We usually associate products made in China with being counterfeit or of low quality but did you know that many of the inventions we take for granted today were invented by the Chinese? Many objects around us are accompanied by “Made In China” labels but have you ever wondered which items were literally created in China? Since ancient times, there have been plenty of inventions which are largely credited to the innovative Chinese, whether accidental or not. These ingenious inventions were some of the reasons why China developed into such a huge and prosperous civilization.
Teeth cleaning devices existed all the way back in 3000 BC, where people in Ancient Babylonia used a “chewing stick”, which was a twig with a frayed end. However, the first bristle toothbrush, which closely resembles what we are using in the modern world, was invented in China in the 15th century. Back then, hair taken from the back of a hog’s neck functioned as bristles and they were attached to a piece of bamboo or bone. Hogs living in harsh climates were believed to be sought after as they grew stiff and coarse hair, creating sturdier bristles. Such toothbrushes with hog hair bristles were used until the introduction of nylon bristles in the 20th century.
Did you know that the first compass was invented by the Ancient Chinese? Known as one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China, the compass was invented during the Han Dynasty and later used by the Song dynasty for navigation. Contrary to present day, the Ancient Chinese Compass was used for divination, or as we know it now, Feng Shui. The compass would determine when would be the best time and location for things like burials or weddings.
Later on, during the Tang dynasty, Chinese scholars would learn how to magnetize iron needles and realize that suspending them in water would allow them to navigate because the magnetized iron needles would always point to the Earth’s magnetic poles. The Song dynasty would then go on to use the compass for oceanic navigation which proved to be mighty useful when the sun or stars were being blocked by clouds or fog.
One of the most impactful yet accidental discovery of all time is the invention of gunpowder. Ancient alchemists in China were obsessed with the pursuit of immortality and in their attempt to create the elixir of life, gunpowder was discovered. In the 9th century during the Tang dynasty, an alchemist mixed a bunch of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate together, thinking he would get the elixir of life. Clearly, he did not think this through properly because the mixture exploded in his face when exposed to an open flame. It also burned down the place he was working in. (Talk about bad luck.) The Song dynasty military eventually went on to use this discovery against their primary enemy, the Mongols. Uses of gunpowder included flame throwers, primitive hand grenades and landmines. Ironically, the search for immortality resulted in the discovery of a deadly weapon.
Lastly, let’s talk about what everyone loves… MONEY! Before the invention of paper money, copper or bronze coins served as the basic unit of currency in China. In the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty, the early development of paper currency emerged. Paper money known as “flying cash” (due to its tendency to fly away) were used to replace coins when it became cumbersome for merchants to carry strings of coins around due to the increase in trade. However, the circulation of “flying cash” was rather limited and it was not meant to be used as legal tender.
The practice of using paper currency continued in the Song dynasty. New banknotes were issued by rich merchants and there were various ways to make counterfeiting difficult, such as the presence of confidential marks and pictures of houses, trees and people on each banknote. Such paper money became more widely circulated and were accepted for payment in debt and other financial transactions. In the 1120s, the government took over the system and paper money was officially established as a form of legal tender.
Fun fact: As there was the relative ease of printing paper money as compared to minting coins, paper money was produced in large quantities throughout China, leading to the problem of inflation. Due to the erosion of the value of paper money, the use of paper currency was abolished in the 15th century and it was reissued only several hundred years later.