• People celebrating Chinese mythical origins at a rural temple fair, Zhoukou. (SBS)Source: SBS
Is there anything the ancient Chinese couldn't do?
Jeremy Cassar

20 Apr 2016 - 2:42 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2016 - 2:44 PM

The Story of China takes viewers to the origins of the superpower via aspects of its complex modern society. As the series continues, there couldn't be a better to time to celebrate the ancient Chinese inventions we couldn’t live without in 2016 Australia. 

(Oh, and gunpowder, silk, and movable type are not included in this list, as we trust Aussie high school humanities teachers did their jobs correctly.)



The first recorded representation of the ‘stirrup’ was found in a Jin Dynasty (265-420) tomb dated around 322AD.

The very definition of an underrated accessory, stirrups bound the rider to the horse in a way never seen before. They allowed horsemen to control the horse and travel further distances, therefore aiding the swifter spread of modern civilisation.

The stirrup didn’t appear in the West until 400 years later.


Toilet Paper

Most of us are probably aware that the Chinese moved from marking expensive materials like stones or old bones or special fabrics to a new, cheaply made alternative that we all know as paper.

It must come as no surprise, then, that the Chinese papermaking industry discovered an equally important use for its product – one confined to the area of the Ancient Ass.

The story goes that in 851, an Arab traveler's mind was blown when he noticed that the Chinese no longer used water and leaf as a post-toilet solution. By the 1300s, picking up a fresh pack of Ancient-ply was as common as chopping bamboo.

In the 1700’s, Americans were still opting for the any-leaf-you-can-find method of backdoor cleanliness.



Next time some drunken lout screams sweaty nothing’s at the middle of your face, don’t blame him, blame ancient China.

Somewhere around 1600-2000BC, they discovered that the fermenting of grain yielded a substance not unlike what we currently call beer. Discontented with how plastered they were getting, these pisspots discovered that adding more cooked grain to the fermentation process resulted in higher levels of alcohol.

It only took the West until the 12th century to cotton-on and alcohol has never created a single problem since.


The Compass

Without the ancient Chinese, your Morgan Freeman-voiced GPS system wouldn’t exist, and your Uber driver would still be circling a parking lot somewhere.

In 4000-frickin’-BC, these geniuses created massive gauges out of some substance called lodestone – a magnetised ore that helped find true south.

That’s right, these ancient navigators created bearings from the south, not the north, as south is the cardinal direction in Chinese culture.


The Kite

The following is a spurious link, but one that’s fun to make.

If the Chinese hadn’t attached a floating device to a piece of string, then perhaps our earth wouldn’t have harnessed electricity? If Benjamin Franklin were to conduct his kite experiment in 1750, and ancient China never existed, then all he’d have to hold in his hand is a flaccid piece of string.

This ingenious invention came in 4th Century BC, and its uses weren’t purely recreational – kites were used for fishing, hunting, and for dropping propaganda atop the heads of Chinese citizens.


The Toothbrush

While the ancient Egyptians and Chinese were known to use ‘chewing sticks’ – which were basically frayed twigs, it was 15th Century China that first added bristles to create what we think was the first toothbrush.

Unfortunately, these bristles were made from the strict hairs of a pig’s nape – hard mofo’s that wouldn’t bend if you begged them. I can’t imagine that lifting the day’s foodstuffs with pig’s stubble would feel any more sanitary, but then again I was born in Australia in the 80’s, and by then we had Colgate television advertisements.

Before we move on, let’s acknowledge what the toothbrush has done for modern society with this:



As a half-Italian Australian, I’m still waiting for history to correct itself. Surely it was a gleefully plump ancient Roman Nonna who first churned out a strap of fettuccine?

Niente Affatto. Apparently that dude who’s named after a swimming pool game – Marco Polo – brought the carbs to Italia from the East, and after a 4000 year old bowl of preserved “noodles” were discovered in 2006, historians are all but convinced that the Chinese are pasta’s biological parents.

To this day, I still haven’t told my Nonna.


Watch The Story of China Wednesdays at 7:30pm (AEST) on SBS and SBS On Demand.

Missed the first episode? Watch it right now: