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10 Ancient Chinese Inventions That You Never Thought Were Chinese

Get ready, soccer fans, UEFA Euro 2016 is almost here! Think England is the country that invented football? Let me prove you wrong. Nope, it’s not England but China! Surprised? Well, check out this post to discover 10 Chinese inventions we bet you never thought were Chinese.

You may know that lots of inventions that have changed the world were created during the Chinese dynasties. Paper, gunpowder and even the printing block are 2 of the 四大发明 the 4 great Chinese inventions. But the Chinese didn’t stop at these amazing inventions! They also created a lot more things without which your life wouldn’t be the same and you probably don’t even know it! So we put together for you a list of 10 surprising Chinese inventions you didn’t know were Chinese, ranked from the least to the most surprising.
Ready to see what was invented in China? Prepare to be amazed!

#1 The most fascinating of all the Chinese inventions: the Compass

Chinese inventions: the compass

The first item on our list of ancient Chinese inventions is the compass. It’s one of the 四大发明 the 4 great Chinese inventions, but people tend to forget about it.

Long before European navigators roamed the seas, the Chinese invented the compass How was this navigational instrument invented? The compass was created around the Qin Dynasty era (255 BC – 206 BC), but not for the reasons you’d expect. Long before it was used for navigation, the compass was actually used by fortune tellers on their boards to make predictions. Interesting use of the compass, don’t you think? The first compasses were made of a spoon-shaped lodestone, a natural magnetic stone that naturally indicates the South. Later on, the Chinese improved on their first compass to create the magnetic needle compass during the 8th century AD, used on water.

The next Chinese invention on our list has changed the world forever and still very much used nowadays. In fact, it’s essential to buy new things. Can you guess what it is?

#2 Paper money, the Chinese creation that changed the world

Chinese inventions: paper money, banknotes

Paper money! The first banknotes were introduced under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). The invention of paper money stems from the invention of the printing block, which made possible the printing of many banknotes. At that time, carrying coins began to be too heavy and merchants thus decided to create banknotes as a means of currency instead. The banknotes were meant to record how much money the people had in their pockets. Smart, isn’t it?

Nowadays, we use paper money for everything almost everywhere around the world. Even though credit card use now tends to surpass the use of paper money, banknotes are still rocking! Let’s jump to the third Chinese creation that is going to leave you voiceless!

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#3 The smart Chinese invention: the mechanical clock

Chinese inventions: Mechanichal clock

What time is it? This is maybe one of most frequently asked questions each day! Your wristwatch — or your cellphone — is certainly one of your best friends when it comes to telling time. This wouldn’t be possible without the invention of the first mechanical clock by the Chinese. Under the Song dynasty (916 – 1279), 苏颂 Su Song, a well-known official, built a huge clock tower that could tell the time of the day, the day of the month, the phase of the moon and the position of a few stars and planets. Amazing, don’t you think?! How did he do that? Well, he added a chain-driven mechanism to a water-powered clock, and magic happened!

Let’s explore a little bit further the mechanical skills of the Chinese. The next Chinese invention will most likely make you go “wow”, plus it’s all about dragons.

#4 The earthquake detector: the most brilliant Chinese invention

Chinese inventions: seismograph

In China, earthquakes are very frequent. When you’re not prepared for them, they can cause severe damage. Under the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), some Chinese scientists decided to experiment with ways to predict earthquakes. Under the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), 張衡 Zhang Heng, a famous Chinese inventor and scientist, invented the first seismograph that could detect the movement of an earthquake. Besides being a clever Chinese invention, the earthquake detector is also super cool-looking. It’s a huge urn adorned with 8 dragons, each holding a copper a ball. These 8 dragons represented 8 directions: east, south, west, north, southeast, northeast, southwest, and northwest. These dragons faced 8 frogs on a plate below the urn. Each time a seism was about to happen, the dragon that was in the direction of the earthquake would spit its copper ball inside the frog’s mouth. Dragons spitting copper balls? I told you it was a cool invention!

OK, now you know that the Chinese were pretty good at creating mechanical engines. But let’s explore the sports in China! Everyone knows China’s popular sport: ping pong, but did you know they invented another popular sport?

#5 The Chinese invention you’d never guessed was Chinese: Football

Chinese inventions: football

Were you dying to know why earlier I said that soccer was not invented in England, but in China? Under the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), people started to play a game called Cuju. It consisted of two teams kicking a ball around to score goals. Using hands was forbidden. Sounds familiar? The main difference was that the number of players was flexible and teams were both composed of men and women.

As for England, they did not invent the football game but they brought a lot to modern soccer. According to the FIFA England organized the contemporary games in 1863.

Technology, sports… Chinese inventions certainly are everywhere! What about in your personal daily life? Do you think ancient Chinese inventions are at play there? The answer is yes. Let me tell you about the most surprising creations the Chinese invented and how these became essential when eating.

#6 The culinary Chinese creation you didn’t suspect: the Restaurant Menu

Chinese inventions: restaurant menu

Once again the Song dynasty has struck! I’d bet you didn’t know about this one! During the Song era, a premodern economic revolution occurred in China and there was a significant increase in business and trade with the outside world. Lots of foreign businessmen and travelers came to China during that time, but they did not always speak Chinese. In order to help them, the first ever menus were created in Chinese restaurants.

Speaking of restaurants, its origins in the world remain shrouded in mystery. Some claim that France created the first restaurants ever in Paris, but, before the Mongol invasion even happened, there were already restaurants in China. The competition is still on, and I suggest read this amazing post by Nicholas Kiefer on the creation of the restaurant to learn more.

Next time you enter a restaurant and are given a restaurant menu to order food, remember that the Chinese invented them!

#7 The one you were wrong about: the Fork

Chinese inventions: Forks

I can feel your surprise from here! We all know that the Chinese use chopsticks to eat, but don’t be mistaken, they also invented the forks! The oldest known traces of forks were found in the Qijia ethnic group (2400 BC -1900 BC) but also under the Xia dynasty (2100 BC – 1600 BC). Did you know forks were so old? At a later period, forks were exported to Europe thanks to the Silk Road. As for the Chinese, it is said they chose to replace forks and knives with chopsticks. Isn’t that unexpected?

Forks were invented by the Chinese, bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?! Let’s move on to another product you can (sometimes) find on your table and that is said to have been created by the Chinese. Cheers!

#8 The Chinese invention that will make you feel dizzy: Alcohol

Chinese inventions: Alcohol

Yi Di, the wife of a Xia dynasty’s king, 大禹 dà yǔ Yu the Great (around 2000 BC), is said to have created the first ever alcohol beverage and gave it to her husband. It is said to have tasted like beer. The Shang dynasty (1600 BC – 1066 BC) is also said to have used alcohol during sacrifices.

There are lots of legends around the creation of alcohol, but one thing’s sure, it was definitely made in China! Just like the next Chinese inventions that are going to make you rethink your knowledge of China.

#9 The ancestor of your current toothbrush

Chinese inventions: Toothbrush

Up next on our list of ancient Chinese inventions you didn’t know about, the toothbrush! That’s right, during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), the first toothbrush was invented! It was mostly made of pig hairs attached to a handle made of bamboo or bones. Amazing, huh? The modern toothbrush has evolved quite a lot since then, and no one uses pig hairs to brush their teeth anymore, at least I hope not!

The next and last invention coming up is undoubtedly the one that had me saying “no way, they invented that too?!”. The Chinese didn’t use to kid with hygiene! Ready to find out what the last invention is?

#10 One of the ancient Chinese inventions you don’t want to live without: Toilet paper

Chinese inventions: Toilet paper

Chinese inventions can be very surprising sometimes! Have you ever thought about how toilet paper came into existence? Well, it all started around the year 851, during the Tang dynasty, when the Chinese invented toilet paper. But it’s during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) that the use of toilet paper rose! At the time, toilet paper was actually made of huge sheets of soft fabric, which only the Emperors and their family could use. Then the use of toilet paper spread to the people and to Europe via the good old Silk Road!

Final words

Chinese inventions have brought a lot to the modern world as we know it today. Each object has a story and China had a role to play in many of those stories. Who would have guessed that toilet paper, toothbrushes, football or mechanical clocks were Chinese inventions? The well-known Chinese dynasties have left a lot to the modern era. If you want to know more about these amazing families, check out our post and timeline about the Chinese dynasties.

Which Chinese invention surprised you the most? Do you know other things the Chinese have invented?

Source Images: english.visitbeijing; dramafevermfa; farfuturehorizonspbs; history.cultural-china

The Nincha Team

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  • Manyiu Ma

    Hi Nincha,
    I’ve read that the piñata was also invented in China and Marco Polo took it to Europe. The Spaniards to it to the Americas and ended up in Mexico. My question is why hasn’t the Chinese continued with the use of piñata or other inventions that now-a-day Chinese themselves don’t know they originated in China. Are there any places in China that continue with the use of piñatas?

  • Jay Wind

    I also learned that the Chinese invented the Gunpowder, Cannon, FireCrackers which surprises me.