Han Dynasty iron plow

China 's “Gifts to the West” include the inventions of silk, tea, porcelain ("china"), paper, printing, gunpowder, the mariner's compass, medicines, lacquer, games (including cards, dominoes, and kites), and miscellaneous items such as umbrellas, as well as natural resources, such as plants (including peaches, apricots, and citrus fruits) and minerals (including coal and zinc), first discovered and cultivated by the Chinese. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

In 1942, in the middle of World War II, Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “In 1940 almost 10,000 new books were printed in the United States. Millions of copies of the 13,000 newspapers in the country were distributed. All of this was possible because we know how to make paper and to print with movable type — inventions which occurred in China. The world's first printed book, was made in China, 1,074 years ago. /=/

“As late as 1923 soy beans were practically unknown in the United States. But in 1940 there were over 79,000,000 bushels of soy beans grown on the farms of this country. The soy bean crop that year was worth over $60,000,000, and was used to make bread, crackers, soups, steering wheels and dashboards for automobiles, plastic combs and brushes, and hundreds of other articles. The soy bean plant came to us from China. So did peaches and apricots and chrysanthemums, and scores of other plants. /=/

“How much poorer our Western civilization would be without” theses gifts from China. “Some, like playing cards, have afforded us untold amusement. Others, like porcelain, give us both efficient service and artistic pleasure. Still others have utterly changed our way of life and are basic to our whole modern civilization. Without paper and printing, for example, we should still be living in the Middle Ages. Without gunpowder, the world might have been spared much suffering, but on the other hand the armored knights of medieval Europe might still reign supreme in their moated castles, and our society might still be held in feudal servitude. Nor would the building of the Panama Canal or of Boulder Dam have been possible! And finally, without the compass, the great age of discovery might never have come, with its quickening of European material and intellectual life, and its bringing to knowledge of worlds hitherto unknown, including our own country.” /=/

The Chinese inventions of printing, gunpowder, and the mariner’s compass were brought to Europe by Arab traders during the Renaissance and Reformation. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a leading philosopher, politician, and adviser to King James I of England, was unaware of the origins of these inventions but deeply impressed by their significance when he wrote: “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more clearly than those three which were unknown to the ancients [the Greeks], and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious; namely printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and stage of things throughout the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these three mechanical discoveries.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer /=/]


Song-era celadon

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Porcelain, as indicated by its popular name of "china," is another major product of China. Earthenware bowls, plates, and vases have been baked from clay by almost all people since time immemorial, but porcelain is justly acclaimed as a product of Chinese genius alone. True porcelain is distinguished from ordinary pottery or earthenware by its hardness, whiteness, smoothness, translucence when made in thin pieces, nonporousness, and bell-like sound when tapped. The plates you eat from, even heavy thick ones, have these qualities and are therefore porcelain. A flower pot, on the other hand, or the brown cookie jar kept in the pantry are not porcelain but earthenware. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“Two mineral ingredients are necessary to give porcelain its peculiar characteristics. The first is the white clay known as kaolin. It is an aluminum silica compound which takes its name from the Chinese term kao-ling (gow-ling), meaning "high hill." The latter is the name of a place where the clay was obtained in early times, lying twenty miles northeast of the famous porcelain kilns at Ching-te-chen in Central China. The second essential ingredient in porcelain is petuntse, a mineral resembling kaolin, but more glassy in character. Its name originates from the Chinese term pai-tun-tzu (by-doon-dse), meaning "white bricks." The name describes the brick-like blocks into which this mineral is kneaded by the Chinese porcelain workers before being mixed with kaolin, shaped into various objects, and then baked to become porcelain. /=/

“The word tz'u, which is the present-day Chinese term for porcelain, occurs for the first time in the poem of a Chinese writer who died in the year A.D. 300. This poem speaks of a wine pot which is said to be of "blue-green tz'u." Yet it is unlikely that the new word here refers to a genuine porcelain. Several centuries were still to elapse before patient experimentation gradually evolved the real porcelain with which we are familiar today. /=/

“In this experimentation it is probable that Chinese alchemists played a vital part. In their eager search for the elixir of immortality, they carried on constant experiments with many kinds of minerals, of which kaolin seems to have been one. Thus kaolin is mentioned in Chinese literature as a medicinal drug before it is referred to in connection with porcelain itself. Incidentally, it is not at all impossible that this Chinese alchemy was the inspiration of the alchemy of the Arabs and, through it, of medieval European alchemy, from which our modern chemistry eventually comes. /=/

“The first description that seems to point definitely to porcelain is that of the famous Arabic traveler, Suleyman, in his account dated 851 of travels in India and China. There he speaks of certain vases made in China out of a very fine clay, which have the transparency of glass bottles. In the centuries following Suleyman's time the southern sea route to China rose to a position of commanding importance. Over it porcelain became by all odds the major export shipped from China to the outside world. Tremendous quantities of porcelain went to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indo-China, Siam, Malaya, the East Indies, Ceylon, and adjoining regions. Much porcelain went even farther, crossing the Indian Ocean and passing up the Persian Gulf to reach Persia, Syria, and Egypt. Some of it, too, went as far as the southeast coast of Africa, where its presence has been used by modern archaeologists as a means for dating certain recently discovered sites of Negro cultures. /=/


11th century rocket arrows

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Though little is known about the early history of gunpowder, there is enough to show that it, too, is almost certainly Chinese in origin. As early as the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-906) there seem to have existed what were called "fire trees" and "silver flowers." These were apparently fireworks made with something like gunpowder. Later, in the years 1161 and 1162, when the Chinese were suffering invasion from the Chin Tatars to the north, the history of the time states that they successfully used explosives to defeat their attackers. This seems to be definite proof of a knowledge of gunpowder among the Chinese at this period. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“There has been considerable argument, however, as to whether these and later references to explosives indicate that the Chinese knew the use of actual cannon as well as of gunpowder. We read in the Chinese records that when the Mongols laid siege to the North China city of Kaifeng in 1232, the people within the city terrified the Mongols by means of a "heaven quaking thunderer". This instrument is described as an iron tube or vessel that was filled with a powder or drug, that is, with gunpowder. Some people think the "thunderer" was a real cannon. In all probability, however, it was really nothing more than some kind of metal bomb which, filled with gunpowder, was hurled by the defenders at the attacking Mongols. /=/

“Only a few decades after this time the Mongols completed their conquest of the greatest land empire ever known to man. It included not only all of China, but also most of the rest of Asia and Eastern Europe as far west as Poland and Hungary. Because this empire existed, it was possible for Europeans like Marco Polo to travel freely to the Far East, and for the new things observed there to be brought by them to Europe. It seems highly probable, although not absolutely proved, that gunpowder was among the products which were thus introduced to Europe. /=/

“If, however, what has been said above is correct, the use of gunpowder for cannon is an independent development made in Europe. There cannon are referred to in Italy, France, England, and other countries from about 1330 onward. The appearance of cannon later on in China itself may well be an instance of how an invention, originating in one country, is sometimes transferred to another, there improved upon, and then reintroduced into the land of its origin. In any case, the Chinese themselves, despite a familiarity with cannon extending over the past several centuries, have rarely made great use of them until recent times. Their knowledge of gunpowder, for the most part, has been applied to the peaceful art of making fireworks and firecrackers, an art in which they are still supreme


Yuan Dynasty smelting

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Coal has been known since the fourth century A.D. in China, where in later centuries it came into widespread use. Marco Polo, for example, who visited China during the years 1275 to 1292, writes admiringly how all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they (the Chinese) dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply them with fire at night, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/]

“In Europe there was no comparable use of coal until several centuries later, which might seem to point to another case of borrowing from the Far East. The ancient Romans, however, during their occupation of Britain, seem to have known at least something about the rich deposits of coal there. In any case, the modern European use of coal on a large scale, beginning much later than that in China, seems to owe nothing to the Chinese example. It came about as an entirely independent development, which began in England and from there spread to the continent. /=/

“A different story lies behind the history of another important mineral, zinc. Chinese coins produced between the years A.D. 1094 and 1098 are described in the Chinese history of the time as containing four parts of copper, two parts of lead, and one part of zinc. Modern analysis of a few of these coins, which shows them to be 55 per cent copper, 26 per cent lead, and 13 per cent zinc, confirms the truth of this statement. Thus, in the eleventh century, the Chinese not only already knew of the existence of zinc, but — and this is more important — they possessed the complex technical knowledge necessary to isolate it in a pure state from other substances and to mix it with other metals according to specified proportions. For several hundred years before the eleventh century, moreover, various terms occur in Chinese literature that probably refer to zinc, though it is not certain that the Chinese at that time could actually produce the pure metal. /=/

“Be that as it may, the knowledge and use of zinc in Europe is undoubtedly a great deal later. The first description of it as a separate metal does not occur until the sixteenth century; its production for industrial purposes dates only from the early part of the eighteenth century. At that time an Englishman named Isaac Lawton is said to have gone to China expressly in order to learn the Chinese method of zinc refining. Having acquired this secret, he returned to England not long before 1740. There he began the first industrial production of zinc in Europe. Even then, however, many years were yet to pass before a really large and permanent zinc industry came to be established — that at Silesia, in Germany, about the year 1799. /=/

“The third Chinese mineral discussed here is really not a single mineral at all, but an alloy of several metals. It is the alloy commonly, though somewhat incorrectly, known today as "German silver." It is a mixture of copper, nickel, and zinc, and is notable for its silver color, bell-like resonance, and hardness. These qualities make it ideal for use in candlesticks and other decorative articles. In China it has long been known as pai tongs which means "white copper." In Europe, consequently, it was at first called paktong, which is about the way pai t'ung is pronounced in the Cantonese dialect. The earliest European mention of paktong occurs in the year 1597. From then until the end of the eighteenth century there are references to it as having been exported from Canton to Europe. German imitations of paktong, however, began to appear from about 1750 onward. In 1830 the German process of manufacture was introduced into England, while exports of paktong from China gradually stopped. That is why today the alloy has lost its original name and is generally known to us as German silver. /=/

Games and Amusements

Ming playing card

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."

Kite Flying, Umbrellas and Goldfish

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: Still another sport in which the Chinese have long excelled is kite flying. 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. /=/

“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.

““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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University /=/; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.