Chinese Inventions and Discoveries

Long recognized in the West for its natural and man-made monuments, for its silks and its satins and for its delectable cuisine, China should also be credited with inventions and discoveries which continue to influence our world today as they did at their inception. For the better part of fifteen hundred years, the Chinese civilization has given birth to developments in navigation, spiritual balance, mathematics and natural prevention and diagnosis; since it was this culture that was responsible for the invention and the discovery of such things as porcelain, paper, fishing reels, church bells, rudders, solar wind, the circulation of blood in the human body, the suspension bridge, the technique for drilling for natural gas, the iron plough, the seed drill, the mechanical clock, the seismograph, planting and hoeing techniques and the compass.

Some Chinese inventions and discoveries include:
  • Compass: Recognized in Chinese as Si Nan, this early version of today’s compass came in the form of a two-part instrument, the first one a metal spoon made of magnetic loadstone, the second one a square bronze plate, which featured, in Chinese characters, the eight main directions (North, South, East, West, etc.), symbols from the I-Ching oracle books, and the finer markings of 24 compass points with the 28 lunar mansions along the outer edge. These two components were spiritual and physical opposites, the spoon representing Heaven and the plate representing Earth, which, when brought into contact, would guide the observers in the right direction. The original lacquered earth plate, dating to the 4th century BCE, is currently on display at the Museum of Chinese History.
  • Kite: Two thousand years before the European “discovery” of flying sails, the first Chinese kites were already in flight. Emulating the shapes of butterflies and birds, Chinese kites went further in their natural simulation by designing their kites to fly for over three days. These kites did not represent simply an entertaining and childish pastime. Rather, they were used for such highly sophisticated purposes as military communication, referred to as “magic afoot,” and in some instances considered a threat.
  • Seismograph: The first seismograph, credited to the Royal Astronomer of the late Han Dynasty, Chang Heng, was designed as a cast bronze vessel with nine dragons facing different directions, each of which held a ball in its mouth. Any seismic activity detected by the vessel would prompt the balls to fall into the corresponding mouths of the nine frogs sitting below the dragons, which would point to the direction of the earth tremor. This natural measuring tool did not appear in the West until approximately 1,500 years later, where it has since been instrumental in measuring and predicting earthquakes in places like California and Mexico.
  • Stirrups:The invention of the stirrup was timely and appreciated. Before its appearance, riders had to hold on tightly to the horse’s mane to avoid falling off, in addition to having to mount the horse by a flying leap or a pole vault. This invention, one that did not appear in the West until 400 years later and one without which military and non-military equestrian use would never have progressed, led to the development of another unique Chinese invention: water polo.
  • Practical Umbrella: Next time you look out the window onto a rainy day and pull out an umbrella, know that you owe your thanks to the Chinese. Umbrellas in China were not simply used to protect the skin from the sun’s rays: made from oil paper produced by the bark of the mulberry tree, the first practical umbrella, invented in China during the Wei Dynasty (386-532 AD), was designed to protect from both the rain and the sun. Soon thereafter they took on a more symbolic meaning as ceremonial ornaments and momentos of the Emperor’s trust.
  • I-Ching/Yin Yang: Written by King Wen and his son, Duke Chou, nearly 3,000 years ago, the ancient book of “I-Ching” (Book of Transformations) to this day provides guidance to those seeking the true organization and balance of the Universe’s natural elements. The “yin” and the “yang,” representing all the possible sets of naturally paired opposites, is incorporated into this philosophical work, which has become part history and part eternal spiritual guide.
  • A Mathematical Place for Zero: It is recognized the world-over that the Chinese took the first step in developing the concept of zero, necessary for carrying out even the most simple of mathematical computations. As early as the 4th century BCE, the Chinese started leaving a blank space for the zero symbol, used in conjunction with the traditional Chinese counting board and the smaller abacus; and evidence exists attributing to the Chinese the use of the actual “0” before 686 AD.
  • Maritime Discoveries: The Chinese maritime forces, therein including the sailors as well as the shipbuilders, had no comparable equals in the ancient world. They were learned, widely traveled and technically advanced. The Cape of Good Hope, Australia, trade with Africa, a possible landing in the Americas—all of these achievements have at one time or another been attributed to these formidable men. In addition, the ancient Chinese maritime forces were responsible for the invention of the rudder and watertight compartments for ship’s hulls. Likewise, they are credited with innovating the use of masts and the replacement of the basic square sail with the fore-and-aft rig (allowing the ship to sail into the wind). Without these inventions, and many more maritime-related discoveries, the Western world, always a couple of steps behind, would have found it impossible to travel, conquer and rule; and, again, the course of world history would have been dramatically altered.
  • Bronze Age Discoveries: Coming much earlier than it did in other civilizations, the Bronze Age in Chinese history was especially significant. It was during this period (around 3000 BC) that Chinese metal workers discovered how to make bronze from copper and tin, producing an easier casting method that allowed them to make sharper cutting tools. Bronze has been especially associated with the Chinese culture, and it became the medium used by sculptors who crafted such masterpieces as the elephant drinking vessel.

China is not only a land rich in culture, history, art and beauty, it is a land rich with innovative inventions without which world history would have been drastically altered. The Chinese have contributed innovative ideas that continue to help shape technology worldwide, which is why the Inventors Assistance League would like to recognize the accomplishments of these analytical, meticulous people. If you have information about Chinese or other Asian inventors, please contact Dr. Mason, our Director of Educational Services. Be sure to include your source of information.

Information Sources

Asia Central