Thanks China, for all of the useful things | The Four Great Inventions

The two main Chinese dynasties during this time period are the Tang and the Song. We could talk about them individually, but for our purposes we really just need to focus on four inventions that were developed over these two dynasties that were really great. They’re called, wait for it, The Four Great Inventions.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

the compass

The compass. This innovation is going to be crucial for ocean navigation. Before this, sailors typically used the stars for navigation which was fine for general directions, but we’re reaching a point in history where just knowing you’re heading west isn’t going to cut in anymore. I’m looking at you Columbus.


Gunpowder. This one is obvious, but let’s talk about it anyway. Gunpowder was actually discovered by alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality (Again with the immortality, China! Didn’t you see what happened to Shi Huangdi?) The early forms of handguns were just hollow cast iron cylinders, but the Europeans are going to perfect these weapons later.

The Four Great Inventions | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog By Ytrottier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Hand Cannon (early firearm) from the Yuan Dynasty By Ytrottier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
There is a common misconception that the Chinese didn’t really use gunpowder technology in warfare which is untrue. This myth will get perpetuated later by the last Chinese dynasty because they see guns as a threat to their power, but the Chinese had been using early version of bombs and cannons since the Han dynasty.


Papermaking. Paper has typically been attributed to a eunuch named Cai Lun in the Han court who used mulberry, fish net, old rags, and hemp waste. He was a real MacGyver, that Cai Lun. The Chinese had also invented the all-important toilet paper by the 6th century.

But what the Tang do that sets off a chain of events that leads to U.S. independence, is use small pieces of paper in tea bags to preserve its flavor. This allows Chinese tea to travel longer distances and eventually make it to Europe in the 16th century. The Europeans love the stuff and are going to build entire empires around it. But we’ll get there.

The Song dynasty also become the first civilization to use paper currency – which is infinitely easier to travel with and facilitates increasing exchange across long trade routes.  


Printing. The Chinese invented woodblock printing, which will eventually be taken and adapted into movable type by the Europeans. We can have a debate over which of these inventions is the most important but my money is on printing. The ability to transmit ideas faster and more uniformly has an enormous impact on life at the end of the postclassical era and, I would argue, it ushers in the Early Modern Era, especially in Europe.

People throughout history have had incredibly ideas about art, science, and government, but it’s not until there is a fast way to reliably share these ideas that civilization advances exponentially. We’ll come back to this when we talk about Early Modern Europe.

the middle kingdom

So China is inventing all of the things, which makes them a highly desirable trade destination. It also reinforces this idea in Chinese history that we haven’t talked about yet called the Middle Kingdom. Essentially, the Chinese, like most of my teenagers, have always seen themselves as the center of the world. Because they have all of these highly sought after inventions and ideas, everyone comes to them, which makes them think that they are the center of civilization and the further away you go in any direction, the more barbaric you become.

There were actually world maps at this time that just look like concentric circles radiating out from China. So from their perspective, Europe – the furthest away and least Chinese – is totally barbaric and unworthy of their attention. This is important because it is going to set China up for a massively rude awakening in a few hundred years. Stay tuned.

For now, they have another, more immediate rude awakening coming from the north…