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Discovering China

Chinese Inventions

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  • Printed books, porcelain, silk, umbrellas and kites are just a few of the everyday objects that originated in China and are used today throughout the world. Remarkably, the Chinese developed the technology to produce fine porcelain over 1,000 before Europe. Philosophy played a part in two of the most famous Chinese discoveries. Seeking the elixir of life, Daoist alchemists stumbled upon gunpowder, while the magnetic compass was developed from an instrument used for geomancy and feng shui.

    Great Leaps Forward

    Wheelbarrow: used in agriculture, industry,
    and by the military. Like the plow,
    it vastly increased the efficiency of manual workers.

    Early advances in technology spawned an agricultural revolution in China. Iron-bladed plows increased the amount of land that could be farmed and multiplied its productivity, enabling a larger population to be sustained. Paper, paper money, and printing were key to the efficient administration of a vast populous, centrally controlled state. Increased manpower, organization, and technology advanced industrial production in mining and porcelain factories, for example, as well as boosting China’s military might.


    The abacus
    The abacus: invented during the Yuan dynasty.
    Because it is able to perform complex
    calculations, it is often referred to as the
    first computer and is still used in China today.

    The discovery of movable type did not really impact upon Chinese society, and most printers continued to carve the individual characters into a block. In Europe 400 years later, however, the discovery of movable type revolutionized society. This is because it is much easier to handle the 26 or so different blocks in a Roman alphabet than the around 3,000 or more characters needed for a Chinese newspaper – not even allowing for duplicates. Woodblock carving therefore required far fewer resources.


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