10 Ancient Chinese Inventions That Will Surprise You

Ancient China is credited with a great list of famous inventions that are found across the world. Here are 10 ancient Chinese inventions that might surprise you.

Nov 23, 2020By Alexander Westra, MA in the History of Art & Archaeology of East Asia
South point chariot CAD model, ca. 2600 BC; with Flying Kite by Wen Yongchen


The rich civilization of ancient China has perhaps not been communicated as well as that of the Greeks or Romans to the rest of the world. Flourishing in the fertile basin of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, Chinese science and technology started appearing in the most remote ancient times. Here are the top 10 ancient Chinese inventions that changed the course of history as we know it. 


10. Seismographs: An Ancient Chinese Invention


Houfeng Didong Yi, a replica of the Chinese seismograph, via Pressfrom


China, not commonly associated with earthquakes, is nonetheless a highly seismic area. Centuries of historical accounts of earthquakes tell us that China’s problems with earthquakes were and are quite significant. As the ground shakes, tall mountains slide away, and vast areas of land are twisted. Sima Qian (司马迁), ancient China’s famous Grand Historian, mentioned in 91 BC in his Annals how an earthquake so powerful in 780 BC diverted the course of 3 rivers. The 10th-century text of the Taiping Yulan (太平御览) records over 600 earthquakes in history.


Disasters were a serious affair for the imperial governments. Sending the resources to save one’s subjects was a primary concern, both morally and because if adequate aid did not arrive in time, large swathes of the population were likely to suffer famine and disease. The ensuing chaos could lead to a loss of authority and popular uprisings and rebellions. 


Zhang Heng and his seismograph, via El Dispensador


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Knowing that an area had been struck by a disaster was therefore capital. By the time the news reached the palace, a government may have no longer had enough time to organize aid and to muster soldiers. As a result, the scientist, mathematician and inventor, Zhang Heng (张衡– AD 78-139), came up with the Chinese invention to measure earthquakes, known today as a seismograph


The seismograph was a large ‘fine cast bronze’ vessel with a lid. Around the vessel, 8 dragons’ heads are equally spaced out with bronze balls in their mouths. Around the base of the vessel, 8 corresponding bronze toads were placed with their mouths wide open. The ball would if pushed or ‘shaken’ fall into the mouth of its corresponding toad. 


Although it is sometimes referred to as an ‘early warning system,’ it only warned that an earthquake has occurred in some specific direction. The seismograph, known as the Houfeng Didong Yi (候风地动仪), is roughly translated as the ‘instrument for measuring seasonal winds and earth movements.’ He believed that earthquakes were caused by the movement of air, or wind.


9. The Waterwheel: Manpower In Ancient China


A depiction of a water wheel, in Tian Gong Kai Wu, via Routledge Handbooks Online


Before the steam engine, the internal combustion engine or the electric battery, machines were powered by people, animals, wind and water. In the riverine culture of ancient China, people sought to harness the natural forces surrounding them. The waterwheel, either used horizontally or vertically, was an important Chinese invention and a leap forward in the technological and industrial capabilities of the ancient world. It demonstrated a mechanical understanding of the means of production as well as an understanding of the physical properties of water flow and force needed to generate to operate machines.


The development of the waterwheel, a device harnessing the flow of water, was an instrumental element of the economic expansion of the Han. Powering the tools of blacksmiths, millers, and farmers, was a technological revolution. The waterwheel replaced manual pedaling to power the chain pumps. A lot of equipment used in farming, irrigation or smithing benefitted from this hydraulic power by lifting water into irrigation ditches, or into city-wide water systems.


Song Dynasty waterwheel from The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 1999


Du Shi (杜詩), an engineer during the Han Dynasty, first designed it to operate bellows for smithing as it improved the foot-powered level-and-fulcrum tilt hammer for hydraulic-powered pounding and polishing. The horizontal waterwheel usual operated with chain-pumps rotating on gears and a horizontal beam, however, vertical examples are known which were used to operate trip hammers to hull rice or crush ores. 


8. An Ancient Script Still Readable Today


Shang Dynasty oracle bone inscriptions, in the National Museum of Chinese Writing, via Smithsonian Magazine


Compared to the simpler phonetic alphabetic scripts, like Greek, the Hanzi (汉字 – Chinese Script) is a logographic script. The particularity of the Hanzi is that learning it is a lengthy process, but once acquired it overcomes fundamental linguistic and dialect barriers. A highly literate form of writing, it formed a textual lingua franca whereby the speech and pronunciations between regions and societies may have been mutually unintelligible. Literate people could nonetheless read and understand the same meaning from classically written Chinese.


The Chinese invention of the characters is traditionally attributed to the mythical minister of the Yellow Emperor, Cang Jie (倉頡) who created them in imitation of bird footprints. Cang Jie was said to have four eyes, giving him the ability to see and know more than others.


11 symbols from the Dawenkou culture, Shandong


The earliest complete Chinese texts first appear on hard materials, such as bones and bronze vessels. One can assume, however, that archaic forms of the Chinese characters were originally likely used on wooden slips or other perishable materials. Some precursors to those characters are found on Neolithic Erligang period pottery of the Dawenkou culture.


As such, the earliest evidence of Chinese writing appears in King Wu Ding’s reign (1324-1266 BC) of the Shang Dynasty, although it likely is older than that. Mostly found in the ruins of Yin (Anyang, Henan), the earliest examples record the outcome of divination. As the surviving examples of script primarily are about divinations and political will, there is a debate over the original functional use of writing as a political tool or as a record-keeping tool as found in other cultures in the world.


7. Mechanics And Gears That Point South


South Pointing Chariot reconstruction, Chou Kung; Huang Ti, China, 1122-55 BCE; 2698-2598 BCE, via the Science Museum Group, London


The South Pointing Chariot (指南车) was a mechanical device, which used the rotation of the wheels enabling a statue to always point south. It is probably one of the most complex devices of ancient China. It was a large carriage with a statue mounted on top with its arm raised and pointing south. This ingenious Chinese invention of the 3rd century AD would always point south whichever direction you turned.


According to legend, the south-pointing carriage was first constructed by the Duke of Zhou as a means of conducting homewards certain envoys who arrived from very far away. The country of central China was a boundless plain, making it easy for one to lose their bearings. The Duke had this vehicle made so that, in any weather conditions, one could distinguish the cardinal directions. Unlike the compass which uses lodestones and magnetism, such a machine if it worked would certainly be an important tool for finding one’s bearing and mapping an area.


The south-pointing chariot used differential gears, like those of a car. When the wheeled vehicle would turn, the wheels on its opposite side would turn at different rates. The differential gears worked by a mechanism linking the wheels to an axle and linking them with a combination of gears, wheels and flywheels.  


South point chariot CAD model, ca. 2600 BC, via Gradcab


If you are inclined to believe the legend, then this complex mechanical device may date back to ca. 1030 BC. The more credible evidence is that Ma Jun (徳衡) (of Cao Wei from the Three Kingdoms era; 200-265 AD), the famous builder and engineer ought to be credited with its invention and construction.


6. Lacquer: A Natural Shapable Plastic 


Bowl with Geometric Designs, 2nd century BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The use of lacquer is a purely Chinese invention. This natural plastic is obtained by tapping the sap of the tree trunks of the indigenous and common to the central China lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera). Its use as varnish is due to its particular properties such as lightness, durability, resistance to acids and alkalis, modest resistance to heat, water and bacterial resistance.


Evidence of lacquer goes as far back as the Shang Dynasty where it was used to coat sculpted wooden objects and to preserve the walls of Zhou funeral chambers. It is possible that lacquer was also used to decorate the grooves of bronze vessels. The tomb of the Shang ‘queen’ lady Fu Hao, discovered in the 1970s in Anyang, China, contained a rich collection of lacquer. However, the oldest evidence of lacquer is from the 17th century BC found in 1980 in the site of Erlitou. It was produced in much greater quantities thereafter during the Eastern Zhou period (771-256 BC) and reached its apex during the Han Dynasty. 


Han Dynasty Lacquerware found in a tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, China, 202 BC-9CE, via Lumen Learning


By the 3rd century BC, truly remarkable craftsmanship of lacquer was used to decorate boxes and dishes with motifs of people and animals, often in imitation of bronze motifs. During the Han Dynasty, it replaced bronze as part of the items placed in tombs as the 3 graves of the Marquis of Jai at Mawangdui show containing over 400 lacquer objects.


The lacquer industry was a tightly regulated affair. A highly prized material, a single lacquered wooden wine cup could use 7 artisans to make the cup, and 5 officials of the company. It was used for kitchen utensils, cooking and serving warm food and was considered a much more valuable material than bronze. It was also used for furniture, screens, pillows, boxes, worn as bonnets and shoes, and decorating weapons. The highly malleable material could be made into any shape, leading to freedom of artistic expression through this medium.


5. Bronzes With Piece Mold Casts 


Chinese piece mold bronze manufacturing, 1400-1300 BC, in Piece Mold, Lost Wax & Composite Casting Techniques of the Chinese Bronze Age, via Semantic Scholar


Bronze casting is a technique quite particular to Chinese bronze manufacturing methods. The first coppers and bronzes appear comparatively quite late in ca. 3000 BC. The appearance of tin or lead alloyed bronzes coincides with the emergence of the Shang Dynasty. By about 1500 BC, ornate ritual cast bronzes were produced in central China’s Erlitou site. Produced in great quantities, bronzes were made using the piece mold process.


An unusual Chinese invention, the piece mold technique consisted of carving clay molds with surface decorations incised into it before the molten bronze was poured into the clay cast. Substantial bronze casting industries were discovered in many sites of the Shang Dynasty. The Chinese metalworkers would develop a highly successful technical ability to make very elaborate molds with interchangeable parts. This method enabled them to produce elaborate bronzes in great quantities as the copper-tin-lead alloys used to make bronze could not be hammered out to sheet. 


Shang Dynasty Ding type vessel, ca. 1600-1046 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The reason for favoring piece mold techniques over other casting methods, such as the lost wax method, was likely due to the poor malleability of the bronze alloys in ancient China. Nevertheless, the preference for this may have not been accidental as different ratios of arsenic or tin could achieve different colors of bronze.


4. Flying Kites For War And Science


Flying Kite by Wen Yongchen, via Christie’s


A popular sport and pastime today, the Chinese invention of flying kites goes back thousands of years. Flying kites may not seem like an impressive invention at first, but it combines a host of industries and an understanding of lift and drag forces. 


Going as far back as the 5th century BC, the semi-legendary figure of Lu Ban () made bird-like kites that could fly for days and do somersaults. The philosopher Mozi (ca. 4th century BC), the founder of the Mohist philosophy, is said to have spent 3 years building a kite. The Mohists, an important rival to the Confucianists, were among other things adept at physics and mathematics and as such had an interest in siege weapons. 


The high-tensile strength of silk and the strength and lightness of bamboo were likely the materials used to make kites until paper was invented. Stories mention kites being used for communication, measurements and testing the wind. General Han Xin (00) of the Han Dynasty used a kite to measure the distance his soldiers had to dig to reach the city’s palace from their camp. Beyond war, kites fitted to hooks would be used for fishing as well as for pleasure


3. The Crossbow: Standard Issue Ancient Chinese Inventions For Armies 


Bronze Crossbow Trigger mechanism with gold and silver inlays, in the Nanjing Museum, via China Online Museum


Found amongst the weapons of the Terracotta Army in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, crossbows have been one of the most ubiquitous Chinese inventions used in military warfare for centuries.  


Its earliest descriptions are found in Mohist treatises ca. 4th century BC and Sun Tzu (Sūnzǐ)’s Art of War. However, cast bronze crossbow locks dating back to 650 BC have been found in many parts of central and northern China. Mentions are found in later texts, such as the Huainanzi advising their readers that crossbowmen are ineffective in soft marshlands.


The crossbow, a relatively small but complex projectile weapon, was a favorite of the Han Dynasty. It became a standard issue for the Han armies they were mass-produced with estimates ranging in the hundreds of thousands of crossbows. Firing bronze-headed arrows, they were extremely powerful weapons at closer ranges. Yet, as they were slow to reload they were restricted to stationary or defensive uses.


Han Dynasty Crossbow


The crossbow is largely credited for the success of the Qin and Han empires and spelled the end of the archaic chariot warfare of previous dynasties. It gave them distinct advantages over their enemies as their production required specialized knowledge and so did its effective use in battle. 


2. Casting Iron 


Chinese blast furnaces


The Chinese invention of cast iron technology led to many important developments. Since the discovery of the material, iron artifacts have been used for weapons and tools alike. To cast iron requires a high temperature than blooming, but is less laborious than forging each piece individually. First produced during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC- 473 BC), cast iron has been produced for thousands of years in China. Made possible with the hydraulic power of the waterwheel, the primitive cast iron is, however, brittle, inflexible and difficult to sharpen.


The melting point of iron is 1535 degrees celsius which early smiths were unable to produce in the forge. So, the earliest techniques of blacksmiths consisted of smelting iron ores at lower temperatures, but not to melt them, thus creating a lump of iron mixed with other materials known as ‘bloom.’ The impurities were pounded out almost entirely, but the method was laborious and can only yield simple designs. 


However, the Chinese ironworkers learned that iron ore mixed with charcoal could melt the iron into a liquid instead. The melting temperature of an iron-carbon combination is 1130 degrees celsius, but the workers used phosphate-rich ‘black earth’ which reduced the melting point to 950. The liquid iron could then easily be poured into a mold to produce a hard but brittle iron. This technique became widespread by 300 BC, and by the Han Dynasty, they had learned how to produce steel.


The cheaper cast iron methods were continuously used, especially for implements that do not require sharpness or resistance to shock. The more laborious and expensive process of wrought iron or steel was typically used for producing weapons. 


1. The Bianzhong Or Tuned Chime Bells: Musical Chinese Inventions


Nanjing Museum Bianzhong set, 206 BC-9 AD, via The Mercury News


An ancient Chinese musical instrument, the Bianzhong (编钟) is a melodious ensemble of bronze bells suspended on a wooden frame. Like the lithophone, Bianqing (編磬), a melodious ensemble of L-shaped flat stones suspended on a wooden frame, the carillon of bells is one of ancient China’s most religious instruments. Likely evolved out of jade bells, tuned bells are a hugely impressive feat of musicality, metallurgy, and mathematics. First appearing in 2100 BC as bells (without a clapper), they were arranged during the Zhou Dynasty into an ensemble of bells with sizes ranging from 153 to 9 centimeters in height. With their lens-shaped, distinct mouth shape, and 36 symmetrical bosses on the outside, each bell could produce two different tones.


Marquis Yi of Zeng (曾侯乙編鐘) Orchestral Set, 433 BC, in the Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan, via China Online Museum


A complete set of 65 ceremonial bells was discovered in the tomb of Marquis Yi (died ca. 430 BC), ruler of Zeng in the state of Chu (曾侯乙墓). The set’s musical range was 5 octaves, with 3 fully chromatic ones. This particular set is still playable today. By the 6th century BC, fine-tuning them to achieve precise notes was a particular concern. The music bells indicate that ancient China had a sophisticated understanding of music and tonality and, as a result, a sophisticated understanding of the mathematical principles behind it. 


The manufacturing of musical bells was a very meticulous affair requiring a precise mixture in the alloy, advanced casting techniques and a good pitch. Some bells show evidence of shaving when the cast bell was a little off. The precise distance between notes requires precise dimensions of the bells, which form part of a wide and complex system of measurements and standards. Thus, it is no surprise that the bell carillons (Bianzhong) were a prized and highly symbolic possession of the elite.

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By Alexander WestraMA in the History of Art & Archaeology of East AsiaAlexander Westra is a doctoral researcher who studies archaeology at Henan University, China. He holds an MA in the History of Art & Archaeology of East Asia from the School of Oriental & African Studies, London. He has studied ethnology, mythology, art, and archaeology for many years. His interest in the Yellow River cultures took him right into the heartland of China where he has been living in central China for several years.