Now, I love Chinese food. I mean, who doesn’t? Weird people who don’t like lots of soy sauce and yummy carbs like rice and rice noodles? But what have the Chinese given to us, really? Fortune cookies? Jokes about children working in sweatshops? I’d like to think that they have accomplished more than that in their long history, and sure enough, they have…
(Editor’s note: The title was changed to Things China Invented First, from Things China Did First – we trust this still holds the spirit of the list.)
10. Government-Issued Paper Money
Paper money was first introduced in the 7th century as a way for wealthy merchants to avoid having to carry large quantities of heavy copper coins. Original banknotes were essentially bank slips with the amount of total money available to the merchant written on them, like our deposit receipts. These notes were initially used only by the very wealthy, but eventually they were circulated by the Song Dynasty when there was a shortage of copper coins. They were called jiaozi. These notes did not replace copper coins- they were organized by region (rather than having a national currency) and were more like credit notes with a time limit. A national currency was introduced in the 11th century using another Chinese original, woodblock printing.
The Chinese initially developed two types of printing: woodblock printing and movable type. Woodblock printing is created by carving a design or character text into a block of wood, covering the relief with dye, and printing the relief onto the fabric or paper. The earliest existing example of woodblock printing is on a piece of hemp paper, dating from around 660 AD. It is also the medium of choice for the oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra printed in 868 AD during the Tang Dynasty.
The other type of printing is the predecessor of typesetting, called movable type. It was a process in the making for 630 years. It began as a theory by Chinese scientist, Shen Kuo during the Song Dynasty in 1088 AD. The theory wasn’t put into practice until 1298 AD when official Wang Zhen of the Yuan Dynasty created a model arranging the characters by rhyme scheme on a round table with compartments for the characters. In 1490, Hua Sui perfected movable type by putting the characters on bronze blocks instead of wood or clay. The final tweak was added in 1718 when porcelain enamel was used.
If you’re going to print, then you need paper, or some sort of printable medium, and pulp paper became popular because it was cheaper and faster to make than other mediums, such as silk, bamboo strips, or clay tablets. There is evidence of pulp paper making that dates back to the 2nd century BC. Then, in 105 AD, a Han court eunuch named Cai Lun improved the process (he is often credited as the inventor of paper). His process involved mashing up tree bark, hemp, linen and fishing nets and adding water until a wooden frame with a sieve of interwoven weeds could be immersed and removed from the mixture. The frame was then hung out to dry and bleached in the sunlight.
Gunpowder’s invention was actually an accident by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century. One of its first uses outside of the lab was for fireworks, which were used to ward off evil spirits starting in the 10th century. However, since at least 1044, it has been used as the destructive and explosive component that we all have come to know. It was originally used in flamethrowers (no joke), flame tipped arrows, and a “gunpowder-whip-arrow,” for which I can’t think of a modern equivalent. The first firearms did not appear until the 13 century, and were used heavily by the Mongols in their exploits. The first recorded formula for gunpowder was relatively tame as it was not capable of exploding but still very flammable. By the 15th century though, they had perfected 6 formulas for gunpowder, some with up to 91% nitrate, the chemical that makes gunpowder go BOOM.
The first iron compasses created during the Han Dynasty were not used for navigation. In fact, they were used to divine the future in large bowl-like compasses that used a spoon-like instrument. A thermoremanence compass, which uses a heated metal object in water to produce a magnetic force, was documented in 1044. There was also the South Pointing Chariot, circa 3rd century AD, which was a figure on a chariot that would always point south, originally without the use of magnets. This compass instead operated on a differential gear system, much like you find in a car now. Shen Kuo was able to describe magnetic declination and the use of a magnetic needle compass in 1088, while Zhu Yu offered the use of the true north compass for naval use in 1119.
5. Coffins, Tree coffins, Urns
The Chinese ancients seem to have been some of the first who were concerned with burying their dead. Chinese emphasis on showing respect for elders and ancestors by caring for your own body (which they provided you with by giving you life) was just as important as showing respect for theirs when they passed away. Evidence for the earliest coffins and urns have been found in China. The oldest coffin is dated around 5000 BC and holds a four year old girl. The thickness of a coffin and the number of coffins were reflections of wealth or nobility. Also, the earliest known tree trunk coffins, or boat coffins, were of the Songze culture and the Dawenkou culture, recorded dates between 4000-3000 BC and 4100-2600 BC respectively.
4. Fork and Chopstick
While many people attend an Asian restaurant and attempt to eat with the traditional chopsticks, it would actually be more traditional to use the fork that they provide for their diners. Bone forks have been discovered at multiple burial sites dating from the Xia Dynasty, which was in power from 4205-1760 BC. Europeans wouldn’t start using forks until roughly 4000 years later. Forks were an exclusive dining tool for the ruling class, and came in two- and three-pronged varieties like they do now. However, due to the nature of Chinese food customs, chopsticks became popular and much easier to come by. Because Chinese culture did not permit that meats should resemble their living form, it was cut into bite-sized pieces. Also, the communal nature of Chinese eating habits made chopsticks an easier tool to maneuver. Not only that, but the chopstick could pick up or divide virtually any cuisine that was presented, thereby making it a much more effective utensil than the fork.
3. Holistic Health
Even more surprising to me than the invention of the fork, was that Chinese medicine was on to some major health points before their time, such as good health through proper diet. In the 4th century, the royal courts had Imperial Dieticians to guide the royal family down the road to healthy eating. In the Han Dynasty, Zhang Zhongjing found out through trial and error that certain foods would address symptoms of poor health. Imperial Dietician Hu Sihui published a similar book in 1330 that put together information on healthy diets dating from the 3rd century.
Not only were they proponents of a variable diet, they were also the first endocrinologists, meaning that they were clued in to and could address hormone imbalances before everyone else. In 1110 BC, they were able to extract sex hormones from urine using gypsum and natural soaps like saponin. They could then use these extracted hormones to treat a wide variety of sex hormone issues, from erectile dysfunction to menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea).
2. Restaurant Menu
The biggest reason that the Chinese beat other cultures to the finish line here is because they already had a handle on paper by the time the Song Dynasty rolled around. Due to even ancient China’s expansive populated regions that would trade with each other, hungry merchants could find an abundance of food to eat, but were not familiar with a lot of it. Thus, the menu was born to provide a guide for hungry merchants and foreign travelers. Menus popped up where ever food was sold: temples, brothels, theaters, and tea houses as well as typical food stalls and restaurants.
1. Toilet Paper
The classic over versus under debate is much older than previously thought. Its first mention is by official Yan Zhitui in 589 BC, again because the Chinese were ahead of the game when it came to paper manufacturing. Their purpose is stated quite clearly by an Arab visitor in 851 AD, who remarks that the Chinese wipe themselves with paper, while the rest of the world was using water, their hands, wood shavings, lace, or the ever popular Roman “sponge on a stick.” The Chinese even one-upped themselves, and proceeded to perfume their poo paper for the royal family in 1393. (Actual ancient toilet paper not represented in art above.)