Four Great Inventions
Image from eChineseLearning

After the grand advances of science, technology, and mathematics in the Yuan Dynasty (元朝, 1271 – 1368), China hit a lull in development during the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368 – 1644). After the maritime adventures of the court eunuch Zheng He (郑和), China slipped into a policy of isolationism that the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (清朝. 1636 – 1912) sealed. Development in many areas slowed.

Before that time, China had produced numerous valuable technology, among them the Four Great Inventions (四大发明): the compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing. Initially, a primarily Eurocentric history ascribed these inventions to European countries like Germany, where Johannes Gutenberg created the Gutenberg press, but further study in the 19th and 20th centuries discovered evidence of them centuries before European creation.

The Compass – 指南针 (zhǐnánzhēn)

The Chinese word for compass, 指南针, transliterates to “point south needle.” While a traditional compass today will “point north” (in reality, all magnets, including those in compasses, are dipoles that point both north and south), the first Chinese compasses used lodestones, naturally-occurring magnets that were attracted in a southwardly direction. These date as far back as the Han Dynasty (汉朝, 206 B.C. – A.D. 220).

The Complete Essentials for the Military Classics (武经总要), a military compendium, contains one of the earliest mentions to the compass, calling the contraption an iron fish. The scholar Shen Kuo (沈括, 1031-1095) described the compass as the work of magicians who rubbed a needlepoint with lodestone and then placed it in water or hung it in a windless place with silk thread [1]. Before the magnetization of needles came into place, the Chinese would use a whole lodestone, shaped as a spoon and placed on a decorated bronze plate.

Ancient Chinese magnetic compass
Photo from Mysteries in Time

In addition to its role as a navigational instrument, the compass served as a guide in the practice of feng shui (风水), which literally means wind-water and refers to the harmonization of one’s environment with the cosmic energy forces. Using the compass, one could build palaces and temples and arrange interior decorations in alignment with the directions. The Forbidden City, for example, is symmetrically arranged around the south-north axis.

Gunpowder – 火药 (huǒyào)

Transliterally “fire medicine”, the invention of gunpowder has medicinal roots. Its invention started as the experimentation of alchemists to create an elixir for immortality.[2] During the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618 – 907), gunpowder was used widely for fireworks and in combat, but it may have emerged as early as the 3rd century with the scholar and alchemist Ge Hong (葛洪), who alluded to the concoction of sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate in his writing.

Gunpowder was a major force in battles with the Mongolians to the north, and the European ambassador to Mongolia William of Rubruck (1210 – 1270) likely brought the idea to Europe, where it diffused to the rest of the world.[2]

Image from the Four Rivers Charter Public School

Paper-making – 造纸术 (zàozhǐ shù)

I briefly discussed paper-making in China in this post. During the Han Dynasty, the imperial court – the eunuch Cai Lun (蔡伦) in particular – invented paper to replace the more cumbersome, delicate, or expensive materials used in the past. Cai Lun soaked, blended, and pressed different fibers to make this new writing technology.

Together with the inkbrush, inkstick, and inkstone, paper forms one of the Four Treasures of the Study (文房四宝), the four implements integral to the calligraphic tradition.

Printing – 印刷术 (yìnshuā shù)

After the invention of paper, the next plausible step was the invention of printing. Printmaking in China began with woodcuts in the Tang Dynasty, a block with raised letters that the printer would press in ink and then apply to a page. This woodblock printing allowed the mass-production of religious scripture like the Tripitaka of Buddhism and, by extension, contributed to the spread of that religion.

Chinese printing woodblocks
Photo from Ancient Origins

During the Northern Song Dynasty (960 -1127), the alchemist Bi Sheng (毕昇) made the first movable type press, five hundred years before the European Gutenberg press. Shen Kuo, who had written about the technology of the compass, also wrote about Bi Sheng’s creation of movable type. Each linguistic character was molded and fired in clay, and lightly glued to and pressed flat on an open iron box.[3] The user could then apply ink to the characters and “print” on the paper.

Although more efficient than the woodblock printing of old, the thousands of linguistic characters in the Chinese language made even movable type printing impractical. It met with more success using the 26-letter alphabet of European language.


These inventions are rightly called great. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) from his Novum Oranum (1620):

“It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries, and these are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients…namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state 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 mechanical discoveries.”

[1] A history of the magnetic compass
[2] The deadly irony of gunpowder
[3] The invention of woodblock printing