Ancient Chinese Inventions

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Date: 2019
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 913 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 990L

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The ancient Chinese invented a number of important items and technologies that are still in use today. The compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing are considered the Four Great Inventions of China. The ancient Chinese also invented silk, tea, and porcelain and developed scientific practices such as acupuncture. Their inventions impacted the cultures of other regions as Eastern worlds met with Western worlds. Trade routes such as the Silk Road led to the introduction of many ancient Chinese inventions into Western culture.

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Fast Facts

  • The earliest evidence of wine was found at a site in China and dates back to 7000 BC.
  • Kites were first developed in ancient China about 3,000 years ago.
  • The first toothbrush was invented in China and had bristles made from hog hairs.

The Four Great Inventions

The Four Great Inventions of China are the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. The compass was invented about 1100 AD. It was originally used by fortune tellers and Feng Shui artists before being used to navigate direction. By 1000 AD, Chinese sea vessels were using compasses to help them find their way. The first compasses used water and naturally occurring magnetic stones to detect direction. Eventually, the Chinese invented dry compasses made from wood and wax.

Gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists around the tenth century AD. The alchemists accidently discovered gunpowder when they were trying to create a potion for eternal life. They mixed sulfur, charcoal, and a chemical called potassium nitrate. The alchemists soon discovered that this combination created an explosive reaction. They began using gunpowder for entertainment at festivals. Gunpowder was often blown out of bamboo tubes onto fires for a dramatic effect. The Chinese did not begin using gunpowder for weapons until later. Gunpowder was introduced to Western regions via the Silk Road and other trade routes. It became an important weapon for many European nations throughout history.

Paper is arguably one of the most important inventions to come out of ancient China. Paper for writing was reportedly first invented in the early second century AD. However, some scholars believe that paper existed before this time and was used to wrap items. A Chinese inventor named Cai Lun is credited with inventing the first widely used paper, which was made from plants such as mulberry and hemp. It also incorporated fishnet and old rags. Because of the Silk Road, paper became a popular writing material throughout the world.

The Chinese invented two types of printing machines long before the invention of the printing press. Chinese printers used woodblock printing to print images onto fabrics and paper as early as the third century AD. Chinese inventors later created moveable type printing machines. These machines were very time-consuming to use because people had to load thousands of individual type pieces into the machine before they could print onto a page. Some isolated communities in China still use this process to print today.

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Did You Know?

Many historians believe the earliest umbrellas were developed in China. Although umbrella-like devices were seen in other ancient cultures, China was the first to use umbrellas as protection from rain. Many early umbrellas were made from paper, which was weakened by rain. Ancient Chinese people began waterproofing their umbrellas with wax and lacquer to use in the rain. Umbrellas became more popular with time. China is now the biggest producer of umbrellas in the world.

Other Ancient Chinese Inventions

The ancient Chinese invented several other important items. The fabric of silk was first created in China more than six thousand years ago. The ancient Chinese were master weavers of silk. Silk became a luxury item when trade routes opened between the East and the West. Historians named the Silk Road after the highly sought-after fabric.

Tea is another major product first made in China about 2700 BC. Early teas came from the leaves of plants that only grew in specific parts of China. Tea was used for medicinal purposes in ancient China. It was a drink enjoyed by all classes of people. Some plants used to make ancient tea still grow in China today. The oldest living tea tree is 3,200 years old and can be found in Lincang, China.

The shiny ceramic material known as porcelain first emerged in ancient China. Porcelain was used to make plates, cups, and items of decoration. People were willing to pay a lot of money for porcelain, which was highly valued by traders. Porcelain was a frequently traded item on the Silk Road. It is often referred to as “fine china” in English-speaking countries because of its origins.

Ancient China also introduced a number of scientific techniques to the world. The ancient art of acupuncture was developed in China. Acupuncture was a therapeutic technique used to relieve pain and tension. The process involves placing very thin needles into specific areas of people’s skin. Historians have documented the use of acupuncture as far back as two thousand years ago. A widely used therapy in ancient China, acupuncture is still used by health professionals today.

Several technological devices were developed in ancient China, including earthquake detectors, iron smelting tools, and mechanical clocks. Ancient China eventually developed a number of war technologies to use gunpowder in as well, such as rockets and flamethrowers. Many ancient Chinese inventions are still used in modern times.

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Words to Know

An ancient scientist who tried to find ways to change metals into gold and create a potion for eternal life.
Feng Shui
A Chinese system that studies people’s relationship with their environment.
Melting minerals from the earth to produce metal.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|MXJLMR910711026