Ancient Chinese Inventors and Inventions

By Kan Zhong Guo Staff


Magnetic Compass
People of the Zheng and Qin Dynasty

According to history, the world’s first magnetic compass was constructed in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). The first compass was made by balancing a piece of loadstone carved in the shape of a ladle on a round, bronze plate. The first person to use the compass for navigational purposes was Zheng He (1371-1435), a Muslim from Yunnan Province. He made seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433, according to the wishes of the emperor at that time.

Zhou Dynasty 

Chinese medicine was not founded by one particular person. Rather, it came into being through the group efforts of various people who painstakingly contributed to its advancement. According to The Book of Rites (literally “record of rites”), which described the social forms, governmental system, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1050 c.–256 B.C.), recorded the court physicians’ division of medical teachings into internal medicine, surgery, nutrition, and veterinary medicine. The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, which appeared during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), systematically presented what was known in China as physiology, pathology, diagnostics, treatment, and preventive medicine. Bian Que, a noted physician at that time, was the first person to use a patient’s pulse to diagnosis illnesses. Shen Nong’s Cannon on Materia Medica, which was China’s earliest book on pharmacology, was systematically compiled during the first century. The physician, Hua Tuo, a famous physician in the 2nd century, performed abdominal surgery using a special anesthetic powder.

Warring States and Taoist Alchemists 

Although many different groups and individuals helped invent gunpowder, Taoist alchemists were among the most important contributors to this invention. During the reign of Emperor Wu Di (156-87 B.C.) of the Han Dynasty, extensive research was done in the field of eternal life. Some of the substances used by the alchemists in their studies were sulfur and saltpeter, and as such, many fires broke out. Wei Boyang, a famous Taoist alchemist of the Eastern Han Dynasty and author of the book, Book of Kinship of the Three, is recognized as the first person to have documented the chemical composition of gunpowder in 142 AD. By the 8th century, in the mid-Tang Dynasty, sulfur and saltpeter were combined with charcoal to create what is known today as huoyao or gunpowder.

Tang Dynasty and Bi Sheng 

The technique of using carved wood blocks to print images and text appeared in the Tang dynasty, during the 7th century. Block printing reached it’s golden age during the Song dynasty, between 960-1279, as the ruling class at that time encouraged the central and local governments to publish large number of books. Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng of the Song dynasty between 1041 and 1048. Bi Sheng’s invention was recorded by his contemporary, Shen Kuo, in his Dreampool Essays. During the 13-14th centuries, Wang Zhen made an important contribution to the development of movable type printing when he replaced the fragile clay-based printing blocks with a durable type of wood.

Ts’ai Lun 

The year 105 A.D. is often cited as the year in which papermaking was invented. Historical records show that Ts’ai Lun, an official of the Imperial Court reported the invention to the Eastern Han Emperor Ho-di. However, according to the World Archaeological Congress eNewsletter 11, August 2006, 200 pieces of ancient paper were recently discovered in the Xuanquanzhi ruins of Dunhuang in China’s northwest Gansu Province. The papers contained legible Chinese writings dating back to 8 B.C. and are believed to have been made during the period of Emperor Wu, who reigned between 140 BC and 86 BC. Whether or not Ts’ai Lun was the actual inventor of paper, he is still credited with playing a major role in developing a material that revolutionized papermaking in his country.

Western Zhou 

Another important contribution by the Chinese is Chinese embroidery. Archaeological evidence shows that embroidery dates back to the Western Zhou period (11th-8th centuries B.C.). In 1974, archaeologists found evidence of embroidery in an excavated tomb in Baoji Shaanxi Province. The tomb contained impressions of plaited stitch embroidery. With the arrival of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), embroidery was used extensively for decorating garments and articles for daily use.

Lei Zu the Wife of the Yellow Emperor Huang Di 

One of China’s greatest contributions to the world was the production of raw silk and the raising of silkworms. Legend has it that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor of Chia, was sitting under a mulberry tree in her palace garden, when all of a sudden she heard a rustling in the leaves above her. When she looked up, she saw silkworms spinning their cocoons. So she took one in her hand and found that the silken thread was shining, soft, and flexible. She then thought that if she could wind the silken thread off of the cocoon and weave it into cloth, the clothes produced from the silk would be very beautiful.

(Think Quest)

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