The Chinese have created some of the world’s greatest inventions.

Chinese civilization goes back thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that some of the most amazing inventions originated in China.

And, with technology in China advancing so quickly nowadays, the country claims some modern-day discoveries too.

Let’s start with China’s most famous inventions of all called the Four Great Inventions – paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass.

1. Paper

Ancient Chinese paper book

A paper book from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Image by Shan_shan on Shutterstock.

While most people nowadays use phones and computers to communicate in writing, we wouldn’t be where we are today without paper being invented.

The Chinese invented paper around the start of the second century. It’s said that court eunuch Cai Lun was behind the invention, which involved a mixture of things like tree bark, hemp, fishing nets and old linens.

These materials were mixed with water to make a paste, which could then be dried in the sun to form paper.

By the third century, paper was in widespread use across China.

And before paper came along, the Chinese used other items to write on, such as bamboo, silk and clay.

2. Printing

Wooden typescript Chinese characters for printing

Wooden typescript Chinese characters. Image by Franck Boston on Shutterstock.

The first ancient forms of printing started in China.

Woodblock printing is a technique first used in China as early as 220 AD to print on cloth, and then paper.

Buddhist texts were printed as important ritual items for burial. The earliest known specimen of woodblock printing was unearthed from a tomb in Xi’an in 1974.

Movable type printing was invented around 1040 AD. The technology uses movable components to reproduce elements of a document.

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Created by a man named Bi Sheng, the world’s first movable type printing technology for paper books was made of porcelain.

Movable type printing made its way to Europe where the printing press was later invented. This made it easier to print in high volumes.

Printing technology was therefore a game-changer for not only China but the world.

3. Gunpowder

Chinese chemists accidentally invented gunpowder when they tried to come up with a potion for immortality. Instead, what they created was a flammable powder.

The earliest known recorded recipes for gunpowder were found in a military manuscript compiled in 1044 during the Song Dynasty.

A couple of hundred years later, gunpowder spread to Europe and was used in cannons and weaponry.

4. Compass

Old Chinese compass

An old Chinese compass. Image by Satrio Wito on Shutterstock.

Although a kind of ancient compass may have been in existence in Mexico around 1000 BC, the Chinese invented the magnetic compass that we know today.

It was first invented as a device for divination as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC) and later used for navigation in the Song Dynasty during the 11th century.

Even before this, however, a Chinese military manuscript compiled in 1044 described a type of compass of heated metal shaped as a fish and placed in a bowl of water.

This produced a weak magnetic force that the military used as a pathfinder.

5. Paper money

Tied ancient Chinese coins

The introduction of paper notes meant people didn’t have to rely on coins. Image by TonyV3112 on Shutterstock.

While metal coins had already been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty in the 11th century that paper money was invented in China.

Carrying a lot of coins was never very practical (people used to carry their holed coins on a string), which is why paper money really took off.

Originally, notes were printed with woodblocks, had an expiry date, and could only be used in certain regions.

However, by 1265 the Song government introduced a national currency, which was printed to a single standard and could be used across the country.

See also: Counting money in Chinese

6. Alcohol

Chinese alcohol

Alcohol was first discovered in China. Image by Parinya Art on Shutterstock.

Every time you time you take a sip of an alcoholic drink, you can thank the Chinese!

The earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world was discovered in a town called Jiahu in Henan province, east China.

Henan is widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. (You can get a summary of all the Chinese provinces here.)

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The liquid was a fermented beverage made of grapes, hawthorn (a fruit), rice and honey. It was primarily used in burial and religious ceremonies.

The pottery found in Jiahu had high necks, flaring rims and handles, which were ideally shaped to hold and serve liquids like alcohol.

You can dig a bit deeper about the discovery of alcohol on this website.

7. Tea

This is undisputedly the national drink of China.

Legend has it that a tea leaf fell into the mouth of a farmer named Shennong, who happened to be poisoned. He chewed on the leaf and it revived him!

Tea was cultivated in China as early as 6,000 years ago. But it was originally eaten and not drank.

Tea only shifted from food to drink 1,500 years ago. It became very popular across China and was a major export good, along with porcelain and silk.

In the early 1600s, Dutch traders brought tea back to Europe, and tea drinking subsequently spread around the world.

This gave China economic influence and power, particularly as tea trees were only grown in China at that point.

Tea drinking is still a very important part of Chinese culture to this day.

See also: Chinese culture guide

8. Silk

Silk factory China

Chinese silk production. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

The oldest silk found in China has been dated to about 3630 BC, which means that it is from the Chinese Neolithic period.

For a long time, silk was a special material reserved for the Emperor of China, important family members and high-ranking dignitaries.

These restrictions gradually disappeared, and silk became a large industry in China. Silk was used in things like musical instruments and even a form of currency at one time.

By 200 BC, silkworm cultivation for silk production, also known as sericulture, reached Korea.

The famous Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its length.

9. Porcelain

Ancient Chinese porcelain

Celadon chamber pot from the Chiwu Era (251 AD). Image by Shan_shan on Shutterstock.

Porcelain is one of the most famous Chinese inventions, and is a tourist favorite when shopping in China.

It was invented about the time of the Eastern Han Empire (25–220 AD) by firing the ceramic to a particular temperature.

This made the ceramic strong and light, and ideal for artistic and decorative purposes. It also meant the product could be easily transported to the West via the Silk Road.

The Shangyu district, near Hangzhou in eastern China, was a major production area for celadon porcelain.

This kind of porcelain has a translucent, pale green glaze, and is still popular today.

10. Umbrella

Chinese umbrella

Umbrellas are one of the most practical Chinese inventions. Image by Sasin Tipchai on Pixabay.

The good old trusty umbrella – that’s a Chinese invention too!

While the Egyptians first used feathers or leaves to create shade for nobility, waterproof umbrellas started being used by Chinese royalty around the 11th century BC.

The Chinese would use wax and lacquer on their paper parasols to repel water. They made the frame out of bamboo, and often decorated the top with flowers and birds.

Umbrella use only became mainstream in Europe in the 1700s once it was socially acceptable for men to carry them.

11. Acupuncture

Chinese acupuncture

Acupuncture is now popular around the world. Image by Jorge Paredes on Pixabay.

Earliest documentation that refers to acupuncture procedures is The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, dating from about 100 BC.

In the Ming Dynasty (between the 14th and 16th centuries), a book called The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion was published with principles of acupuncture which are still used today.

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Acupuncture eventually became one of the standard therapies used in China.

With the rise of Western medicine in the 20th century, acupuncture fell out of favor in China. But it was revived by Mao Zedong’s communist government in 1949.

See also: Famous Chinese people

12. Tofu

The Chinese invented tofu

Tofu dishes are common across China. Image by momo2050 on Shutterstock.

For most Chinese people, eating curdled soy milk (i.e. tofu) is a necessary part of a balanced diet.

This protein-rich food has been around for thousands of years, though there are different explanations as to who invented it and how it was first produced.

Tofu was introduced to Japan by Chinese Buddhist monks in the 8th century.

While tofu is a great substitute for meat in the West, some foreigners might wish that stinky tofu was never invented!

13. E-cigarette

E-cigarette factory China

Most e-cigarettes are made in China. Image by Manfred Schindler on Pixabay.

We don’t know the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. After all, when you inhale one you suck in all sorts of toxins.

But smoking e-cigarettes could wean you off smoking harmful tobacco, and we can thank the Chinese for this invention.

Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist and inventor, is credited with the invention of the modern e-cigarette. Hon’s invention was intended to be an alternative to smoking.

He registered a patent for the product in 2003, and by the mid-2000s e-cigarettes were available around the world.

Many US and Chinese e-cigarette makers copied his designs illegally, so Hon has not received much financial reward for his invention.

14. Passenger drone

Drones are really taking off (pardon the pun)!

The first passenger drone was invented in China by a company called EHang. It was unveiled to the public in 2016.

The first model, the EHang 184, had a top speed of 63 mph (100 km/h).

Other drone companies have since joined the innovation race, building passenger drones that are even more advanced and can carry more people.

However, none have been used by the public due to passenger and air traffic safety concerns. Regulations for drones are being drawn up around the world.

See also: Chinese drones

Great Chinese inventions have changed the world

So many amazing inventions started in China and influenced the world.

While some may not be as important as they once were, others are more important than ever before.

Regardless, Chinese inventions have led the way for other discoveries to further shape and improve the society we live in.

It’s exciting to think what future inventions China has in store!

If you feel that I’ve missed a great invention, just let me know in the comments.

I hope you liked my article about the greatest Chinese inventions. If you want to learn more about China’s past, check out the article on the best Chinese history books.

Main image credit: Image by Sofiaworld on Shutterstock.

FAQ about Chinese inventions

What are the 4 Chinese inventions?

This typically refers to paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. However, the Chinese have invented many more marvellous things, such as silk, porcelain and paper money.

What Chinese inventions are still used today?

Virtually all of them, in one form or another. However, some Chinese inventions (like paper money) may one day become redundant.

Why were Chinese inventions important?

They set the scene for the advancement of civilization. Most inventions made their way to Europe and influenced life thousands of miles away, and many still do to this day.

Why did the Chinese invent so much?

As society, science and technology gradually advanced in China over thousands of years, people naturally started discovering and inventing things. This essentially solved problems, e.g. the invention of paper money made it easier to transact in China.