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Chinese Inventions, Discoveries and Other Contributions   [Copy link] 中文

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China was once the most scientifically advanced nation on Earth, up to around 1400AD when they entered an isolationist era.

Chances are, if it exists in the West, it came from the East. Think anything from noodles, calligraphy and ceramics to golf, ice-cream, opera, fireworks, architecture and philosophy. The Chinese were casting bronze around 5000 years ago, and the earliest chopsticks were not far behind. Chinese culture has made one of the greatest artistic contributions to humankind. Sadly, much of China's ancient art treasures have been destroyed in times of civil war or dispersed by invasion or natural calamity.

A common stereotype is that the Chinese traditionally lack scientific and technological ability, although, somehow, they stumbled upon paper making, printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass.

Modern Chinese, themselves, sometimes are surprised to realize that modern agriculture, shipping, astronomical observatories, decimal mathematics, paper money, umbrellas, wheelbarrows, multi-stage rockets, brandy and whiskey, the game of chess, and much more, all came from China.

The sciences of astronomy, physics, chemistry, meteorology, seismology, technology, engineering, and mathematics can trace their early origins to China.

From 600 AD until 1500 AD, China was the world's most technologically advanced society.

The Chinese were developed more than any other ancient civilazation. Scholars routinely discovered scientific principles, invented new technologies, and influenced the development of human civilizations around the world.

The Europeans sailed to China to bring back many of these treasured inventions. A few of these inventions are below.

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Cast Iron

Blast furnaces existed in Scandinavia in the eighth century AD, but cast iron was not widely available in Europe until the 14th century.

The Chinese practiced the technique already in the fourth century BC. Two factors helped greatly. First, good clay allowed the Chinese to build walls for blast furnaces. Second, the Chinese used 'black earth', which contained iron phosphate, to reduce the melting temperature of iron from 1130 C to 950 C.

Another major invention of the Chinese, that led to other achievements, is steel. The common belief today is that Henry Bessemer discovered the process of refining iron into steel. The fact is Chinese had developed the process to refine iron into steel in the second century BC The Chinese learned that by injecting oxygen into the blast furnace, they could remove the carbon from the iron. The Chinese called this process the “hundred refinings method” since they repeated the process that many times. The finished product was highly prized in China for its strength and ability to hold an edge on a sword. The Chinese would weld the steel onto weaker iron thus creating a strong edge and a superior weapon. The Chinese iron and steel workers were the best at making different types of metals into modern times. But then, no one else could have done so at the time, since iron existed nowhere else but in China.

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In the third century BC the Chinese were able to hold iron at a high temperature for a week, which made it almost as good as steel, good enough to produce iron plowshares and in the year 1105 to build an iron pagoda 78 feet high.

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Horse collar

Third Century BC.

About the fourth century BC the Chinese devised a harness with a breast strap known as the trace harness, modified approximately one hundred later into the collar harness. Unlike the throat-and-girth harness used in the West, which choked a horse and reduced its efficiency (it took two horses to haul a half a ton), the collar harness allowed a single horse to haul a ton and a half. The trace harness arrived in Europe in the sixth century and made its way across Europe by the eighth century.

The horse collar made it possible for peasants to use horses as work animals; whereas in earlier times the horse had been used strictly for military purposes. Since horses move nearly twice as fast as oxens - the main alternative draught animal - use of horses for plowing allowed a single peasant to accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time.

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China was the first nation to fully exploit "horse power." A rigid padded collar that allowed horses to pull carriages and other heavy loads without being choked by the harness or yoke appeared in China around the middle of 1st millennium. Earlier harnesses pressed on an animal's windpipe, preventing it from pulling a heavy load comfortably.

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Stirrup for horses

Stirrups were unknown in ancient times and horsemen had to hold the horse's mane to avoid falling off. Cavalrymen of antiquity used their spears to mount a horse hoisting themselves aloft as in pole-vaulting.

Although no inventor of the stirrup is recorded, and some primitive form of a rope stirrup originated probably from the horsemen of the steppes, by the third century AD metallurgical advances allowed the Chinese to cast perfect metal stirrups.

Mongol tribesmen brought the stirrup to Europe and in the year 580 a military manual of the Byzantine emperor for the first time mentions the need for stirrups.

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Paper is one of the most famous Chinese inventions.

Tsai-lung (c.48-118 AD) was an official attached to the Imperial court during the eastern Han dynasty. Tsai-lung, who recognized the inadequacy of the existing writing material (silk, bamboo), created the first paper in the world by drying pulp from old rags, bark, mulberry fibers, and hemp.

Archeological evidence, however, shows that paper was in use two hundred years before then. Either way, the Chinese were significantly ahead of the rest of the world. The craft of papermaking relied upon an abundance of bamboo fiber to produce a fine quality paper.

Archaeologists have discovered paper of Western Han such as "Fang-ma-tan" paper, "Ba-quao" paper, "Xuan-quan" paper, "Ma-quan-wan" paper, "Ju-yan" paper and "Han-tan-po" paper.

After the Eastern Jin Dynasty, paper was extensively used instead of traditional writing materials such as bamboo slips and silks. Various methods of producing paper emerged one after another.

In the Tang and Song Dynasties, the paper producing industry was very thriving. Celebrated products in best quality appeared one after another. In the Qing "Xuan-zhi" produced in Jing Prefecture of Anhui (Xuanzhou), became the special paper for painting and calligraphy, and was regarded as "the king of the paper"

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In 751, some Chinese paper makers were captured by Arabs after Tang troops were annihilated in the Battle of Talas River. The techniques of paper making then spread to the West.

The art of papermaking traveled slowly; it reached Samarkand in Central Asia around 750, and fifty years later the first paper was made in Baghdad during the time of Harun al-Rashid. It reached Europe in the 14th century, more than thousand years after its invention in China.

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Contrary to what most Westerners think, Gutenburg did not invent the printing press.

Woodblock printing on paper and silk was invented in China around the seventh century. Buddhist monks were instrumental in advancing the new technique; they simply had to have many more copies of their sacred texts than hand-copiers and stone tablets could produce. The earliest printed text in the world was a Buddhist scroll, discovered in Korea, and printed in China between the years 704 and 751.

The technique of printing with carved wood blocks appeared about the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Block printing reached it's golden age during the Song dynasty which was in the years 960-1279 as the imperial patronage encouraged the publication of large numbers of books by the central and local governments.

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The process of printing has had far reaching implications of the world. The Europeans saw printing as an important way of archiving religious manuscripts. Printing also allowed the western world to share information with the masses.

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Moveable type printing

Effective moveable type for printing was invented around 1045 AD by an obscure commoner by the name of Pi-Cheng. He cut characters into cubes of clay and put them into an iron frame. When the frame was full the whole made one solid block of type ready to print.

But because the Chinese language required thousands of different characters moveable type printing remained rare in China despite the fact that it was invented there four centuries before its 'invention' by Gutenberg in Europe.

Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng of the Song dynasty between the years 1041 and 1048. This invention was recorded by his contemporary Shen Kuo which recorded it in his Dreampool Essays. During the 13-14th centuries, the agriculturist Wang Zhen made an important contribution to the development of movable type printing.

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The picture at the bottom shows a movable type press.


The First Book.

Due to the early advent of the printing press, China also claims the first book. In 868, almost six hundred years before the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest known book was printed. By the end of the Tang dynasty, China had bookstores in almost every city.

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