China’s Great Innovations: Way More than Four

The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel
James Fallows
The Atlantic

October 23, 2013

Doing book research (and shifting as much of it from my bookshelf to Evernote as possible), I came across this little gem that had escaped my attention while I was on the road last fall.

James Fallows turned to some experts to help him come up with the 50 greatest post-wheel innovations, and while each deserves a book – or at least a long chapter – the list is intriguing for several reasons. My favorite: counting the innovations that first came out of China.

From the top 50, they are:

  • 43. The abacus
  • 17. The compass
  • 14. Gunpowder
  • 6. Paper
  • 1. Moveable type printing

Two points fascinated me. First was printing press showing up on top, and the fact that the article does not ascribe an origin to the invention. People who have studied the history of Chinese innovation understand that the movable-type printing press was invented in China by Bi Sheng some 400 years before Johannes Gutenberg and Laurens Janszoon Coster argued about who of the two of them was first. History will out, though, and China gets credit for the most important innovation since the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, a sort of honorable mention on the list goes to the wheel barrow, a simple device created in China that allows a man to move heavier loads than he can carry without the aid of an animal. And I always search these lists for acknowledgement for China’s invention of investment casting, a process that turned complex metalworking from a handicraft to a mass-production process.

But these are quibbles. The point that the article brings home is that China was once far more innovative than we – and, indeed, Chinese – give it credit. While taking credit for four great innovations, China deserves credit for at least five, and probably more.

The perpetual challenge, of course, is how to make it innovative again. And to that theme we shall return in due course.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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5 Responses to China’s Great Innovations: Way More than Four

  1. I don’t think anyone would dare to mock the Ancient Chinese for Innovation and Scientific Discovery. The criticism is usually hurled at the current incarnation of China for taking an army of brainpower, and using it to basically copy. You know, Baidu-ing. I’m reminded of Joseph Needham, the famous 洋鬼子 who went to China to catalog all the amazing Inventions/Discoveries. It really is an avalanche of brilliant innovative ideas.

    • David Wolf says:

      I’m with you, Michael. The more I dig into the question of innovation in China, the more I am perplexed as to why it is not happening now. I am trying to move beyond the commonly accepted answers to attempt to divine something more insightful or unexpected. Really, what happened between Shen Bin and Shanzhai? What was it that placed imitation of the great at the pinnacle of art and craft and shoved innovation aside? It is a pivotal question, because I think when we find the answer to that, we put ourselves on path to understand a lot of the challenges that vex the nation.

      I really need to buy Science and Civilization in China

      • From an Economic Development perspective, they are right in line, behind the development of Korea and Japan. Once upon a time, ‘Made in Japan’ was mocked/derided in USA as cheap junk. With the advent of the pocket radio/Walkman that started to change. When you look at Korea they are still being accused of plagiarism/copying, despite putting out excellent cars, and some very impressive (albeit oddly designed) personal electronics.

        On that note, China seems to be about 10-20 years away from hitting that Korea/Japan level of craftmanship. I genuinely think companies like Meizu/Xiaomi are doing fantastic work in this regard, as long as they move beyond the ‘cheap iPhone’ model. I’m pretty sure they already have, but you know, attitudes take a long time to change. 🙂

  2. auntielucia says:

    I met Joseph Needham once when he visited SG with his Chinese lady companion/wife and received funds for the Joseph Needham library in Cambridge (I think). One thing that piques n intrigues me is why do China Chinese and the Chinese diaspora always look for validation by the non-Chinese of things Chinese. Why doesn’t the rest of the world look for Chinese validation 😥

  3. Back in my schooldays (a few decades ago!), I learnt (or was taught that, depending on the perspective) the closest China came to starting the Industrial Revolution was during the short-lived Sui dynasty (AD 581-617). Don’t know how true that is, but considering toilet paper was invented during Sui, I’d call that innovative in my book.

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