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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.

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.

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.

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 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.