China was once the most scientifically advanced nation on Earth, up to around 1400AD when they entered an isolationist era. The Chinese made many inventions, however, there were four that stood out as especially important in history. These are grouped together as the four major Chinese inventions.


Legend has it that an Imperial official named Cai Lun presented paper to the Emperor in 105AD, but evidence shows that paper has been around for much longer than that. Before paper, the Chinese used silk, bamboo stalks, porcelain and even turtle shells to write on. Paper was first made in China by drying pulp made from old rags, bark, mulberry fibers, and hemp. Paper spread slowly, reaching Baghdad in the 7th century, and Europe in the 14th century, more than a millenium after its invention in China.


Contrary to what most Westerners think, Gutenburg did not invent the printing press. We did. Block printing was invented in the 7th century by buddhist monks looking for a way to duplicate their sacred texts faster. A man named Bi Sheng invented the movable character printing method by cutting Chinese characters in clay blocks and inserting them into an iron frame. Then the frame is pressed on paper to make a document.


Invented by alchemists seeking the elixir for immortality. Around 350-400AD several documents emerged documenting the properties of several inflammable substances containing sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). In 1040AD a raw form of gunpowder was used in war. It wasn't explosive, but it was very flammable. When ignited, they were used as flame-throwers against enemy infantry. Around 1200AD an explosive form of gunpowder was invented. Rockets and crude rifles made with bamboo were created for warfare.


The first compasses were simple pieces of lodestone suspended in water or on a string. Later, needles rubbed with the lodestone were used. These were first used around 400BC. The Chinese were never a sea-going race, but in 850AD the first long voyages were undertaken, and the compass played a vital role in those journeys. Documents show the Chinese established that the needle always deviates slightly to the east, and does not point directly at the south, recognizing the shift of the magnetic field of the earth. The first European mention of a magnetic compass was made in 1190, but it wasn't until much later that the compass was actively used in navigation.

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