China is a country that has a long history.
Today, it is the powerhouse of modern industry, producing many of the products we use in our everyday lives. You may be forgiven for believing that this is a fairly new phenomenon, but that is actually far from the truth.
In reality, many of the greatest inventions from centuries ago were either devised entirely in China or drew influence from other ideas that originated within it. Many of these inventions continue to be a big part of our lives today.
Playing cards are a common sight today, they’re used in TV shows like The Price is Right, in magic tricks, and those incredibly difficult-to-build card houses.
Of course, we’re most likely to come across playing cards when playing games like blackjack and poker. Over the last 20 years or so, online casinos have made playing cards a much more common site by allowing us to play all these classic games from our homes or anywhere else with an internet connection. In fact, the demand for these types of games is so high today that most casinos have to offer generous bonuses like free spins to compete for new users.
It seems pretty unlikely that the Chinese inventors of the playing card could ever have imagined the huge impact that they would have more than 1,000 years later.
The earliest records of playing cards in China suggest they were created during the Tang Dynasty, however they weren’t the same as the standard 52-card deck we know today. They were eventually created through influence from Middle-Eastern and European nations, adding the suits and settling on the Jack, Queen and King picture cards.
Before the internet, television or the radio, the main way to disseminate information to a broad audience would be through the printed word. Of course, letters and other communiques could be handwritten, but they wouldn’t reach a mass audience as you’d develop osteoarthritis before you’d scrawled enough copies.
Sometimes before 220 AD, China fixed this problem, inventing woodblock printing.
This method works by carving a wooden block with patterns, symbols, or characters and then injecting ink or dye through it so that it is transferred onto textiles or paper.
Of course, the modern printing press developed the idea further and allowed for newspapers and books to be created on mass scales.
We take modern printing technology for granted. For about the tenth of the price of a decent smartphone, you can buy a machine that will print sheet after sheet of just about anything you want in a matter of minutes or even seconds.
Yet, just a few hundred years ago, such a concept was considered to be revolutionary and we have China to thank for it.
Of course, printing is only half of what is required for a letter, newspaper or book. You also need something to print onto.
The Chinese had that covered too, with the earliest evidence of paper being recorded sometime between 202 BC and 220 AD, during the Han Dynasty.
Of course, the Chinese were not the first to invent a material to write on. There is plenty of evidence of papyrus as early as the First Dynasty in Ancient Egypt. Crucially, paper differs from papyrus because it is made from pulp rather than simply joining up strips of material.
Papyrus was also used in China before the invention of paper, most commonly it was made out of strips of bamboo that were attached together and rolled into scrolls. However, other mediums were used, including silk, clay, and wood.
The papermaking process was eventually adopted by other countries, where it was industrialised so that millions of sheets can be manufactured every single day.
Eventually this invention made it much easier for books, newspapers, and company memos to be produced quickly and in bulk. Shaping our world in more ways than you could possibly imagine.
The invention of paper and printing would also help Chinese mapmakers produce more detailed diagrams.
Gunpowder is another Chinese invention that has been given many uses over the years. The first recipes for it that we know of were written in 1044, though it is believed it was also used during the Tang dynasty which ran from 618-907 AD.
It was originally devised for military purposes, where it was placed in primitive incendiary devices that were fired from catapults or dropped from defensive walls. Of course, today, gunpowder is used in many types of guns, including the starting pistols used in athletics and to produce low noises that keep birds away from airport runways.
Gunpowder was also used for industrial purposes, most commonly as a blasting agent during mining.
Of course, gunpowder is also used in fireworks. It serves two purposes in these devices, the first is to propel the firework into the air and the second is to create the colourful bang before the remnants plummet to earth.
The different colours are achieved by mixing in different metals and minerals, turning the creation of fireworks into an art form as well as a science.
If you want to find out how to get to your 2 PM meeting, you’ll open up Google Maps and ask it to give you directions. Before we all had access to GPS, we all had to use physical maps to help us navigate.
However, a map on its own is often not enough as you won’t know which direction you’re travelling.
The easiest way to overcome this problem is with a compass, a small device that uses the earth’s magnetic field to show you which way is North. Today, you can pick up a decent compass for almost no money at all, but there was a time when this simple device was cutting edge technology.
There are some disputes between historians over whether it was possible that natural lodestone compasses were used in Mexico during the Olmec era. However, it is widely accepted that the first iron compass was made in China.
Instead of a simple needle that we see on most compasses today, early Chinese models used a ladle-shaped object to do the pointing.
Without this simple yet ingenious device, it would have been impossible to explore far-flung places like the Arctic and mountains like Everest.
These are just some of the most important inventions to come out of China. Without them, it seems pretty likely life would be very different today.