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Ancient Chinese Inventions
Ancient Chinese Inventions
Machines of the Ancient Orient

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Ancient Chinese Inventions

China has been the source of many significant inventions, including the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing (both woodblock and movable type). The list below contains these and other inventions.

The Chinese invented technologies involving mechanics, hydraulics, and mathematics applied to horology, metallurgy, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, music theory, craftsmanship, nautics, and warfare. By the Warring States Period (403–221 BC), they had advanced metallurgic technology, including the blast furnace and cupola furnace, while the finery forge and puddling process were known by the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220). A sophisticated economic system in China gave birth to inventions such as paper money during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The invention of gunpowder by the 10th century led to an array of inventions such as the fire lance, land mine, naval mine, hand cannon, exploding cannonballs, multistage rocket, and rocket bombs with aerodynamic wings and explosive payloads. With the navigational aid of the 11th-century compass and ability to steer at high sea with the 1st-century sternpost rudder, premodern Chinese sailors sailed as far as East Africa and Egypt. In water-powered clockworks, the premodern Chinese had used the escapement mechanism since the 8th century and the endless power-transmitting chain drive in the 11th century. They also made large mechanical puppet theaters driven by waterwheels and carriage wheels and wine-serving automatons driven by paddle wheel boats.

The contemporaneous Peiligang and Pengtoushan cultures represent the oldest Neolithic cultures of China and were formed sometime around 7000 BC. Some of the first inventions of Neolithic, prehistoric China include semilunar and rectangular stone knives, stone hoes and spades, the cultivation of millet, rice and the soybean, the refinement of sericulture, the building of rammed earth structures with lime-plastered house floors, the creation of the potter's wheel, the creation of pottery with cord-mat-basket designs, the creation of pottery tripods and pottery steamers, and the development of ceremonial vessels and scapulimancy for purposes of divination. Francesca Bray argues that the domestication of the ox and buffalo during the Longshan culture (c. 3000–c. 2000 BC) period, the absence of Longshan-era irrigation or high-yield crops, full evidence of Longshan cultivation of dry-land cereal crops which gave high yields "only when the soil was carefully cultivated," suggest that the plow was known at least by the Longshan culture period and explains the high agricultural production yields which allowed the rise of Chinese civilization during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1050 BC). With later inventions such as the multiple-tube seed drill and heavy moldboard iron plow, China's agricultural output could sustain a much larger population.

For the purposes of this list, inventions are regarded as technological firsts developed in China, and as such does not include foreign technologies which the Chinese acquired through contact, such as the windmill from the Islamic Middle East or the telescope from Early modern Europe. It also does not include technologies developed elsewhere and later invented separately by the Chinese, such as the odometer and chain pump. Scientific, mathematic or natural discoveries, changes in minor concepts of design or style and artistic innovations cannot be regarded as inventions and do not appear on the list.


A bronze Chinese crossbow mechanism with a buttplate (the wooden components have since eroded and disappeared), inlaid with silver, from either the late Warring States Period (403–221 BC) or the early Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220)

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