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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. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One of the most significant scholarly enterprises in the field of Chinese studies has been the series, "Science and Civilization in China", which was begun in the early 1950s by the British biologist and sinologist Joseph Needham. The series was written or supervised by Needham until his death in 1995, and volumes continue to be published as of this writing. Aiming at completeness rather than brevity and often very technical, the works in this series are the most authoritative sources for issues of Chinese science and technology in all traditional periods. However, for the Warring States era, Cho-yun Hsu’s "Ancient China in Transition" provides essential information. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

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.

Books and Sources on Chinese Inventions: "Science and Civilization in China" by Joseph Needham ; 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 ;

World's Oldest Boats, Pants and Pottery, Found in China

The world's oldest recovered boats — dated to 8000-7000 years ago — have been found in Kuwait and China. One of the oldest boats or related artefacts was found in China's Zhejiang province in 2005 and was believed to date back about 8,000 years.

The world's oldest pants have also been found in China. Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Radiocarbon dating of two pairs of trousers discovered in a cemetery in western China has revealed they were made between the thirteenth and tenth centuries B.C., making them the oldest known surviving pants by almost 1,000 years. German Archaeological Institute scholar Mayke Wagner, who led the study, says the dates amazed his team. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, September-October 2014]

“In most places on Earth, 3,000-year-old garments are destroyed by microorganisms and chemicals in the soil,” Wagner says. The two people who were buried wearing pants were likely prestigious warriors who functioned like policemen and wore trousers while riding on horseback. “The trousers were part of their uniform and the fact that they were made between 100 and 200 years apart means it was a standard, traditional design,” says Wagner, whose team worked with a fashion designer to re-create the garments. “They are surprisingly good-looking, but they are not particularly comfortable for walking.”

Crossbows, Dry Docks and the Rudder in China

leftThe Chinese invented the crossbow in ancient times 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.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Crossbows were in use in China by the fifth century B.C. and quickly became an important element in the warfare of the Warring States period. Where other bows rely on the strength of the archer, the crossbow has a mechanical trigger, so that many releases could be made without tiring the crossbowman. The Chinese development of the crossbow depended on bronze technology advanced enough to allow manufacture of accurately machined trigger-mechanisms. Early crossbows were portable and mostly operated by one archer. They became popular for the defense of royal entourages and for hunting; the later multiple-firing crossbows were intended for military campaigns. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Crossbows were also used in the West. They were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and by medieval times in Europe, the crossbow had evolved into a powerful weapon capable of penetrating armor. Chinese crossbows could pierce several layers of iron armor, but in China, where the defense and attack of walled cities was the primary focus of military campaigns, the crossbow was valued for its ability to deliver volleys of bolts even more than for its power to penetrate. /=\

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.

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.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: When kite flying was first described in Chinese literature, it was a military exercise rather than a light amusement. We read that in the year A.D. 549, when a certain Chinese city was being besieged, the defenders within the city attempted to send a message to friends on the outside by flying a kite across the encircling enemy lines. The enemy, however, succeeded in shooting it down with bow and arrow. Here is perhaps the world's earliest example of antiaircraft fire! Perhaps the kite fighting of the modern Chinese, in which one kite flier attempts to cut the string or otherwise disable the kite of his opponent, is a survival of this early military use. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“In the seventh century kite flying spread to the Near East. It is afterward recorded in Italy in 1589, and reached England a few decades later. Nowhere in these or other countries, however, have the marvelous creations of the Chinese kite builder, made in the form of dragons, birds, insects, and many other creatures, been equaled. /=/

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

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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, Sedan Chairs and Umbrellas in China

Han-era cart

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.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: ““Another everyday object of great utility, for which we are quite possibly indebted to the Chinese, is the folding umbrella. Non-folding parasols or sunshades have been known in many countries since early time, but the complex folding kind seems to have been first produced in China. There, folding metal joints, believed to have been used for large umbrellas mounted on chariots, have been excavated from tombs of the third century B.C. In later times such joints have been made of bamboo. In France and England the umbrella did not become at all well known until about the middle of the seventeenth century, nor do folding umbrellas seem to have been known in Europe before this time. This fact makes it seem plausible, though it is far from definitely proved, that the folding umbrella was one of the many things introduced from China in this and the following century.[Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“The sedan chair or palanquin is still another device long associated with China, where it is mentioned for the first time in the fourth century A.D. Few people think of this as a Chinese "contribution" to the West; yet it is a fact that during much of the seventeenth century it enjoyed wide popularity in Europe. There its lack of wheels made it ideal for comfortable transport over the rough roads of the time. We know, for example, that a certain Duchess of Namur, in Belgium (who died in 1707), used to travel every year by sedan chair a distance of 130 miles to her country home. Forty French "coolies" carried her in relays. By 1737, however, the craze was dying out and the sedan chair came to be replaced by the chaise (a French word also meaning chair). This was a two-wheeled carriage which had been developed in Japan out of the sedan chair, by simply mounting such a chair on wheels and having it drawn by horses. Incidentally, the jinrickshaw or rickshaw (a term which in Japanese means "manpower vehicle") is most decidedly not of Chinese or Japanese origin. On the contrary, it represents a Western "contribution" to the Far East. It was invented by an American missionary who lived in Japan during the second half of the nineteenth century. From there it spread to China, and then to other countries as far away as South Africa. In China it is still known as the "foreign vehicle."

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

diagrams of optics

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.


Fruits That Originated from China

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Some of the commonest plants grown by us today are of Chinese origin. Among fruits there are the peach and the apricot, which very possibly entered Europe together with the silk trade during Roman times. Many of our citrus fruits, likewise, were originally native to Southeast Asia, including southern China. There they were long known and cultivated by the Chinese before being brought, usually by the Arabs, to the Western world. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“The orange, for example, was not known to Europeans until introduced by the Arabs in the eleventh century. In Holland and Germany it is still called the "Chinese apple." The lemon, too, was brought by the Arabs from India to Europe a little before 1400. It had already been cultivated in South China, however, for some time before it spread to India. Another important citrus, our American grapefruit, is a considerably modified descendant of the Chinese pomelo. In this case, however, the fruit did not travel over the southern route by way of India. It was taken in the eighteenth century from China by way of the Pacific and Cape Horn to the West Indies. From there it spread to other parts of the Americas. That is why the grapefruit, even today, is almost unknown in Europe. /=/

“Other plants in China, though as yet unknown in the West, may some day find an equal welcome. Among them are the deliciously sweet lichee nut, which is really a juicy fruit, though it is known in this country only in its dried form; the curious aquatic vegetable known as the water chestnut; the Chinese persimmon, which grows to almost twice the size of the persimmon native to this country; and the succulent shoots of the young bamboo, which are a favorite article in the Chinese diet. /=/

Medicines, Flowers and Plants

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Artemisia absinthium, source of
modern malaria medicine
Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “During the last two thousand or more years the Chinese have written a great deal about medicines of all kinds, especially those made from herbs. Between 1552 and 1578 a huge book in fifty-two parts was compiled in China. It describes 1,871 plant, animal, and mineral substances, from which it suggests no less than 8,160 medical prescriptions. Among these, to give but two examples, are chaulmoogra oil (derived from a tree native to Southeast Asia), which is still the only known means for treating leprosy, and ephedrine, a plant drug introduced to the West during the last few decades, and now widely used for treating colds. For many years the Lester Institute in Shanghai has been studying Chinese medical practices. One of the leading drug-making firms in the United States employs a Chinese scientist for the express purpose of studying possible applications of Chinese drugs to modern pharmacy. We may in the future be even more indebted to the Chinese knowledge of medicine than we are today. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Our flower gardens, likewise, are indebted to the Chinese for the chrysanthemum and the tea rose, both of which began to be commonly cultivated in Europe during the eighteenth century. Other flowers which came to Europe at about the same time include the camellia, the azalea, the China aster, and the tall woody-stemmed tree peony. /=/

“Among other plants and plant products, two have risen to positions of very considerable world importance within the last few decades. One is tung oil, extracted from the nuts of the tung tree, grown in Central China. Tung oil is used in almost all varnishes made today because it dries so rapidly. The other is that wonder plant of modern biochemistry, the soy bean. Grown in North China since time immemorial, it is now being used more and more in this country. It not only makes a flour incredibly rich in food elements of all kinds, but is converted into plastics and a thousand and one other products used in modern industry. Although Manchuria still remains the chief source of the world's supply, the soy bean is being grown in steadily increasing quantities in our Middle West, and may in time become one of America's leading crops. /=/

Toilet Paper

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]

Earlier, the first recorded use of toilet paper was made in 589 by the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591), and in 851 an Arab Muslim traveler commented on how he believed the Tang era Chinese were not careful about cleanliness because they did not wash with water (as was his people's habit) when going to the bathroom; instead, he said, the Chinese simply used paper to wipe themselves.

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]

In July 2016, researchers from the University of Cambridge and China's Academy of Social Sciences and Gansu Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology announced they hade found evidence of parasitic worms at an ancient Silk Road site in northwestern China. The researchers investigated latrines at the Xuanquanzhi relay station, an archeological site that once served as a rest stop for the Silk Road between 111 B.C. and A.D. 109 AD and found “hygiene sticks” that had bits of cloth stuck to them that were used by people to clean up after using the latrine. Analysis of bits of feces on these sticks revealed eggs from four species of parasitic worms: roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm and Chinese liver fluke. [Source: Piers Mitchell, Affiliated Lecturer in Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, The Conversation, July 22, 2016]

Fans, Goldfish 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. 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.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Goldfish were among the many lighter articles of life that entered Europe from China during the eighteenth century. In China, centuries of intensive breeding have succeeded in producing literally hundreds of exotic varieties, such as are never seen in the Western world. Wallpaper, too, is of Chinese origin. Its importation into Europe in large quantities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to the establishment of the first important European wallpaper manufactory in France in 1688. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

Games and Amusements

Ming-era playing card

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"]

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: On the lighter side China has given the West several games and amusements. Probably few bridge or poker enthusiasts, for example, realize, each time they shuffle a pack of cards, the debt they owe to the unknown Chinese who gradually evolved playing cards between thirteen hundred and a thousand years ago. In the case of cards, as in that of so many other Chinese products, the Arabs were probably the intermediaries who introduced them to the Western world. Cards are first mentioned in Spain and in Germany in 1377, and in Italy and France within the next two decades. As has been suggested above, the fact that Chinese playing cards were printed makes it not impossible that they were one of the means through which the knowledge of block printing was carried from China to Europe. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Dominoes is another game which seems to have developed in China about the same time as playing cards. Both dominoes and playing cards were evolved from dice. Dice were known in Western Asia and in India about 3000 B.C., and were introduced into China (where they are first mentioned in A.D. 501) from India. /=/

“The shadow play is yet another popular Chinese amusement. In this form of entertainment, the producers stand on one side of a white vertical screen of cloth or paper, while the audience sits on the other. Jointed puppet figures made from finely cutout and beautifully colored sheets of parchment are then manipulated against the screen. A bright light from the rear throws their animated shadows through the screen for the enjoyment of the audience on the other side. Such shadow plays have spread from China to many countries, including Java and Turkey. In the eighteenth century they came to France. There they are still known as ombres chinoises or "Chinese shadows."

Chinese: the Inventors of Soccer, Golf and Pizza?

Edward Cody wrote in the Washington Post: “Just as every American schoolchild learns that George Washington admitted to cutting down the cherry tree, generations of Chinese schoolchildren have learned that their forebears thought up the Four Great Inventions: gunpowder, the compass, paper and movable type. But competitors in the” Asian Cup soccer tournament in China in 2004 “were amused to be told by some of their Chinese hosts that this country also invented soccer. Members of some golf clubs, giving a homegrown spin to a sport that is swiftly becoming popular here, have told prospective members that archaeologists uncovered drawings indicating the sport originated sometime during the Tang Dynasty, from A.D. 618 to 907. [Source: Edward Cody, Washington Post Foreign, September 22, 2004]

“It does not stop there. Popular history has extended Chinese inventiveness to include pasta, which, according to legend, was discovered by Marco Polo when he visited China and then taken back to Italy, where it became the national staple. Italian historians have concluded their version of pasta was first made in Sicily around 1000 when Arabs were in charge there, according to Francesco Sisci of the Italian Cultural Institute of Beijing. But never mind; for most Chinese, Italian pasta is merely transplanted noodles.

“Even pizza, it is said here, is nothing more than the Italian pronunciation of China's bing-zi, which, in its current evolution, is a pocket made from wheat dough and stuffed with ground meat or diced vegetables. According to Chinese folklore, Marco Polo or some other Italian traveler took back the idea of bing-zi, which archaeologists believe was made here in one form or another as long as 5,000 years ago on terra cotta grills and enhanced by a Domino's-like list of toppings. Li noted that cultural evolution often has occurred simultaneously in two places, and there is no reason to suppose Italy did not develop pasta on its own just as China developed noodles on its own. But the popular story has taken hold in the Chinese imagination, which sees noodles traveling to Italy in Marco Polo's luggage.”

Image Sources: 1) Compass, Pandaamerica; Crossbow, University of Washingon; Bronze mirror, yoshinogari website; Wikimedia commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; 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.

Last updated August 2021

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