China’s prolific history of innovation has generated much debate and speculation. Rather than wade through a long list of Chinese inventions, let’s focus on four major game-changers plus four lesser-knowns still very much impacting our lives.

China’s Four Great Inventions

The Four Great Inventions sì dà fāmíng (四大发明) were actually intended for domestic consumption, their potential value in foreign trade merely an afterthought, as China saw itself as the center of civilization. Most historians identify these four Chinese inventions as having the most profound influence on world development:

  1. Paper – Legendary Han Dynasty eunuch Cai Lun (蔡伦) optimized papermaking by mixing a mishmash of plant fibers, fishnet, old rags and hemp waste. Interestingly enough, paper was first used to wrap things, rather than capture profound thinking. Soon after, people were writing on it and spreading ideas. Woohoo! No more heavy wood planks and awkward bamboo rolls.
  2. Printing – Ideally suited for duplicating Chinese characters, woodblock printing on textiles also originated in the late Han era, while printing on paper for mass communication didn’t take off until the Tang. This technology later spread West and reached Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith whose metalworking experience led to big quality advancements in moveable type and spurred the European printing revolution.
  3. Gunpowder – This lucky mistake (like the microwave oven, penicillin, the pacemaker and more) was a volatile substance arising from the 9th Century imperial quest for immortality. The immediate result? Much improved fireworks. Unfortunately in 1280, due to careless handling, a massive gunpowder warehouse exploded sending body parts on an unplanned holiday to nearby counties. Refining the original compound, the Chinese also came up with firecrackers, rockets, grenades, bombs and mines.
  4. The Compass – Han Dynasty scientists invented a magnetic device for fortune telling, but it wasn’t perfected for navigation until a thousand years later during the Song, well before Zheng He’s amazing voyages during the Ming. The device opened the era of worldwide exploration and discovery.

Silk does not rank in the top four of Chinese inventions, despite its ubiquity. Nor do the plow, the wheelbarrow, horse collars & stirrups, matches, kites, parachutes and hot air balloons.

“Gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press were the three great inventions which ushered in bourgeois society. Gunpowder blew up the knightly class, the compass discovered the world market and founded the colonies, and the printing press was the instrument of Protestantism and the regeneration of science in general; the most powerful lever for creating the intellectual prerequisites.”
– Karl Marx

A Lesser-Known Four Greats

Certain obscure Chinese inventions never caught on. The South-Pointing Chariot, for example, was predicated on the notion that ancient audiences would enjoy watching horses pull a driverless chariot with a human statue whose arm always points southward.

Another fascinating creation was called the Magic Mirror or “light-penetrating mirror”. This solid bronze surface, after engineering manipulations, reflected sunlight to project a hidden back image against another wall, sort of like how Commissioner Gordon calls Batman when sh*t hits the fan in Gotham City.

Historians also credit the Chinese with domesticating the wild goldfish, though this “invention” is more of a process of identifying certain eye-pleasing genetic mutations and breeding to produce more of them.

Here are four more Chinese inventions which all have huge followings:

  1. Football – Despite playing the game Cùjū (蹴鞠) during the Warring States period and other dynasties – even Sima Qian wrote about it! – the country’s conspicuous lack of football achievements set against a backdrop of Olympic success frustrates many Chinese.
  2. Paper Money – Before its widespread use during the Song era as a replacement for heavy rolls of coins, wealthy merchants in the Tang pioneered paper currency as deposit receipts, making commercial exchanges much easier. Fast forward one thousand years et voilà, we’ve nearly mastered paperless transactions for most transactions.
  3. Bristle Toothbrush – Although several ancient civilizations devised a chew stick, the Chinese were the first to the table with a pre-modern toothbrush using pig bristles. They also popularized a dental amalgam using tin, mercury and silver during the Ming Dynasty.
  4. Toilet Paper – British scientist Joseph Needham dates this modern convenience back to the 6th Century and Chinese scholar/artist Yan Zhitui. Before the advent of toilet paper, which many still consider ineffective, people used to wipe with all kinds of stuff including grass, sand, stones, sticks, seashells, corncobs, broken pottery, even the neck of a goose.

“Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.”
– Yan Zhitui

A New Dawn Of Innovation?

Good thing nobody believed US Patent Office Commissioner, Charles H. Duell, in 1899 when he proclaimed, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Innovative ideas continue to cross porous borders providing life-enhancing consumer products and services. China will no doubt be the origin of many of them in the future.