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I: Inventions

The frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from the Tang Dynasty, the world's earliest dated printed book, published in the year 868

The Four Great Inventions

All of China’s schoolchildren can name “the Four Great Inventions”: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing. Each has had a significant impact on the development of human civilisation. And even today they are celebrated as symbols of China’s advanced scientific achievements at various points in its history.

The Chinese were using an early form of the compass as early as the second century BC for geomancy and fortune telling. The earliest reference to a magnetic device used in navigation is in a Song Dynasty book dated to around 1000, when the compass was also believed to have been introduced to Europe via the Arab world.

Gunpowder’s creation began with an accidental bang in the year 800, when alchemists mixed sulphur with other substances in an attempt to create an elixir of eternal life for the Tang emperor. The explosive findings were deployed extensively thereafter – though more for fireworks than as weapons.

The Chinese are also credited with introducing paper and printing. Various sources state that papermaking was invented in 105 by Cai Lun, a eunuch from the Han Dynasty. He was said to have been inspired by watching wasps making their nests by softening wood fibres. Printing arrived about a century later, although movable-type printing, which allowed characters to be interchanged, was not invented till 1040 during the Song Dynasty.

But who popularised the concept of China’s Four Great Inventions?

The concept is, in fact, an imported idea from Europe, and there used to be only three inventions in the grouping.

The notion of ‘three’ great inventions – the compass, printing and gunpowder – was an idea first spread by European missionaries in the 15th century. Notably it was mentioned by Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Chinese textbooks in the early 20th century also referred to the three inventions as great scientific achievements. It was a Cambridge science professor named Joseph Needham that added the fourth. In the 1950s he wrote a groundbreaking multi-volume series entitled Science and Civilisation in China and added papermaking as a ‘great’ Chinese invention. (The professor is also famous for the ‘Needham Question’ which asked why China hadn’t industrialised before Europe.)

Needham’s new classification began to find its way into Chinese textbooks, in part driven by government’s efforts to rebuild national confidence after what the Chinese have termed as “the Century of Humiliations” from their defeat in the Opium War in 1839 until the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949.

The Four ‘New’ Inventions

Needham’s categorisation has been challenged by critics, who argue that inventions such as silk and porcelain are just as worthy of a place on the list. Others question whether gunpowder really merits a mention, because the Chinese were slow to figure out its more devastating usage: i.e. for warfare.

More recently, the phrase has morphed from four great inventions to four modern ones, encapsulating innovations where China is a leading exponent, such as high-speed rail, mobile payments, e-commerce and bike-sharing schemes.

None of these were invented in China but the country gets credit for taking the original idea and translating it into practical application on a major scale.

In many cases, the results have been transformative. For instance, the railways were once viewed as a source of shame: a technology forced upon China against the government’s will by more advanced foreign powers. But China now leads the world in high-speed rail with 29,000 kilometres of bullet train track – all completed in the past 10 years.

The government has also been putting a greater emphasis on achieving breakthroughs in other technologies, as part of President Xi Jinping’s championing of the “China Dream”, or the “rejuvenation” of the country to “a fully developed, rich and powerful” nation by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049.


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