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5 Remarkable Innovations of Ancient China

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Throughout history people everywhere regardless of race, religion and education have made amazing discoveries and dreamed up brilliant inventions that have made life easier, safer and more productive for untold billions. 

But some, like one on this list, have been responsible for death on an unimaginable scale. 

Even today many of the things we take for granted were invented in China hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years ago.

But unlike those made elsewhere, historians have noted that many impressive inventions of Chinese origin remained much more localized and obscure than probably would’ve been the case had they been invented in a place like Europe. 

It’s widely agreed that in China, inventors and scientists were typically tied to patrons and governments who considered the inventions made with funds and support they provided their own property. 

Likewise, Chinese scientists didn’t enjoy the benefits of relatively open scholarly communities that promoted the exchange of ideas and technology, and in many cases, inventions were intentionally hidden so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of economic and military adversaries. 

Now let’s take a closer look at five of Ancient China’s most remarkable innovations. 

Gunpowder

In a bizarre twist of fate, one of the deadliest inventions of all time was discovered accidentally by 9th century Chinese alchemists looking for compounds that would extend life indefinitely. 

Gunpowder would not only shape weapons development and military doctrine for centuries to come, but world history as well. 

From flaming arrows and rifles to hand grenades and cannons, previously unimaginable killing machines became realities nearly overnight when gunpowder burst onto the scene. 

For centuries prior to its invention, the Chinese had been experimenting with a potent oxidizer called saltpeter (potassium nitrate) when one enterprising chemist mixed it with charcoal and sulfur.   

The new compound had a number of beneficial properties, but early tales of chemists killing themselves and burning down workshops and entire villages abound. 

Mixing the compound with the correct proportion of each component wasn’t easy, but after years of trial and error an immensely powerful, inexpensive and stable concoction was found. 

Seizing on its apparent military applications, the reigning Sung Dynasty first used gunpowder against the Mongols, whose ever present raids and all-out invasions had plagued much of western China during the period. 

The Mongols were subject to “fire arrows,” precursors to modern rockets that could propel themselves across vast distances into enemy positions with deadly results. 

Though relatively rudimentary and unreliable, the psychological effects of these new gunpowder-based weapons often turned the tide of battle, even when the Chinese were outnumbered.

Around the time of its invention, China was a commercial power and regional trade was common, yet gunpowder remained largely a Chinese monopoly until the 13th century because rulers didn’t want it falling into the hands of their enemies.

Later however, during the 13th and 14th centuries the technology was transported via the Silk Road to Europe and the Middle East where it made its mark on Middle Age battlefields. 

By the mid-14th century cannons were common in the armies of European military powers like England and France, and these new wonder weapons rendered many walled fortifications that had seemed nearly impregnable for generations suddenly very susceptible, and in some cases obsolete. 

The next giant leap for gunpowder came when it was applied to small but powerful handheld weapons or “firearms” that began appearing around the mid-15th century. 

These were initially shrunken down versions of larger weapons, and were clunky, unreliable, and often more dangerous to users than to intended targets. 

Advancements in gunpowder were rapid, and even now in its various forms it’s still central to many modern weapons. 

Not surprisingly, another Chinese invention often associated with New Year’s celebrations and other special events – fireworks – were invented around the same time, and used gunpowder as both an explosive and propellant. 

Paper

Cai Lun pen and paper founder
Cai Lun by Realcai is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When it was discovered in a Chinese tomb in the late ‘50s, the oldest known piece of paper in existence seemed to confirm what historians already knew about the invention of paper and the process by which it’s made.  

Manufactured primarily from hemp fibers, radiocarbon dating revealed that the crude material dated from between about 150 and 90 BC, which is when historical records show that Cai Lun, a Han Court eunuch invented the first real paper. 

What was found in the tomb however was much less advanced than the paper Cai Lun is credited with developing, which leads some historians and scientists to believe that paper may have been invented much earlier, but that Cai Lun just improved upon what already existed. 

Whatever the case, he used a number of easily accessible local materials to make his paper, primarily pulp from mulberry trees, hemp, scraps of linen rags, and even bits of fish net which helped bind everything together much like the glass fibers in fiberglass do. 

Lun then soaked the concoction in lye to break the fibers down into even smaller pieces, which eventually resulted in a mushy and unrecognizable pulp that would form the building block of his new paper.

Previously, important documents, especially official government ones, had been written on thin boards, silk, and even sheets of bamboo, though none of these methods stood up particularly well to time and the elements, prompting a drive to find a better option. 

But despite its obvious advantages, paper’s widespread use was a relatively slow process, though once it caught on its popularity grew steadily, largely because it was lighter, cheaper, more flexible and easier to store than its predecessors. 

From China, papermaking technology initially moved east to Korea and Japan, where production purportedly began in the 6th century AD. 

Though Cai Lun’s original recipe and ingredients were largely adhered to, it wasn’t long before entrepreneurial locals began toying with other materials like rice chaff, seaweed and rattan, each of which gave the paper unique qualities. 

Also along the Silk Road, paper was introduced to other parts of China and nearby countries too, where evidence suggests it may have shown up less than a century after it was first invented. 

This transfer of technology was probably clandestine, as like gunpowder, rulers sought to keep their new invention to themselves. 

It’s thought that in 751 AD however, after a Chinese army was defeated by Turks near the Talas River, among those taken prisoner were paper makers, who’d later go on to help found a thriving paper manufacturing industry in the Middle East.

But like the Chinese, the Turks kept paper a secret as well, and it wouldn’t be until centuries later that it made its way to North Africa and Europe, where in 1453 AD Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. 

More than 200 years after Gutenberg’s lauded invention, America’s budding paper industry took root in Philadelphia. 

Seismometer

Wang Zhenduo's reprodution of Heng's seismoscope seismometer by zhang heng
Seismometer by Zhang Heng

The early centuries AD were busy years in China, and ones of great technological advancement. 

In 132, not to be outdone by his bridge building and paper making counterparts, Chinese inventor Zhang Heng created the first seismometer, a device capable of detecting vibrations caused by ground movement during earthquakes. 

Even then Zhang Heng’s early seismometers were able to determine which direction movements within the earth were coming from and how strong they were relative to others, sometimes even when they originated hundreds of miles away. 

As an engineer, mathematician and tinkerer, Zhang built a number of important devices like mechanical models of the heavens and a cart for measuring distance, often referred to as the world’s first odometer. 

But though these practical inventions were breakthroughs for their time, his seismometer was the most important, because devastating earthquakes were common in much of China, and the worse events often killed hundreds of thousands of people and wrought carnage that often lasted for decades after the actual event. 

In short, detecting earthquakes early on gave citizens and governments time to make preparations or flee before the worst hit. 

Featuring eight bronze dragon heads with loose balls grasped in their mouths and ornate frogs below them, Zhang’s barrel-shaped device more resembled a work of art than the sensitive seismographic equipment we’re more familiar with today. 

Inside a system of pendulums remained perfectly still during periods of seismic inactivity, but even relatively slight tremors caused by distant earthquakes were enough to move the pendulum nearest to the direction of the movement. 

Once the pendulum’s ball tapped the inside of the device, it caused the ball in the dragon’s mouth on the corresponding side to drop into the mouth of the frog below it, and by its location the direction of the earthquake was immediately evident.  

In a particularly impressive example of its effectiveness, one day when all seemed quiet a ball dropped from dragon to frog to the surprise of those who’d been tasked with monitoring it. 

The caretakers waited for hours, but nothing happened. 

Then days later, a harried messenger arrived from the direction the ball had fallen, and he brought with him tales of total devastation in a rural village nearly 400 miles (643 km) away. 

Reconstructing the evidence in 2006, Chinese scientists concluded that the earthquake was likely at least a massive magnitude 7 on the Richter Scale. 

Though the original machine has been lost, a number of replica’s exist all over the world from China and Europe to the Middle East and North America. 

The next seismograph was invented in France in the early 1700s.

Blast Furnace

Vertical section of a 17th and 18th century blast furnace
Vertical section of a 17th and 18th century blast furnace

Due to market forces and a massive shift away from manufacturing in western nations that were traditionally large steel producers, these days it’s common for Chinese steel companies to travel to countries like Germany and buy entire steel mills before beginning the laborious process of disassembling, transporting them and reassembling them in their own country.

This scenario is particularly ironic because the first blast furnaces, the precursors to modern steel mills, were invented in China. 

Blast furnaces are primarily used for smelting iron used in the steel manufacturing process, which requires both chemical reduction and physical conversion until liquid iron called “hot metal” is produced.  

Blast furnaces are so known because the super intense heat they generate is necessary in the smelting process, and is created when preheated air is blasted into the furnace into which iron ore, coke and limestone have already been added. 

Due to size and viscosity, it often takes hours for the materials to descend to the bottom of the furnace where they’re eventually transformed into liquid iron and slag, the latter of which is a byproduct of the process. 

Both products are drained at regular intervals, after which the whole process can begin again, but due to their simple design and hearty construction, it’s common for today’s massive blast furnaces to run continuously for years between breaks for maintenance. 

Though blast furnaces began showing up in China in the 1st century AD, they weren’t the first furnaces used by a longshot, as evidenced by abundant cast iron artifacts like farm implements, tools and weapons that have been definitely dated to hundreds of years before.

It’s probably the case that the first furnaces used for smelting iron were derivations of bronze furnaces, for which the heat created was barely sufficient.  

Eventually, to further increase air flow and produce ever hotter temperatures, both manual and waterwheel-powered piston bellows were incorporated which made the resulting product more pure, and therefore lighter, stronger, and even more flexible. 

In addition, smelters found that switching fuel sources from charcoal to bituminous coal not only spared countless acres of woodlands from being felled, but made the process more efficient and the end product of higher quality. 

Traditional blast furnaces, called “backyard furnaces” by Chairman Mao, remained in use in small scale cottage industries for much of the 20th century, and all told produced tremendous amounts of steel even during the earliest stages of industrialization.

By comparison, the oldest known blast furnaces in the West were built in Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden in the early years of the 13th century AD.  

Suspension Bridges

Luding Bridge
Luding Bridge by gill_penney is licensed under CC-BY

More than 2,500 years ago the Chinese built suspension bridges of bamboo, rataan, wood and animal sinew across previously impassable chasms in mountainous parts of the country. 

Though records are scarce and the original bridges are long gone, evidence does show that in the 3rd century BC, renowned engineer Li Bing built what is probably the first bamboo suspension bridge near modern Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province.

And if the rumors are true, it was used for more than 600 years. 

Over the following centuries designs and materials improved drastically, and suspension bridges grew ever larger and capable of supporting more and more weight. 

But it wouldn’t be until the Tang Dynasty in the early eighth century AD that China’s suspension bridges began resembling contemporary structures. 

Iron chain bridges came into their own during the Tang Dynasty, but though most are now gone, a number of examples from the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 BC) still survive, a true testament to their design and construction. 

In 1430, Thangtong Gyalpo, an architect and devout Buddhist designed and oversaw construction of an iron chain bridge spanning the Yarlung Tsangpo River just south of Lhasa in Tibet.

Featuring a span of nearly 450 feet (137 m), it’s thought to have been the world’s longest unsupported structure at the time. 

The bridge’s surface was made from wooden planks bound together with animal hide and slung from vertical poles suspended from supporting chains overhead. 

Apparently Gyalpo had such success and became such a prolific bridge builder – he built nearly 60 similar bridges –  that he was often known as the “Buddha of Iron Bridges.” 

Another chain suspension bridge with detailed historical records was the Jihong Bridge, which crossed the Lancang River in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. 

The iron chain link bridge was built in 1475 as a replacement for a previous bamboo structure, and though it wasn’t technically an accurate moniker, it’s often called the “First Bridge in Southwest China” because of its prominent location along an important ancient trade route near China’s borders with India and Myanmar.

370 feet (113 m) long and 12 feet (3.7 m) wide, the bridge bed was supported by 18 thick iron chains, though they weren’t enough to deter it from being washed away by flash floods in the mid 1980s after standing for more than 500 years. 

Built in 1706 in Sichuan Province, the 338-foot (103 m) long, 10 feet (3 m) wide Luding Bridge is another marvel that had a gross weight of more than 80,000 pounds (36,287 kg). 

Long regarded as a key link in the trade route between Sichuan Province and Tibet, today Luding Bridge most well-known for a fierce battle fought there between Chinese Communists and Kuomintang forces allied with local warlords in 1935. 

In the early ‘60s the bridge was designated one of the country’s most historic relics, and today it’s a symbol of both class struggle and timeless engineering. 

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