Papermaking Chinese legend tells that the new invention of paper was presented to the Emperor in the year 105 AD by Cai Lun. Archeological evidence, however, shows that paper was in use two hundred years before then. Either way, the Chinese were significantly ahead of the rest of the world. The craft of papermaking relied upon an abundance of bamboo fiber to produce a fine quality paper. In China: Ancient Arts and Sciences , the papermaker uses only the traditional materials and methods to produce fine art paper.
Printing The Chinese invention of moveable type, credited to Bi Sheng in the year 1045 AD, did not significantly impact Chinese society. Three hundred years later in Europe, Gutenberg's development of moveable type revolutionized the Western world. Why? The Chinese language uses 3000 to 5000 characters in an average newspaper. The English language, in comparison, uses 26 characters in an average newspaper. Clearly, manipulating 5000 characters on a printing press took much longer than moving 26. Still, the invention of moveable type furthered Chinese technology and its role in the advancement of human civilization.
Gunpowder Imagine their enemy's surprise when the Chinese first demonstrated their newest invention in the eighth century AD. Chinese scientists discovered that an explosive mixture could be produced by combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). The military applications were clear. New weapons were rapidly developed, including rockets and others that were launched from a bamboo tube. Once again, the raw materials at hand, like bamboo, contributed ideas for new technologies.
Compass By the third century AD, Chinese scientists had studied and learned much about magnetism in nature. For example, they knew that iron ore, called magnetite, tended to align itself in a North/South position. Scientists learned to "make magnets" by heating pieces of ore to red hot temperatures and then cooling the pieces in a North/South position. The magnet was then placed on a piece of reed and floated in a bowl of water marked with directional bearings. These first navigational compasses were widely used on Chinese ships by the eleventh century AD.
Porcelain top It seems that porcelain was not a sudden invention, although some claim that Tao-Yue in the 600's AD was the legendary inventor of porcelain. He used so-called 'white clay' (kaolin) which he found along the Yangzte river where he was born. He added other types of clay to produce the first white porcelain, which he sold as 'artificial jade' in the capital Chang-an. By around 900 AD, porcelain was perfected, incorporating the translucent minerals quartz and feldspar. Porcelain was much finer than other clay ceramics, so thin as to be translucent. Its white color could be painted in many colors. Porcelain was one of the most highly prized products from China, and in fact came to be called "china."
China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. By 100 AD, Chinese shipbuilders invented the stern post rudder and watertight compartments for ship's hulls. By 200 AD, they used several masts and the redesigned the basic square sail with the fore-and-aft rig. This allowed the ship to sail into the wind. With these inventions, the Chinese trader and explorer Zheng Ho sailed as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433. Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions
Magnetic compass top As early as 500 BC, Chinese scientists had studied and learned much about magnetism in nature. For example, they knew that iron ore, called magnetite, tended to align itself in a North/South position. Scientists learned to "make magnets" by heating pieces of ore to red hot temperatures and then cooling the pieces in a North/South position. The original lacquered earth plate, dating to the 3rd century BC, is currently on display at the Museum of Chinese History. Later, the magnets were placed on bronze plates marked with directional bearings. Compasses were first used in Feng Shui, the layout of buildings. By 1000 AD, navigational compasses were widely used on Chinese ships, enabling them to navigate without stars in view. The magnetic compass remains an essential navigational tool today.
Canals & Locks top Imperial China's construction of waterways to connect different parts of its vast territory produced some of the world's greatest water engineering projects. One of the most impressive was the building of the Grand Canal. Construction of the first Grand Canal began in the early 600's to connect the Yellow River (Hwang He) in the north with the Yangzi River (Chiang Jiang) in the south. The project lasted for many centuries as it was constantly enlarged and repaired. Once the Grand Canal was in use, people could carry messages and ships could carry rice back and forth. Canal locks were another innovation in the 10th century. These allowed boats to go uphill and downhill, by raising or lowering the water level within the lock. Click here to see how a lock works. This invention allowed boats to travel farther inland. Today locks are used in places like Niagara Falls and the Panama Canal.
Gunpowder top Around 200 AD, Chinese scientists discovered that an explosive mixture could be produced by combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). The explosive mixture, called huoyao, was used by the military in the 900's during the Tang Dynasty. Imagine their enemy's surprise when the Chinese first demonstrated their newest invention. New weapons were rapidly developed, including rockets that were launched from a bamboo tube. The Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder filled tubes. At some point, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was born. The date reporting the first use of true rockets was in 1232. At this time, the Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other. During the battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage of "arrows of flying fire." These fire arrows were a simple form of a solid propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable. Gunpowder changed the methods of war forever.
Spinning Wheel top Silk was first made by the Chinese about 4000 years ago. Silk thread is made from the cocoon of the silkworm moth, whose caterpillar eats the the leaves of the mulberry tree. Silk spinners needed a method to deal with the tough, long silk threads. To meet the increasing demand for silk fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035. This simple circular machine, easily operated by one person, could wind fine fibers of silk into thread. The invention used a wheel to stretch and align the fibers. A drive belt made the wheels spin. Italians who traveled to China during the Mongol dynasty brought the invention to Europe in the 14th century. Left: lady spinning Right: 2-man loom
Writing A group of ancient tombs have been discovered in recent years in Shandong Province which date back 4,500 years. Among the relics are about a dozen pottery wine vessels, which bear one character each. These characters are found to be stylized pictures of some physical objects, and so are called pictographs . By 1700 BC, symbols were carved on oracle bones and tortoise shells, shown at left. These are thought to be the first true Chinese writing . These picture words underwent a gradual evolution over the centuries until the pictographs changed into "square characters," some simplified by losing certain strokes and others made more complicated but, as a whole, from irregular drawings they became stylized forms. By 1200 BC Chinese writing was already a highly developed writing system that was used to record a language fairly similar to classical Chinese. In 1000 BC the first book was produced. By inventing writing so early in their history, the Chinese preserved a record of their history and learning
One of the greatest inventions of the medieval world was the mechanical clock. The difficulty in inventing a mechanical clock was to figure out a way in which a wheel no bigger than a room could turn at the same speed as the Earth, but still be turning more or less continuously. If this could be accomplished, then the wheel became a mini Earth and could tell the time. Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, made the first model of a mechanical clock in 725 AD. This clock operated by dripping water that powered a wheel which made one full revolution in 24 hours. An iron and bronze system of wheels and gears made the clock turn. This system caused the chiming of a bell on the hour.
Su Sung's great 'Cosmic Engine' of 1092 was 35 feet high. At the top was a power driven sphere for observing the positions of the stars. The power for turning it was transmitted from the dripping water by a chain drive. A celestial globe inside the tower turned in synchronization with the sphere above. It was two more centuries before the first mechanical clock was developed in Europe.
Great Wall Great Wall top The building of the Great Wall of China, one of the legendary seven wonders of the world, began in 221 BC in an effort to keep Mongol invaders out. In the 600's AD, the Sui Emperor Yang Di began a huge project of repairing the ancient wall. The costs of rebuilding the wall were enormous. The construction involved the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom died from the harsh working conditions and were buried in the wall itself. Costs were also increased by the frequent robbery of supply wagons. 15,000 defense towers and forts were constructed along the walls. It remains the largest structure ever built anywhere in the world, and is the only human made work on earth visible from orbit.