Famous Chinese Inventions

Many famous Chinese inventions are artifacts we use in our daily lives to these days. This page covers some of the most known one, but many more exist.

Many of these Chinese inventions came to be in the early times of ancient China. They were discovered by chance and evolved into the inventions we know and recognize today. Some are merely improvements in a specific area, and other inventions have claims to their origin in other areas of the world.  

Always remember: invention is more of a constant process than just a one-time occurrence, and so many of these famous Chinese inventions (As well as other nationalities around the world) mark a point in time where a specific innovation led them to a place on a list of Chinese inventions. You might still find occurrences and mentions of the same invention in other places and times throughout history.

Famous Chinese Inventions #1 – The Fork:

Not what you would expect to find in the land of the chopstick, but its true – the fork is most likely a Chinese invention. Researchers believe that ancient Chinese have used a bone made fork in as early as the Bronze Age (2400 – 1900 BC).

How do we know? They were found by archaeologists in the tombs of some prominent Chinese dynasties. There are some other findings as well – a fork and knife made of bronze in the tomb of China's first emperor Qin Shihuang (259 BCE - 210 BCE) and other mentions as well. Interestingly, despite the early use of forks in China they didn’t catch on and china has quickly moved to the use of chopsticks for which they are known to this day.

Famous Chinese Inventions #2 - Noodles:

While the invention of forks in China, can be somewhat unexpected, you are probably not that surprised to discover they are probably one of the first to invent the noodle. Amazingly enough, the modern world has discovered this through an archeological find. A 4000 years old batch of noodles has survived history by being trapped in an upturned earthenware bowl. An airtight space was created between the bowl and the clay surface it was laying on, allowing the preservation of millet noodles inside. The said noodles are probably one of the first ancestors of la-mian noodles, still used in China today, which are made by pulling and stretching dough by hand, repeatedly.

Famous Chinese Inventions #3 - Kites

Kites are one of the most famous Chinese inventions and they date back 3000 years. Plenty of legends exist describing the origin of the invention and telling the story depicting the flight of the first kite.

Some say the sails of fishing boats blowing in the wind served as inspiration, while others describe the story of a Chinese farmer that tied a string to his hat to prevent it from blowing away. There is a famous story about a military general who wanted his banner to be visible from far away, and so reinforced it with a bamboo frame and flown it high with a string.

Whatever the true story, there is no dispute on the fact that kites were invented in ancient China. Kite flying wasn’t just used as a toy for kids, but rather as a useful device. It is documented that a military general in ancient China has flown a kite across the walls of a city he wanted to conquer to measure the distance his troops had to cross to get to the other side.

Kites were used to transport messages over enemy lines and larger kites were even used to carry warriors so that they could fire arrows on the enemy from above.  Kites were used to distribute messages of propaganda to the crowds during war, and also to communicate ‘Help needed’ messages. There is even a documentation of a kite exploding in the air, being used to frighten the enemy during war time.

The first kites used leaves, silk, other fabrics and paper on top of bamboo or wooden frames.

To this day kites are an important part of the Chinese culture. There are some ancient beliefs that flying a kite and then letting it go will help you let go of illness, trouble and bad luck.

Famous Chinese Inventions #4 - Banknotes: 

Notes of currency made of paper have their origins in ancient China. The banknotes originated in necessity – traders and merchants tried to avoid the heavy weight of coins, usually made of copper, and replaced them with paper receipts. The earliest indications of this, date as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907).

Quite early on, the Chinese government has caught on and adopted this method by issuing currency paper notes. Those were printed by the government, in part in the hope of replacing and reducing the cost of copper which was becoming harder to find – due to closed mines and reduced production.

Banknotes were originally limited to specific regions or geographic areas, but as soon as their value was guaranteed by gold and other precious metals they became a common currency nationwide by around 1214.

Famous Chinese Inventions #5 - Acupuncture: 

A basic in traditional Chinese medicine, Acupuncture is the practice of using needles to alleviate pain and for therapeutic medical purposes. Acupuncture is used to this day – practitioners insert solid thin needles into specific points on the skin that correspond with areas in the body to help correct imbalances and for other therapeutic purposes. Not surprisingly, Acupuncture was invented in China and dates to the early history of the country. There is evidence of early use of Acupuncture that date as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Archeologists have found gold needles and depictions in stone showing the practice of using them to treat patients from as early as 25–220 AD.

Famous Chinese Inventions #6 - Fireworks

With China being the country of origin for the invention of gunpowder, it is only natural that it would be responsible to the invention of fireworks as well. The earliest fireworks used for entertainment purposes date as early as the Song era. Those early fireworks were simply sticks of bamboo filled with a little gunpowder inside.  When they were lightened up they exploded and produced a pretty colored flame.  A Chinese legend claims that the invention came to be when a cook using saltpeter (a chemical sometimes used as flavoring salt), was accidently dropped into the cooking fire and produced a nice looking colorful flame.

The first firecrackers were used at the beginning of a new year, with the belief that they will scare away evil spirits. The noise was as important as the color and display as it was what supposedly scared the demons away.

Some claim that this original use of fireworks has a part in our tradition to this day to use fireworks in events marking beginnings – independence days, and New Year celebrations. From there fireworks evolved into becoming a part of other celebrations, and there is evidence that they were used in wedding and military celebrations as early as the 15th century.

Like other famous inventions, some claim that fireworks were developed at the same time in India and Arabia, but the Chinese invention is well documented.

Famous Chinese Inventions #7 - Toilet paper

The first documented use of toilet paper was made in medieval China, and dates as far as the 6th century AD. There is a documented quote from an Arab traveler visiting China during the Tang Dynasty in the year 851 AD that notes: “the Chinese do not use water to wash themselves after they have done their necessities, but rather wipe themselves with paper”

It is believed that the predecessors to toilet paper were wool, rags, wood shavings, grass and other materials, all used to wipe people clean, before the common use of paper.

But China is probably the first to use toilet paper commercially, with evidence showing that by the mid 14th century around 10,000,000 packages of toilet paper, each containing between a thousand and 10 thousands sheets were manufactured each year in one province of China alone. Other documents talk about fabric soft paper and paper scented with perfume.

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