the Imperial Court named Cai Lun invented a new type of paper. He took bamboo fibers and the inner bark of a mulberry tree, added water to these and pounded them using a wooden tool. Once pounded thoroughly, he poured the mixture over a flat woven cloth allowing the water to drain out. When the mixture dried, only the fibers remained. Cai Lun then realized that the material he made had a good writing surface and was lightweight. It was also easy to make. Cai Lun also used other materials when making paper. Materials such as remnants or hemp, tree barks, fishnets and linen rags were also used. In 105 AD, Cai Lun went to He Di, the emperor of China at that time and presented his invention. Once the emperor viewed the paper, it was then officially invented (Totallyhistory.com, 2012). Cai Lun paved the way for China to develop literacy more rapidly than the West. Even though paper had been made by Han for over 200 years, Cai Lun improved the techniques to make it and the quality. The process of making paper has been simplified by advanced technologies, but the process of making paper remains fairly the same-softened plant fibers, suspended in water, is formed in moulds into thin sheets, pressed, drained, and then dried (Sayre, 2011).

Ancient historic records show that the Chinese had many natural remedies which included natural herbs and acupuncture. The foundation of Chinese medicine was thought to have occurred more than 2000 years ago. Much of ancient medical knowledge comes from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), which produced a guide that is even utilized today. The guide was called “The Treatise on Diseases Caused by Cold Factors” by Chang Chung Ching. It is regarded as perhaps the best Chinese medical work of the Materia Medica, compiled in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) by Li Shih Chen. This comprehensive journal paved the way for further advances in the world history of medicine. It includes 1,892 descriptions of different types of medicines and has been translated into several foreign languages. It has also been useful in East Asian and European countries (Thinkquest.org, 1998).

Ancient Chinese felt the purpose in making medicine was to create an “elixir of life”; to make emperors immortal and help them live forever. In their quest to make the elixir, they instead, made numerous medicines and remedies. The Chinese got the idea to develop an elixir from Tao Ch’ien, a poet and philosopher. Tao Ch’ien believed that if the Chinese discovered a method of turning metal into gold, which last forever, then they could at the same time, find the elixir of life. This belief encouraged doctors and pharmacologists to begin searching for a method of making metal into gold. They also tried to learn other ways of becoming immortal, and that led to the discovery of the elixir. After creations made, resulted in the healing of various ailments, there was even more determination to make the elixir. Tsou Yen, a pharmacologist, formed of how he thought diseases were caused. His belief was that there were two spirit-like forces, called the Yin and Yang, which flowed throughout the body. He thought diseases were caused when either Yin or Yang were out of balance. This concept is still used today in medicine (About.com, 2012).

Gunpowder was the next profound creation by ancient Chinese. Ancient Chinese alchemists spent centuries trying to develop an elixir for immortality and the use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was an ingredient in many of the failed elixirs. Around 850 AD, during the Tang Dynasty, an alchemist mixed “75 parts saltpeter with 15 parts charcoal and 10 parts sulfur”. The mixture failed as an elixir but was explosive when it was exposed to an open flame. The impact was severe enough to cause “smoke and flames”, which resulted in the hands and face of the alchemist being burnt. The Chinese proceeded to use the gunpowder for fireworks (About.com, 2012).

It was also used by the Song dynasty’ (904 AD) armed forces against their enemy, the Mongols (About.com, 2012). Their weapons included “flying fire”, an arrow with a burning tube of gunpowder attached to the shaft. Flying fire arrows were like miniature rockets, propelled at the enemy, producing fear. Other Song dynasty uses of gunpowder included hand grenades, poisonous gas shells, flame throwers and land mines. Initially, artillery pieces were rocket tubes made from hollow bamboo shoots, but were redesigned to cast metal. McGill University professor Robin Yates, notes the world’s first image of a cannon comes from Song China, in an illustration from around 1127 AD (About.com 2012).

Last but not least, and probably the most important, is the creation of print. During the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) printing was inventing. It began as blocks of wood used to print fabric but was then used to copy Buddhist holy books. Later, scrolls and books were printed, initially via wood-block printing and by the 11th century, by portable printing. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) affordable, printed books became widely available. As late as the Tang dynasty, block printing was limited in its use as the method for production of books. It was not until the time of the late Tang dynasty (923-936 AD), when the government sponsored the reproduction of the “Five Classics” via block printing, that all important books were block printed (Ross, 1982).

The printing method advanced further during the Ch’ing-li period (1041-1048), with the invention of the movable type. However, during that time, the movable type faced constraints because the Chinese character ideograms were too strict. Consequently, thousands of characters were too difficult to mold. As technology advanced, the movable printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg, allowed printing to move to other cultures. Gutenberg is credited with transforming society with mass printing, thus enabling the dispersal of information to many. “This print invention is regarded by many as the invention of the millennium (Ross Jr., 1982). And I personally feel as though it is the most important invention that I as well as the world could not live without. Through many centuries, ancient Chinese inventions have had profound effects on human culture… some more useful than others.


About.com (Part of The New York Times Company). (2012). China’s Science and Technology.

Retrieved from About.com website: http://crystalinks.com/chinascience.html

China Culture. (2012). The Birth of Paper Making. Retrieved from ChinaCulture.org website:


Oracle Think Quest. (1998). Destiny: The Culture of China. Retrieved from Thinkquest.org

website: http://library.thinkquest.org/20443/g_medicine.html

Ross, Jr., F. (1982). Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. Oracle Bones, Stars, and

Wheelbarrows. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sayre, H. M. (2011). The Humanities: Culture, Continuity and Change, Vol. 1. (Custom Ed.).

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Szczepanski, K. (2012). Invention of Gunpowder. Retrieved from About.com website:


Szczepanski, K. (2012). Invention of Paper. Retrieved from About.com website:


Totally History. (2012). The Invention of Paper. Retrieved from Totallyhistory.com website:



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