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From clothes to computers, toys to textiles, it has become accepted and almost expected to see the words ‘made in China’ on many consumer goods. Whilst many of today’s exports from China are based on cheap labour in the Far East it wasn’t always that way. Some inventions from Ancient China have significantly shaped the world that we live in today. This essay will outline China’s four greatest inventions of all time; the magnetic compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing. It will conclude by discussing how big an effect each invention has had on the modern world and state which truly is the greatest of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China.
The magnetic compass has been described as “the most used and most successful direction-finding tool on Earth” (Haven, 2005, P.15). It is believed to have been invented in China, during the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). For the Chinese, however, navigation was not the primary use for the compass. Instead, “only after its application in feng shui evaluations was the compass also used for navigations at sea by the Chinese.” (Gerstung & Mehlhase, 2002, p.11). It wasn’t for another five hundred years that the compass was used for navigation. Nowadays, almost every form of transport across the world uses a compass. Originally compasses were used mainly on boats, but today hikers use them regularly and all planes as well as some cars have one built in.
Before the invention of the compass, boats were forced to use costal features to find their way around. For example, they would follow the coastline around countries which would take significantly longer than today! Some also used the North Star at night to shorten routes by heading out into the middle of the ocean at night. However, if cloud blocked the view of the star or costal features, then often ships got lost waiting for the cloud to clear.
Over several hundred years, numerous minor adjustments were made to the compass, which led from the first compass “made of loadstone in a the shape of a tiny spoon and floated in a bowl of water” (Haven, 2005, P.16) developing into the modern compass that we know of today with “enclosed oil, wood chip, and an iron needle in a ceramic jar with a glass top.” (Haven, 2005, P.16).
It wasn’t until around the 10th century that the magnetic compass reached Europe, but since then it has played a large part in history, for example, “Columbus used a magnetic compass on his first trans-Atlantic trip.” (Saddleback, 2008, p.21). Following the arrival of the compass in Europe, there have been no major changes to the compass in about six hundred years. The only minor changes have occurred as our knowledge of the earth continues to improve.
The Chinese first invented gunpowder in the Ninth Century, and just like with the compass, their original use for it differs from its use today. It was discovered (possibly accidentally) when “Chinese alchemists attempted to make gold or to prepare an elixir of immorality” (Selin, 1997, p.389). It did not take long, however, for the Chinese to use gunpowder in warfare. By the year 1000, gunpowder weapons were “deployed on the battlefield in China.” (Selin, 1997, p.389). The first use of gunpowder in warfare was in 919, “when it was used as a fuse for the ignition of a Chinese flame-thrower.” (Reid, 1994, p.23). In later years, gunpowder enabled the invention of the cannon and guns which replaced swords and bows for example. There are differing views on the spread of the knowledge of gunpowder; some (the minority) believe that other cultures discovered gunpowder independently, a short time after the Chinese; others argue that the knowledge spread through the capture or surrender of weapons and technicians during battles; and some (the majority) believe Marco Polo was responsible for bringing Chinese gunpowder to Europe via the Silk Road. There are few original sources to form a definite opinion.
Fireworks, another Chinese gunpowder related invention, are a complete contrast to war. Originally (and still today in China) they were (and are) thought to “drive off noxious influences and evil spirits” (Wells, 2009, p.172) as the ghosts are afraid of the loud bang that a firecracker makes. Today, fireworks are enjoyed as a means of celebration all over the world, but the Liu Yang region of Hunan Province continues to be the main production area in the world for fireworks since their invention there about 1000 years ago.
Paper gets its name from the Egyptian ‘papyrus,’ despite not being an Egyptian invention. The name stuck after confusion from where it originated. A major influence over the process of papermaking dates back to a Chinese man called Han Hsin (247-195 B.C.), “who made a kind of felt from silk.” (Asuncion, 2003, p.13). The actual process of papermaking was invented in China in 105 AD by Ts’ai Lun. Before the invention of paper, the Chinese used to write on bamboo, “clay tablets and dried sheepskin.” (Haven, 2005, p. 21). The invention of paper made things much simpler. Some of the first paper made in China was made from the bark of mulberry tree as well as other plant fibres. The paper was significantly stronger than today’s paper, so much so it was able to be used as clothing and even body armour! The Chinese also found that adding rice stalks to the paper mixture made a softer paper once dried which was used as toilet paper. It was not until about one hundred years later that paper was used for writing on. Several Chinese papermakers were captured after a war in the 700s and were taken to Baghdad where the first Arabian paper was made in 793. The process of paper making did not reach the West for around another five hundred years. (Krebs, 2004, p.218).
Before the art of printing was invented, production of books was an arduous and expensive task. In addition, errors occurred by hand copying which lead to errors being spread as fact! There are two types of printing that were invented in China, the first being woodblock printing and the second is moveable type printing. Woodblock printing is essentially where symbols are carved into a piece of wood, so they can be pressed on cloth. It is a very simple and inexpensive method. There are reportedly fragments of woodblock printing from the Han dynasty (before 220), however, the eight century is said to be “the most reliable.” (Xiantao, 2007, p.101). China reportedly had more books alone than the rest of the world put together due to the simplicity and low cost of woodblock printing. (Ho 1962: 214) (Xiantao, 2007, p.102).
The second, and better known type of printing that was invented in China is movable type printing. It was invented shortly after 1040 by Bi Sheng, who used baked clay pottery characters placed on an iron frame as his type. (Fang, 1997, p.38). Considering that there were at least 5000 characters in the Chinese alphabet at the time, compared with just 26 in Western society shows the extent of the disadvantage that the Chinese had when writing books for example. The pottery used, however, did not work well with ink and as such was not such a great success. It was, however, ultimately Bi Sheng’s idea that was later adapted which has shaped the way printing has developed.
It has been fascinating to research this topic, and here is a summary of what I have learnt. The compass has allowed navigation around, and essentially the discovery of, the world. Without the compass, navigation would certainly have taken significantly longer, and it is possible that certain places may have never been discovered!
Gunpowder has played a huge part in civil engineering, both from the collection of raw materials by quarrying and also in the infrastructure we enjoy today (for example foundations for buildings as well as roadways). It has enabled much faster and easier methods of doing these things, rather than relying on human brute forceforce. Gunpowder has also revolutionized warfare. This can be seen as both good and bad; whilst wars are now much shorter, they are also so much more brutal when they do occur.
Paper is prevalent in our daily lives; consider the contrast between the uses of toilet paper and money, yet both are made from paper. As well as this, paper has allowed written language, meaning communications significantly improved.
The method of printing has allowed us to record and share our findings, accurately. Its invention meant that the ancient Chinese no longer relied on word of mouth or hand writing.
In conclusion, it is very fair to say that all four ancient Chinese inventions are really quite incredible and have had a huge influence in the way the world we live in has developed. Without them our daily lives would be completely different. To pick a single invention from the four should not take credit away from the other three, but when we consider that all four of the Great Inventions are included in Kendell F. Haven’s book, 100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time, then the following quote summarizes concisely the reasoning for choosing papermaking as the greatest of the Great Four Inventions of Ancient China, “amazingly, 19 of the other 99 of these 100 greatest science inventions directly depend on paper, and 48 of them indirectly depend on paper”. (Haven, 2005, p. 21).
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