13 Chinese Inventions You Had No Idea We Use All The Time

So many of these common inventions were created a long time ago by the Chinese.

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On Sep 16, 2016

Gunpowder and Fireworks

According to legend, gunpowder was first invented by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century AD while attempting to create the Elixir of Life, a potion that would heal any ailment and bestow immortality to anyone who was lucky enough to drink it.

When the alchemists discovered the explosive nature of the substance, they brought it to the emperor who immediately saw its military use. At first it was used as a weapon called a "Fire Lance," which essentially used the explosive power of gunpowder to shoot rocks and other small projectiles at enemies. While it was not effective in terms of accuracy, it was highly effective in scaring the hell out of those who faced it. Talk about psychological warfare.



Can you imagine a time when umbrellas were not available to shield you from the rain? Well, probably not, considering they've been around since at least the first century CE.

While the oldest intact collapsible umbrella was found in the tomb of Korean tomb of Wang Guang, there have been discoveries of what definitely appears to be parts of collapsible umbrellas going back as far as the sixth century BCE. In fact, there are written documents that seem to point to an even earlier origin for the collapsible umbrella. It turns out the only reason the west found out about umbrellas was due to the silk road. It seems that staying dry on a rainy day has always been of vital importance.



In the seventeenth century BCE, in the middle of the Shang Dynasty, the first primitive porcelain was being made in China. But it wasn't true porcelain as we know it today.

True porcelain was first known to have been made during the Tang Dynasty in the 3rd century BCE. It is perhaps one of the greatest contributions to human civilization as a whole. Even today, we call top-quality porcelain "fine china." The porcelain made during the Ming Dynasty are the treasures we hear about today. There are sets of china that go back centuries and are still just as usable as they were when they were made, albeit they're perhaps even more expensive than they were back then.



The ancient Chinese civilization made one of the greatest contributions to mathematics as a whole: the number zero.

At first, it started as just leaving a blank space to represent zero. This practice goes back the the fourth century BCE. By the seventh century CE, the "0" had its own character and was being widely used in calculations across China. In fact, the only reason we in the West even know of the concept of zero is because of the Silk Road, the system of trade that was established between the Roman Empire and China.


The Repeating Crossbow

The crossbow is thought to go back as far as 2000 BCE. But the earliest physical evidence we have is a refinement of the trigger system going back to 600 BCE.

Around 300 years later, however, archaeology tells us it was improved upon with a firing system that made it seem something like a machine gun. Although traditionally attributed to Zhuge Liang, who made the device both more powerful and accurate in the 4th century CE. It was called the repeating crossbow and was used in different ways, including double magazines and mounting them on ships and castle gates. Some iterations were able to fire up to 10 bolts at once, making it a true predecessor of the Gatling gun, which wasn't invented until the 1800s.


Iron and Bronze

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary technologies in all of history, the ability to make iron and bronze out of copper and tin gave the Chinese a technological supremacy that began much earlier than their Mediterranean and European counterparts.

The Bronze Age began circa 3000 BCE in China, and signified a huge leap in technological innovation. Not too long after, around 300 or 400 BCE, the Chinese began to perfect the sculpting of iron, thanks to natural resources and good ol' ingenuity. While the Scandinavians were creating high-grade iron in the 8th century CE, the Chinese had already perfected this technique 400 years earlier. The implications of the use of bronze, both in the theaters of war and agriculture cannot be overstated.


Sails and Rudders

The ancient Chinese are widely known as the best maritime navigators of the ancient world. It is no wonder that they consistently innovated the art of sailing over and over again.

The rudder of a ship allows a vessel to steer much more effectively than with only rowers. Additionally, it was the Chinese who innovated masts and utilized the fore and aft triangular shaped sails, which allowed for greater speed and maneuverability. Thanks to these innovations, the Chinese were able to sail to the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, and according to some theories, they even sailed as far as the Americas almost one hundred years before Columbus made the journey.


Small Pox Inoculation

Small pox inoculation was invented in the West by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Over 800 years earlier, the Chinese had already mastered this technique of preventing the disease.

Inoculation is the process of exposing a patient to a weak form of a disease in order to fight it and build up antibodies which strengthen the immune system, preventing the patient from ever getting more fatal versions of a disease. By the 1600s, the small pox inoculation was widely-known and widely-used in China. It seemed Europe would have to suffer for awhile longer.



Well before the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance of the West, the ancient Chinese made massive strides in what we today call science.

Astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, seismology, engineering, and mathematics can all trace their early origins to China. These ancient scientists routinely found and created scientific principles that would not be discovered or rediscovered by the West for hundreds if not thousands of years. For example, the first seismograph, a device used to detect and measure earthquakes and other seismic activity was first made in China. It was able to monitor when an earthquake happened, as well as which direction it was coming from. The first seismograph in the West would not be invented until 1,500 years later.


Mechanical Clocks

The use of a mechanical clock to tell time is one of the hallmarks of the medieval era. The Chinese beat the Europeans in time-telling by hundreds of years.

The first model of a mechanical clock was made by a Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, in the early 700s CE. However, the very first recognized to-scale clock was made by Su Sung. It was called the Great Cosmic Engine. It utilized water as its main power source and rotated with the earth itself; its full rotation reached 24 hours. In fact, it even had a celestial sphere at the top which could be used to observe the positions of the stars.



It turns out we may have the ancient Chinese to thank for the ability to get good and hammered. Traditionally, we attributed alcohol to the rise of civilization around 4000 BCE, but new evidence suggests otherwise.

According to archaeologists, wine jars found in Jiahu date back to around 7000 BCE–that's over 9000 years ago! Their drinks were made from the rice, honey, and fruit. It was so ingrained into the culture that, according to an imperial edict dating back to the 11th century BCE, the consumption of alcohol, when used in moderation, was ordained by heaven. Not surprising, seeing as alcohol was routinely used in religious ceremonies wherever it was found in the world.



The compass was invented in China, with some of the earliest archaeological findings dating back to the 5th century BCE.

It was modeled after symbols from the I-Ching which symbolized the basic directions of north, south, east and west, along with a host of other directions and lunar orientations. It had two basic parts to it, a magnetic spoon made of a load-stone and a plate with the directions written on it. It even had spiritual implications, with the spoon representing the heavens and the plate representing the Earth. It was believed that this combination would guide travelers in the direction they desired.


Paper and Publishing

The single most important Chinese invention that we use every single day of our lives is the paper.

Not only did the Chinese invent paper as we know it today back in the 2nd century CE, but, in 593 CE, the ancient Chinese had already invented the first printing press using wooden blocks. By 700 CE, the first newspaper was printed, and by 900 CE, the first book with illustrations was made. Paper was by far superior to the baked clay, papyrus, and parchment that was used in other parts of the world.

The effect that paper had in the spheres of education, literature and politics could not be understated. It is because of these inventions that complex abstract ideas in engineering, science and mathematics were able to be applied to the real world.

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