Commonly Used Devices that Originated from Ancient China – Who Knew?

By Simone Jonker | November 7, 2021
Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
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Umbrellas-Flickr
The umbrellas we know today are descendants of the traditional paper umbrella invented in China around the early 1st century CE. (Image: Michael Newton via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

China is home to the oldest culture in the world, with a history dating back 5,000 years, to a time when all things in Heaven and on Earth, including the growth and collapse of human civilization, were believed to have been orchestrated by divine beings.

The development of paper, along with gunpowder, printing, and the compass, are referred to by Chinese academics as “the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China.” Many other useful items originated in China as well, some of which might surprise you.

The Compass

A functioning compass was invented during the Han Dynasty between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. The Chinese were the first to discover that naturally magnetic iron ore, an extremely rare form of the mineral magnetite (Fe3O4) also known as lodestone, automatically orientates itself to point north. 

To make a compass, a ladle was created, possibly in imitation of the “Big Dipper” or “Great Bear” constellation. The Big Dipper is more than a dazzling star pattern, it’s a compass, a clock, a calendar, and a ruler. The ladle was chiseled from lodestone and placed on a level board. The ladle’s handle would swivel south, leaving the bowl to point due north. A popular magic trick was to magnetize the lodestone by rubbing it with a needle to make it point south. Magnetic needles were developed around the eighth century CE (850–1050) in China and employed thereafter in place of lodestone.

Zhezhi and 3D Origami 

The art of folding paper is called zhezhi in China. The history of paper folding is intriguing since there is a lot of cross-cultural overlap. Origami is usually attributed to Japan; however, Chinese culture has instances of paper folding that mirror Japanese traditions.

Paper folding was, and is, employed in Chinese culture for ceremonial reasons. The Chinese use folded pieces of golden paper called yuan bao (元宝) at funerals, where they are burned as a means to give the departed some currency in the Underworld. This ritual dates back to the Song Dynasty and is still observed in China today. People also folded miniature replicas of the deceased’s personal belongings to put in the grave.

In the early 1990s, a group of Chinese refugees created Golden Venture folding, known as 3D origami. On June 6, 1993, 147 refugees jumped from a cargo ship called Golden Venture into the frigid waters of New York Harbor. After being on the high seas for a year they hoped to escape China’s forced sterilizations and strict one child restrictions. While incarcerated, they devised a unique paper folding method by joining together hundreds of identically folded triangular units, creating intricate items such as swans, pineapples, and other forms. They were either given as presents to individuals who helped them obtain freedom or sold at charity events to help fund their legal bills while they sought refugee status.

The Fork

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While one readily associates China with chopsticks, the fork and chopstick both appeared first in China. (Image: opensourceway via “Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to archaeological evidence, forks as cutlery date back to ancient China. Bone forks were discovered at an ancient burial site from the Qijia civilization (2400-1900 BC). Similar artifacts were also discovered in gravesites from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BC) and those from the following dynasties.

Banknotes

It wasn’t until the late 1600s that paper money became commonly employed in China. Banks produced paper notes as a guarantee against future payments. Many governments began producing government-backed legal money that could no longer be converted into gold or silver by the late 19th century. The Chinese developed banknotes soon after developing a reliable printing machine. Almost all cash is printed on banknotes today.

The Planetarium 

Ancient Chinese rulers thought solar eclipses were divine warnings, and officials were sent to chronicle the celestial occurrence. Neglect of their duty might have cost them their lives!

Emperor Huangdi was the third of ancient China’s legendary rulers. Born around the year 2704 BC, he was a cultural hero and patron saint of Daoism, also known as the “Yellow Emperor.”  Huangdi’s reign started around 2607 BC. Legend has it that under his rule, a vast observatory and planetarium were created to provide accurate observations. 

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese built massive observatories based on precise star charts, one of which had a planetarium with 1,434 stars and 28 constellations. At the end of this period, one of the greatest of Chinese astronomers, 

Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) of the Yuan Dynasty, invented the upward-looking bowl sundial, or Yang Yi, to observe the solar eclipses. 

The mechanical clock

During the Song Dynasty in the 8th century, the Mechanical Clock was invented.

A Buddhist monk named Yi Xing created the first model of a mechanical clock in 725 AD. It was driven by dripping water, which spun a wheel that completed one full rotation in 24 hours. Later, a hydro-mechanical astronomical clock tower in medieval Kaifeng was invented by Su Song (1020–1101 AD) using the early escapement mechanism designed by Yi Xing. It also showed the month, moon phase, and the positions of several stars and planets. The device passed through a number of phases before becoming the mechanical clock that we know today.

The Menu

A wonton comes from the Chinese word  Húntún (馄饨). But how would a foreigner explain to a waiter that he wanted to order the delicacy if he couldn’t speak a word of Chinese and there was no menu? What if, as a matter of routine, the establishment’s proprietor would quote what he believed he could get away with? Perhaps you’d simply sit down, eat whatever the restaurant served, and pay whatever they asked. 

Thankfully, along came the menu. It was created as a result of the joint efforts of Chinese restaurants to catalogue the wide range of foods available in various places. To help businesses flourish, caterers developed a list, or menu, for their customers. Problem solved!

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Ancient bells of China, Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC. (Image: bobistraveling via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Bells

Bells originated in China and were a significant part of Chinese culture. They were used to worship Deities, send messages, and warn of danger. In the southern Shanxi province, the oldest complete set of tuned bells, numbering sixteen in total, was discovered in Tomb Eight of Marquis Su of Jin at Qucun. Zhou Dynasty (815–786 BC). Forty-seven of the sixty-four bronze bells discovered in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, which had been buried by 433 BC, create two notes with minor third intervals, while sixteen of them make two notes with major third intervals.

The Wheelbarrow 

During the Han dynasty, the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow and other remarkable agricultural tools like the iron plow and the harness. The wheelbarrow was used to transport massive objects too heavy for a regular person’s back to bear. Because the wheelbarrow was initially made of wood, the Chinese referred to it as the ‘wooden ox.’