Ancient China Achievements Essay Outline

Unlike our normal paper that we use today Chinese paper was VERY thin and translucent (partly see-through.) So they could only write on one side of paper, it was just too thin to write on both sides.

The invention of paper spread slowly outside of China to other East Asian countries and cities. Even after seeing paper, people could not figure out how to make it by themselves! Too bad for them. The people then demanded that they learn the manufacturing of paper, but China refused to give away their secret of papermaking. They were reluctant to give up their secrets of making paper.

After more commercial trading and the defeat of the Chinese in the Battle of Talas (they were defeated by the Arab Abbasids, the war was about the control over central Asia), the paper invention went all around the Middle East. Production started in Baghdad , the Arabs invented a way to make a thicker sheet of paper.

This papermaking had spread to Damascus by the time of the first crusade, the war had interrupted the paper production. It split the production into two centers:

Iran: This was the center of thinner papers which was adopted by India.

Ciaro: This was the center that kept making thicker paper.

Then the first paper mill in Europe was developed in Spain. In Spain the mill was in the city of Xavia (modern day Valencia) in the year 1120. Later more mills were built in Fabriano, Italy. This was in about the 13th century when paper was first introduced to Europe. The Europeans used linen and hemp rags as a source of fiber. The oldest paper document known in the West is the Mozarab Missal of Silos. (This was probably written in Islamic Spain.)

Paper in our life today differs much from the old style of Chinese paper, paper now is thin (but not too thin) material that is produced by the amalgamation of fibers, usually vegetable fibers. Vegetable fibers usually contain cellulose which are subsequently held all together by a process called hydrogen bonding. Sometimes the fibers used can be synthetic, but usually the fibers are natural.

The most used fiber is wood pulp, which is from (of course) pulpwood trees. But sometimes companies will use softwoods, hardwoods, spruce and aspen trees as well. Other kinds of vegetable fibers are: Linen, hemp, cotton and rice.

Papermaking is very complicated and long to describe, so here is a quick synopsis of how they make the paper...

Fiber Processing/Pulping is when certain fibers are split from each other and carbohydrate surfaces are exposed. Hydrogen bonding between these carbohydrate surfaces gives paper its strength. Fibers can be split three different ways: mechanically, chemically or a combination of the two.

Drying is what must happen after the paper-web has been produced, the water in it must be removed for it to be a regular and usable piece of paper. This is all done by forcing and pressing and then drying the paper. This takes out all of the water and gives you the paper that you use so much today.

Like I said in the beginning, Cai's invention is considered one of the most amazing and important inventions of all time, mostly because paper enabled China to create and develop their civilization much faster, unlike their old materials (bone, silk, bamboo etc...) This did the same for Europe when paper was introduced to Europe in the 12th (or the 13th) century, and then in the U.S. many years later.

(BUT! There have been studies in 2006 that show specimens bearing certain writings on them).

So we don't know if Cai-Lun was the FIRST person to use paper, but we do know he was the one who started the whole trend of using paper all around the world today. So really, our thanks does belong to Cai-Lun, because without him paper would have never been invented, and our civilization would be almost IMPOSSIBLE!



G. Stolyarov II

July 18, 2014


Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in three parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 10,900 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  ***


~ G. Stolyarov II, July 18, 2014


The civilization of ancient China produced a wide array of innovations in science and technology which preceded the rest of the world by centuries and sometimes by millennia. This essay examines some of these remarkable inventions and discoveries.  Chinese inventors developed numerous mechanical implements, engineering advances, and new substances such as gunpowder, which took centuries to spread to or be replicated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, this essay explores the reasons for ancient China’s lack of systematic progress or an industrial revolution despite the presence there of numerous inventive thinkers.


Beginning in the 14th Century BC, the Chinese developed a decimal, or base ten system of recording numbers. This is one of the earliest such systems known.

In the first century AD, Chinese scholars compiled a volume of mathematics, Jin Zhang Suanshu,(Arithmetic in Nine Chapters). Mathematician Zu Chongzhi (429-500) calculated the first 12 digits of the value of pi, while his son, Zu Gengzhi, updated the Jin Zhang Suanshu and determined the correct formula for the volume of a sphere, V= (pi/4)d^3, where d is the diameter.


Paper was invented by Cai Lun, a scientist at the Imperial Court in 105 AD. It was produced from bamboo and hemp fibers dissolved in water situated in a mold. When the water was drained and the mixture dried, the first genuine design of paper appeared. The Chinese also developed a precursor to the first paper currency in the world, printed in the Ninth Century AD in order to lighten the load carried by tax collectors.

Cast Iron

The first methods for developing raw iron into workable material with the capacity to be crafted into weapons and ornaments were developed in the 4th Century BC, when the Chinese became able to lower iron’s melting temperature by adding phosphorus to the heated metal.

In the 2nd Century BC, this technology served to bring about the manufacture of steel by mixing wrought and cast iron at high temperatures or draining the carbon component from cast iron.

Chain Pump

Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, A chain pump consists of a chain attached to itself at the ends, which carries along it pallets of raw materials, such as water or sand, which are elevated to impressive heights up to about four meters.

Agricultural Technology

The Chinese were the first civilization in the world to plant crops in rows, beginning in the 6th Century BC, in order to obtain rapid crop growth without the crops’ mutual interference. Chinese farmers accomplished this 2200 years before any other culture.

Beginning in the 3rd Century BC, horses were utilized in China to haul loads on farms using an upgraded harness with a collar and chest strap (known a trace harness or horse collar) , which reduced the attachment’s burden on the animal and permitted a single horse to move a ton and a half of material.

The 3rd Century BC also saw the advent of the moldboard plow, or kuan, the design of which included a sharp center for digging into the ground and gradually-sloped wings at the side in order to discard excess soil and ease the friction on the plow.

The wheelbarrow was invented in the 1st Century BC and enabled Chinese farmers to transport massive loads over vast distances with ease.


Gunpowder was invented in China during the 8th Century AD as a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter and used primarily for fireworks. The fireworks were launched from rockets made of hollowed bamboo tubes. These rockets were lighted through use of matches, invented in the 6th Century AD, carved of pinewood and coated with sulfur. Other civilizations borrowed this aspect and discovered its military utility.

In 1150, fireworks were elaborated as a result of the first multi-staged rockets, where several smaller tubes were attacked to main meter-tall stick, which were ignited in mid-air after the main rocket’s energy became depleted.

Natural-Gas Drilling

During the 1st Century BC, the Chinese discovered methods to drill some 1.5 kilometers into the Earth’s surface. A derrick was constructed, followed by a small shaft that extended until the Earth’s layer of hard rock was reached. Then a cast iron drill would be lowered with bamboo cables, after which the process would often consume years before any actual fuels were located.

Mechanical Clock

Invented in the 8th Century AD, the mechanical clock rapidly spread to other regions of the world. Chinese designs were crucial to inspiring European clock inventors such as Pope Sylvester II. The Chinese mechanical clock was powered by falling water or mercury, which then transmitted the energy to a chain-drive.

Segmental Arch Bridge

A segmental arch, invented by engineer Li Ch’un in the 7th Century AD, consists of only a small fragment of a circle instead of earlier semicircular arches. Ch’un constructed his first bridge over the Chiao Shui River in 610, which was notably lighter, more durable, and more material-efficient than earlier bridges. It is still in frequent use today.


A belt-drive (or driving belt) was attached around wheels to ensure smooth transition of mechanical energy between them. Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, the belt-drive was applied extensively to silk manufacture and spinning machines.

The belt-drive made possible the invention of the spinning wheel in 1270, since it provided sufficient cover and attachment for a rimless construction such as a spinning wheel, where a network of threads replaces the rim.

Printing Press

Movable character blocks were invented by Bi Sheng in 1045. A method for arranging and printing pages in mass quantities was devised. However, this was not efficient when applied to the Chinese language, which possesses over 5000 characters, and thus could not spur on the same printing revolution as that which occurred in Europe.

Magnetic Compass

The first magnetic compass was invented in China during the 3rd Century AD, utilizing a piece of magnetite (an ore of iron) which was heated and aligned in a North/South position, afterward being contained in a bowl of water where it floated on a piece of reed. This was integral to early 2nd millennium Chinese explorations in the Indian Ocean.

Other Noteworthy Advances

The Chinese were the first to develop a kite in the 4th Century BC. Craftsmen like Kungshu P’an possessed mastery to the extent of developing kites that stayed afloat for three days. These kites had military applications as well, carrying messages to isolated troop formations on the battlefield.

Commissioned by the imperial government in 132 AD, mathematician and cartographer Chang Heng devised the first seismograph, which allowed fairly accurate forecasts of earthquakes, leading to more efficient economic planning.

The Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Corporeal Medicine, composed in the 2nd Century BC, contains an advanced treatise on the circulation of blood. This was published fifteen centuries before William Harvey developed a work of comparable caliber in the West.

Why the Ancient Chinese Failed to Achieve Routine Technological Progress

Despite numerous ingenious technological innovations throughout its history, China failed to develop an industrial revolution and a routine theory like the Scientific Method to render inventions and discoveries systematic and not merely the spontaneous products of ingenious minds.

Ancient China was a generally stagnant society which, despite the presence of numerous brilliant thinkers, failed to achieve any regular technological progress until the late 19th century. So dramatic was this stagnation that it led Victor Hugo to compare China to “a fetus in a jar.” While it witnessed numerous promising technological developments in their embryonic stages, ancient China failed to harness these developments into a consistent advance.

The reason for this unfortunate lack of progress was above all institutional. Although the earlier Han and Tang dynasties among others were receptive to advancements and scientific practice, the Ming, following the defeat of the Mongols, isolated China from the remainder of the world and focused on civil stability to a greater extent than technological progress.

The heavily Confucian paradigm of the era from 1368 to 1911 focused more on adaptation to nature and the arts rather than the sciences. Scholars were trained in extensive law memorization rather than further studies of the external world. This caused China to lag behind the West, and contact with the Occident was required to re-establish its rich technological tradition.


1997 World Book Encyclopedia: Vol. 3 C-Ch. World Book Inc. Chicago. 1997.

Franklin Institute Online. “China: Ancient Arts and Sciences.” Available March 31, 2002:

Latourette, Kenneth S. A Short History of theFar East. The Macmillan Company. New York. 1964.

Reischauer, Edwin O. Fairbank, John K. East Asia: The Great Tradition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. 1960.

Schurmann, Franz. Schell, Orville. ImperialChina. Random House Inc. New York. 1967.

Think Quest Library of Entries. “Ancient Chinese Technology.” Available March 31, 2002:

Wagner, Donald B. “Liu Hui and Zu Gengzhi on the Volume of a Sphere.” Available March 31, 2002:

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