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UPDATED: August-25-2008 NO. 35 AUG. 28, 2008
The Mother of Invention
China's four great ancient inventions have left their mark on local and global development

NAVIGATION: China's Yuanwang ocean survey vessel monitors the position of Shenzhou 6 spacecraft

At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, China's four great inventions-gunpowder, compass, papermaking technology and the art of printing-formed a major part of the celebrations to introduce the country to the world.

As important contributions of the Chinese nation to world civilization, the four ancient inventions have left an indelible mark on humanity. But to what extent have they impacted on China's development and related industries?


According to China's historical data, gunpowder was invented as early as in the first century B.C. but was then used to make medicine only for perpetual rejuvenation. Black gunpowder was not invented until the end of the ninth century. It was first used to make fireworks, and later lighting fireworks became a Chinese tradition to celebrate festivals. Black gunpowder was used in weapons at the end of the 10th century, when firearms such as exploding arrow heads, flintlock rifles and cannons became available on a large scale. By the end of the 18th century when Western powers invaded China, the Chinese troops were still using flintlock rifles and cannons.

In the 13th century, gunpowder was brought into Arab countries via India by merchants, and then made its way to Europe via Spain by Arabians. Firearms played an important role in Europeans' fight colonial wars.

In the 17th century, gunpowder began to be used in mining and made it possible to explore minerals on a large scale, driving the development of modern mining and smelting industries. In this way, gunpowder also pushed forward the development of global industries as a whole.

In the 19th century, black gunpowder was no longer used for military purposes in Europe, but mainly in mining and making fireworks.

The mining industry has always been one of China's pillar industries. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2007, China's fixed assets investment in the industry totaled 527.1 billion yuan ($76.72 billion), up 26.9 percent compared with the same period of the previous year. Moreover, the mining industry has become a major target of foreign investment. Thus far, more than 100 foreign mineral companies have invested in the Chinese mineral exploration and excavation industry.

Fireworks manufacturing has remained a large industry in China. According to the International Fireworks Association headquartered in Liuyang, China's Hunan Province, there are over 7,500 fireworks producers nationwide, in addition to 2,000 related material producers and 2,100 sales companies. In 2007, the total output value of the industry hit 10 billion yuan ($1.46 billion). China is the world's largest fireworks producer and exporter, selling 50 percent of its products to more than 100 countries and regions worldwide, with the trading volume accounting for about 90 percent of the world's total.

The invention of gunpowder also contributed to the development of rocket as its propellant. At the end of the 14th century, a Chinese named Wan Hu fitted a chair with 47 prototype self-made rockets and held a large kite in his hands. His plan was to fly into space and then float back down to the Earth using the kite. Unfortunately, the rockets exploded and killed the intrepid rocket man. In the 1970s, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater after Wan to commemorate the first person who attempted to fly using rockets.

Today, the Chinese aerospace industry has made great achievements. China's 12 types of Long March launching rockets have sent more than 70 Chinese-made spaceships into preset orbits and successfully launched 28 foreign-made satellites.


The earliest compass was invented in China in the fifth century B.C. It resembled a ladle with a round bottom, it was made of a natural magnet and could be placed on a smooth plate, kept balanced and rotated independently. When it remained stationary, its handle pointed to the south.

In the 10th century, people mastered the technology by artificially transmitting magnetic force. Later, they rubbed a steel needle on a natural magnet so that the needle absorbed the magnetic force. Steel needles of this nature are similar to those still used in modern compasses.

The compass was also used at the time for navigation and setting directions by the military. In about the 10th century, Arabians learned to use the compass to navigate after coming into contact with Chinese commercial ships. In the 12th century, the compass was taken to Europe by Arabians. Use of the compass in navigation led to the two great voyages by Columbus and Magellan.

In recent years, navigation technologies have been rapidly developed in China. According to figures released by the China Technical Application Association for Global Positioning System, in 2007, more than 400,000 sets of car-carried positioning equipment were sold in China. Many cell phones are equipped with a satellite positioning system, and the service of cell phone positioning now covers most of China. Marked progress has been made in terms of electronic navigation maps, application software and related information services. The market value of the navigation industry will surpass 20 billion yuan ($2.92 billion) in 2008 and may grow at an annual rate of 200-300 percent in the coming years.

Today, China uses the ultra-sophisticated Compass Navigation Satellite System (Beidou). In October and December 2000, two Beidou navigation test satellites were successfully launched. The Beidou system can navigate missiles, aircraft, ships and satellites. At present, it has been applied in many fields, such as transportation, marine safety administration, coalmine safety monitoring, hydrologic forecasting and survey and weather forecasting. In 2007, the Beidou system, together with the global positioning system of the United States, Glonass of Russia and the Galileo Positioning System of the European Union, was confirmed by the United Nations as one of the core suppliers of global satellite navigation systems.


Ancient papermaking technology is probably the one with the longest continuity among the four great inventions, because it is still used in China today. Many environmentalists, opposing the use of modern paper-making technology due to its high degree of pollution, are appealing to apply the ancient papermaking technology, since the process is pollution free.

According to China's historical data, in 105 A.D., a man named Cai Lun, using the knowledge handed down by his predecessors, made paper with tree bark, linen, old clothes and even fishing nets. With a big resource base of materials, the costs of making paper were reduced and paper was produced on a large scale.

Before Cai Lun invented paper, people used animal bones, tortoise shells, bronze, bamboo slips, wooden tablets and silk as recording materials. Since these materials were too expensive, only royalty and nobles could afford them, meaning ordinary people were mostly illiterate. Thanks to this invention, reading was available for the public.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese began to make paper with rice straw and wheat stalks. By the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's handmade paper making had been well developed, producing good-quality paper in numerous varieties.

Paper was taken eastward to Korea and Japan in the early seventh century, to the Middle East in the eighth century, to Damascus and Rome in the 10th century, to Morocco in the 11th century, to India in the 13th century and to Italy in the 14th century. Italy, with paper mills in many cities, became an important base for the spread of papermaking technology in other European nations such as Germany and Britain.

At present, China is a major producer, consumer, as well as an importer of paper products in the world. According to He Yanli, Deputy Director of the Department of Industry of the National Development and Reform Commission, in 2006, there were 3,600 papermaking companies in China, with their combined production capacity approaching 70 million tons. The country's output of paper and paperboards reached 56 million tons that year, while its consumption of these products came to 66 million tons, both ranking second in the world.

Among the 66 million tons of paper and paperboards consumed in 2006, only 7 percent were directly used for daily life, while 60 percent were used for packaging, 30 percent for printing and writing, and the remainder for insulation of electrical appliances, fire resistance, heat insulation and filtration.

Cai Lun probably never realized that because of his invention, he would be immortalized. During the 20th Congress of International Paper Historians held in Malmedy, Belgium, on August 18-22, 1990, delegates from all countries uniformly honored Cai Lun as the great inventor of paper-making technology.


The earliest printing in China was the block-printing method in the first century B.C., where individual sheets of paper were pressed against wooden blocks that had text and illustrations carved into them. Since it could print hundreds and even thousands of copies, this technology played a significant role in promoting the spread of culture. However, it took much time to carve the blocks and a lot of space to store the blocks, and it was difficult to correct the wrongly carved characters. Moreover, the blocks soon became misshapen, moth-eaten and corroded.

During the period from1004 to 1048, a block carver named Bi Sheng made movable types with clay. Each type was carved with one character and the types could be set independently according to contents of different articles. After printing, the movable types could be reused. This improved technology is called movable-type printing.

Simple and original, its theory is used in modern type printing technology. Later on, with the introduction of wooden, metal and lead types, the movable-type printing technology was much improved.

Block printing technology was taken to Japan and Korea in the eighth century, and the wooden movable-type printing technology to Korea and Japan in the 14th century and later to Europe from China's Xinjiang via Persia (now Iran) and Egypt.

Now, laser typesetting has been adopted in China's printing industry. Perhaps in the future laser typesetting will become obsolete as digital technologies come to the fore in computer-to-plate printing.

According to Zhang Shuangru, Excutive Vice Chairman of the China Printing Technology Association, by the end of 2006, China had registered some 100,000 printing companies, employing 3.45 million people. The printing industry's output value accounted for 2 percent of the country's GDP that year, and the rate is expected to climb to 2.5 percent by 2010, with the industry's production capacity ranking third in the world.

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