Ancient China
  - Innovations/Science and Technology                       PAGE DEVELOPED BY: Angela Chung

Most inventions were made during the golden age of China (Tang, C.E. 618-907, and Song, C.E. 960-1279 dynasties).

Innovation was vastly encouraged by the government to better the standard of living. For thousands of years, China's technology was far superior to that of the Western world.

The drive to improve technology was spurred by the the Confucian tradition that humankind can only be bettered by human action itself. Because the government's priority is to ensure general welfare, innovations were constantly sought out to improve technology for the people of China.

Major ancient Chinese inventions and technological achievements include the magnetic compass, paper, printing, the iron plow, and gunpowder.

Key Definitions / Terms
Compass:  a device used for directional purposes and navigation. Early versions were used for simple alignment projects, while later ones involved balancing a magnetized needle on a pot of water, for navigation purposes (such as the mariner's compass).

Paperinvented around 104 C.E., bamboo and mulberry tree fibres were mixed in water and pounded, then poured on coarse cloth and left to dry. This was initially used for hand-copying texts, and later on for paper currency. This process remained unchanged for many centuries.

Printingblock printing was invented in the eighth century, nearly 700 years earlier than Western civilizations. Blocks carved from wood were used to print small-scale items like short religious texts and textiles. The movable type, invented in the eleventh century allowed for mass printing, which made books more accessible to the everyday population.

Iron plow a third century C.E. invention in China designed to increase agricultural efficiency in China due to a limited amount of arid land. An early design consisted of an iron cutting piece that was V-shaped, mounted on wooden blades. The plow also included a sharpened central ridge for cutting through soil, and wings to throw aside soil to reduce resistance and friction.

Gunpowder:  a substance used in warfare for explosives, bombs, and rockets invented in Ancient China during the ninth century C.E. It consists of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and charcoal, all of which was easily accessible in China's hot climate.

Historical Significance
Although the West has been generally credited for many of the inventions, it was in fact the work of the Chinese. In many cases, the Chinese made the initial discovery, and the Western civilizations expanded on it.

Many Chinese inventions served as prerequisites of modern technology, something that is generally overlooked nowadays.

First version of the compass, invented by the Chinese. It consisted of a lodestone (naturally magnetic ore) dipper or spoon situated on a highly-polished bronze plate. These were direction pointers used to align buildings.

A depiction of a man using an ancient Chinese rocket. Although they resembled fireworks, these rockets were used in battles. This was one of the major uses of the Chinese invention of gunpowder.

Paper money printing was one of the vast number of uses of
block printing, first issued during the Song era. The punishment for counterfeiting was death, but these cases were limited because the detailed patterns made it the paper money extremely difficult to reproduce.

A depiction of a cattle-drawn
iron plow, used in the first century B.C.E. The improved casting techniques and iron supply allowed the Chinese to develop this long before the Western civilizations. The iron plow was much sturdier than the Roman and Greek wooden ones.

Interesting Facts
Gunpowder was an accidental discovery, made not on the intention of warfare, but to discover an elixir of immortality. The alchemist, Sun Si Miao, while mixing different minerals, discovered that this "elixir" was very explosive.

  Chemical warfare, such as poison gas, smoke bombs, and tear gas, supposedly first introduced during the First World War, was actually used 2300 years before in ancient China.

  The Chinese invented a toy called a "Bamboo Dragonfly" in the fourth century C.E. It consisted of a helicopter-like blade situated on a pencil, which was attached to a cord. When the cord was pulled, the blade would soar into the air. This toy was later studied in 1809 by the Western world, and played a large role in the invention of the helicopter.

One of the earlier examples of the Chinese invention of paper. After the paper-mixture was left to dry, a smooth surface was provided, which was ideal for writing. At the beginning, paper was used for hand-writing texts, which was an extremely tedious process.

The movable type, as invented in 1041-1048 by Pi Sheng. It was widely (and incorrectly) believed in the West that this piece of technology was first introduced by Johann Gutenburg.

Related Links:

Related Articles:
From Dynasty to Destiny: Ten Celebrated Inventions of Ancient China
China's Age of Invention


East West Dialogue. The Science & Technology Ancient China Taught the West . 14 Feb. 2007 <>

Haberman, Arthur.  Civilizations:  A Cultural Atlas. Vancouver:  Gage Educational Publishing Company, 1994.

Library Thinkquest. Ancient Chinese Technology. 13 Feb. 2007 <>

Newman, Garfield. Echoes from the Past: World History to the 16th Century. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2001.

Smith, Randy. History of Chinese Invention and Discovery. 13 Feb. 2007 <


  1. Why was technological development encouraged in the ancient Chinese civilization?
    1. To establish international status and fame.
    2. To better the lives of the people.
    3. To increase revenue for the manufacture of technological products.
    4. They were engaged in an international technology race.


  2. What/who inspired the desire for improvement?
    1. Pi Sheng
    2. Lao Tse
    3. Emperor Taizong
    4. Confucious


  3. Which invention did not originate from China?
    1. Compass
    2. Paper
    3. Iron plow
    4. Helicopter


  4. What was a "lodestone"?
    1. A naturally magnetic ore in early compasses.
    2. An explosive substance used in rockets.
    3. The carved block used in block printing.
    4. An ingredient for gunpowder.


  5. Who was credited for China's discovery of the movable type?
    1. Pi Sheng
    2. Emperor Taizong
    3. Johann Gutenburg
    4. Sun Si Miao