Great Chinese Inventions: From the Abacus (Suanpan) to Gunpowder

Ming dynasty (1368-1644) waterwheel at Lanzhou, Gansu / Photo by Giddens Memorial East Asian Museum, Wikimedia Commons


Chinese Technology

Up until the 1960s World Civilization was considered to have started in the Middle East and Mediterranean with not much of any consequence elsewhere. Pioneers such as Dr. Needham at Cambridge have discovered that many of the great achievements in science and technology actually originated from China.

Working out who invented precisely what and when is a daunting task as contemporaneous records are fragmentary. The first invention of something is by its nature an isolated event and it is unlikely that the initial discovery is faithfully recorded. It is only when an invention becomes widely adopted that there is a realistic chance that someone will have written down an accurate account. Even so it is quite possible for the same idea to be independently discovered in several places at more or less the same time, greatly complicating any search for the origin.

So tracing the first appearance of something is a case of careful detective work. An invention in one place can lead to it being found after a hundred years over a very widespread area.

In the case of China, the trade between Rome and China in the Han dynasty is well known and documented. Along the desert Silk Roads between the two great civilizations of the time there must have been the transmission of objects of the greatest value: ideas and inventions. It seems that direct contacts between ‘Europe’ and ‘China’ were few and it was the Central Asian intermediaries who traded in the strange new inventions from the mysterious East.

China traditionally lays claim to four great inventions: paper; printing; gunpowder and the compass. It can also make a justifiable claim to many other inventions including: Iron casting; Examinations; Spaghetti; Fans; Porcelain; Blast furnaces; the Abacus; Ship rudders; Silk; Planetaria; Printed books; Pasta; Kites; Paper money; Ice cream; Wheelbarrows; Acupuncture and many more.


Paper is considered one of China’s greatest inventions. Paper seems such an uninteresting thing, but when you think of it, the development of all scientific and artistic endeavor has needed a durable writing medium for permanent records to be kept. Other materials like stone and pottery are permanent but just too bulky and slow to fashion in any quantity. In Egypt the somewhat similar substance papyrus was developed at about the same time as paper in China. It is made from the central core of papyrus (a type of reed). It is from this origin that the English word ‘paper’ is derived. However it is the Chinese form of paper that proved superior and longer lasting.

Stacks of handmade paper / Wikimedia Commons

In the cold, moist climate of northern Europe writing on vellum (animal skins) became dominant for greater durability, as paper made from papyrus only lasted a few decades before it fell apart. Good quality vellum (parchment) is expensive to produce and was reserved for official documents, it remained in use in Britain up to the 16th century.

In China paper is considered to have been first used as a writing substrate in the Han dynasty, fragments have been found as far back as the 2nd century BCE but more definitely 109CE. The first paper was made from bark, hemp (a nettle-like herb) and flax (linen). The secret is to create something tough enough to withstand folding and crumpling and it is the flax and hemp fibers that provide the strength. One key advantage of paper over vellum and papyrus is that the ink can not be so easily removed. Any modification is easier to spot – an essential attribute for official documents.

Over the centuries the ingredients have varied, in Ming times bamboo was used extensively. The bamboo was chopped up; pounded and then mixed with lime to break it down into fibers. After boiling for a day the pulp is laid out on mesh frames where it can then be pressed and dried.

The legendary inventor of paper is Cai Lun 蔡伦 (50-121CE) who is reputed to have watched the behavior of wasps making their nests from paper. There is a tale that he despaired of making a living from his invention, so he feigned death, he instructed his mourners to burn his stack of paper. He then miraculously came back to life, and the paper became immediately associated with immortality and then became a popular product to burn at funerals up to the present day.

The Chinese character for paper is zhǐ, it has the radical for silk which is combined with the symbol of a ‘water plant’ on its side giving an impression of something being flattened.

Before paper was invented writing in China had been on bamboo strips; silk or wood. The bamboo strips were tied together through a cord running through holes at the top and bottom and could then be rolled up into a scroll. This was ideal for official documents as the string could be embedded in clay and marked with a seal so that the document could not be read without breaking the hardened clay. Paper replaced them for most purposes by the 3rd century CE, but the paper was still pasted together onto a backing to form a long scroll. A bureaucracy was already in place producing thousands of records each year that all needed permanent storage. By the Tang dynasty just the tax department is estimated to have needed 500,000 paper sheets.

It is believed that a pivotal moment in World history happened at the Battle of Talas 751CE. As well as beating the Chinese, the Muslim army captured Chinese mercenaries skilled in paper manufacture. Although paper was known in the Arab world before this date the method of production was unknown to them so the capture permitted the first paper mill outside China to be built at Samarkand. It was not until the 12th century that Arab traders brought paper technology to Europe, and it is no coincidence that rapid European development took off as soon as paper was widely available.

Writing in China has always been important as the many different spoken dialects made verbal communication impossible, putting everything in writing was the easy answer to this.


Ming dynasty woodcut showing the five steps in ancient Chinese paper making.
Left to Right: 1) Harvest bamboo poles and trim off the leaves, then soak in water. 2) Boil up the bamboo stems with lime over a fire. 3) Sieve the pulp onto mesh frames. 4) Press the paper on stacked frames to squeeze out the water. 5) Dry the paper on the wall of a heated chamber. / Wikimedia Commons

Printing in China

Made possible by paper, printing, is another major contribution to civilization invented by the Chinese. The earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra of 868CE produced by putting ink on an incised wooden block. Buddhist text with its repeated mantras is an ideal candidate for printing as religious text never needs modification. The characters are carved into wood and then ink rolled over the surface, paper will then take the ink to form a reverse image of the wooden block. Using these techniques a single block could produce 20,000 copies and 1,000 copies could be produced each day. The use of complete hand carved wooden blocks was also ideal for printing the many standard classic texts that students needed to study in the ancient Civil Service Examination system. The Confucian Classics were first printed in 952. For high volume printing copper blocks were used, in this case the text was inscribed into soft clay which when hardened was used as a mold for the copper plate.

A page from the oldest known printed book – the Diamond Sutra, discovered near Dunhuang by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907. / British Library, London

The Chinese went on to produce printing by a system of moveable type in 971. Each character needs its own block and unfortunately there are thousands of them, even though the characters could be arranged according to their sound this still required a lot of searching to find the appropriate character. It was only feasible for mass produced classic and religious books where the same blocks of type were used again and again to produce many thousands of copies.

Prior to the introduction of printing, the important Classic texts were inscribed into stone as ‘steles’. A student can make a copy by either reading it directly or more usefully make a wax rubbing of the characters onto paper. This was effectively an early form of printing, as a single inscribed stone could produce an indefinite number of copies. This technique for reproducing the Classics of Chinese literature was used on an impressive scale in 175CE near the capital Luoyang; 200,000 characters were engraved on fifty huge stones, a process that took eight years to complete.

Printing using movable wooden block Chinese characters / Wikimedia Commons

In Europe it was Gutenberg in 1450 who invented and developed a printing press. As in the case of China it was religious texts that had the popular appeal to make printing worthwhile. It is after him that the Internet book archive the Gutenberg project has been named. European languages with far fewer letters proved much more amenable to printing, it was not until computers became widely available that printed Chinese character books have become easier to produce. However, Europe had a lot of catching up to do. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci (c. 1600) reported ‘the vast number of books in circulation here and the ridiculously low prices at which they are sold‘. One publisher was producing 600 titles with 100,000 wooden printing blocks. Cheap and low quality books were produced at Masha and Shufang, Fujian. Generally books were printed on one side of thin paper and folded to form a book. Readership became very wide and covered all sorts of subjects.

Chinese Gunpowder

Gunpowder is classed as a great Chinese invention. Its use in fireworks and all types of gun has had the utmost effect on world history. Initially usage was as a ‘fire drug’ to act as a disinfectant for skin complaints. Hence its name in China as huǒ yào or fire medicine. It was used as a fumigant as early as 4th century BCE, reflecting the fact that sulfur was the main ingredient. It was contact with Central Asia near Samarkand that brought saltpeter into China which added explosive properties to the powder.

An early Chinese rocket powered by gunpowder. / Wikimedia Commons

Use of gunpowder for fireworks at festivals began early on but it was not until the Song dynasty that it started to be used in weaponry. In the 10th century it was used in ‘flying fires’ as an incendiary arrow with devastating effects on wooden defenses. The earliest written formula for gunpowder is from 1044 with saltpeter; coal and sulfur as ingredients. It was then developed to make smoke bombs; fire lances; mines; cannons; bombs and rockets for warfare, principally against the Jin who had conquered northern China. The first known illustration of a cannon is from 1127. Rocket technology soon produced the multiple stages that are needed for long range propulsion. The conquest of China by Mongols led to the dissemination of many Chinese inventions including gunpowder via the Middle East to Europe with devastating consequences.

Chinese New Year fireworks / Wikimedia Commons

Refinement of gun design by the Europeans gave them superior fire power, and although the Chinese had heavy cannon there was no Chinese equivalent of fast loading rifles or machine guns before the 20th century. This proved crucial at the time of the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion. It was European manufactured guns and rifles that supplied the Chinese protagonists. The Qing Emperor Qianlong was most intrigued by the British model of the 100 gun ship ‘Royal Sovereign‘, perhaps unaware he was witnessing the re-introduction of China’s own gunpowder technology that had been developed to deadly effect.

Firecrackers are set off at many festivals and family celebrations. They are particularly prevalent at the main annual festival Spring Festival / Chinese New Year.

In China firecrackers are known as baozhu ( bàozhú) which means exploding bamboo as they were traditionally made by stuffing the core of bamboo tubes with gunpowder. Nowadays the bamboo is replaced by cardboard or plastic, the loudest noise is produced when the gunpowder is very densely packed. The loud bang was intended to scare off evil spirits – firecrackers create as much noise as possible rather than a pretty visual effect. Sometimes they are packed into many layers of red paper so that they leave fragments of lucky red paper all around. Gunpowder was used for firecrackers long before its use in making weapons. Firecrackers are made up into long strings of ‘bangers’ set off with a single fuse so that a large number of bangs go off in quick succession.

The city of Liuyang in Hunan is a center for making firecrackers and other kinds of fireworks that are exported all over the world.

Chinese Compass

Without the humble compass navigation by land and sea is perilous. With a compass, rocks and islands can be avoided even when visibility is very poor enabling sea trade to flourish. Once again it was the Chinese who first developed the compass that permits safe travel over long distances.

The use of a magnetic compass goes back probably to the Zhou dynasty. It was the need for measuring accurate compass directions for Feng Shui that stimulated the development of a magnetic compass. Early compasses were lodestones – lumps of iron ore that were naturally magnetized to align with the earth’s magnetic field. Early mining for iron had discovered these lodestones which are made of magnetite.

A Han dynasty magnetic compass, the needle is in the form of a carefully balanced ladle that points south. The compass shows divisions for use in Feng Shui and Yi Jing. / Wikimedia Commons

Emphasizing the independence of the discovery, in China the compass is called the point south needle zhǐ nán zhēn. Chinese cartography used ‘south’ rather than ‘north’ as the prime direction. Old Chinese maps had south at the top of the map so to Western eyes appear ‘upside down’ – the convention of which is the prime direction does not matter as long as it is used consistently. Using south rather than north has the advantage that this is always the direction of the sun at midday.

Early compasses were made in the form of spoons and ladles carved out from a lodestone, it was not for a thousand years that technology allowed the lodestone to be fashioned into a small light needle and become the familiar form of the modern magnetic compass. Chinese versions often suspended the needle on water as described in the ‘Dream Pool Essays’ 1088CE by Shen Kuo.

During the Song dynasty compasses became widely used in Chinese ships. Accurate data was collected on tides; distances and water depths. This knowledge enabled Zheng He to make his incredible voyages of world exploration.

Chinese Abacus

The abacus is first known in China from the Northern Song dynasty through the work of Shao Yong (1011-1077). Like many early inventions it is not clear precisely where it originally came from. Some say Central Asia; some Asia Minor and others China. The English name ‘abacus’ comes via Latin and Greek ἄβαξ based on a Middle Eastern form in the 3rd or 4th century. As it is a straightforward development from counting with stones it may easily have developed independently in several places. In China the abacus is called Suanpan suànpán or counting plate.

Needham believes it was first mentioned in the Shu Shu Ji Yi by Xu Yue c. 190CE. The process of counting using balls on rods is early in most civilizations and there is evidence for this in China in the Warring States period. The Chinese abacus is based on counting in fives which is a natural progression from counting on fingers in batches of five. An abacus was in widespread use in the Han dynasty for addition; subtraction; multiplication and division. During the Tang dynasty the principal manual for counting (probably still with counting rods) was the Suàn jīng shí shū (Ten canons of calculation). By the Yuan dynasty (1311) the 村辍耕录 Nán cūn chuò gēng lù mentions moveable beads. The modern abacus may not have evolved until later; with an illustration and detailed instructions for use, it is clear that it was in use in 1593 according to the 统宗 suàn fǎ tǒng zōng by Cheng Dawei.

Chinese abacus / Wikimedia Commons

The traditional Chinese form of the abacus has five flattened balls separated from two others by a bar (the 2:5 arrangement). The balls are all threaded onto a rod. There are between 11 and 17 rods in total. Normally the balls above the bar are counts of fives, so on each rod it is possible to represent 0 to 15 or 1 to 16, the overflow above 10 is useful for temporary results especially in division. Normally the abacus is used for decimal arithmetic – counting in tens with each rod representing one digit. To allow for fractions one rod, sometimes in metal represents the decimal point, to the left are units, to the right are fractions. The ability to count to 16 was useful when old measure units of 16 were used. Another form of the abacus has just one separate ball (1:5) and so does not have a ‘carry’ capability. To see how the abacus can be used to perform calculations please visit these external web sites: addition; subtraction; multiplication; division as well as square and cube roots. The general technique is to combine the two sums starting at the rightmost digit and working left, using carry operations when necessary.

The basic function of the abacus

The “exchange method” on the abacus



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