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The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

Ancient Chinese printingAncient Chinese printing

The four great inventions of ancient China refer to papermaking, gunpowder, printing techniques and the compass. The statement was first put forward by British sinologist Dr Joseph Needham (1900-1995), which was later widely accepted by Chinese historians. The four great inventions of ancient China enormously promoted the development of China’s economy, politics and culture, which were introduced to the Western countries through various channels and had a substantial influence on world civilization.


The earliest form of Chinese characters were inscriptions on oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty, followed by inscriptions on ancient bronze objects, and it was not until the Spring and Autumn Dynasty that the Chinese characters were carved onto bamboo slips strung up by hemp cords.

The Chinese characters were written on silk cloths during the Qin and the Han dynasties, and it was not until Cai Lun’s (61-121) improved papermaking method in the Eastern Han Dynasty that paper was widely used throughout ancient China. Papermaking was a great event in the history of human civilization, and it was introduced into European countries 1,000 years later.


Gunpowder, a mixture of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur, was invented by ancient Chinese alchemists during the process of alchemy in the Sui and the Tang dynasties, and it is a highly volatile explosive. The ancient fire arrow resembles the present rocket tube in shape, and was widely used in battles on water.

The gunpowder was enormously employed in the wars during the Tang and Song dynasties; it was introduced into the Arabian countries by the Mongolians and then to the European countries.


The legend went that Huangdi (the legendary forebear of the Chinese nation) defeated the Chiyou tribe with the help of a southward-pointing cart, a kind of mechanical device for indicating directions in ancient times. On the basis of the southward-pointing cart, the Chinese people invented a compass in the Warring State Period and later applied it to sea explorations and wars.
Great progress was made in compass-making in the Song Dynasty, when it greatly stimulated the development of the shipping industry. Later, the Arabians and Persians learned to make compasses from the ancient Chinese and introduced them to the European countries.

Printing Techniques

Before the emergence of a printing technique, books were transcribed by scholars one by one throughout the history of China. Although a rubbing technique and a block printing technique successively emerged in the Han Dynasty and the Western Jin Dynasty, it was still time-consuming to print a book.

Bi Sheng(970-1051)first invented movable type printing in the Song Dynasty, greatly promoting the development of the printing technique, for which he was praised as the father of typography.

The Chinese printing technique is a vanguard of human civilization, which was introduced to the European countries by the Arabians, and it creates favorable conditions for knowledge dissemination in the world.