10,000 years of China tech–celebrating Chinese invention

Lets face it, in our break-neck, high-tech, don’t look back culture, China tends to get a lot of flack for being–ahem–under-innovative. The number of articles written about China’s IP infringement/piracy and massive shanzhai industry are too numerous to count.

With this in mind, I thought I’d take a moment and a post to reflect on some of the many things China has gifted to the world through applying creativity to life’s little problems.

The Big Four

There are few pieces of Chinese rhetoric that are so readily repeated as The Four Great Inventions–as conversational nuggets go, it is up there with “5,000 years of uninterrupted culture and history” and “Western media is biased toward China”.

Regardless, the world would be a different place without them, and so the national pride they offer is well-deserved. They are:

  1. Paper–1st century CE
  2. Printing/movable type–9th century CE
  3. Gunpowder–10th century CE
  4. Compass–11th century CE

The Lesser Known

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Just things I was surprised to learn have their origins in China. My apologies if your favorite didn’t make the list, but feel free to add in the comments. Also, check out the full shebang on Wikipedia.

  • Coffin–7,000 years ago in Shaanxi province
  • Cast iron–5th century BCE
  • Calendar year (365.2425 days)–Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BCE)
  • Fermented beverages–9,000 years ago in Henan province
  • Fork (yes, a fork!)–About 4,000 years ago in Qinghai province
  • Archaeology–11th century CE
  • Paper currency–Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
  • Toothbrush–15th century CE
  • Toilet paper–6th century CE
  • Use of Chromium–Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)
  • Fishing reel–4th century CE
  • Fireworks (see gunpowder above; in fact, guns/bombs/hand canons/flame throwers/land mines all trace their roots to China)
  • Forensic science–Yep, the first CSIs were 13th-century Chinese
  • Porcelain–for the God of which we’ve all prayed to, we owe thanks to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
  • Restaurant menu–Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE)
  • Seismometer–1st century CE

Discoveries of Concepts

The Chinese can also claim the initial discovery of a number of natural phenomena that have now worked their way into our collective understanding. These include: Circadian rhythm, climate change, first law of motion, geobotanical prospecting, structure of a snowflake, solar wind, sun spots, true north, spontaneous combustion, leprosy, diabetes, deficiency diseases, thyroid hormone, inoculation (smallpox), negative numbers and decimal fractions.

The Unsurprising

Tea, noodles, chopsticks, tofu, pagodas, mahjong, silk, rice cultivation, acupuncture, and the kite.

The New

So the question remains–has China created anything that doesn’t have 1,000-year-old dust on it? While it’s true the country has fallen behind other industrialized nations for much of the last few hundred years, that’s not to say some great inventions haven’t come out of the Mainland recently.

In 2007, an online vote with more than 50,000 Internet users took place to determine the “Four great inventions of modern China”, the results, as reported in China Daily, were:

Hybrid rice, laser typesetting for Chinese characters, synthesis of bovine insulin and the discovery of artemether, an anti-malarial drug made from the Chinese herb qinghao.

The vote was jointly organized by the Guangdong Association of Invention (GAI), the Nanfang Daily, the Beijing News and Internet portal sohu.com.

Originality, global influence and social benefits were the three key criteria, said Zhou Zhaolong, vice-director of GAI. “We are serious in the voting. It is time for us to shift the focus of our science education from what we achieved in the past to what we are doing at present,” said Wang Yusheng, former director of the Chinese Museum of Science and Technology.

Wang, together with 20 other scientists and educators, prepared a list of more than 100 candidate inventions.Hybrid rice, developed by the famous agronomist Yuan Longping in the early 1970s, is widely grown in China, with yields up to 12,000kg per hectare. It has helped alleviate food scarcity in China and several other Asian countries.

The computerized laser system for Chinese character typesetting has transformed China’s printing from letterpress to electronic publishing. Invented by the late Peking University professor Wang Xuan in the 1980s, the laser system has been described as the second invention of Chinese printing after Bi Sheng’s development of movable clay type in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127). Bi Sheng’s invention ushered in a revolution in the history of printing.

The complete synthesis of bovine insulin the first time human beings have synthesized the protein was a breakthrough in life sciences. The procedure was carried out in 1966 by a team headed by late academician Wang Yinglai.

Compound artemether is a medicine invented in the late 1970s, which has proven effective in treating malaria worldwide. By the end of 2005 it was the most important medicine used to fight malaria in 26 Asian and African countries.

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