Four Great Inventions

The Four Great Inventions are the inventions that are celebrated in Chinese culture for their historical significance and serve as symbols of China’s advanced science and technology.

The Four Great Inventions are:

  • Compass
  • Gunpowder
  • Paper Making
  • Printing

These four discoveries had an enormous impact on the development of Chinese civilization and a far-ranging global impact. However, some modern Chinese scholars have pointed out that other inventions in China were perhaps more sophisticated and had a greater impact on civilization – the Four Great Inventions serve merely to highlight the technological interaction between East and West.


Although Chinese culture is replete with lists of significant works or achievements (e.g. Four Great Beauties, Four Great Books of Song, Four Great Classical Novels, Four Books and Five Classics, Five Elders, Three Hundred Tang Poems, etc.), the concept of the Four Great Inventions originated with European scholars.

According to history professor Edwin J. Van Kley, European sailors after 1500 frequently suggested to their contemporaries the Asian origins of printing, gunpowder, compass, and paper. The importance of these inventions to the Western world was perhaps first discussed by the British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who in 1620 wrote: “Printing, gunpowder and the compass … whence have followed innumerable changes, in so much that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” Bacon may have been unaware of the Chinese origins of these inventions, however his writings show the importance of these technologies to the early-modern European world.

Later, Karl Marx also commented that, “Gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press were the three great inventions which ushered in bourgeois society. Gunpowder blew up the knightly class, the compass discovered the world market and founded the colonies, and the printing press was the instrument of Protestantism and the regeneration of science in general; the most powerful lever for creating the intellectual prerequisites.”

Western books and other published works from the 19th century onwards attributed these inventions to China. Examples include: The Chautauquan by the Chautauqua Institution, The Journal of International Relations, and Johnson’s New universal cyclopædia: a scientific and popular treasury of useful knowledge.

The modern list of the Four Great Inventions originated in the mid-19th century with the writings of missionary and sinologist Joseph Edkins (1823–1905). Edkins, comparing China with Japan, noted that for all of Japan’s virtues, it did not make inventions as significant as paper-making, printing, the compass and gunpowder. In particular, Edkins’ notes on these inventions were mentioned in an 1859 review in the journal Athenaeum, comparing the contemporary science and technology in China and Japan. In the 20th century, this list was popularized and augmented by the noted British biochemist, historian, and sinologist Joseph Needham, who devoted the later part of his life to studying the science and civilization of ancient China.

The Four Great Inventions



The earliest reference to magnetism in Chinese literature is found in the 4th-century BC Book of the Devil Valley Master (Guiguzi): “The lodestone makes iron come, or it attracts it.”

The earliest reference to a magnetic device used as a “direction finder” is in a Song Dynasty book dated to AD 1040-44. Here there is a description of an iron “south-pointing fish” floating in a bowl of water, aligning itself to the south. The device is recommended as a means of orientation “in the obscurity of the night.” However, the first suspended magnetic needle compass was written of by Shen Kuo in his book of AD 1088.

For most of Chinese history, the compass that remained in use was in the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. According to Needham, the Chinese in the Song Dynasty and continuing Yuan Dynasty did make use of a dry compass, although this type never became as widely used in China as the wet compass.

The dry compass used in China was a dry suspension compass, a wooden frame crafted in the shape of a turtle hung upside down by a board, with the lodestone sealed in by wax, and if rotated, the needle at the tail would always point in the northern cardinal direction. Although the 14th-century European compass-card in box frame and dry pivot needle was adopted in China after its use was taken by Japanese pirates in the 16th century (who had in turn learned of it from Europeans), the Chinese design of the suspended dry compass persisted in use well into the 18th century.


Gunpowder was discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality. By the time the Song Dynasty treatise, Wujing Zongyao (武经总要), was written by Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide in AD 1044, the various Chinese formulas for gunpowder held levels of nitrate in the range of 27% to 50%. By the end of the 12th century, Chinese formulas of gunpowder had a level of nitrate capable of bursting through cast iron metal containers, in the form of the earliest hollow, gunpowder-filled grenade bombs.

In AD 1280, the bomb store of the large gunpowder arsenal at Weiyang accidentally caught fire, which produced such a massive explosion that a team of Chinese inspectors at the site a week later deduced that some 100 guards had been killed instantly, with wooden beams and pillars blown sky high and landing at a distance of over 10 li (~2 mi. or ~3.2 km) away from the explosion.

By the time of Jiao Yu and his Huolongjing (a book written by Jiao Yu that describes military applications of gunpowder in great detail) in the mid 14th century, the explosive potential of gunpowder was perfected, as the level of nitrate in gunpowder formulas had risen to a range of 12% to 91%, with at least 6 different formulas in use that are considered to have maximum explosive potential for gunpowder. By that time, the Chinese had discovered how to create explosive round shot by packing their hollow shells with this nitrate-enhanced gunpowder.

Paper Making:

Papermaking has traditionally been traced to China about AD 105, when Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. However a recent archaeological discovery has been reported from Gansu of paper with Chinese characters on it dating to 8 BC.

While paper used for wrapping and padding was used in China since the 2nd century BC, paper used as a writing medium only became widespread by the 3rd century. By the 6th century in China, sheets of paper were beginning to be used for toilet paper as well. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) paper was folded and sewn into square bags to preserve the flavor of tea. The Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) that followed was the first government to issue paper currency.


The Chinese invention of Woodblock printing, at some point before the first dated book in 868 (the Diamond Sutra), produced the world’s first print culture. According to A. Hyatt Mayor, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “it was the Chinese who really discovered the means of communication that was to dominate until our age.” Woodblock printing was better suited to Chinese characters than movable type, which the Chinese also invented, but which did not replace woodblock printing. Western printing presses, although introduced in the 16th century, were not widely used in China until the 19th century. China, along with Korea, was one of the last countries to adopt them.

Woodblock printing for textiles, on the other hand, preceded text printing by centuries in all cultures, and is first found in China at around 220, then Egypt in the 4th century, and reached Europe by the 14th century or before, via the Islamic world, and by around 1400 was being used on paper for old master prints and playing cards.

Printing in China was further advanced by the 11th century, as it was written by the Song Dynasty scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031–1095) that the common artisan Bi Sheng (990-1051) invented ceramic movable type printing. Then there were those such as Wang Zhen (fl. 1290-1333) and Hua Sui (1439–1513), who invented respectively wooden and metal movable type printing. Movable type printing was a tedious process if one were to assemble thousands of individual characters for the printing of simply one or a few books, but if used for printing thousands of books, the process was efficient and rapid enough to be successful and highly employed. Indeed, there were many cities in China where movable type printing, in wooden and metal form, was adopted by the enterprises of wealthy local families or large private industries. The Qing Dynasty court sponsored enormous printing projects using woodblock movable type printing during the 18th century. Although superseded by western printing techniques, woodblock movable type printing remains in use in isolated communities in China.

Posted in Chemistry, China, Inventions.

Leave a Reply