The Four Great Inventions

On July 21, 2011, in Featured China Stories, by Jack Li

What civilization can claim to be the birthing place of four transformational objects? China! The concept of “four great inventions” is an entirely Western one, but it was adopted by the Chinese after scholars like Francis Bacon and Karl Marx pointed out the importance of such inventions. You can see their impact in your own life overseas thousands of years after the fact! Hop on a flight by China Flights today and take a tour of Beijing to visit some museums and experience this land of innovation for yourself.


The earliest reference to magnetism in Chinese literature can be found in a 4th century BC book called Book of the Devil Valley Master: “The lodestone makes iron come or attracts it.” For most of Chinese history, the compass of choice was in the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. According to Joseph Needham, noted British biochemist, historian, and Sinologist who devoted the later part of his life to studying the science and civilization of ancient China, the Chinese began to use a dry compass in the Song and continuing Yuan Dynasty, but this type never became as widely used as the wet compass.


Gunpowder, a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, is classified as a low explosive because of its relatively slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. It is believed that gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality in the 9th century. By 1044 AD, various Chinese formulas for gunpowder held levels of nitrate in the range of 27% to 50%. By the end of the 12th century, Chinese formulas of gunpowder had a level of nitrate capable of bursting through cast iron metal containers in form of hollow, gunpowder-filled grenade bombs. Also in the 12th century, fireworks (an extension of gunpowder) were invented to scare away evil spirits.


The invention of paper can be traced back to about 105 AD when an official of the Han Dynasty Imperial court created a sheet of paper using plant fibers, fish nets, old rags, and hemp waste. However, a recent archaeological discover was made near Dunhuang in which paper with writing on it was dated to 8 BC.

Paper was originally used only for wrapping and padding, gaining its use as a writing medium only in the 3rd century. By the 6th century, there is evidence that sheets of paper were being used for toilet paper as well. The Song Dynasty was the first government to issue paper currency.


Woodblock printing, invented sometime before 868 (the first dated book), produced the world’s first print culture. Woodblock printing was better suited to Chinese characters than moveable type, another Chinese invention. Western printing presses, invented in the 16th century, were not widely used in China until the 19th century.

These inventions are of indubitable importance as modern society is founded upon them. Now that you know your basic facts about the Four Great Inventions, visit China with China Travels to find out more!


Jack Li
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