Chinese inventions

China's four big inventions

There are myriad common misconceptions about China that foreigners are bound to hear (and maybe repeat - by the way, you can't see the Great Wall (长城, chángchéng) from the moon), but one of the more frequently-uttered discusses how countless cornerstone inventions of the modern industrial world have their origins in ancient China. Oddly enough, this one is sort of true: everything from metallurgy to navigation to weaponry has seen massive and crucial contributions from Chinese inventors, and it's clear that without ancient China, much of our modern world would look radically different from a scientific perspective. Let’s take a closer look at what came from China (and what didn't) to find out how important ancient China has been to the science and technology world!

Any discussion of Chinese inventions usually begins with the 四大发明 (sì dà fāmíng), or "Four Great Inventions": the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing. 发明 is the term commonly used for what are called "inventions" in English, literally meaning "to develop (something) wise or bright". Interestingly enough, the grouping of these four is actually a foreign creation, and many Chinese scholars and inventors don't regard these four inventions as particularly significant - 16th Century British sailors deemed these inventions (particularly compasses and gunpowder, we imagine) to be most important to their culture and trade, and thus the 四大发明 were born.

Gunpowder (火药, huǒyào), which was likely first produced during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, táng cháo) in the 9th Century AD, was a remarkable innovation in its time; the basic principle wasn't improved upon for some nine centuries, when dynamite was invented in the 1800's. Legend has it that the 唐 scientists were searching for a secret formula for immortality when they stumbled upon gunpowder, which ultimately made their legacy immortal, kind of? OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but it was still pretty important. Woodblock printing (雕版印刷, diāobǎn yìnshuā) and movable type are also interesting members of the big four, in that they date to the 7th Century AD and brought about changes in Chinese books and printing that would go unchanged until the 20th Century, when Western, Gutenburg-style printing finally took hold in China. Similarly, compasses (指南针, zhǐnánzhēn) and paper printing ((造纸, zàozhǐ) were developed in China centuries before they came about elsewhere.

While much of the attention on Chinese inventions focuses on ancient eras, modern China has also produced a bevy of important developments. 青蒿素 (Qīng hāo sù, know in English as "Artemisinin"), for instance, is a medication used around the world for treatment of many forms of malaria that was discovered and cultivated by Chinese scientists in the 1970's. It quickly became the global standard and has played an important role in the reduction of malaria risk in the world's tropical areas. Given China's penchant for cigarettes, it's only natural that the electronic cigarette is also a Chinese invention, first developed by a Beijing pharmacist in 2003.

Now, on to the old (and cool) stuff. A favorite of hunters and zombie killers around the world, the crossbow would not exist without innovative Chinese inventors, who developed the first crossbow some 2,500 years ago. Chemical warfare also existed long before World War I and Saddam Hussein; it originated during the Warring States Period (战国时代, zhànguó shídài) when forces laying siege to a city or fortress would dig holes beneath the walls and roll burning balls of mustard seeds in to force out their enemies. On the lighter side, there are a host of common games and toys that also originated in China. Kites (风筝, fēngzheng) for example, were used as rescue and military signals, as well as toys, as early as the 5th Century BC. While they're a pretty silly toy today, in ancient China kites were occasionally used for more sinister purposes: the Emperor Wenxuan (文宣帝, wénxuāndì) sometimes forced prisoners to ride large kites to their deaths as punishment (we dipped back away from the lighter side there for a moment, our apologies). Chinese intellectuals also came up with Chinese chess (shockingly!), mahjong and 围棋 (wéiqí), usually known in English as "Go".


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