China has a rich culture going back thousands of years. One central feature of that culture has been the Chinese’s affinity for invention. Indeed, some Chinese inventions have shaped all of world history.
Without the export of these six inventions from China to the rest of the world, the Western world could never have developed in the same way. Read on to discover just why these Chinese inventions are so important to Chinese — and world — history.
6 Monumental Chinese Inventions
1) Gunpowder and Fireworks
Alchemists of ancient China created the first gunpowder after discovering the quick ignition of sulfur and niter. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, this gunpowder was put to use for military applications with “flying fire” — packs of launched powder lit on fire. The Chinese military went on to develop more and more sophisticated weapons using the gunpowder. Gunpowder was also used for non-military uses, especially by acrobats and magicians to create special effects during shows. This eventually developed into the complex fireworks displays that China is still known for today, and that have spread around the world.
Such a powerful weapon couldn’t stay contained in China for long. During the 12th and 13th centuries, gunpowder was introduced to Arab and then European countries. Gunpowder ended what was known as the “cold weapon era” and ushered in more modern warfare, which would have a far-reaching impact on the development of human history as a whole.
The traditional origin story of paper is that Cai Lun, an Imperial Court official during the Han Dynasty, created the first sheets of paper around 105 BC using mulberry fibers, broken fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. In reality, paper from China has been dated as far back as 8 BC and could even be older than that. What cannot be questioned, though, is that the invention of paper greatly spread the written word across China and the world.
In fact, it was the development of paper that allowed the Chinese to develop printing using wood blocks. This made it easy to create standard texts, thus easing the dissemination of important information. It even was the driving force behind the spread of Buddhism across Asia. The Chinese inventions of printing and paper established the importance of the written word for thousands of years.
Before the compass was invented, travel by ships over long distances was not possible, because sailors had to navigate using the stars, a feat which was impossible during the day (and even on cloudy nights). Some exceptionally skilled navigators, such as the Polynesians, were able to get around these difficulties. But for most shipping, the Chinese solved these navigation problems by inventing the the first compass sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries. The Chinese compass was made of lodestone, a naturally-magnetized iron ore, and allowed captains of ships to always know where they were going.
Soon after its invention, China’s compass technology passed to the rest of the world through nautical contact. The compass drastically increased sea trade and contact between cultures, ushering in the Age of Discovery. Without the compass, who knows how long it would have been before ships could have been widely used?
4) The Spinning Wheel
Silk had long been a coveted import from China across the Western world. However, it was difficult for Chinese traders to keep up with the demand due to the time-consuming nature of spinning the fine silk threads into usable yarns for sewing fine clothing and tapestries. To meet the increasing demand for silk fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035. This simple machine could be easily operated by just one person and made high-quality thread for export.
Italians brought the invention to Europe in the 14th century, where the spinning wheel was put to use to create threads out of all sorts of other materials. This changed the production process for textiles all around the world.
5) Kites and Movable Sails
Early in its history, China had one of the most advanced maritime forces in the world. This was in part due to the compass, but their invention of easily movable sails was another contributing factor. Two thousand years before the European discovery of sails, Chinese kites were invented. These kites weren’t simply children’s toys, but were actually put to use as important military messaging systems.
Historians believe that the complex moving technology behind these kites allowed the Chinese to develop the first moving sails (in comparison with the mounted sails used by the Europeans and Arabs at the time) around 200 AD. These moving sails allowed ships to sail into the wind for the first time. Mariners around the world emulated the Chinese technology and eventually moving sails became standard on ships, putting journeys more under the control of the sailors themselves and less at the mercy of fickle weather.
It’s no coincidence that porcelain dishware is called “china.” Chinese artisans took the simple process of creating pottery and reinvented it into the artwork it is today. Early porcelain was formed as early as the 16th century BC, but true china created from the high-heat firing process with decorations of colored glazes didn’t emerge until the Ming Dynasty.
Still this beautiful porcelain quickly grew in popularity around the world as a more attractive and durable alternative to traditional pottery or glassware. Wealthy families across Europe clamored to purchase it, and eventually, the technology spread to Europe. The origin remains, though, forever in its common name — china.
Without these (and many other) Chinese inventions, it is difficult to imagine life today. In fact, Chinese history and tradition remain alive and well in so many aspects of our lives. As China becomes a more and more important player on the international stage, Chinese culture is finally being recognized as important for us all to know. If you want to increase your understanding of Chinese history and culture and develop much-needed language skills, check out Brainscape’s Chinese app now. You may be surprised to find how easy learning Chinese can really be.
Let us know what other Chinese inventions you think changed the world in the comments!
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