Society - History
By: - at August 3, 2013

Top 15 Things China Invented First

china at night lightsThe Chinese people encompass a culture that is steeped in tradition. According to the book Ancient China by Arthur Cotterell, Chinese people first emerged onto the global scene around 6,000 BCE.  Chinese culture is the longest continuous civilization and has the oldest written language. Over more than thirty millennia, many great Chinese minds flourished and prospered. Many of these inventions were either adopted and modified by Europeans with their own twist.

The need for these inventions arose from many key historical and cultural factors. Various factions within the ancient Chinese empire waged war against one another, which caused the country as a whole to become divided.  The dynamic nature of ancient Chinese culture helped guide the way to innovation, inspired by the drastically changing environment of ancient Chinese culture.

15)  Fiat Currency
Chinese currency fiat currencyFiat currency, or fiat money, means currency that derives its value from government regulation or law. As with most ancient societies, the economy in China was first based around the barter system and the exchange of one good for another. While this system was and is still used in various parts of the world, wealthy merchants and lords desired a more efficient method. This pushed for the creation of the first paper money in history around the seventh century.  The first currency evolved from bank promissory notes, and early currency is referred to as commodity money because currency was valued by the amount of a particular commodity that could be purchased with it. 

China's original paper money was commonly referred to as "jiaozi." Separated by regions, jiaozi rose to prominence during the Song Dynasty. A potential contributing factor to the success of this currency was a shortage of copper that occurred during this time period. Copper was used to create metal coins for currency, and were used alongside the barter system. The ingredients for simple paper include hemp waste, tree bark, bamboo, and other plant fibers. These substances were much more abundant than the dwindling supply of copper. Jiaozi was a much more affordable to produce than copper coins which are pictured below. In the eleventh century, a national form of paper currency unified the regional versions of jiaozi.

Ancient Chinese Coins
ancient chinese coins
By mc559 (Chinese coins) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

14)  The Compass
All campers are familiar with the standard compass. This nifty device allows travelers to figure out where they are without the need for batteries or any outside help. The arrow of a compass always points to the north, allowing you to figure out which direction you are headed toward in case you become lost. Unlike a lot of other navigational tools, the compass has remained greatly unchanged in its basic principles. What did change, however, was its purpose. The compass itself was originally invented to be a tool for divination, or telling the future.

This divination tool was first invented in the Han Dynasty, dating it somewhere around 206 BCE. It involved a metal spoon in a deep basin, and the spoon would spin to point to magnetic north. It wasn't until around the Song Dynasty and the tenth century that the Chinese began using the compass for military navigation. Since then, the compass has primarily been a directional tool used for staying on course. We’d be interested in anyone who still uses it for divination purposes, and just how they explain the fact that it always spins to point the same way.

13)  Paper and Printing
It's common knowledge that paper originated in China. Scholars and artists toiled to create beautiful art that is still seen and appreciated throughout the world. The art of paper crafting was once something that only specialized crafters in temples were able to do, as the edicts and art that was done on them was mostly religious in nature. Hemp paper was first invented during Emperor Wu’s reign, between 140 BCE and 86 BCE. But script paper isn't the only paper that they invented. They even invented toilet paper, which was first used in the sixth century. Recorded by Yan Zhitui who was a scholar, accounts of using tissue paper as early as 589 CE were presented in his writing. An Arab traveler further documented it in the year 851 CE.

Ancient Chinese paper making

It's no small wonder that printing also originated in China. Originally used as a way to mass produce items for consumption, printing was originally done on wood blocks that had ink rolled over them. These blocks were then pressed to pages in a specific order, much like newspaper printing machines that we are used to in the United States, but on a much smaller scale. Movable type using ceramic tablets was invented around 1040 CE, long before Johannes Gutenberg came up with his printing press.

12)  Organized or Row Planting
Around 6 BCE, the Chinese invented organized, or row, planting in efforts to help their crops grow faster and more effectively. When small villages were responsible for feeding larger populations, this method proved the best. Organized planting is essential to optimize plants’ growth and harvesting potential. It makes it easier to spot weeds, evenly apply water and fertilizer, and accurately thin plants when needed. Row planting also allows for better wind pollination and means plants are less damaged by windstorms, as they’re not thrashing against their neighboring plants quite as badly.

Row planting

Most people think of organized planting as traditional single row planting, but while that is effective, there are a few different types that allow for greater larger diversity of gardening styles and techniques. Wide row planting is similar to single row planting in that it requires stakes and string or fencing to create the desired straight lines. The advantages to wide and single row planting is that it maximizes a narrow gardening space and ensures plenty of access to each plant, with built in walkways on the bare soil between each row. Organized planting greatly improved production and helped populations to avoid famine, as more goods could be stored for periods when plants, for whatever reason, wouldn’t grow.

11)  Boat Rudder
The rudder is what allows boats to steer themselves effectively by using mechanical pressure and water flow, providing a ship with the ability of directional control. Before the introduction of the boat rudder, the Western world relied on steering oars which were only effective for shorter voyages. It was the invention of the rudder by the Chinese that revolutionized sea exploration, travel, and trade. The earliest rudders were called “balanced rudders”, and were not utilized by Europeans until the nineteenth century.

Boat rudder

Only later did they invent another kind of rudder, one with holes in it to make turning it easier, that effectively did the same job as the original Chinese rudder. Rudders not only made it easier for exploration and other nautical activities, but were especially useful for any naval maneuvers. The development of rudders and adoption by the British in particular completely revolutionized maritime activities. In fact, without a proper rudder, torpedo boats wouldn’t have been able to break thirty knots when they still relied on sails.

10)  Porcelain
chinese potteryPorcelain is a functional material, whether you collect rare plates or eat off it. There’s a reason, though, that you might say, “Break out the good china,” when you have special guests. That’s because fine porcelain was first invented by the Chinese, and has a long history of innovation and development - just like China.

Porcelain is essentially a form of pottery, which has its roots as far back as the Neolithic period, but it was the Chinese that first produced painted pottery. During the Han dynasty there was a so called golden age of Chinese pottery. A kiln is required to produce the extremely hot temperatures required to burn away all of the impurities in clay, leaving behind the white, ceramic product. Originally, it was made from white clay found on the banks of the Yangtze. Glazed and painted pottery is something you still see today.

Pottery has a long history in China, and, throughout many dynasties spanning hundreds of years, various types of pottery were invented. Ranging from different glazes to colored celadon, the Chinese continuously came up with new and highly desired wares. The styles reflected both technological advancements as well as the contemporary tastes of consumers at a given time resulted in a long, rich history of pottery.

ceramic figures

Although you often may find the typical blue and white pattern on china plates today, ceramics came in a variety of colors and finishes. Certain dynasties and periods are also known for particular types of pottery. One of the most spectacular types of porcelain was found during the Sung dynasty, when monochromatic porcelain was produced. Later, more complex patterns were favored including motifs such as dragons, as well as adopting richer, more dramatic colors.

9)  Iron Plow
The iron plow is one of the most important agricultural advancements that has impacted every country in the world. In a world where farming was once one of the primary industries for most countries, technological advancements revolutionized agricultural production and caused major shifts in industry and the economy. Many historians believe that the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred without greater food production that was made possible by the iron plow. It was the introduction of the iron plow in Holland that started its agricultural revolution. The Chinese first came up with the idea years before.

The way that food is grown in long, furrowed rows to this day, especially rice and soybeans, is a result of the iron plow. The first instance of the iron plow cropped up between 475-221 BCE, during a period known as the “Warring States Period,” and was referred to as kuan (moldboard plows). This referred to a particular type of construction and was far more durable than other designs that Greek and Roman farmers used, which were made from less sturdy materials.

Old manual Plow

The iron plow also had dramatic impact on the industry of agriculture when it became available to peasant workers, making the tilling of soil and other tasks more efficient. The plow was further developed during the Song Dynasty, between 960-1279 BCE. At this stage, the Chinese had devised a large number of technological advancements in agriculture and engineering, including the ability to change how deep the furrow would be by changing the length between the plow and the board used to control it. These inventions helped China continue to present themselves as one of the foremost nations of ingenuity.

8)  Soccer
Known to most of the world as football, soccer is the world’s most popular sport. The sport as we know it originated as a kicking ball game in China. The rules were different and allowed more hands-on ball handling than is allowed in today's version of the game. There were also up to three teams playing at once, making it a fairly complex sport. Versions of the game have been around since Ancient Greek and Roman times. Older versions of the sport often included more handling of the ball—more like American football and rugby—but modern rules only allow ball-handling by the goalkeepers. The most influential rules governing soccer as a whole are the Cambridge Rules, drawn up at Trinity College in 1848. Although the modern rules of play, called The Laws of the Game, are still supervised by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and are currently supported in Asia by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

soccer penality kick

These laws apply to all soccer matches at every level, though some modifications have been allowed for children, women, and those with disabilities. The basic premise is to use footwork to create a goal scoring opportunity with the football, while keeping the opposing team from gaining possession of the ball. Interestingly, the goalkeeper or goalie is the only position designated by the Laws of the Game, though, in modern times, coaches have assigned strategic outfield positions to aide in scoring.

7)  Seismography
Starting out as a renowned astronomer the scientist Zhang Heng is famous not only for contributions to scientific theory, but the engineering of scientific instrumentation that is still used today. In 132 CE, he invented the seismograph in order to track movements of the earth, and help predict the earthquakes that were ravaging the country. Placed in an area of high seismic activity, the decorative instrument concealed a sensitive pendulum in a bronze urn beneath a circle of dragons holding copper balls. When the pendulum swung in response to a shift in the earth, it put levers and gears in motion that releasing the ball from the dragon’s mouth into the open mouth of a toad statue sitting below. Examining which toad held the ball told you the direction of the seismic disturbance.

 early seismograph
By deror_avi (Own work) [Attribution, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Engines of Our Ingenuity by John H. Lienhard, Zhang Heng’s original design was able to accurately predict an earthquake that occurred 400 miles away from where the instrument itself was placed in court at Jing Shi. Its mechanical brilliance is without question, as modern seismography—which only came about around 1880—utilizes the principle of the pendulum that relies on theories of inertia in much the same way as Zhang Heng’s design.

6)  Drilling for Resources
With water wheel-powered bellows that gave a continuous uninterrupted stream of air, China achieved significant advances in metallurgy over two millennia before Europe and the Middle East. This allowed for the creation of multi-ton iron drills that could be used in the drilling for natural resources, something that would not appear in the Western world until Virginian mining in the 1820s. During the Han dynasty, 180 foot tall derricks stabilized with hemp and bamboo cables had hand-laid stone guides for drills to stay straight in the boreholes.

Oil drilling under the hot sunny sky

Like modern drill assemblies, hoisting equipment, and a power source were all present in forms recognized by engineers and laypeople today. The Chinese even developed versions of blow-out preventers, and placed collars below ground to control erratic pressure and stabilize flow like we do today. Some drilling could go as far as 4800 feet deep. Resources such as brine and oil could be pulled up in this fashion. Natural gas was recovered in a similar process, then flowed through a bamboo pipe transport system to where it was used as fuel in furnaces to evaporate brine for its valuable salt, and—as some evidence suggests—create lights.

5)  Silk
Silk is a fabric that is known for its feel and sheen. Silk emerged in China around the twenty-seventh century BCE. The only place in the world that you could get silk was China until the Silk Road opened for trade. Silk became a sensation and was in extremely high demand among nobility from all corners of the globe. In China, silk was used for numerous applications, including writing and art. The color of silk that a person wore was an important indicator of status in the Tang Dynasty. The Silk Road trade route brought much adventure and money into China and sparked many different myths and legends.

The Silk Route

Silk didn't remain solely in China, mostly because of its high demand. Silk cultivation moved to Japan and then, later, Europe. Though the locations where silk was produced changed, it continued to be a status symbol and was always in high demand.

4)  Crossbow
A crossbow is a weapon that features a bow mounted on a grip or stock. When drawn taut, the bowstring is held in place by a mechanism on the stock, and a trigger allows small arrows—called bolts or quarrels—to be fired. The bolts may have feathers or “fletching” attached to them, though this is not always necessary due to the crossbow’s inherent accuracy. The stock and trigger configuration improves on the uncertainties of classic recurve bows. For example, the way the archer lets go of the bowstring is no longer a concern due to the consistent release that the trigger offers. Because of its relative silence and consistency, the crossbow is a popular weapon today for sportsmen and hunters.

Crossbow seige style
By Sémhur (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Though crossbows are believed to have originated in China, there is no concrete proof. Some of the earliest specimens of crossbows, however, do come from China. Leonardo da Vinci even designed his own crossbow many years later. Bronze crossbow bolts from as early as the fifth century BCE were found at a burial site in Hubei. Full-bodied crossbows with stocks and triggers were found at Qufu, and they are believed to have been created in the sixth century BCE.

3)  Forks
Forks and knivesForks are a familiar dining utensil for most Western cultures, and they are becoming increasingly more prevalent in Eastern cultures. Their name comes from the Latin word furca, which means “pitchfork”, in reference to forks’ familiar shape. Surprisingly, they were not common in European cultures until the 18th century, and they did not gain popularity in America until the 19th century. This century-long gap may explain why European and American cultures have different etiquette for holding forks. American etiquette calls for the fork to be held with the tines curved upward; conversely, European etiquette demands that the tines curve downward. In both cultures, forks are used for spearing, carrying, and occasionally cutting food. More advanced etiquette involves a wide variety of forks for specific uses, such as cocktail, dessert, and fondue forks.

Despite their more recent popularity, forks are believed to have been created in the Byzantine Empire. Dr. Needham’s Science and Civilization in China suggests that forks have been found in Chinese burial sites, dating as far back as the Qijia Culture. These early forks were carved from bone, and similar specimens have been found in the tombs of later Chinese dynasties.

2)  Gunpowder
Gunpowder, sometimes called black powder, is widely used as a propellant in firearms and fireworks. It consists of a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, and it was the first discovered chemical explosive. Surprisingly, it is classified as a “low explosive” because of its slow decomposition rate and low brisance (or shattering capability). This explosive was invented in China by alchemists, and it is commonly referred to as one of the “Four Great Inventions” of China. The first documented reference to gunpowder was written by Qing Xuzi during 808 CE. Though this document did not refer to gunpowder’s explosive traits, written manuscripts detailing gunpowder’s incendiary properties appeared as early as the 9th century.

Chinese Firecrackers

Gunpowder was originally developed as medicine. Its Chinese word, huo yào, translates literally into “fire medicine.” It is with great irony, then, that gunpowder became one of the most influential technologies in the history of warfare, and would account for an extreme amount of death. Chinese military forces used gunpowder in guns, cannons, and grenades against the Mongols in the 13th century. After they founded the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols used similar technology in their attempted invasion of Japan. These early gunpowder technologies were coupled with later advances in metallurgy, led to the development of effective, modern artillery. By the seventeenth century firearms dominated Early Modern warfare, and soon began replacing swords and spears.

1)  Coffins
Coffins are used in burial practices for the deceased all around the world, and have been in use for centuries. The Chinese developed one of the earliest forms of the coffin, the “hanging coffin”, a burial technology that is implemented by the Bo people to this day. The theory behind hanging coffins is that they are intended to bring the body of the deceased closer to heaven rather than it would if it were being buried in the ground. The deceased would be taken out to the mountains, and the coffin would be strung up by a pulley system and ropes. Once the coffin is hoisted into the intended position, whether it be a ledge or a cave, the coffin is left there above ground. 

Funerary adornments are different for every culture, but right up into modern day practices, the wealthiest individuals have the most ostentatious burial displays. Whether a mausoleum, monument or complex headstone, the Chinese were one of the first cultures to try and reflect the individual persona of the deceased with appropriate burial indicators.

Chinese "Hanging Coffins"
Hanging coffins
By PaintedCarpet (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Coffins were elaborately decorated, and personally planned and prepared prior to death by the person whom would eventually end up in it. Ancient Chinese coffins served the purposes of both burying someone and displaying their status.

Final Thoughts
Many of the inventions that you attribute to other places got their start in China. Things such as the compass and plowing have kept their basic principles since their inception, while others, like soccer, have changed significantly through the years. One thing that they all have in common is that they are still commonplace to this day. It's easy to forget, particularly in an age where French silk and Irish soccer teams are popular. Even the coffin can trace back to Chinese ancestry. So when you are looking at your compass or helping yourself to dinner, you can thank ancient Chinese inventors for paving the way.





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