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Article by 龙信明
A Brief Catalog of Chinese Invention

60% of Our Basic Knowledge Originated in China

  • Mathematics

  • The Chinese invented the decimal number system so far in the past that the origin is lost in the mists of time. They invented and used decimal fractions, they invented the zero and its use, all of these at least 2,500 years before the West.

    They invented and used negative numbers, developed the extraction of higher roots and the use of algebra in geometry.

    They refined the value of pi, they discovered and documented "Pascal's Triangle" 600 years before Pascal found it. There are dated ancient texts and drawings to illustrate and prove all of this.

  • Astronomy

  • The Chinese tracked sunspots and comets with such detail and accuracy that these ancient records are still used as the basis for their prediction and observation today. The Chinese discovered the 'solar wind' as the cause of comet tails always pointing away from the sun.

    The Chinese armillary spheres in Nanjing and Beijing today are more than 3,500 years old, yet Westerners visiting China in the late 1800s and early 1900s had no such knowledge and were so overwhelmed by these instruments they dismantled and took them all back to Europe - fortunately to be returned after WWII.

  • Metallurgy

  • China was 1,000 years ahead of the West in anything to do with metals - cast iron, wrought iron, steel, carbon steel, tempered steel, welded steel.

    Long before 1,000 A.D., China was the world's major producer of steel. For example, in about 1,000 A.D. China was producing about 125,000 tons of steel per year, while almost 800 years later Britain produced about 75,000 tons.

    The Chinese invented the blast furnace, the double-action bellows necessary to achieve the necessary high temperatures for smelting and annealing metals. They invented the manufacture of steel from cast iron.

    The Chinese excelled in creating metallic alloys, and very early were casting and forging coins made from copper, nickel and zinc. The entire process of mining, smelting and purifying zinc, originated in China.

    The Chinese were so skilled at metallurgy they invented and could cast tuned bells that could produce any tone.

  • Textiles

  • China not only invented spinning wheels, carding machines and looms, but was the world's leader in technical innovations in textile manufacturing, more than 700 years before Britain's 18th century "textile revolution".

  • Medicine

  • The Chinese discovered the circadian rhythm in the human body, blood circulation and the science of endocrinology. They were using urine from pregnant women to make sex hormones 2,000 years ago. They knew how to make them, how they acted on the body, and how to use them.

    They discovered and diagnosed diabetes, and cures for the simpler cases. They knew of thyroid deficiency and how to treat it.

    A millennium ago, the Chinese conceived and developed the science of immunology - vaccinating people for diseases like smallpox, knowing how to extract and prepare the vaccine so as to immunise and not infect.

    Many Chinese medical books exist, some many centuries old. Around 1550, China compiled a huge 52-volume Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine encyclopedia that described almost 2,000 herbal sources and 10,000 medical prescriptions.

    Among them are chaulmoogra oil, which is still the only known means for treating leprosy, and ephedrine, a plant drug introduced to the West only rather recently, and now widely used for treating colds.

  • Petroleum and Natural Gas

  • The Chinese were drilling for natural gas for fuel, millennia before the West ever thought of such a thing. China was drilling gas wells 4,800 feet deep, about 2,500 years ago.

    They constructed bamboo pipelines to deliver the natural gas to nearby cities for use as light, heat and fuel, and brick pipelines for transporting both water and fuel for longer distances.

  • Mining

  • The Chinese not only developed the processes of mining, concentration and extraction of metals, but the mining and use of coal began in China, long before it was known in the West. Marco Polo and Arab traders marvelled at the "black stone" that the Chinese mined from the ground, and that would burn slowly during an entire night.

  • Paper and Printing

  • The influence of paper upon the whole course of later Western civilization can hardly be overestimated.

    China not only invented paper and printing, but also the printing press with movable set type, all in common use in China 1,000 years before Europe copied it. This puts paid to the Western claim that the printing press and movable type were invented by Johann Gutenberg in about 1,500 AD.

    Not only that, the Chinese had frames with movable type on both top and bottom, so they could print two pages at the same time from the same block of type; the West never got that far.

    China had been making paper from raw silk for a very long time, then learned to substitute cheaper materials that would put paper within the reach of everyone. The Chinese produced rag paper and hemp paper, paper from cellulose and various plant fibers..

    The Chinese invented 'sizing', to improve the quality of paper for writing. China had printed paper money almost 1,500 years ago, and done in ways to prevent counterfeiting. Wrapping paper, paper napkins and toilet paper, were all in general use in China 2,000 years ago.

    The Chinese inventions of seals and block printing preceded, and likely led to, the development of China's first printing presses.

  • Science and Engineering

  • The Chinese discovered and enunciated Newton's First Law of Motion 2,000 years before Newton did. They invented and made constant use of the seismograph, an ingenious device that could tell them not only the severity but the direction and distance of earthquakes.

    The Chinese invented hot-air balloons, the parachute, manned flight with kites, the wheelbarrow and matches. They invented and used hermetically-sealed laboratories for their scientific experiments.

    The Chinese invented belt and chain drives, and used these in machines and vehicles like bicycles 2,000 years before the West. China invented the paddlewheel steamer, the helicopter rotor and the propeller, the segmental-arch bridge and the use of arches of different radii.

    They invented the use of water power and chain pumps, they invented all the construction methods for suspension bridges. The Chinese invented the umbrella, matches, brandy and whiskey. They were the first to invent and develop a full mechanical clock, one with a true escapement, many centuries before the Swiss or other Europeans had done so.

    The Chinese invented the steam engine, many hundreds of years before James Watt in England ever conceived of it, and it is likely the concept was brought to Europe from China. Interestingly, because of the uses to which the Chinese put the steam engine, they produced an 'inverted' version where the wheel drove the pistons instead of the reverse.

    The Chinese invented things as varied as sliding calipers, the fishing reel, the wheelbarrow, image projection, magic lanterns, the gimbal system of suspension, the crank handle, the spinning wheel.

    China had irrigation canals that were also used to transport grain and food, often for 1,500 kms or more, and 1,500 years ago the Chinese invented the canal locks that could raise and lower boats to different levels.

  • Agriculture

  • China's revolutionary agricultural methods and high productivity surpassed the West until almost the 19th century. By the time of their first meetings, China was already highly advanced, having invented the seed drill that could dig furrows and drop seeds deep into them, one by one, with no wastage and no crowding of plants.

    Coupled with their discovery of the advantages of planting seed in straight rows, this made it easy to till the soil during the growing season and keep down all the weeds. It also made harvesting much easier.

    The Europeans, and others, including Americans, were seeding crops by carrying grain in a bag and scattering it by hand, which was greatly wasteful, bunching seeds together and leaving many bare patches, making weeding impossible.

    This was not only time-consuming but greatly limited the area an individual could sow. Moreover, it was so inefficient and wasteful that about half of each crop had to be saved for the following year to be used as seed. So 50% of each crop could not be used for food.

    Europe and other nations had difficulty just feeding themselves, while China could produce surplus food in abundance, in spite of having a much greater population.

    China had also developed very efficient scientific plows that have never been equalled and are still used all over the world today.

    The Chinese also invented and developed animal harnesses and collars that first permitted horses to actually be used to pull loads instead of just choking themselves. This permitted oxen and horses to be used for plowing and harvesting, greatly reducing human effort and increasing speed, efficiency and the amount of land that could be tilled.

    Europe had no efficient plow, and their only way of harnessing animals was to put a rope around their necks, which succeeded only in the animals strangling themselves, making their efforts almost useless.

    China invented saddles and the riding stirrup, and agricultural implements like the winnowing fan and the seed drill.

    China's comparative food production was orders of magnitude ahead of the West, and of other countries as well, for more than 1,000 years. Compared to China, the rest of the world must have seemed truly "third world" at the time.

    China's advances in agriculture were eagerly copied by the Europeans and were the enabling cause of Europe's agricultural revolution that first permitted it to begin feeding itself adequately.

  • Sailing and Navigation

  • China designed and built the world's largest commercial ships, which were many times longer and ten times larger in volume than anything the West could build at the time. In 1588 the largest English ships displaced 400 tons, while China's displaced more than 3,000 tons.

    Moreover, Chinese ships not only had multiple masts, but China invented the luff sails which permit us to sail almost into the wind, just as sailboats do today, and were therefore not dependent on wind direction for their travel.

    Their luff sails contained sewn-in bamboo battens that keep the sails full and aerodynamically efficient - something that racing sailboats use today, having "reinvented" this during only the past recent decades.

    The Chinese invented the ship's rudder - something the Europeans never managed to do. Thousands of years ago, Chinese ships had watertight compartments that permitted them to continue journeys even when damaged.

    China had compasses and such extensive astronomical knowledge by that time that they always knew where they were, and could plot courses and follow them, by both compass and star charts.

    With all of this, Chinese ships could sail wherever they wanted, regardless of the direction of the wind.

    By comparison, European ships had no rudder and couldn't steer themselves except with oars. Their sail system permitted them to travel only in the direction of the wind, which meant a ship would have to remain in place, sometimes for months, awaiting a favorable wind.

    Western ships were small, uncontrollable and fragile, and were useless for travelling any distance. As Needham so strongly pointed out, China was so far ahead of the Western world in sailing and navigation that comparisons are just embarrassing.

    It was only when the West managed to copy all of China's sailing and navigation technology that it was able to begin travelling the world - and colonising it.

  • Magnetism

  • The Chinese discovered not only magetism but magnetic remanence and induction, as well as the compass.

  • Porcelain

  • Earthenware bowls, plates, and vases have been baked from clay by almost all people since time immemorial, but porcelain is justly acclaimed as a product of Chinese genius alone.

    Chinese expertise with fine porcelain was so advanced millennia ago, that even today it is admitted that their ability has never even been equalled in the West, much less surpassed.

  • Cartography

  • Chinese maps were the best in the world, by orders of magnitude, for more than a millennium, and the precision of their maps became legendary, being far in advance of the West. The Chinese invented mercator projections, relief maps, quantitative cartography and grid layouts.

  • Warfare

  • The Chinese invented not only gunpowder, but chemical warfare, smoke bombs, tear gas, the cannon, the crossbow, plated body armor, fireworks, flamethrowers, grenades, land and sea mines, multi-stage rockets, mortars and repeating guns.

  • And More

  • In addition to the few goods we all know originated in China like silk and tea, there are a great many more that have escaped attention. Many plants originated, and were developed and cultivated, in China as well, including peaches, apricots and citrus fruits.

    The Chrysanthemum and tea roses, camellia, azalea, asters, and the peony, all came from China. The soy bean had been cultivated in China for millennia, as had goldfish.

    Decks of game cards, chess, and dominoes are Chinese inventions, as are lacquer, the folding umbrella and kites. The Tang Dynasty invented pre-industrial age Capitalism and letters of credit.

  • Two Great Historical Tragedies

  • The above summary doesn't even begin to provide an adequate catalog of the extent of Chinese invention, of the sum of China's discoveries and contributions to the modern world. But unfotunately, much of China's total sum of knowledge and history of invention is lost to the world forever.

    A large part of the recorded knowledge of China's history of inventions, processes and machines was destroyed in one of the greatest acts of cultural genocide in the history of the world.

    This was the looting and burning of the Yuanmingyuan by the British, the French, and the Jewish families like the Sassoons who were responsible for the opium atrocities in China. This wanton destruction was retaliation for the Chinese resistance to the Sassoon's opium distribution.

    But in terms of the destruction of a literary recording of culture there was an even greater crime against the history of Chinese knowledge - the destruction by the British of the library at Hanlin Academy.

    There is no dispute that the British carried out and destroyed the most valuable artifact there - the 22,000-volume encylopedia, the Yung Lo Ta Tien. That encyclopedia, with its 22,000 volumes, written by more than 2,000 scholars over many years, contained much of the total of 5,000 years of Chinese knowledge, invention and thought.

    The British carried all those books outdoors, poured fuel on them, and burnt the entire collection to ashes. God only knows what was lost.

    At first, the British tried to blame the Chinese, but then admitted they themselves burned it "for safety's sake and not for spite". So, in true neocon fashion, the British claimed they 'destroyed it in order to preserve it'.

    Only about 40 volumes survived the incineration, and those reside today in the British Library - who have no intention of returning them to China.

    Return to Index

  • In This Series:

  • The Remarkable History of Chinese Invention: Why was China Erased From Western Memory?.

  • A Brief Catalog of Chinese Invention: 60% of Basic Knowledge Originated in China.

  • China's Armillary Spheres: 3,500-year-old Wonders of the World.

  • 中国的经纬仪领域: 3,500 岁的世界奇迹.

  • Ancient Irrigation System From 256 B.C.: Stands the Test of Time - and Earthquakes.

  • China’s Accomplishments: A Short List of Recent Developments.

  • 中国的成就: 最近的事态发展的简短列表 一个简短列表最近的事态发展.

  • Chinese Innovation - Business Models You've Never Even Heard Of.

  • Chinese Scientific Research Center Has Built the Fastest Computer Ever Made.

  • Volkswagen Aqua: A Beautiful Chinese-designed Hovercraft.

  • 大众汽车 Aqua 气垫船: 一位美丽的中国设计的气垫船.

  • China's High-Speed Trains: Romantic, Comfortable, and Superior to Flying.

  • China's New Submersible: Diving into an Ocean of Elite Nations.

  • Unwired: China's Mobile Phone System is the World's Best.

  • China: Rise, Fall and Re-Emergence as a Global Power: Some Lessons from the Past - By James Petras.

  • China’s Rise, America’s Fall: Why Nations Fail - by Ron Unz.