Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable cultures to have ever existed, China has been the site of many truly astonishing technological breakthroughs over the course of its 5,000-year history. Here are just a few of the most stunning inventions to have emerged from Chinese culture, and why they still matter today.
Around the 1st Century AD, a court official who was serving members of the Han dynasty made a very important breakthrough: By combining materials like tree bark, hemp, and cloth, the official created what we now know as paper. Indeed, prior to Cai Lun’s invention of this truly remarkable substance, most scribes were required to write on materials like papyrus or silk; these means of conveying information were often fragile or difficult to use.
Prior to the invention of paper, moreover, only a few individuals would have had access to important written documents. Thanks to Cai Lun, societies across the world have been able to change the way in which they disseminate knowledge and learning materials on a mass scale. Without the inventor’s foresight and erudition, in fact, global literacy rates would likely be a fraction of what they are today. Not bad for a humble courtier!
In addition to paper-making, the Chinese invention of printing revolutionized the way in which human beings were able to transmit written information. First invented sometime between the 7th and 10th Centuries, woodblock printing was first used by skilled craftspeople to make copies of important Buddhist texts.
From there, the idea of printing books was developed, and a cultural sea change soon followed: Instead of relying on a deficient supply of copied scrolls, Chinese scholars, monks, and court officials could now access a steady supply of printed books. Without question, this technological achievement alone changed the world as we know it.
Like printing, gunpowder was also invented in China during the Tang dynasty; however, inventors first began refining the material in earnest during the later Song dynasty. The use of gunpowder in warfare ushered in a revolutionary new stage of military history, and as news of the volatile substance spread across the globe, weapons such as guns and bombs were soon developed on a mass scale. The Chinese military’s adoption of early “hand cannons” even anticipated the later development of handheld guns.
4. The Compass
Invented sometime around the 1st Century AD, the compass was another Chinese invention that would eventually change the course of human history. Prior to the invention of the compass, sailors had to navigate boats by rigorously observing the positions of the stars.
Despite the later use of compasses by travelers and ocean navigators, however, the objects were first seen by early Chinese courtiers as magical devices: In addition to the use of compasses in pastimes like fortune-telling, the implements may also have been used to help architects design buildings. By the 11th Century, however, compasses were being used by sailors and explorers to navigate the courses of their journeys, and yet again, China had changed the arc of world history.