Science And Technology

Ancient Chinese scientists and engineers made a lot of amazing innovations and technological developments in many disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, military technology, medicine, natural sciences, astronomy, and geology.
Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area
While some inventions, such as the crossbow and abacus, appeared quite early, the majority of truly significant ones were developed during the Tang Dynasty.

Early Inventions

  • The invention of the crossbow during the Warring States, some 2500 years ago, changed the way wars and battles were led.
  • Traditional Chinese medicine, both herbal medicine and acupuncture were practiced around 1000 BCE.
  • Astronomy flourished in ancient China. In 2137 BCE, Chinese astronomers recorded a solar eclipse. It took them millennia to record a whole grouping of planets, but they finally did that in 500 BCE.  Around 400 BCE, they made the Book of Silk that contained date about 29 comets that emerged over 300 years.
  • The Great Wall of China is the largest monument of the advanced architecture of the Han Dynasty.
  • Zhang Heng (78–139 CE), the Eastern Han scholar and astronomer, made several important discoveries. He catalogued 2,500 stars and over 100 constellations, developed a water-powered rotating armillary sphere, and build the world’s first seismological detector, or “Instrument for inquiring into the wind and the shaking of the earth.”
  • Ma Jun (c.200–265 CE) was another amazing engineer. He worked for Emperor Ming of Wei, made him a puppet theatre, but also managed to construct mechanical chain pumps for irrigation of the gardens, enhanced the design of the silk loom, and mechanical compass. It was a complex mechanical device in the form of a chariot that pointed toward the south.

Jinling oil refinery in Nanjing

Four Great Inventions

Because of their great impact, four particular inventions have a special place in Chinese history, as well as the history of the world. These “Four Great Inventions” are the gunpowder, the compass, papermaking, and printing.
Dunhuang star map

  • Paper and printing were among the first great developments in ancient China. Earliest samples of printed cloth patterns that archeologist found can be dated to before 220. Both mass printing and the production of paper appeared during the Tang Dynasty, the period widely recognized as the golden age of ancient China.
  • Many generations of Chinese engineers worked on the discovery of the compass. The Louen-heng attested the magnetic attraction of a needle in the first century CE. However, we can only be sure that the Chinese used magnetized needles in 1086 when its use was recorded in literature.
  • Alchemy was just as popular in ancient China as it was in the western world. During the Jin dynasty, somewhere around 300 CE, an alchemist named Ge Hong was very interested in the explosive chemical reactions that happen when pine resin, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and charcoal are mixed together and heated.

    He wrote an extensive record on his discovery in the books called the Book of the Master of the Preservations of Solidarity. Others were intrigued by the idea of creating gunpowder as well.

    A book dated around 850 CE has a passage that says that various people experimented with mixing and heating realgar, sulfur, saltpeter, and honey. All these experiments, according to the book, resulted in flames, smoke, burnt hands and faces, and sometimes even houses burned to the ground.

These four inventions had a massive impact on the growth of Chinese civilization. They also had a large global impact. During the 13th century, the recipe and the use of gunpowder spread to the Arabs.

Shortly after that, Europeans started using it as well. As English philosopher Francis Bacon noticed, the discoveries of printing, the compass, and gunpowder changed the world. Printing changed literature, the compass enabled navigation and changed the way people travelled, and gunpowder changed global warfare.

Q&A

During which dynasty did the majority of great technological innovations appear?

It was during the Tang Dynasty.

Which early invention changed warfare during the Warring States period?

It was the invention of the crossbow.

What was the name of the world’s first seismographic instrument?

Its constructor, Zhang Heng, called it the instrument for inquiring into the wind and the shaking of the earth

What were the four great inventions of ancient China?

Those were paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.