China's long history has seen some extremely important inventions
emerge, most noticeably gunpowder, paper making, printing and
the compass, which, in the words of Roger Bacon, changed the whole
appearance and status of things in the world.
China was the first country in the world to make proper paper.
Paper made during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-16 AD) has been
found in Gansu Province, Xi'an and other places in Shaanxi Province
as well as Xinjiang. A further development of paper is credited
to Cai Lun of the Eastern Han (25-220). He used plant fiber such
as tree bark, bits of rope, rags and worn-out fishing nets as
raw materials. In 105, Cai presented the first batch of paper
made under his supervision to the Han emperor, who was so delighted
that he named the material "Marquis Cai's paper". Eastern
Han Dynasty paper found in Wuwei, Gansu, in 1974 carried words
which were still clearly decipherable. Thin, soft, and with a
smooth finish and tight texture, this paper is the most refined
and oldest paper discovered to date.
Before paper was invented, the ancient Chinese carved characters
on pottery, animal bones and stones, cast them on bronzes, or
wrote them on bamboo or wooden strips and silk fabric. These materials,
however, were either too heavy or two expensive for widespread
use. 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.
The invention of gunpowder was no doubt one of the most significant
achievements of the Middle Ages in China. The correct prescription
for making gunpowder with nitre, sulphur and carbon was probably
discovered in the ninth century. In fact, in his book, Ge Hong
in the third century records the procedures for making a kind
of mixture that could be ignited. After the Tang Dynasty (618-907),
things took a much faster course as gunpowder was already used
in simple hand-grenades which were thrown by a catapult. In 1126,
Li Gang, a local official, recorded how he ordered the defenders
of the city of Kaifeng to "fire cannons" at the invading
Nuzhen tribal people, inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders.
The first prescription for gunpowder appeared in 1044, much earlier
than the earliest (1265) gunpowder-making instructions recorded
in Europe. 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. The earliest picture of a European
cannon shows that it bears a striking similarity to Chinese cannon
About 1230, the Song army had cannon powerful enough to breach
A bronze Chinese cannon cast in 1332 is the oldest one in the
world extant today. Many bronze and iron cannons have been unearthed
in China, most of them bearing inscriptions dating them to between
1280 and 1380.
On the basis of printing using carved blocks in the Tang Dynasty,
Bi Sheng of the Northern Song Dynasty invented movable type printing
in the 1040s, which ushered in a major revolution in the history
Bi's printing consisted of four processes: making the types,
composing the text, printing and retrieving the movable types.
According to Dream Stream Essays, Bi Sheng carved individual
characters on squares of sticky clay, then baked them make clay
type pieces. When composing a text, he put a large iron frame
on a piece of iron board and arranged the words within the frame.
While one plate was being printed, another plate could be composed.
After printing, the movable types were taken away and stored for
future use. Movable type printing has a very important position
in the history of printing, for all later printing methods such
as wooden type, copper type and lead type printing invariably
developed on the basis of movable clay types. Bi Sheng created
movable type printing more than four hundred years earlier than
it was invented in Europe.
According to ancient records, natural magnets were employed in
China as direction-finding devices. This led to the first compass,
called a sinan (south-pointing ladle) during the Warring
States Period. In the Han Dynasty compasses consisted of a bronze
on which 24 directions were carved and a rod made from a natural
magnet. Such devices were in use until the eighth century.
In the Song Dynasty, Shen Kuo described the floating compass,
suspended in water, a technique which minimized the effect of
motion on the instrument. This enabled the compass to be used
for sea navigation for the first time. The invention of the compass
promoted maritime undertakings, and its use soon spread to the
Arab world, and thence to Europe.
China's four great ancient inventions made tremendous contributions
to the world's economy and the culture of mankind. They were also
important symbols of China's role as a great world civilization.