Chinese Inventions

Look at the following list of inventions/discoveries. Give the year when you think each was invented, and then place a checkmark next to the ones you think were invented by the Chinese.

• Silk • Wheelbarrow • Bombs
• Tea • Horse Collar • Embroidery
• Porcelain • Moldboard Plow • Dominoes
• Paper • Paper Money • Kites
• Printing • Cast Iron • Folding umbrella
• Gunpowder • Helicopter Rotor/Propeller • Sedan Chair
• Mariner's Compass • Seismograph • Wallpaper
• Matches • Fan (handheld) • Rockets
• Lacquer • Circulation of the Blood • Grain Storage
• Playing Cards • Civil Service

Do you see any inventions that might be related to each other? Which ones? How? Try to come up with three groups.




Which of these inventions do you think has been more important to the world? Pick three and explain your reasons. (We will do this again at the end.)




Which inventions are Chinese?

All of the inventions listed are Chinese. Read through the explanations below.

One of China's greatest contributions to the world was the production of raw silk and the raising of silkworms. Legend says that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor of China was sitting under the mulberry trees in the garden of her palace when she suddenly heard a rustling in the leaves. As 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 and weave into clothes, it would create a very beautiful cloth.
The Chinese knew how to produce silk at least by 1300 BCE, but not until the second century BCE did it begin to be exported to Europe, and not until about 550 CE, when monks who had traveled to China brought back silkworm eggs, did the West learn the Chinese secret of silk-making.
The Chinese traded silk with the Roman Empire and then with Byzantium. In return they received such items as wool, glass, and asbestos. Through the silk trade the world's two great empires in the first century CE - Rome and Han China - were linked, mainly because Roman women wore Chinese silks. The overland trade route between China and the Mediterranean was called the "Silk Road" because China exported so much of this fabric to the West.

Tea drinking originated in China and spread throughout the world. Whether a country calls the beverage "tea" (or some variant thereof) or "chai," as in Russia, depends on whether it came over the sea route or the land route from China. The sea route originated in Fukien province on China's coast, where the word for the drink in the Fukien dialect is "te." The land route originated to the north, where the term for the drink is "cha," Even today in northern England, people often speak of "having a cup of cha," although the more common term in England is "tea."

Porcelain, also called "china," is a type of clay pottery that was invented in China by using clay with special minerals. Chinese porcelain was exported throughout the world, and eventually the secret mineral ingredients were discovered by Europeans in 1709. Europeans began to experiment with porcelain making only after they saw and admired the Chinese porcelains.

The invention of paper was first reported by Ts'ai Lun in 105 CE. However, it is not known whether Ts'ai Lun was the actual inventor or the court official that presented this invention to the Emperor. But he will be a key figure recognized in the early invention of papermaking. Its use then spread to Chinese Turkestan in central Asia, the Arab world (c. 751 CE), Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Spain (c. 1150 CE), southern France, and the rest of Europe.
Note that papyrus, the inner bark of the papyrus plant, is not true paper. Paper is a sheet of sediment which results from the settling of a layer of disintegrated fibers from a watery solution onto a flat mold. Once the water is drained away, the deposited layer is removed and dried. The oldest surviving piece of paper in the world is made of hemp fibers, discovered in 1957 in a tomb near Xian, China, and dates from between the years 140 and 87 BCE. The oldest paper with writing on it, also from China, is dated to 110 CE and contains about two dozen characters. Paper reached India in the seventh century and West Asia in the eighth. The Arabs sold paper to Europeans until it was manufactured in the West in the twelfth century.

The Chinese invented both block printing, to reproduce the Confucian classics that had often been carved on stone, and moveable type. It appears that Europe learned about block printing from China and did not invent it separately. Ink, as well, was invented at this time.
The technique of printing with carved wood blocks appeared about the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Block printing reached its golden age during the Song dynasty which was in the years 960-1279 as the imperial patronage encouraged the publication of large numbers of books by the central and local governments. Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng of the Song dynasty between the years 1041 and 1048. This invention was recorded by his contemporary Shen Kuo in his Dreampool Essays. During the 13-14th centuries, the agriculturist Wang Zhen made an important contribution to the development of movable type printing.
One possible source of the spread of block printing from China is playing cards, which the Chinese also invented and introduced to Europe. Another source is paper money, first printed in China in the tenth century CE and later introduced to Europe.
There were book shops in every city by the end of the Tang dynasty.

Gunpowder was invented in China c. 1000 CE (Tang dynasty), actually by accident. They were attempting to make the elixir of life, which was supposed to make you immortal, and was primarily for emperors. Gunpowder probably spread to Europe during the Mongol expansion of 1200-1300 CE, but this has not been proven. The use of gunpowder in Europe was first recorded in 1313. Europeans used gunpowder for cannons, while the Chinese used it primarily for firecrackers. Despite such early knowledge of explosives and their use, China did not pursue the development of weaponry as did the West; ironically, it was through the use of cannons and guns that the Europeans were able to dominate China in the mid-to late-1800s.
Taoist alchemists were some of the most important contributors to the invention of Gunpowder. However, many different groups and individuals can be named as contributors to this invention. During the reign of Emperor Wu Di (156-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty extensive research was done on Eternal life and some of the substances used by the alchemists were sulphur and saltpeter, and as a result many fires were started. Wei Boyang was a famous alchemist who wrote a book called Book of the Kinship of the Three with enormous amount of information. By the 8th century in the mid Tang dynasty, the potentialities of sulphur and saltpeter when combined with charcoal were realized as the alchemists discovered an explosive mixture which was called huoyao or gunpowder.

Historians believe that the Chinese invented the magnetic compass and used it for navigation c. 1100 CE Arab traders sailing to China probably learned of the Chinese method of sailing by compass and returned to the West with the invention.
The compass may have been used during the 3rd century BCE, or perhaps, if old tales have any validity, even 300 years earlier. The earliest documentation that comes from the use of the compass was found in the 3rd century. "When the people of the State of Zheng go out in search of jade, they carry a south pointer with them so as not to lose their way in the mountains." This quote was one of the earliest documentation which tell the use of a tool which they used to find their way of getting back home and not getting lost in their travels. The worlds first compass was first made in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), by balancing a piece of loadstone carved in the shape of a laddle on a round, bronze plate. The first person to use this tool was Zheng He (1371-1435), a moslem from Yunnan province. By order of the emperor he made seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433.

Alchemy (Chemistry)
The Taoist search for the elixir of life (a life-extending potion) led to much experimentation with changing the state of minerals. The Chinese practice appears to have spread first to the Arab world and then to Europe. Chinese alchemy predates that of the Egyptians in Alexandria and other cities by about two centuries, beginning by 133 BCE

Civil Service
Exams for government service were introduced in both France and England in the 1800s, apparently inspired by the Chinese practice instituted almost two thousand years earlier, in 154 BCE.

Grain Storage
Henry A. Wallace, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, introduced governmental storage of excess grain after reading the dissertation of a Chinese student at Columbia University on Confucian economic policies. Wallace adapted the Confucian notion of government grain purchases to provide for times of scarcity, and he introduced the practice in the U.S. to deal with over-production due to mechanization and the resulting drop in agricultural prices.

The Chinese first manufactured the 'fan', which was mostly carried by women and soldiers. Most of the fans were made out of bamboo and silk. The fan was basically many bamboo spines sticking out in almost a half circle with silk wrapped around it.

Origami (Paper Folding)
Originated with the wealthy people in China - when they used expensive paper to write to friends. Before they sent the letters, they folded them up into fancy designs.

The first to make bombs for war, in the 17th Century, which were no more then a bamboo shell, about the thickness of two men's legs, and the length of a man's leg. The bombs were then filled with gunpowder, and a fuse was installed.

The Horse Collar
Third Century BCE. About the fourth century BCE the Chinese devised a harness with a breast strap known as the trace harness, modified approximately one hundred years later into the collar harness. Unlike the throat-and-girth harness used in the West, which choked a horse and reduced its efficiency (it took two horses to haul a half a ton), the collar harness allowed a single horse to haul a ton and a half. The trace harness arrived in Europe in the sixth century and made its way across Europe by the eighth century.

The Wheelbarrow
First Century BCE. Wheelbarrows did not exist in Europe before the eleventh or twelfth century (the earliest known Western depiction is in a window at Chartres Cathedral, dated around 1220 CE). Descriptions of the wheelbarrow in China refer to first century BCE, and the oldest surviving picture, a frieze relief from a tomb-shrine in Szechuan province, dates from about 118 CE.

The Moldboard Plow
Third Centrury BCE. Called kuan, these ploughshares were made of malleable cast iron. They had an advanced design, with a central ridge ending in a sharp point to cut the soil and wings which sloped gently up towards the center to throw the soil off the plow and reduce friction. When brought to Holland in the 17th Century, these plows began the Agricultural Revolution.

Paper Money
Ninth Century Ce. Its original name was 'flying money' because it was so light it could blow out of one's hand. As 'exchange certificates' used by merchants, paper money was quickly adopted by the government for forwarding tax payments. Real paper money, used as a medium of exchange and backed by deposited cash (a Chinese term for metal coins), apparently came into use in the tenth century. The first Western money was issued in Sweden in 1661. America followed in 1690, France in 1720, England in 1797, and Germany not until 1806.

Cast Iron
Fourth Century BCE. By having good refractory clays for the construction of blast furnace walls, and the discovery of how to reduce the temperature at which iron melts by using phosphorus, the Chinese were able to cast iron into ornamental and functional shapes. Coal, used as a fuel, was placed around elongated crucibles containing iron ore. This expertise allowed the production of pots and pans with thin walls. With the development of annealing in the third century, ploughshares, longer swords, and even buildings were eventually made of iron. In the West, blast furnaces are known to have existed in Scandinavia by the late eighth century CE, but cast iron was not widely available in Europe before 1380.

The Helicopter Rotor and the Propeller
By fourth century CE, a common toy in China was the helicopter top, called the 'bamboo dragonfly'. The top was an axis with a cord wound round it, and with blades sticking out from the axis and set at an angle. One pulled the cord, and the top went climbing in the air. Sir George Cayley, the father of modern aeronautics, studied the Chinese helicopter top in 1809. The helicopter top in China led to nothing but amusement and pleasure, but fourteen hundred years later it was to be one of the key elements in the birth of modern aeronautics in the West.

The Seismograph
Second Century CE. China has always been plagued with earthquakes and the government wanted to know where the economy would be interrupted. A seismograph was developed by the brilliant scientist, mathematician, and inventor Chang Heng (whose works also show he envisaged the earth as a sphere with nine continents and introduced the crisscrossing grid of latitude and longitude). His invention was noted in court records of the later Han Dynasty in 132 CE. Modern seismographs only began development in 1848.
Sixth Century CE. The first version of the match was invented in 577 CE by impoverished court ladies during a military siege. Hard pressed for tinder during the siege, they could otherwise not start fires for cooking, heating, etc. The matches consisted of little sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur. There is no evidence of matches in Europe before 1530.

Circulation of the Blood
Second Century BCE. Most people believe blood circulation was discovered by William Harvey in 1628, but there are other recorded notations dating back to the writings of an Arab of Damascus, al-Nafis (died 1288). However, circulation appears discussed in full and complex form in The Yellow Emperor's Manual of Corporeal Medicine in China by the second century BCE.

The Kite
Fifth/Fourth Century BCE. Two kite makers, Kungshu P'an who made kites shaped like birds which could fly for up to three days, and Mo Ti (who is said to have spent three years building a special kite) were famous in Chinese traditional stories from as early as the fifth century BCE. Kites were used in wartime as early as 1232 when kites with messages were flown over Mongol lines by the Chinese. The strings were cut and the kites landed among the Chinese prisoners, inciting them to revolt and escape. Kites fitted with hooks and bait were used for fishing, and kites were fitted with strings and whistles to make musical sounds while flying. The kite was first mentioned in Europe in a popular book of marvels and tricks in 1589.

Chinese Embroidery
Yet another important contribution to society from the Chinese people. Archaeological evidence for embroidery dates back to the Western Zhou period (11th-8th centuries BCE). Archaeologists found evidence of embroidery in a tomb which was excavated in 1974 in Baoji, Shaanxi province. It contained impressions of plaited stitch embroidery. With the arriving of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-CE 220) embroidery was widely used for decorating garments and articles of daily use.

The rocket and multi-staged rockets
Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries CE. Around 1150 it crossed someone's mind to attach a comet-like fireworks to a four foot bamboo stick with an arrowhead and a balancing weight behind the feathers. To make the rockets multi-staged, a secondary set of rockets was attached to the shaft, their fuses lighted as the first rockets burned out. Rockets are first mentioned in the West in connection with a battle in Italy in 1380, arriving in the wake of Marco Polo.

Some of the West's most popular fruits - peaches, apricots, and citrus fruits - came from China, as did some of the most common flowers, including chrysanthemums. The West also learned of goldfish and wallpaper from China and may have adopted the Chinese idea of the folding umbrella.
Many Western political and social thinkers admired the Chinese bureaucratic system of government. In particular, the German philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz (1646-1716), the Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778), and the French political economists of the late 1700s, known as the Physiocrats, were inspired by Chinese thought, as was America's Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sources /lessplan/l000019.htm /15618/inventor.htm /chinainventions.html</span>
Timeline of Chinese Inventions(2).pdf
Discussion Questions
1. Which of these inventions do you think have been most important to the development of civilization throughout the world? Choose three and explain why.
2. Which is an example of the United States learning from a Chinese example in the twentieth century?
3. What is an "elixir"? How is it related to the development of science in China?
4. Using the example of tea, explain how trading patterns influence the names of new products brought from other countries.
5. Find three different examples of inventions that relied on each other or are related.