Four Great Inventions, Paper Making, Gunpowder, Printing Technique and Compass

China held the world’s leading position in many fields in the study of nature, from the 1st century to the 15th century, with the four great inventions having the greatest global significance.

Paper Making, Gunpowder, Printing Technique and Compass – the four great inventions of ancient China are the significant contributions of the Chinese nation to world civilization.

Printing Technique

With the inventions of paper and ink, stamper gradually became popular during the Jin Dynasty, which was the early form of Carved Type Printing. Block Printing first appeared in the Tang Dynasty. The text was first written on a piece of thin paper, then glued face down onto a wooden plate. The characters were carved out to make a wood-block printing plate, which was used to print the text. Wood-block printing took a long time as a new block had to be carved for every page in a book.

Yet, Block Printing had its drawbacks —— all the boards became useless after the printing was done and a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. The frontispiece of the world’s oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra printed in the year 868, was discovered at Dun Huang Cave, along the Silk Road. The book, in the form of a roll, is the earliest woodcut illustration in a printed book.

Block Printing was a costly and time-consuming process, for each carved block could only be used for a specific page of a particular book, besides, a single mistake in carving could ruin the whole block. However movable type changed all of that.

In the Song Dynasty, a man named Bi Sheng carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay. Each piece of movable type had on it one Chinese character which was carved in relief on a small block of moistened clay. After the block had been hardened by fire, the type became hard and durable and could be used wherever required. The pieces of movable type could be glued to an iron plate and easily detached from the plate. Each piece of character could be assembled to print a page and then broken up and redistributed as needed. When the printing was finished, the pieces were put away for future use.


The invention of gunpowder had a close relationship with the advanced ancient workmanship of smelting industry. People began to know a lot of chemistry knowledge about the nature of different mineral materials during the process of smelting operation. With the knowledge, ancient necromancers tried to seek the elixir of immortality from certain kinds of ore sand fuel. Although they failed to get what they were looking for, they discovered that an explosive mixture could be produced by combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). This mixture finally led to the invention of gunpowder although its exact date of invention still remains unknown.

Many historical materials indicate that gunpowder first appeared before the Tang Dynasty (618-907). From 300 to 650AD several recipes were written about inflammable mixtures. Some historians date the invention of gunpowder at 850AD when a Taoist book warned of three specific elixir formulas as too dangerous to experiment.

The military applications of gunpowder began in the Tang Dynasty. Explosive bombs filled with gunpowder and fired from catapults were used in wars. During the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368), the military applications of gunpowder became common and some other weapons like “fire cannon”, “rocket”, “missile” and “fireball” were introduced.

Paper Making

China was the first nation who invented paper. The earliest form of paper first appeared in the Western Han Dynasty, but the paper was generally very thick, coarse and uneven in their texture, made from pounded and disintegrated hemp fibers. The paper unearthed in a Han tomb in Gansu Province is by far the earliest existing ancient paper, tracing back to the early Western Han Dynasty.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), a court official named Cai Lun made a new kind of paper from bark, hemp, rags, fishnet, wheat stalks and other materials. It was relatively cheap, light, thin, durable and more suitable for brush writing.

The art of paper-making spread east to Korea and Japan at the beginning of the seventh century (the end of the Sui Dynasty and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty). In the eighth century, along with the Silk Road, the Arab countries began to learn how to make paper. It took about 400 years for paper to traverse the Arab world to Europe. In the 14th century many paper mills were established in Italy, from where the workmanship of paper-making spread to the European countries such as Germany. The Italians vigorously produced the material and exported large amounts of it, dominating the European market for many years. In the 16th century, the art of paper-making appeared in Russia and Holland, and it spread to Britain in the 17th century.

Before paper was invented, Qin Shihuang, the first emperor in Chinese history, had to go over 120 kilos of official documents written on bamboo or wooden strips. With the invention of paper, the popularization of knowledge has turned into reality. The invention of paper is an epoch-making event in human history.


Early in the Spring and Autumn Period, while mining ores and melting copper and iron, Chinese people chanced upon a natural magnetite that attracted iron and pointed fixedly north. In the Warring States Period, after constant improvement the round compass came into being. Referred to as a “South-pointer”, the spoon- or ladle-shaped  compasses of magnetic lodestone, and the plate is of Bronze. The circular center represents Heaven, and the square plate represents Earth. The handle of the spoon points south. The spoon is a symbolic representation of the Great Bear. The plate bears Chinese characters which denote the eight main directions of north, north-east, east, etc. This type of compass has been scientifically tested and found to work tolerably well.

By the time of the Tang dynasty and the beginning of the Northern Song Dynasty, Chinese scholars had devised a way to magnetize iron needles, by rubbing them with magnetite, and then suspending them in water. They also observed that needles cooled from red heat and held in the north-south orientation would become magnetic. These more refined needle compasses could then be floated in water, placed upon a pointed shaft or suspended from a silk thread, etc. Consequently, they were much more useful for navigation purposes since they were much more portable.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) many trading ships were then able to sail as far as Saudi Arabia without getting lost. The compass was introduced to the Arab world and Europe during the Northern Song Dynasty. The spread of the compass to Europe opened the oceans of the world to travel and led to the discovery of the New World.

Four Beauties of Ancient China, Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan and Yang Yuhuan

The Four Beauties are four ancient Chinese women, renowned for their beauty. Though actual historical figures, their stories have been greatly embellished by legend. According to legend, they are the most beautiful women of ancient China. They have remained famous because of their effect on the emperors and kings with whom they were involved. Some brought kingdoms or dynasties to their knees. Most ended their lives in tragedy or mystery.

Xi Shi

Xi Shi, whose real name is Shi Yiguang and who was born in the State of Yue during the Spring and Autumn Period of China (770 BC – 403 BC or so). Her birthplace is a small village of today’s Zhejiang Province. One day when she went to a stream to wash clothes and the fish in the water saw her and fell down from the surface of the water after being astonished by her beauty. This is the legend, but the fact is Xi Shi was sent to the State of Wu to seduce the ruler for her own state. Finally, the ruler of the State of Wu was defeated by the State of Yue.

Xi Shi, being a sickly girl, often had chest pains. It was said that her beauty was most attractive whenever she had her hand on her chest, wincing from the pain. As Dong Shi saw Xi Shi win the admiration of others while she was walking with her hand on the chest and brows furrowed, she imitated Xi Shi. But this only increased her ugliness. This in turn has created the saying “Dong Shi imitates a frown” meaning to attempt imitating another only to emphasize one’s own weaknesses.

Wang Zhaojun


Wang Zhaojun, whose real name is Wang Qiang and who was born in today’s Xingshan County, Yichang, Hubei Province. She was once a maid in the imperial palace of the Western Han Dynasty .  It is said that when she was sent to marry the ruler of Xiongnu, one of the ancient nationalities in China, whose headquarters was located beyond the Great Wall, and a wild goose saw her and forgot to fly and fell to ground because it saw the beauty of the beauty.

Since the 3rd century the story of Zhaojun had been elaborated upon and she had been touted as a tragic heroine. The Communist government of the People’s Republic of China uses her as a symbol of the integration of Han Chinese and ethnic minorities of China. Zhaojun Tomb still exists today in Inner Mongolia.

Diao Chan

Diao Chan was born in the Three Kingdoms period  and was the adopted daughter of a senior official Wang Yun of the imperial court of that time. One night when the shining moon in the sky met her, the moon hid itself behind the clouds. The fact is one night when the shining moon appeared and a gust of wind suddenly came, some clouds covered the moon. But this surprising moment was seen by Wang Yun, who later spoke that when the moon saw his adopted daughter, the moon hid itself behind the clouds.

Diao Chan was certainly the most charming one. As she was so fascinating that she has made many outstanding heroes obsessed with her.And she was the most elusive woman in that fiction,so there are four identities of her in record.

Yang Yuhuan

Yang Yuhuan was born in Henan. One day when she was strolling in the imperial palace of the Tang Dynasty  and saw the Chinese rose and peony, she began crying because she was forbidden to leave the palace and caged like a bird. As soon as her tears fell on the petals of the flowers, these petal shrank, which means the flowers were surprised by her beauty and hid themselves.

She was a beautiful concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. Yang was originally wife of one of the emperor’s sons and later the emperor Xuanzong made Yang Guif his own consort. Yang was so charming that the emperor was infatuated with her beauty and neglected affairs of state.  She was finally forced to death by the emperor’s guards as she was blamed to cause the An Lushan Rebellion.

The stories of the four beautiful ladies have been widely known by all Chinese people. Now when people compliment you by mentioning their names, it means you are really amazingly beautiful.