Imagine a world where written communication was limited, navigation was a constant challenge and access to information was scarce. Well, thanks to the brilliance of ancient Chinese inventions, this is a world we don’t have to live in. The Imperial and Ancient Chinese periods witnessed remarkable advancements that continue to shape our lives today, 2000 years later.
Ancient China span the period 5000 BC to 220 A.D. It marked the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of both the Six Dynasties and the Imperial Chinese period.
Credited as an incredibly intelligent and significant early society, we have the Chinese’s early creations to thank for tipping the dominoes that led to greater scientific advancement and discovery. Most military weapons that exist today can trace their origins back to Ancient China. As too can a lot of modern pastimes, entertainment, and even our favorite drinks. These ancient Chinese inventions totally changed the history of the world.
7. Paper: Revolutionizing Written Communication
Although a lot of people might prefer their phone or computer to pen and paper, it’s still one of the most used items in the world, with over 400 million metric tonnes of paper produced each year.
One man is usually credited with the invention of papermaking. An Imperial court official by the name of Ts’ai Lun in approximately 105 AD. Although some variety of this Imperial Chinese invention had been around for a while at this point, it is Ts’ai Lun who identified the correct ingredients to refine the creation process; thus revolutionizing the use of paper across China.
Unlike earlier varieties of paper invention, like the earlier use of bamboo, or the Egyptian’s use of the papyrus plant; Lun crafted a mixture of mulberry and other fibers along with fishnets, rags, and hemp waste in his papermaking.
Obviously, the importance of this ancient Chinese invention can’t be understated. In fact, paper is considered one of the four great inventions of China.
With paper, the ability to write became more widespread. This allowed, among many other things, knowledge to be shared and societies to thrive and grow with a set of established laws that were written down in black and white.
6. Printing: Paving the Way for Mass Communication
A seemingly natural progression from paper invention, the printing press is another of the four great inventions of China. Invented sometime in the 8th or 9th century during the Tang dynasty, the first prints weren’t mass-produced or created in a movable press. Instead, the process was much slower and done entirely by hand.
But everything has to start somewhere. Without this Chinese invention, the printing press as it exists today simply wouldn’t have developed in the same way.
Using inked woodblocks carved with the words desired, the printer would take a piece of paper and place it across the block rubbing it firmly along the back side of the paper. Like magic, the ink transferred to the paper and a copy – or print – of the information was created.
With the creation of the printing press, for the first time information could be easily disseminated far and wide.
5. The Compass: Navigating the Seas and Beyond
The compass predates the pirates most commonly associated with it by over a thousand years. In fact, the compass is actually an ancient Chinese invention, created between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century A.D. Along with the paper invention and the printing press, the compass makes up the third of the four great inventions of China.
Much like paper, the world would be totally different without the Chinese developing the magnetic compass. Not only was it the first ever dial and pointer instrument; but without its creation, half the things we can now do in science wouldn’t even be possible. Without this ancient Chinese invention, we couldn’t have created navigational tools that eventually sent us to the moon and beyond. Not to mention, we probably wouldn’t even have Google Maps.
The ancient Chinese compass consisted of a lodestone spoon that rotated on a smooth board. Thanks to the spoon’s natural magnetization it would naturally spin in a north-south direction, providing valuable navigational information to any who used it.
The compass didn’t even arrive in Europe until hundreds of years later. The first recorded instance of a compass in the West was written by a monk in 1190.
4. Gunpowder: From Alchemy To Warfare
Although not everyone might be thankful for the invention of gunpowder and its impact on warfare; there’s no denying it’s deeply significant in human history. So much so that it is considered one of the four great inventions of China. Plus, without gunpowder, we wouldn’t have fireworks so… there’s that.
Also discovered during the Tang dynasty in the 9th century AD, gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal.
Ironically for something that has led to a lot of destruction, Chinese monks actually accidentally invented gunpowder during their quest to create an elixir of immortality. I think we all know how well that went.
The problem is that the impact of the invention of gunpowder was immediately apparent to all. Straight away it became the biggest advancement in weapon history, and it didn’t take long for the Chinese invention to spread across the world.
With China’s silk roads and the invading Mongol Empire, the use of gunpowder quickly traveled far and wide. Of course, most predominantly, the invention of countless weaponry occurred due to its creation. Much like when Albert Nobel created the atomic bomb, it’s likely some Chinese at least looked upon gunpowder with sadness at what it had created.
3. Kites: From Warfare To Recreational Pastime
The history of kite flying can be traced all the way back to between 475 BC and 221 BC, making it one of the most well known ancient Chinese inventions. Unlike the gaudier counterparts of today, the Ancient Chinese made kites from wood and cloth. Traditionally, they were known as muyan and modeled after birds; using bamboo to craft the frame. What a hoot.
These kites weren’t for getting out for a day at the beach, however. Instead, they were used for military purposes, used to scatter propaganda leaflets or spy on enemy movements. Imagine the terror of seeing a giant bird-shaped shadow over your head as you’re setting up camp one night…
Kite flying didn’t really change much, or expand past China for the next approximately 800 years. That is, until the Tang dynasty of 618-907 when people began to realize these military kites were a bit too heavy. Instead, they began to use paper (another ancient Chinese invention) to make kites that were a bit closer in shape and size to what we now use today.
Although the history of kite flying, like everything else, started off for militaristic purposes, flying kites is still enjoyed in China, and the world over. Although maybe Gen Z isn’t the best audience for it.
2. Ketchup: Ancient Chinese Fish Sauce
It’s not quite the ketchup Heinz makes 175,000 tonnes of per year, as the modern version came about in the 19th century. But without the ancient Chinese invention of ketchup, we wouldn’t have the stuff we squirt onto burgers today.
Ketchup was actually initially totally tomato-free and was invented sometime around 200 BC in Ancient China. Originally, ketchup was a type of fermented fish sauce, not unlike soy, and was used to add flavor to food. Ancient Chinese texts refer to the sauce as being made of fermented pastes from fish entrails, soybeans, and meat byproducts. Yummy.
Although it might not sound great, the Ancient Chinese version of ketchup was popular, spreading along trade routes and the silk roads. It just took a good few centuries to make it from a fish sauce to a bright red tomato condiment.
1. Alcohol and Its Cultural Significance
This is one we can all raise a glass and send a cheers to the ancient Chinese for. The invention of alcohol.
Although Ancient Chinese society was definitely not the only one to indulge – as we know well that the Greeks and Egyptians also enjoyed a tipple – the first recorded evidence of alcohol comes from residues in Neolithic China dating from 7000 to 6600 BC.
More recently, circa 1250-1000 BC, researchers found vessels still containing liquid, meaning they could get drunk off alcohol older than most civilizations. Or you know, test it for historical purposes… which is of course what they actually did.
This liquid was specialized rice and millet wines flavored with herbs, flowers and/or tree resins. It is the first direct chemical evidence of alcohol in ancient China. Although unfortunately, the pots didn’t come with information on if people in Ancient China got drunk, or if they were more refined in their tastings.
Much like the Ancient Greeks, evidence suggests it was likely a bit of both.