The Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

September 12, 2010 | Posted by Chris

China is widely credited with inventing the compass. An ancient Chinese compass, above.

With a country with over five thousand years of history, Chinese are proud of their splendid culture and achievements in literature, music, art and so on. Among them, the so-called Four Great Inventions are perhaps the most well-known. The Four Great Inventions are the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing. These four discoveries played a significant role in the development of Chinese civilization.

The Compass

During the Warring States period, a device called a Si Nan became the forerunner of the compass. A Si Nan was a ladle-like magnet on a plate with the handle of the ladle pointing to the south. In the 11th century, tiny needles made of magnetized steel were invented. One end of the needle points north while the other points south. The compass was thus created. The compass greatly improved a ship's ability to navigate over long distances. It was not until the beginning of the 14th century that compass was introduced to Europe from China.


Inspired by engraved name seals, Chinese people invented fixed-type engraved printing around 600 A.D. The skill played an important role in the Song Dynasty but its shortcomings were apparent. It was time-consuming to engrave a model, not easy to store, and not easy to revise errors.

During the reign of Emperor Ren Zong of the Northern Song Dynasty, Bi Sheng invented moveable, reusable clay type after numerous tests. Single types were made and picked out for printing certain books. These types could be used again and again for different books. Because of the large number of different characters in the Chinese written language, this technique did not have a dramatic impact at the time. However, today, this typesetting technique is regarded as a revolution in the industry. About 200 years later, this moveable-type technique spread to other countries and advanced the development of world civilization.


In Chinese, gunpowder is called huo yao, meaning flaming medicine. Unlike paper and printing, the birth of gunpowder was quite accidental. It was first invented inadvertently by alchemists while attempting to make an elixir of immorality. It was a mixture of sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, gunpowder was being used in military affairs. During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, frequent wars spurred the development of cannons, and fire-arrows shot from bamboo tubes.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, gunpowder spread to the Arab countries, then Greece, other European countries, and finally all over the world.


Even before there was paper, the Ancient China already has its way of writing down its characters by way of carving on pottery, stones and animal bones, on bamboo or wooden strips and silk. They even cast their characters on bronzes. However, these proved to be too heavy or too expensive for the Chinese to use in corresponding with others. Hence, paper was invented.

Proper paper was first discovered in Gansu Province in the 2nd century AD. There is evidence that prior to that, from the time of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD), the Chinese already used some kind of paper. But it was Cai Lun who invented a more developed art of papermaking using plant fibers as raw materials. The first batch made, which was supervised by Cai Lun himself, was presented to the Han Emperor in 105 AD, which so delighted the Emperor that he named the material as "Marqui Cai's paper."

This very important invention paved the way for other writing materials to emerge, as well as provide the means for the invention of commercial printing later on in China and elsewhere.

  • nika
    March 08, 2012 7:03 am
    i did not find any info. try adding about types of paper.
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