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5-08-2015, 22:40

Technological Advances

By the 1000s CE, ancient China was the most technically advanced civilization in the world.

In fact, many of history’s most important inventions have roots in China. The ancient Chinese were at the forefront of many advances in science, medicine, and technology. They developed the concept of mass production to manufacture more goods more quickly.

Qin Shihuangdi used mass production techniques to create the thousands of terra-cotta warriors found in his tomb.


The ancient Chinese had a rich medical tradition. Traditional Chinese medicine relied on a combination of acupuncture, massage, herbs, diet, and heat therapy. Practitioners believed the body was made of the five elements: fire, water, metal, wood, and earth.


Acupuncture is one of the key practices of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves putting thin needles into the skin at various points on the body. The ancient Chinese believed, as do traditional Chinese medicine practitioners today, there are 365 points that are openings to the channels of the body where the qi flows. Acupuncturists insert needles into the openings to bring about healing. Acupuncture is most often used to treat pain and nausea.

Historians can trace the practice of acupuncture back to 1600 BCE. During the Song dynasty, bronze

models of the human body were created with holes. The holes were filled with wax, and the model was filled with water. When in training, acupuncturists inserted the needles into the holes and water flowed out, indicating the proper placement of the needles.

The Chinese were not the only ones thought to have practiced acupuncture. Evidence of similar techniques has also been found in ancient Egypt, South Africa, and Yupik and Inuit cultures.

Patients were treated holistically and individually, based on their condition.

Mythical emperor Shen Nong Shi was credited with creating traditional Chinese medicine. According to Chinese legend, approximately 5,000 years ago Shen Nong Shi sampled hundreds of herbs in an attempt to figure out how they could be used as medicine. This information was passed down for many years and eventually written down after the Han dynasty. By 100 CE, doctors were using general anesthetic, made from plants and wine, to put patients to sleep during surgery. General anesthetic would not become widely used in the Western world for another 1,700 years.


Ancient China is known for many important inventions. Some of these, including the umbrella and the wheelbarrow, are still used around the world today. The compass was another such invention, dating to the 300s BCE. The first compasses were fish-shaped pieces of iron or large dipper-like spoons set on top of a bronze plate. They were not used for literal navigation, but rather for determining the best place to build in harmony with nature. Using lodestone, a natural magnet, the compass needle aligned itself with the magnetic field of the earth. By approximately 1050 CE, Chinese explorers were using compasses for navigation.

Gunpowder was another key Chinese invention. The Chinese discovered gunpowder in the 800s CE while trying to create a potion for immortality. The Tang dynasty used gunpowder in fireworks. During the Song dynasty, gunpowder propelled rockets used in military action. Eventually, gunpowder was used in guns and cannons.


One of the greatest inventions of ancient China was paper. Cai Lun, a court eunuch during the Han dynasty, is credited with inventing paper, which he presented to Emperor Ho Ti in 105 CE.

Before the invention of paper, bamboo was used for writings. However, bamboo books were difficult to transport because they were so bulky. People sometimes wrote on silk, but it was expensive. Cai Lun

The ancient Chinese invented an early version of the compass thousands of years ago.

used tree bark, hemp, rags, and even fishnets to produce a lightweight, paperlike substance.

When it was first invented, paper was highly prized, and it was used only to record religious or other important writings, such as the sayings of Confucius. As it became more widely available, it was used for clothing and wrapping lacquer ware. The imperial family also used it for toilet paper. By the 200s CE, paper had become common in China. Traders sold paper along the Silk Road, making it a valuable export for China. In the 800s, Chinese warriors wore thick paper as armor because arrows could not go through it. Later, printed sheets were glued to walls and used as wallpaper.


The ancient Chinese invented not only paper but also the technology to print on it. This gave them the ability to produce multiple copies of works relatively easily. During the Warring States period, the Chinese used seals to stamp impressions on paper. They also made ink rubbings from inscriptions on carved stone. By the 600s CE, the Chinese used wood block printing on paper and silk. The printers first wrote the words on paper. They placed the paper on the wooden blocks and carved the characters into the wood. Ink could then be placed on the wood to easily print an impression on paper and silk.


Before paper books, the Chinese used bamboo slips to keep records. They wrote on the bamboo slips vertically. In 2013, 15,000 bamboo slips were found in 11 wells in Hunan Province.1 The bamboo slips reveal information about the records of wars from various dynasties, important government documents, and historical events. They also give information about the historical geographic names of various places. In addition to the important information written on them, the bamboo slips also provide details about the construction of the bamboo slips themselves and the art of calligraphy.

Today, ancient Chinese bamboo slips can be seen in museums. The extremely delicate artifacts are handled with care by museum staff. They are often placed under glass or even inside individual containers for extra protection.

The wood blocks were made of fruitwoods, such as honey locust, boxwood, jujube, and pear trees. Printing blocks were passed down in families for centuries.

The first book was printed on a Buddhist scroll between 704 and 751 CE. More than 1 million copies were printed—a lot, even by modern standards.2

In the 1040s CE, Pi Sheng invented moveable type printing, using one character per block. Then these blocks, often made from bronze or wood, could be moved around and reused. Typesetters were often linguists, or masters of language, because there were so many Chinese characters they

Zhang Heng's Seismograph

Zhang Heng lived from 78 to 139 CE and is credited with many inventions tied to ancient China. One of his best-known inventions is the seismograph, a device that detects and measures earthquake vibrations. Earthquakes occur frequently in China, causing disruptions to food production. In ancient times, this sometimes triggered riots over food or rebellions against the government. It was important for ancient Chinese leaders to know when an earthquake had occurred, even if it was far enough away they could not feel it very strongly themselves.

Zhang Heng’s device, invented in approximately 100 CE, was a bronze vase with eight bronze dragons holding balls in their mouths. Underneath the dragons were eight bronze toads with open mouths. If an earthquake occurred, the vibrations would cause the dragon facing in that direction to drop the ball into the mouth of one of the toads at the base of the vessel.

had to know. However, the Chinese rarely used moveable type printing because it was more expensive than woodblock printing due to the materials needed to make so many Chinese characters.


Scientists and mathematicians made great advances in their fields in ancient China, particularly in astronomy.

Between 1000 and 600 BCE, astronomers used a circular device held up to the night sky, called a circumpolar constellation template. Astronomers oriented the template with the North Star in the center. The jagged edges around the device helped identify the constellations in the sky. The positions of the constellations could be used to determine the time. In 132 CE, court astronomer Zhang Heng invented precursors to the modern clock. His device used hydropower to run an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system. The astronomical clock could also be powered by liquid mercury instead of water, and it showed the position of the sun and parts of the solar system.

In the 1300s BCE, Chinese mathematicians were using a decimal system. By the 300s BCE, they had developed the concept of zero. By the 100s BCE, the Chinese recognized the use of negative numbers, which put them 1,700 years ahead of the Western world. In the 400s CE, mathematician Zu Chongzhi discovered how to calculate the solar year, predict eclipses,


Chopsticks have been used in China since 1200 BCE. The first known chopsticks, made of bronze, were found in a tomb in Yin, near Anyang, in northeast China. The first chopsticks were very long and used for cooking. By approximately 300 BCE, following the Warring States period, people began using them for everyday eating. At this time, people trying to save on fueling costs often cut their uncooked food into small

pieces so it would cook quickly. The chopsticks were the perfect utensils for picking up the small pieces.

Later chopsticks were made from bronze, ivory, jade, coral, and other materials and used by the wealthy. The most privileged could use expensive silver chopsticks. If the food were poisonous, they believed the silver would turn black. Chopsticks are still the primary utensils for eating in modern China.


Ancient Chinese science and technological advancements also improved Chinese agriculture practices. The ancient Chinese used ox-drawn wooden plows as early as the Neolithic times. By the 300s BCE, Chinese farmers grew crops in rows because one of the books describing farming suggested planting crops in rows would help them grow quicker and not interfere with one another.

Cast iron was not available in Europe until the 1300s CE, but in China it was used as early as the 300s BCE. Cast iron technology allowed the Chinese to create tools using iron ore. They melted and molded iron to make plows, hoes, knives, axes, and saws. Cast iron was not only for farming equipment; the Chinese also made statues, toys, and cooking utensils from cast iron.



The three-wheeled tool used in modern gardening may not seem like a huge technological advancement. But the wheelbarrow played an important role in ancient China. A man named Ko Yu is credited with inventing this practical tool as early as the first century BCE. The wheelbarrow allowed for easy transport of heavy supplies and even people. During warfare it was used to move food, equipment, and ammunition.