CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS
Early compass China gave the world woven silk, fireworks, playing cards, pasta, fishing reels, whiskey, poison gas, paper, wood block printing, lacquer, the compass, and the wheelbarrow. "They were the first to notice that all snowflakes had six sides," wrote Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster. "They invented the umbrella, the seismograph, phosphorescent paint, the spinning wheel, sliding calipers, porcelain, the magic lantern (or zoetrope) and the stink bomb (one recipe called for fifteen pounds of human shit, as well as arsenic, wolfsbane and cantharides beetles)."
Chinese mathematicians invented the decimal point, and are also believed to have developed the concept of zero, which they introduced to the Hindus who introduced it to the Arabs who in turn passed it on to Europe in the Middle Ages. In other ways the Chinese were not so advanced. They didn't start using screws until relatively recently, many centuries after Europeans.
The extensiveness of China's contributions to science has been outlined by Cambridge professor Joseph Needham's whose complete Science and Civilization in China contains 21 volumes.
Even though China was more advanced than the West technologically for many centuries, Needham said, an industrial revolution never occurred in China because Chinese inventions were used mainly for the amusement of the emperor rather than moving an economic society forward. Gunpowder for example was primarily used in firework displays for the Imperial court.
Book: Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham ; Good Websites and Sources: Google “Chinese Inventions”; The Wikipedia article is very long and thorough Wikipedia ; Science and Civilization by Joseph Needham in China Series Needham Research Institute ; Chinese Inventions Timeline Columbia University ; Links in this Website: CHINESE FIRSTS--PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS
Bronze, Coal, Iron and Steel in China
Bronze metallurgy in China dates back to 2000 B.C., significantly later than southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where it developed around 3600 B.C. to 3000 B.C. The oldest bronze vessels date back to the Hsia (Xia) dynasty (2200 to 1766 B.C.). According to legend bronze was first cast 5,000 years ago by Emperor Yu, the legendary Yellow Emperor, who cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize the nine provinces in his empire.
The oldest bronze bells and large objects date back to the Shang dynasty (1700 to 1050 B.C.). The Chinese Bronze Age is sometimes used to describe the period between 2000 and 300 B.C., a period dominated by the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
Chinese may have began using coal as early as 1000 B.C. Coal was first mined for fuel in Europe around A.D. 1250.
The world's first cast iron products were made in China around 500 B.C. By the 3rd century B.C., the Chinese were using blast furnaces to produce cast iron. The technology wasn't introduced to Europe until the Middle Ages.
Modern iron making was made possible when the Chinese discovered how to make hotter-burning coke from coal. Not long afterwards they invented the first iron plow, which revolutionized agriculture. Some historians also claim that Chinese metallurgists were the first to make steel.
Gunpowder and Fireworks in China
Fire oxen Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese. According to one account it was first cooked up in the A.D. 9th century by Taoist alchemists who were trying to find a compound to make people live forever and mixed honey, saltpeter, charcoal, and sulphur. The Chinese word for gunpowder means “fire medicine.”
According to another account gunpowder was invented in the 10th century by a cook who mixed sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter. It is not known what he was attempting to make.
Earlier alchemists discovered that charcoal fires built on soil with a high sulfur content produced an explosive effect. In the 10th century the Chinese found that petroleum (from tar pits) mixed with saltpeter produced a more powerful explosive.
By the 11th century the Chinese were using gunpowder to make fireworks. They discovered that when explosives was placed in a bamboo tube with an object and lit, the object would go flying out. If gunpowder was packed in the object it would fly upwards and explode.
Early bronze gun from 1332 By 1100 the Chinese were using huge firecracker-like paper bombs in battle. There were reports of catapults being used to launch explosives in 1221. Bombs from this era found off Japan contained some shrapnel. By the end of the 13th century the Chinese were experimenting with the first canons. In 1398, gunpowder weapons were used to expel the Mongols. In the 16th century Chinese used rock bombs made from pieces of stone fitted together and packed 70 percent full of gunpowder and sealed with mud. These were tossed off fortifications and the Great Wall at attackers.
But despite these advances it was the Europeans not the Chinese who learned how to fully exploit gunpowder and other explosives in weapons. The Chinese used gunpowder primarily in fireworks. Fireworks were mainly used at parties, weddings and other events for entertainment. Today they are lit off at Chinese New Year for fun and to ward off evil spirits.
Crossbows, Compass, Dry Docks and the Rudder in China
The Chinese invented the crossbow in the 4th century B.C. and their armies were still using them as late as 1895. The ancient Chinese also had recipes for toxic smoke that could be used in warfare.
The Chinese are credited with inventing the magnetic needle (an early form of compass) around 1000 A.D., although they may have used similar devices long before that. Early Chinese compasses were outfit with a needle that pointed south. There are records of them being used for navigation in 1119. Compasses were used in ships in Europe (first by the Vikings) around A.D. 1200. Around that time compass markings showed up on land surveys in China.
Ancient Chinese and Greeks had been familiar with magnets since at least 500 B.C. and Chinese chronicles contain references to the ability of magnetic lodestones to point south as early as 300 B.C. Historians believe that lodestones were probably first used in fortunetelling. As early as the 2nd century A.D. lodestones may have been used by navigators on the open sea.
The world’s first compasses looked like spoons and evolved from the game of chess, which developed in China as a divination technique used to unravel the meanings hidden in the universal forces of Yin and Yang. In early Chinese chess the Great Bear, or Northern Dipper, was represented by a spoon that was spun about. The spoon came to be made of magnetite after its seemingly magical properties were discovered, and so served as a divining device when it was rotated according to the complicated rules of the game. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"] The Chinese invented the rudder, an idea that was introduced to the West by Arab mariners around 1200. Before that time European sailors used oars to steer their boats. The Chinese developed dry docks in 1070. The first dry docks developed in Europe were built in Portsmouth England in 1495. In 1255, Marco Polo described huge Chinese ships with watertight bulkheads that enabled the ships to stay afloat even when their outer hulls were pierced. Similar technology did not appear in the West until a half century later.
early warship with a rudder
Kites, Parachutes and Balloons in China
The oldest known kites were used around 1200 B.C. in China as military signaling devices. They were often brightly colored and carried coded messages. Ancient silk prints and woodcuts show children flying small kites with tails that helped balance them. The city of Weifang is regarded as the center of Chinese kite making and flying today. In A.D. 956 a man flew a kite with a whistle attached to it. The whistle made a noise that sounded like "Weifang," and that purportedly is how the city got its name.
The legendary Emperor Shun, who is said to have lived around 2200 B.C. reportedly escaped from a burning granary by jumping from a window in parachute made of straw hats tied together. Gao Yang, an emperor who reigned from 550-559, reportedly tested bamboo "man-flying kites"--bamboo and paper kites in which a person was strapped spread eagle onto a bamboo frame--on condemned prisoners pushed from a tall tower. One man is said to have flown two miles before he crash landed. In 1192, according to Chinese records, a man jumped from a minaret in Canton (Guangzhou) using a parachute.
The Chinese claim they flew a cigar shaped hot-air balloon in 1306, almost 500 years before the first hot-air balloons were flown in the West. In the 16th century an official named Wan Hu reportedly attached 47 gunpowder rockets to his chair, lit the fuses and took off, and was never seen again.
Mirrors, Mongols and Chairs in China
Han era bronze mirror Chairs became commonplace in China around the year A.D. 1000. They were introduced by the Mongols. The Mongols and other horsemen also introduced buckled belts, wheeled transport, chariots, cavalry tactics, plaques, buckles, lost-wax casting and metalworking techniques used in making wire and chains. Belts were used by horsemen as military symbols. In China, they were fashion statements.
Even though the Chinese did not begin using telescopes and microscopes until after they were introduced from Europe in the 16th century, they had been making mirrors since the 7th century B.C. "Very early," wrote Boorstin, "they made burning mirrors and curved mirrors, they were adept at glass technology at least from the fifth century B.C., and they were actually wearing eyeglasses in the fifteenth century. The camera obscura was their plaything by the eleventh century. The Mohist classic of Chinese physics, written as early as the forth century B.C., elaborated a theory of optics which anticipated many of the more sophisticated notions of post-Renaissance Europe." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Early mirrors were made of bronze and their backs were often inscribed with figures that brought good luck and dispelled demons. They were not replaced by glass mirrors until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In China mirrors are seen as metaphors of self-examination. A wise person always carries three mirrors: one for seeing the inner self; one for seeing the past; and a bronze one for seeing physical appearance. Old Chinese stories often featured magic mirrors. In the tale of Yin Zhongwen a man is executed shortly after he looks into a mirror and doesn't see his reflection.
Weather Vanes, Wheelbarrows and Umbrellas in China
Umbrellas have been used in the Orient at least since 11th centur. Initially they were used as shields against the sun's rays and evil spirits, not protection from rain. According to legend, the umbrella was invented sometime before 1000 B.C. by the wife of the carpenter Lu Pan, who bragged she could make portable roofs. The superstition against opening an umbrella indoors reportedly evolved from the fact that umbrellas had a special relationship with the sun and therefore it was sacrilegious to open them in the shade.
The Chinese began using weather cocks and vanes very early and were probably the pioneers of wind direction devices. At least as early as the first century B.C., the Chinese recorded "wind seasons," and used kites to record the speed and direction of the 24 seasonal winds.
The earliest known wheelbarrows were used around A.D. 200—centuries before they appeared in Europe and the Americas—by the Chinese Imperial Army under Gen. Chuko Liang to move military supplies along narrow embankments. What distinguished them from carts was that they had a single wheel (a large one, nearly 4 feet in diameter). Sometimes called a "wooden ox," these early wheelbarrows were good at transporting things along narrow pathways and were often used to carry dead bodies off the battle field.
Trousers, Eye Drops, Fingerprints and Sunglasses in China
Greek, Macedonian and Roman men favored toga-like garments while ancient Chinese and Persian men often wore trousers.
Some have claimed that eyeglasses were invented in China in the 15th century but the best evidence indicates they were invented first in Europe in the 13th century. Early Chinese eyeglasses were kept in place with weights that hung down behind the ears. Sunglasses, it appears were invented in China. Early ones used smoke tinting glass technology that was developed by 1430. Among the first people to wear tinted glasses were Chinese judges who wore smoke-tinted quartz lenses to conceal their eye expressions during court proceedings. Sunglasses didn't become widely popular until the 20th century.
Eye drops made from the mahuang plant, which contains ephedrine hydrochloride, were used in China in 3000 B.C. Ephedrine hydrochloride is still used to treat minor eye irritations today.
Fingerprinting was used in China in A.D. 700 as a way of identifying people.
First Foods in China
Noodles have been consumed since at least 2000 B.C. in China. A bowl with remarkably well-preserved yellow noodles dated from that period was unearthed in the Laija archeological site on the Yellow River. Found in a sealed earthenware bowl, the noodles were 50 centimeters long, 3 millimeters in diameter and resembled a traditional variety known as la nian that is still popular today. They appear to have been stretched by hand from dough made from millet.
Reported in the September 2005 issue of Nature and found by team sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the discovery means that noodles in China preceded pasta in Italy by at least 2,000 years. The origin of pasta is not known and has been variously attributed to the Chinese, Etruscans, Romans and Arab traders. An Etruscan mural dated to the 4th century B.C. shows servants mixing flour and water, along with a rolling pin and cutters. It is thought they were baking the dough rather than boiling it as is done when making noodles.
Boiled pasta is more likely to have reached Italy via the Arab world between the 5th and 8th centuries. The story that Marco Polo brought back the first pasta from China is a myth. Documents from 1279, sixteen years before Marco Polo returned from China, show that Genoese soldiers were carrying pasta in their provisions.
The ancient Chinese began eating ice cream-like deserts around 2000 B.C. Ancient noblemen were particularly fond of a soft paste made with soft rice and milk, packed with snow. By the 13th century a variety of iced deserts could be purchased from vendors on the streets of Beijing. Marco Polo reportedly brought back recipes for ice-cream-like, chilled-milk deserts from China in the13th century.
Games, Fans, Toilet Paper and Yo-Yos in China
The oldest known yo-yos were made in China around 1000 B.C. They consisted of two disks sculpted from ivory with a wound up silk chord. The toy spread to medieval Europe where it was known as a "quiz" in England and a "bandalore" in France.
The game of chess was developed in China, where it seems to have originally been a technique of divination. In early Chinese chess the Great Bear, or Northern Dipper, was represented by a spoon that was spun about. The spoon came to be made of magnetite after its seemingly magical properties were discovered, and so served as a divining device when it was rotated according to the complicated rules of the game. These spoons are also regarded by many as the world’s first compasses. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]
Playing cards also appear to have to have been introduced to the West from China. The first accounts of playing cards were descriptions by early Western visitors of complicated games using "sheet dice" being played all over China.
The ancient Chinese invented peacock-feather fans and screen fans made of silk stretched over a bamboo frame.
Some scholars believe that toilet paper was invented in China. In the 6th century, scholar Yen Chih-t'ui wrote "paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics, or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes." [Source: "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux]
Scholars say most likely toilet paper first appeared in the 14th century. According to Chinese expert Joseph Needham the Emperor's family used perfumed paper cut into three inch squares while common people used whatever scraps they could find. The Chinese also invented wallpaper. French missionaries introduced wallpaper to Europe in the 16th century. [Source: "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux]
First Machines in China
Chinese invented the potters wheel, escapements (important parts of a watch that keep the springs from unwinding too fast when they are tightly wound), the first computer, the first canal lock, deep drilling devices, efficient animals harnesses, and the first true mechanical crank.
The Chinese constructed the first suspension bridge and built the first bridge with a segmented arch (one of these built in 610 is still in use). They also used caged humans to power paddle-wheel boats as far back as the A.D. 8th century.
Li Yü, a Chinese author in the Ch'ing Dynasty, invented a temperature-controlled stool equipped with a special chamber for cooling one's seat in the summer and a chair for warming it in the winter.
The Chinese invented the chain pump in the first century A.D. and are still using it. They developed designs for steam engines (actually water-powered metallurgical blowing machines) around 600 A.D. and were experimenting with water-driven-spinning machines that closely resembled the first European spinning jennies in A.D. 1313.
The spinning jenny and the steam engine were two inventions that were key to laumching the Industrial Revolution in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why didn’t the Industrial Revolution occur in China before England. Historians say the reasons were more economic, political and social than technological. See Introduction to Chinese Firsts above.
China lost its technological edge over the West, some argue, because obedience was emphasized in China over experimentation and individualism and Europe, where experimentation and individualism are more valued, was able to catch up.
Early Earthquake Detecting Devices in China
The Chinese started recording earthquakes in 1831 B.C. In the early years of earthquake detection the direction of the epicenter of the quake was determined by a six-foot-wide bronze caldron circled with eight frogs at the bottom and eight dragons at the top. When an earthquake struck a ball dropped from a dragon and fell into the mouth of one of the frogs, showing the direction from which the quake arrived. A device activated by a pendulum triggered the ball to fall. The caldron was kept at the Bureau of Astronomy and Calendars in the Chinese capital.
The Chinese were using seismographs to measure earthquakes around A.D. 1000. The Chinese also invented methods of construction that allowed building to sways and not collapse during earthquakes and presented evidence that cows and other animals change their behavior before earthquakes, and used this as a means of predicting earthquakes.
For More, See Chinese Firsts No. 2, History
Image Sources: 1) Compass, Pandaamerica; 2) Fire oxen, University of Washingon; 3) Early bronze gun, University of Washingon; 4) Crossbow, University of Washingon; 5) Warship, University of Washingon; 6) Bronze mirror, yoshinogari website; 6) Glasses, eyeglasses website
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010