Made In China: Chinese Inventions That Changed the World

These 11 Chinese inventions are some of the most important in history.
Christopher McFadden

China has a long and illustrious history. Whilst they are famed for the earliest development of technologies like paper and gunpowder, there are other Chinese inventions that have changed the world. 


Many of their inventions would catapult, sometimes literally, human civilization forward. The following are but a sample of this ancient culture's impact on the world as we know it today.

1. Paper would change the world forever

Chinese inventions Paper
Source: Jonathan Joseph Bondhus/Wikimedia Commons

Paper is possibly one of the most important inventions of all time. Records show that paper existed in China as early as 105 AD.

However, it wasn't widely adopted until one eunuch, Cai Lun, made significant improvements to the papermaking process. He also drove its widespread adoption throughout China.

The technology would later spread to Europe via the famous Silk Road. Its development would have enormous ramifications for the recording and spread of information.

This, in no small part, would have a consequential effect on later technological innovations.

2. Gunpowder had an explosive effect on humanity

Chinese inventions Gunpowder
Source: Mondebleu /Wikimedia Commons

Another incredibly crucial Chinese invention was the development of gunpowder. Interestingly, it was discovered completely by mistake in, or around, 1000 AD.

Chinese inventors were attempting to develop an elixir for eternal life. The result, as it turned out, would be a substance that would prematurely end countless lives throughout history.

Like other Chinese inventions, it was eventually introduced to Europe sometime later. It is widely believed this occurred with the Mongol invasion of 1200-1300 AD.

Whatever the case, it was first described in Europe in the works of Friar Roger Bacon in the 13th Century.

Whilst the Chinese tended to use it for more benign applications like fireworks; the Europeans soon realized its deadly battlefield potential. But that's not to say they didn't also recognize its potential for war.

3. The crossbow was another revolutionary Chinese invention

Chinese inventions crossbow
Source: Thomas Quine/Flickr

The crossbow is symbolic of battlefields of the middle ages. But they were actually a Chinese invention from almost 2.5 millennia ago.

According to historical records, the crossbow was in widespread use in China by 500 BC. Other records seem to indicate the technology could actually date to around 700 BC.

Some other archaeological finds could push the crossbow's invention to as early as 2000 BC. Whatever the case, its invention would have an enormous impact on warfare forever.

Most early evidence for them consists of the metal triggers and bolts - usually made of bronze. Repeating crossbows also became common in China are the 4th Century BC.

4. Sericulture was closely guarded secret for millennia

Chinese inventions silk
Source: Kerstin Wölling/Wikimedia Commons

The production of silk, called sericulture, was a very early Chinese invention. Evidence points to the fact that the Chinese were harvesting silk as early as 6,000 years ago.

Silk cocoons have been found cut in half that date to between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. Yet other finds from ancient tombs show silk production may even stretch back as far as 8,500 BC.

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Whenever it was first developed, the Chinese would master the technique very early on and kept the secrets of weaving silk a closely guarded secret for many centuries.

It became something of a hotly desired commodity, and European merchants would often pay its weight in gold to get their hands on this material.

It would become one of China's most important exports that would lead to the formation of the now famous Silk Road.

5. The Abacus was groundbreaking

Chinese inventions
Source: Pixabay

The Abacus is thought to have been developed by the Chinese in around 500 BC. It should also be noted that other historical records seem to show that another form of Abacus might have been developed by the Sumerians a lot earlier in 2,700 BC.

Abaci are also mentioned in later Roman texts, Egyptian hieroglyphics and as Greek artifacts from around 300 BC. Whatever the case, the technology would become perfected by around the 1300s and is largely unchanged today.

The device's simplicity and utility would allow it to stand the test of time. They are still commonly used today in many cultures around the world.

In fact, many attest to their superiority over modern digital calculators - at least for simple calculations.

6. You might have to thank the Chinese for booze too

Chinese inventions alcohol
Source: Cristiano Betta/Flickr

Fairly recent uncovered archaeological evidence seems to indicate we have the Chinese to thank for alcohol too. 9000-year-old pottery shards were found in the Henan province of China, that show evidence of alcoholic contents.

If true, this would push its development almost 1,000 years before the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula who were thought to be the first brewers for many years.

Outside of China, alcoholic beverages and fermentation, have been discovered in Georgia (dating to around 6,000 BC), ancient Egypt (3150 BC) and Babylon (3000 BC). Whether these were independent discoveries is unknown, but it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that the secret was passed from East to West.

Another discovery, in 1970, in the Pingshan County of Hebei Province, unearthed large amounts of wine-storing and drinking vessels. Two of these appeared to have also contained a drink made from wheat dating to around 2,280 BC.

This might well be the oldest liquor yet discovered in history.

7. China and tea are intimately entwined

Chinese inventions tea
Source: Josh Graciano/Flickr

Tea is practically synonymous with China. According to ancient Chinese legend, tea was first discovered by Shennong in 2,737 BC.

Tea would become incredibly popular during the Tang Dynasty between 618 and 907 AD. It was enjoyed by all members of society.

The tea plant is actually indigenous to the Chinese region of Yunnan. The world's oldest living tea plant can be found in the Lin Cang in China. This plant is truly ancient and has been dated to be around 3,200 years old.

Tea would be a closely guarded commodity for the Chinese for many centuries. It would later become popular around the world and would even inspire the British Empire to go to war over tea-trade deficits.

8. You can thank the Chinese for the compass

Chinese inventions compass
Source: Siberex/Wikimedia Commons

The very first compasses ever discovered date to the Han dynasty of China, around 206 BC–220 AD. These early compasses were made from lodestone which is a naturally magnetized iron ore.

These devices were later used for navigation during the 11th Century Song Dynasty. Lodestone was replaced with iron needles that were magnetized by striking with some lodestone.

As with other Chinese inventions, the compass would later be adopted by other cultures as they made contact via trade. Compasses began to appear in Europe and the Middle East around 1300 AD.

The compass would drastically improve sea trade and was a prerequisite to the later Age of Discovery.

9. Moveable type and printing was a Chinese thing

Chinese inventions
Source: Daniel Chodowiecki/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important inventions of all time was the development of print. The earliest example comes from a Tang tomb near Xi'an in China.

This delicate manuscript consisted of a woodblock printing on a piece of hemp paper that dates to around 650 to 670 AD.

The movable type would also appear in China sometime around 1088 AD. Shen Kuo, a Chinese polymath, would describe the process in his Dream Pool Essays in which he attributed the technique to little-known artisan called Bi Sheng.

It would be another four centuries before the technology would be introduced to Europe thanks to one Johannes Gutenberg. It would literally transform the balance of power and control of information forever.

10. Porcelain was mastered by the Chinese

Chinese inventions porcelain
Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Porcelain, or vitrified, translucent ceramics, first appeared in China during the Tang Dynasty. Early examples date to around the start of this period of Chinese history in the 7th Century.

Whilst glazed ceramics had existed before this time; the technique reached maturity during this period. During the later Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD) the technique of creating porcelain reached its peak.

Pieces from this time are exquisite in their fine detail and delicate shapes. Chinese porcelain was highly prized in the world and many artworks had been introduced to the West through the Silk Road.

11. China might have been using umbrellas for almost two millennia

Chinese inventions umbrella
Source: GeorgeLouis/Wikimedia Commons

According to existing historical records, the first reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to around 21 AD. This particular umbrella was apparently developed for a ceremonial four-wheeled carriage of the period.

An actual example of one has also been uncovered from the 1st Century in the tomb of Wang Guang.


There might even be earlier evidence of them from 2,400-years-ago. Legend has it one Lu Ban, a Chinese carpenter, and inventor developed the umbrella after watching children using lotus leaves as a rain shelter.

More reliable evidence does seem to indicate that umbrellas could have been developed during the 6th Century Zhou Dynasty. Bronze castings have complex bronze socketing hinges with locking sides and bolts.

It is believed that these mechanisms were used to hold parasols and umbrellas.

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