List of Chinese discoveries

Last updated on 6 November 2017

Aside from many original inventions, the Chinese were also early original pioneers in the discovery of natural phenomena which can be found in the human body, the environment of the world, and the immediate solar system. They also discovered many concepts in mathematics. The list below contains discoveries which found their origins in China.


Ancient and imperial era

Guardians of Day and Night, Han Dynasty.jpg
Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) paintings on tile of Chinese guardian spirits representing 11 pm to 1 am (left) and 5 am to 7 am (right); the ancient Chinese, although discussing it in supernatural terms, acknowledged circadian rhythm within the human body
  • Diabetes, recognition and treatment of: The Huangdi Neijing compiled by the 2nd century BC during the Han Dynasty identified diabetes as a disease suffered by those who had made an excessive habit of eating sweet and fatty foods, while the Old and New Tried and Tested Prescriptions written by the Tang Dynasty physician Zhen Quan (died 643) was the first known book to mention an excess of sugar in the urine of diabetic patients.[4]
Each bronze bell of Marquis Yi of Zeng (433 BC) bears an inscription describing the specific note it plays, its position on a 12-note scale, and how this scale differed from scales used by other Chinese states of the time; before this discovery in 1978, the oldest known surviving Chinese tuning set came from a 3rd-century BC text (which alleges was written by Guan Zhong, d. 645 BC) with five tones and additions or subtractions of ⅓ of successive tone values which produce the rising fourths and falling fifths of Pythagorean tuning.[5]
  • Equal temperament: During the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), the music theorist and mathematician Jing Fang (78–37 BC) extended the 12 tones found in the 2nd century BC Huainanzi to 60.[6] While generating his 60-divisional tuning, he discovered that 53 just fifths is approximate to 31 octaves, calculating the difference at ; this was exactly the same value for 53 equal temperament calculated by the German mathematician Nicholas Mercator (c. 1620–1687) as 353/284, a value known as Mercator's Comma.[7][8] The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) music theorist Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611) elaborated in three separate works beginning in 1584 the tuning system of equal temperament. In an unusual event in music theory's history, the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin (1548–1620) discovered the mathematical formula for equal temperament at roughly the same tim, yet he did not publish his work and it remained unknown until 1884 (whereas the Harmonie Universelle written in 1636 by Marin Mersenne is considered the first publication in Europe outlining equal temperament); therefore, it is debatable who discovered equal temperament first, Zhu or Stevin.[9][10] In order to obtain equal intervals, Zhu divided the octave (each octave with a ratio of 1:2, which can also be expressed as 1:212/12) into twelve equal semitones while each length was divided by the 12th root of 2.[11] He did not simply divide the string into twelve equal parts (i.e. 11/12, 10/12, 9/12, etc.) since this would give unequal temperament; instead, he altered the ratio of each semitone by an equal amount (i.e. 1:2 11/12, 1:210/12, 1:29/12, etc.) and determined the exact length of the string by dividing it by 122 (same as 21/12).[11]
  • Gaussian elimination: First published in the West by Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) in 1826, the algorithm for solving linear equations known as Gaussian elimination is named after this Hanoverian mathematician, yet it was first expressed as the Array Rule in the Chinese Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, written at most by 179 AD during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) and commented on by the 3rd century mathematician Liu Hui.[12][13][14]
Oxalis corniculata 1.JPG
Aware of underground minerals associated with certain plants by at least the 5th century BC, the Chinese extracted trace elements of copper from Oxalis corniculata, pictured here, as written in the 1421 text Precious Secrets of the Realm of the King of Xin.
Likan Bamboo and Rocks.jpg
Bamboo and rocks by Li Kan (1244–1320); using evidence of fossilized bamboo found in a dry northern climate zone, Shen Kuo hypothesized that climates naturally shifted geographically over time.
  • Geomorphology: In his Dream Pool Essays of 1088, Shen Kuo (1031–1095) wrote about a landslide (near modern Yan'an) where petrified bamboos were discovered in a preserved state underground, in the dry northern climate zone of Shanbei, Shaanxi; Shen reasoned that since bamboo was known only to grow in damp and humid conditions, the climate of this northern region must have been different in the very distant past, postulating that climate change occurred over time.[15][16] Shen also advocated a hypothesis in line with geomorphology after he observed a stratum of marine fossils running in a horizontal span across a cliff of the Taihang Mountains, leading him to believe that it was once the location of an ancient shoreline that had shifted hundreds of km (mi) east over time (due to deposition of silt and other factors).[17][18]
  • Grid reference: Although professional map-making and use of the grid had existed in China before, the Chinese cartographer and geographer Pei Xiu of the Three Kingdoms period was the first to mention a plotted geometrical grid reference and graduated scale displayed on the surface of maps to gain greater accuracy in the estimated distance between different locations.[19][20][21] Historian Howard Nelson asserts that there is ample written evidence that Pei Xiu derived the idea of the grid reference from the map of Zhang Heng (78–139 CE), a polymath inventor and statesman of the Eastern Han dynasty.[22]
  • Jia Xian triangle: This triangle was the same as Pascal's Triangle, discovered by Jia Xian in the first half of the 11th century, about six centuries before Pascal. Jia Xian used it as a tool for extracting square and cubic roots. The original book by Jia Xian titled Shi Suo Suan Shu was lost; however, Jia's method was expounded in detail by Yang Hui, who explicitly acknowledged his source: "My method of finding square and cubic roots was based on the Jia Xian method in Shi Suo Suan Shu."[23] A page from the Yongle Encyclopedia preserved this historic fact.
Gandhi leper.jpg
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi tends to a leper; the Chinese were the first to describe the symptoms of leprosy.
Yuan dynasty iron magic square.jpg
Iron plate with an order 6 magic square in Arabic numbers from China, dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
  • Li Shanlan’s Summation Formulae: discovered by the mathematician Li Shanlan in 1867.[27]
  • Liu Hui's π algorithm: Liu Hui's π algorithm was invented by Liu Hui (fl. 3rd century), a mathematician of Wei Kingdom.
  • Magic squares: The earliest magic square is the Lo Shu square, dating to 4th century BCE China. The square was viewed as mystical, and according the Chinese mythology, and "was first seen by Emperor Yu."[28]
  • Map scaling: The foundations for quantitative map scaling goes back to ancient China with textual evidence that the idea of map scaling was understood by the second century BC. Ancient Chinese surveyors and cartographers had ample technical resources used to produce maps such as counting rods, carpenter's square's, plumb lines, compasses for drawing circles, and sighting tubes for measuring inclination. Reference frames postulating a nascent coordinate system for identifying locations were hinted by ancient Chinese astronomers that divided the sky into various sectors or lunar lodges.[29] The Chinese cartographer and geographer Pei Xiu of the Three Kingdoms period created a set of large-area maps that were drawn to scale. He produced a set of principles that stressed the importance of consistent scaling, directional measurements, and adjustments in land measurements in the terrain that was being mapped.[30]
  • Negative numbers, symbols for and use of: in the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art compiled during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) by 179 AD and commented on by Liu Hui (fl. 3rd century) in 263,[3] negative numbers appear as rod numerals in a slanted position.[31] Negative numbers represented as black rods and positive numbers as red rods in the Chinese counting rods system perhaps existed as far back as the 2nd century BC during the Western Han, while it was an established practice in Chinese algebra during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD).[32] Negative numbers denoted by a "+" sign also appear in the ancient Bakhshali manuscript of India, yet scholars disagree as to when it was compiled, giving a collective range of 200 to 600 AD.[33] Negative numbers were known in India certainly by about 630 AD, when the mathematician Brahmagupta (598–668) used them.[34] Negative numbers were first used in Europe by the Greek mathematician Diophantus (fl. 3rd century) in about 275 AD, yet were considered an absurd concept in Western mathematics until The Great Art written in 1545 by the Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576).[34]
With the description in Han Ying's written work of 135 BC (Han Dynasty), the Chinese were the first to observe that snowflakes had a hexagonal structure.
Oiled garments left in the tomb of Emperor Zhenzong of Song (r. 997–1022), pictured here in this portrait, caught fire seemingly at random, a case which a 13th-century author related back to the spontaneous combustion described by Zhang Hua (232–300) around 290 AD
  • True north, concept of: The Song Dynasty (960–1279) official Shen Kuo (1031–1095), alongside his colleague Wei Pu, improved the orifice width of the sighting tube to make nightly accurate records of the paths of the moon, stars, and planets in the night sky, for a continuum of five years.[45] By doing so, Shen fixed the outdated position of the pole star, which had shifted over the centuries since the time Zu Geng (fl. 5th century) had plotted it; this was due to the precession of the Earth's rotational axis.[46][47] When making the first known experiments with a magnetic compass, Shen Kuo wrote that the needle always pointed slightly east rather than due south, an angle he measured which is now known as magnetic declination, and wrote that the compass needle in fact pointed towards the magnetic north pole instead of true north (indicated by the current pole star); this was a critical step in the history of accurate navigation with a compass.[48][49][50]

Modern era

See also


  1. ^ Chern later acquired American citizenship in 1961. He was born in Jiaxing, Zhejiang.
  2. ^ Yang later acquired American citizenship in 1964, Lee in 1962. Both men were born in China.



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  2. ^ Lu, Gwei-Djen (25 October 2002). Celestial Lancets. Psychology Press. pp. 137–140. ISBN 978-0-7007-1458-2.
  3. ^ a b Needham (1986), Volume 3, 89.
  4. ^ Medvei (1993), 49.
  5. ^ McClain and Ming (1979), 206.
  6. ^ McClain and Ming (1979), 207–208.
  7. ^ McClain and Ming (1979), 212.
  8. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 4, Part 1, 218–219.
  9. ^ Kuttner (1975), 166–168.
  10. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 4, Part 1, 227–228.
  11. ^ a b Needham (1986), Volume 4, Part 1, 223.
  12. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 3, 24–25, 121.
  13. ^ Shen, Crossley, and Lun (1999), 388.
  14. ^ Straffin (1998), 166.
  15. ^ Chan, Clancey, Loy (2002), 15.
  16. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 3, 614.
  17. ^ Sivin (1995), III, 23.
  18. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 3, 603–604, 618.
  19. ^ Thorpe, I. J.; James, Peter J.; Thorpe, Nick (1996). Ancient Inventions. Michael O'Mara Books Ltd (published March 8, 1996). p. 64. ISBN 978-1854796080.
  20. ^ Needham, Volume 3, 106–107.
  21. ^ Needham, Volume 3, 538–540.
  22. ^ Nelson, 359.
  23. ^ Wu Wenjun chief ed, The Grand Series of History of Chinese Mathematics Vol 5 Part 2, chapter 1, Jia Xian
  24. ^ a b c McLeod & Yates (1981), 152–153 & footnote 147.
  25. ^ Aufderheide et al., (1998), 148.
  26. ^ Salomon (1998), 12–13.
  27. ^
  28. ^ C. J. Colbourn; Jeffrey H. Dinitz (2 November 2006). Handbook of Combinatorial Designs. CRC Press. p. 525. ISBN 978-1-58488-506-1.
  29. ^ Selin, Helaine (2008). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer (published March 17, 2008). p. 567. ISBN 978-1402049606.
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  31. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 3, 91.
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  33. ^ Teresi (2002), 65–66.
  34. ^ a b Needham (1986), Volume 3, 90.
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  46. ^ Sivin (1995), III, 22.
  47. ^ Needham (1986), Volume 3, 278.
  48. ^ Sivin (1995), III, 21–22.
  49. ^ Elisseeff (2000), 296.
  50. ^ Hsu (1988), 102.
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