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Four Major Inventions of Ancient China

China has a long history of over five-thousand years, with plenty of tools or technologies that profoundly influenced the whole world were originated in China. For instance, British sinologist Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham concluded that the compass, papermaking, gunpowder and printing were the Four Major Inventions of ancient China.

The Four Major Inventions of ancient China largely promoted the development of Chinese politics, economy and culture, and also had an impact on the development of civilisation in the whole world after they spread to the western countries.

The compass was the earliest invention out of the Four Major Inventions of ancient China. It was invented in the Warring States period and the first compass was called Si Nan, literally meaning directing the South. Later, the Si Nan was improved into a ladle-like magnet on a bronze plate. The plate is square with a very smooth circle in the middle and around the circle are 24 directions marked by eight trigrams, the ten Heavenly Stems, the terrestrial branch and the lunar mansions. The invention of the compass made full use of the principle of the magnetic field and greatly helped navigators from all over the world.


Another important technique of the Four Major Inventions of ancient China is papermaking, which was created by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Firstly, Chinese paper was made from silk flocculate and then Cai Lun used bark, broken fishing netting, plant fibre, etc. as additional materials. Through cutting, boiling, rinsing, smashing, lifting by a screen of cloth, and drying, a thin piece of fibre is created, which was originally called Caihou paper. The invention of Caihou paper provided economical and convenient writing material for humans. Gradually, Caihou paper took the place of Egyptian papyrus and European pergamyn, and the basic technique of Caihou paper is still preserved in the current papermaking process.


Gunpowder is also one of the widely used Four Major Inventions of ancient China, which was discovered in the Sui and Tang Dynasty by a Chinese alchemist while attempting to make an elixir of immorality. It was a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter and carbon accidentally mixed by the alchemist. Gunpowder was called Huo Yao in China, literally meaning fire medicine. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, gunpowder was being used in military affairs. During the 12th and 13th centuries, gunpowder spread to Arab countries and then was utilised by countries all over the world. The invention and military utilization of gunpowder largely promoted its development all over the world.

Printing Technique
The last invention on the list is the printing technique. Initially, woodblock printing was invented in the Tang Dynasty, and the first printing product was a single page of Sanskrit sutra. Woodblock printing is a fixed-type of printing with a block carved with the texts needed. However, this was very inconvenient and time-consuming. Also, it was hard to store and correct mistakes. On this account, a lettering worker named Bi Sheng, improved the printing technique in the Song Dynasty. He carved inversed characters each on a single cube made from a kind of clay and arranged the cubes each time according to the text while printing. This kind of printing technique solved many problems of woodblock printing and was named "movable-type printing". The invention of movable-type printing greatly accelerated the communication of cultures between countries all over the world.