Ancient China Compass

Ancient travelers were limited in knowing their direction by only being able to follow landmarks and the constellations.

This limited sea travel when there was bad weather and the stars weren’t visible or on land when there was bad weather or fog.

You might be surprised to find out that travel wasn’t the original reason that the compass was invented.

Instead, the ancient Chinese wanted to ensure that their philosophy of harmony with nature was correct, so they invented the compass to designate the directions for their environments, lives, and construction.

This philosophy is known as Feng Shui and is used today. The earliest mention of the compass also indicates that the Chinese called it “south pointer” so that the jade hunters wouldn’t get lost during their travels.

Original compasses

There is a special type of mineral magnetite called a lodestone that is a permanent and natural magnet that aligns itself with the magnetic field of the Earth.

It naturally has a north/south polarity. The ancient Chinese would create the lodestone into the shape of a ladle or spoon and sit it flat on a plate made of bronze, representing the Earth.

They had a circular drawing in the center that represented the heavens, and they placed the spoon in the center.

The lodestone was shaped like a spoon to represent the constellation Ursa Major (Great Bear) which is in the area of stars known as the Big Dipper.

The magnetic properties of the lodestone always made it point south.
Han Dynasty Compass

Later Chinese Compass versions

As use of the compass continued, the ancient Chinese added other markings on the brass plate to indicate the not only the four main directions of north, south, east, and west, but also northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest.

In yet other versions there were completely different designs. The directional finder was in the shape of a wooden fish that had a magnetized needle in it and then placed in a bowl filled with water.

Chinese Compass enhanced

While the original versions of the ancient Chinese compass were designed to harmonize their lives, once they began to travel, they made changes so that they could use it for navigation.

The earliest recordings of the use for this purpose was during the Northern Song dynasty where they used the floating magnetized needle in water during sailing trips.
Geomantic Compass

  • Well after the compass was invented, it was used for predictions for many centuries.
  • The Western compass has 32 defined points on its rose-of-winds. The Old Arab compass also has 32 points. The Eastern compass has 24 and 48 points. Today’s compasses are marked in degrees rather than the old cardinal points.
  • A compass can be affected by any iron or ferrous material that is close by that has electromagnetic fields.
  • The magnetic compass points to the magnetic pole and not to the geographic pole.
  • The first needle in a compass in ancient China was in the shape of a tadpole.
  • Magnetic North Pole is really magnetic South Pole and vice versa.
  • Muslims use a kind of compass to point them in the direction of Mecca or their daily prayers.
  • Today’s modern liquid compasses use a dampening fluid made out of lamp oil, white spirits, mineral oil, ethyl alcohol, or purified kerosene.
  • Maps use compass marks and the rose-of-winds is typically printed in colors that can be seen when there is low visibility.
  • Maps that have compass markings show the eight main points of the compass rose in black.
  • During World War II, prisoners of war in German camps had compasses smuggled into them that looked like razor blades or buttons to help them during an escape.
  • One of the mariner’s tests is to name all 32 points of a compass in the clockwise direction from the North – this is called “boxing the compass.”

Compass Drawing


What kind of bowl did the ancient Chinese use for their first compasses?


What did the ancient Chinese design the original compasses for?

harmonizing their environments

What was the shape of the original ancient Chinese compass pointer?

ladle or spoon

What material is the pointer made of in the ancient Chinese compass?


What other shape did the ancient Chinese use for a compass pointer in water?

a fish

What direction did the ancient Chinese compass always point to?