Made in China: Four Great Inventions

China is well known for its introduction of ways and means to help ease the life of mankind. Among the inventions of Ancient China, four emerged as great contributions to the developments and changes not only to the country, but also to the world’s economy and culture.

The four great inventions of Ancient China were papermaking, commercial printing, gunpowder, and the compass.


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. It was a proof that from the time of the Western Han Dynasty, the Chinese already used 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.

Commercial Printing

It was Bi Sheng who first introduced movable type printing in the 1040’s, which was considered as the major force in the history of commercial printing. Bi Sheng used squares of clay where he curved individual Chinese characters. Later on, other types of printing such as wood, copper and lead evolved from this clay type movable printing.

However, this significant invention did not make a great impact compared to the way Gutenberg’s moveable type revolutionized the Western world. It was due to the fact that the individual characters used were so many, while the English language only needs 26 characters. It was much easier to manipulate the latter on a printing press than the 3000-5000 Chinese characters. Nevertheless, commercial printing in Ancient China changed the way people reproduced their printed materials.


The other two great inventions were gunpowder and the compass. The Chinese demonstrated their invention of gunpowder in the 18th century AD when it was used by the army of the Song Dynasty. By combining sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, the Chinese found a way to develop new weapons, including rockets launched from bamboo tubes.


On the other hand, the compass was widely used in Ancient China for navigational purposes. The Chinese found out that natural magnets are abundant, and that by making magnets, they were able to align the pieces in a North/South position. The magnets were then placed in a bowl of water with directional bearings.


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