In this hi-tech world, we take for granted the material things that have influenced our present state of civilization, and we tend to assume that they are all products of the West. But not a few of these things came first as inventions from the East by the ancient Chinese.
One example is printing. The Chinese produced the first printed book in 868. Bi Sheng invented printing using movable types made of clay in 1041-1048. These facts are overshadowed by the success of the German Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, the mechanical printing press with metal movable types in around 1439. Such was a towering achievement that Time-Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium.
Many weapons that we know today were invented by the ancient Chinese. Of course these inventions were relatively crude compared to their modern, hi-tech versions, but it was the Chinese who invented them and actually applied them in warfare.
The basic of these inventions was the gunpowder, which was made by mixing and heating saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. Gunpowder logically paved the way to the inventions of rockets, bombs, fire arrows, flame throwers, grenades and mines. Inventions of firearms and cannons followed. Of course, flares and fireworks were also invented by the Chinese.
Chinese alchemists knew saltpeter as early as 492 when it was mixed with sulfur for medicinal use. By 900, these alchemists in search of elixir of immortality accidentally concocted gunpowder. They called it “pinyin”, meaning “fire medicine”. In 1044, Zeng Gongliang edited the “Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques” which described three formulations of gunpowder.
The world’s first rocket was invented by the Chinese in 1150. Some Chinese got the idea of tying a tube filled with gunpowder and fuse near the poisoned tip of an arrow, with a small weight at the center to keep the arrow tilted upward. Then the fuse is ignited and the arrow was shot as usual towards the enemy. Later, the fire arrows were launched by gunpowder with a range of up to 1000 ft, and rocket launchers were developed to fire as many as 1000 arrows. The next two centuries saw more powerful, improved rocket designs.
Around 919, the Chinese developed the Pen Huo Qi or Fire Throwing Machine. It had piston billows to pump a gasoline-like substance out of a single cylinder. A continuous stream of flame is produced, lit by a slow-burning gunpowder match, which indicated the first use of gunpowder in warfare by the Chinese. This was used effectively in naval battles to burn enemy ships.
China is accepted as the originator of firearms, as early as a century before Europe got its first firearms. A sculpture dating from 1100s represent a figure bearing what appears to be a firearm. A gun dating from 1200s was discovered in Manchuria by archeologists. Before the 1300s, there is no solid evidence for firearms in Europe.
The crossbow was developed and widely used in China by the 200s BC, and it changed warfare forever. For two thousand years, it was the standard military issue of the Chinese arsenal. Crossbows with precise trigger mechanism were unearthed with the terracota army of a 2nd century BC tomb. The three-moving-part mechanism was made of bronze and was very precise that a difference of weight as little that of a grain of rice would not make it work.
A repeater or machine crossbow had a magazine compartment that could be loaded with arrows that could be fired in rapid succession.
Aside from inventing weapons, the ancient Chinese made many significant inventions. To name a few, these inventions were: silk, paper, parachute, rudder, lacquer, accupunture, currency, wheelbarrows, matches, compass, seismograph, animal harness and many more.
An opinion by the 12th century “wonderful teacher” Roger Bacon stated that the invention of printing, gunpowder and compass by the Chinese had the greatest impact on all humanity which could not be outstripped by any empire or religious belief.