Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

Papermaking, gunpowder, printing and the compass are four great inventions by ancient Chinese people that have had a huge impact on the entire world.

Paper Making

Cai Lun, inventor of papermaking
Cai Lun, inventor of papermaking

The invention of paper greatly contributed to the spread and development of civilization. Before its invention, bones, tortoise shells, and bamboo slips were all used as writing surfaces, but as Chinese civilization developed they proved themselves unsuitable because of their bulk and weight. Hemp fiber and silk were used to make paper but the quality was far from satisfactory. Besides, these two materials could be better used for other purposes so it was not practical to make paper from them.

Xue fu wu che is a Chinese idiom describing a learned man. The story behind it concerns a scholar named Hui Shi who lived during the Warring States Period. He needed five carts to carry his books when he traveled around teaching. Books at that time were made of wood or bamboo slips so they were heavy and occupied a lot of space. Reading at the time needed not only brainwork but also physical strength.

In 105 A.D. Cai Lun, a eunuch during the Eastern Han Dynasty, invented paper from worn fishnet, bark and cloth. These raw materials could be easily found at a much lower cost so large quantities of paper could be produced.

The making technique was exported to Korea in 384 A.D. A Korean Monk then took this skill with him to Japan in 610 A.D.

During a war between the Tang Dynasty and the Arab Empire, the Arabs captured some Tang soldiers and paper making workers. Thus, a paper factory was set up by the Arabs.

In the 11th Century the skill was carried to India when Chinese monks journeyed there in search of Buddhist sutras.

Through the Arabs, Africans and Europeans then mastered the skill. The first paper factory in Europe was set up in Spain. In the latter half of the 16th century, this skill was brought to America. By the 19th century, when paper factories were set up in Australia, paper making had spread to the whole world.

Cai Lun, also known as Tsai Lun, was listed in the book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael H. Hart.


In Chinese, gunpowder is called huo yao, meaning flaming medicine. Unlike paper and printing, the birth of gunpowder was quite accidental. It was first invented inadvertently by alchemists while attempting to make an elixir of immortality. It was a mixture of sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, gunpowder was being used in military affairs. During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, frequent wars spurred the development of cannons, and fire-arrows shot from bamboo tubes.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, gunpowder spread to the Arab countries, then Greece, other European countries, and finally all over the world.

Printing Technique

Inspired by engraved name seals, Chinese people invented fixed-type engraved printing around 600 A.D. The skill played an important role in the Song Dynasty but its shortcomings were apparent. It was time-consuming to engrave a model, not easy to store, and not easy to revise errors.

During the reign of Emperor Ren Zong of the Northern Song Dynasty, Bi Sheng invented moveable, reusable clay type after numerous tests. Single types were made and picked out for printing certain books. These types could be used again and again for different books. Because of the large number of different characters in the Chinese written language, this technique did not have a dramatic impact at the time. However, today, this  typesetting technique is regarded as a revolution in the industry. About 200 years later, this moveable-type technique spread to other countries and advanced the development of world civilization.


During the Warring States period, a device called a Si Nan became the forerunner of the compass. A Si Nan was a ladle-like magnet on a plate with the handle of the ladle pointing to the south. In the 11th century, tiny needles made of magnetized steel were invented. One end of the needle points north while the other points south. The compass was thus created. The compass greatly improved a ship's ability to navigate over long distances. It was not until the beginning of the 14th century that compass was introduced to Europe from China.

- Last modified on Apr. 01, 2019 -
Questions & Answers on Four Great Inventions of Ancient China
Asked by Ethan from SOUTH CAROLINA | Oct. 27, 2017 13:48Reply
Which invention do you think is the best?
I think the compass was the best invention because then they could tell were they were going if they were out at sea and didn't see any land and it is also a good invention for building things and lining there buildings up.
Answers (7)
Answered by jordan from USA | Oct. 27, 2017 14:02

yes it was but it cant help building because it was made to tell the sellers whichway to go to find land it cant help build stuf it just cant if it cold it wod be an amzzing inviton to have it can help find recorsis so thay can build stuf.:):):)
Answered by mnm from AUSTRALIA | Jan. 11, 2018 09:43

Paper all the way!
Answered by person from UNITED KINGDOM | Apr. 25, 2018 11:57

I think paper because we use it all around the world, and most people use it EVERYDAY. I think gunpowder was a bad invention for today though because its mostly used in wars.
Answered by Poo from OCEAN | Oct. 27, 2018 14:37

I think it is the compass because it helps you more than paper and gunpowder
Answered by Julian from SOUTH CAROLINA | Nov. 07, 2018 06:26

I agree,I believe the most important chinese invention is the compass because without the compass they would be lost while they are traveling the Silk Road.
Answered by Adarius from USA | Mar. 01, 2019 09:57

Nice explaining😂😂😂
Answered by Alexis from USA | Apr. 01, 2019 11:18

I think that gunpowder was the best because it improve weaponry during wars in China and after China discovered gunpowder, they sold it to other parts of the world for them to use. Sadly, at one point, we had to use it against each other.
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