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List of Chinese Inventions (wikipedia.org)
19 points by DaniFong on Dec 28, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments



I was raised in China, so these inventions (the major ones) were as ingrained as the founding fathers for Americans.

Much of the Chinese pride was rooted in such golden eras of the Chinese history. Sadly, in the modern days, this pride has become a nationalistic tool and is used to brainwash people into believing that the Chinese way has been and will always be superior to the other countries', when in fact there is so much the culture can learn from the rest of the world. (I suppose you can say that about any country.)

Things are changing however, hopefully for the better.


That is interesting because in practice it looks like China is borrowing a lot of the best ideas from the rest of the world and mixing it with its society.


I've been recently studying more ancient Chinese history and the game of Weiqi (Go, as it is known in the US). Weiqi is a good way to understand the sociopolitical strategies of China. In Weiqi, it is often easier to surround and assimilate (embrace and extend) than it is to invade and conquer. If there is a grand strategy of the current political heads of China, it is to make China the pivot point of the world. America goes forth and spread democracy; I think the Chinese prefers to get other countries to orbits around them, the way the earth orbits inside the sun's gravity well.

An observation of the inventiveness of the (Han) Chinese I think is best written by Neal Stephenson in his essay published in Wired Magazine in 1994: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.02/mao.bell.html

"This article is the result of a two-week trip to Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Shanghai during September '93, during which I tried to get some sense of how the Chinese perceived the influence of technology - particularly digital technology - on their culture.

The answer is that this issue hasn't occurred to the Chinese yet, and probably never will, because it basically stems from a Western, post-Enlightenment perspective. Going to China and asking people about the Hacker Ethic is like going to Peoria and talking to the folks down at Ned's Feed & Grain about Taoism. The hacking part comes to them easily enough - China is, in a sense, a nation of analog hackers quickly entering the digital realm. But I didn't see any urge to draw profound, cosmic conclusions from the act of messing around with technology. "


It's true. People's perspective has been changing recently. Plus, when you have 1.6 billion of them, you can bet a good amount of the people are forward thinking (but a lot more are backward thinking too.)


Exactly. Present and Future is more important than Past.


William Boltz has a very interesting book

https://www.eisenbrauns.com/ECOM/_2JN00T3AO.HTM

about an invention that China didn't adopt when it could have (as shown by recently uncovered archeological evidence): a written system based on the consistent sound-indicating principle relatively easy for the masses to learn. That might have made for a radical change in Chinese history, coupled with the subsequent inventions of paper and of movable-type printing.

See

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_go2081/is_/ai_n2867916...

for an overview of Boltz's argument.


Who is to say the change would have been for the better? Korea switched systems, since then, there was no major advantage of Korea over China. And the 2nd largest economy in the world - Japan - still uses such a system.

I don't think that writing with an alphabet vs writing with characters makes that big a difference. Characters are relatively easy to learn for a child.

(I assume here that with sound-indicating principle, you mean a western like system)


"Characters are relatively easy to learn for a child."

Which elementary reading textbooks have you been looking at from what countries and what periods of history?

To reply to your assumption, by "sound-indicating system" I was referring to something like the Japanese kana syllabaries. They are inscriptions that have been found through rather recent archeological work in China from around the time of the founding of the Han Dynasty in which Chinese characters are used strictly for sound value, in disregard of their etymological meaning. It is, of course, possible to write any language strictly by writing out sounds--just as people are able to talk on the telephone, without clues from writing in the air or gestures.


I don't understand what you're trying to say. Can you repost your comment, but in a way that a person who is not a language expert would understand?

For example, what do you mean by

"used strictly for sound value" "etymological meaning"

I've been looking at chinese characters, and the simplified characters are pretty easy to learn. The old chinese characters are somewhat more complicated, but the difference in learning to read such a text is minimal - they are more difficult to write, but reading is not more difficult.


My first attempt to post this expired. Let's see if this works. I'm attempting to reply to your follow-up question.

It's conventional for popular descriptions of Chinese characters to describe them as being symbols of the MEANING of the character, with no particular relationship to how the word being written is pronounced. That's why many people informally call Chinese characters "ideograms." Let's see if I can resort to Unicode here and put some Chinese characters into my reply.

Plainly, the characters

一 (one)

二 (two)

and

三 (three)

are visual representations of tally marks and can be taken to be ideographic characters. The relationship of these characters to the underlying pronunciations of the WORDS (which are yī, èr, and sān in standard Mandarin) is entirely arbitrary.

But most Chinese characters, since the earliest stage of what can properly be called writing in Chinese, have been mostly sound-indicating. The pattern of historical development is that the language spoken at that time had a lot of words, which in the case of early Chinese were mostly although not quite entirely words consisting of one-syllable meaningful parts (morphemes), some of which were readily pictureable (e.g., horse, fish, mountain, woman, tree) but many of which were not. Ancient scribes would find a sound-alike word, or a close-enough-for-government-work similar sounding word, to represent nonpictureable words, and mark the distinguishable usage of that written character with "radicals" that broadly indicated what semantic category the sound-alike word belonged to, for ease of reading.

Here is a list of Chinese characters that all have the pronunciation /fang/ (in various tones) in Mandarin:

方 放 房 訪 防 芳 仿 妨 紡 坊 肪 枋 倣 舫

I think your eye can spot the common visual element in all those characters. The "proper" way to use each of the characters is to associate it with a particular word (really, morpheme) that has a particular meaning. But one could, in principle, use any of those characters to write any syllable /fang/ that appears anywhere in the Chinese language, and the reader reading aloud would still know from context which morpheme pronounced /fang/ was intended by the writer. Boltz points out that there is actual archeological evidence that Chinese writers more than 2,000 years ago were moving in the direction of using Chinese characters solely for sound value in writing (as shown by their using the "wrong" sound-alike characters in many inscriptions) and they could have gone all the way to what Japanese did in developing systems of syllabary characters that can exhaustively write all sounds in the spoken language with no more written characters than the language has syllables.

P.S. I asked about textbooks above, because no Chinese society had mass literacy until elementary pupils in Chinese-speaking countries were taught to read first by using sound-indicating writings systems (alphabets in all actual cases) as a first step in teaching literacy. In Taiwan, as before in Nationalist China, the zhuyin fuhao (BO PO MO FO) alphabet, with written alphabetic characters based on the shapes of parts of traditional Chinese characters, has long been used for this purpose, and in general any pupil who has completed first grade can write anything that anyone can speak in that system. The P.R.C. since the 1950s has used the elegant Hanyu pinyin Roman alphabetic characters for the same purpose.

P.P.S. An interesting and rather astounding link

http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200501/03/eng20050103_1695...

shows that for a long time Western writers have been overestimating the number of inhabitants of China who are actually conversant in Mandarin. The lower than expected percentage of Chinese persons who can understand one another in Mandarin illustrates how little provision of primary education, broadcasting, or telephony has reached the hinterlands of China. The comparable percentage in Taiwan, which a generation ago had a much lower percentage of families with any family heritage of speaking Mandarin, is much higher, a sign of Taiwan's greater success in providing education and mass communications to all inhabitants.

Please ask follow-up questions as needed.


"... shows that for a long time Western writers have been overestimating the number of inhabitants of China who are actually conversant in Mandarin. The lower than expected percentage of Chinese persons who can understand one another in Mandarin illustrates how little provision of primary education, broadcasting, or telephony has reached the hinterlands of China. The comparable percentage in Taiwan, which a generation ago had a much lower percentage of families with any family heritage of speaking Mandarin, is much higher, a sign of Taiwan's greater success in providing education and mass communications to all inhabitants."

I think the more interesting question is how the Chinese were able to hold together a culture as diverse as having many separate, unintelligable dialects, yet still live with the popular myth that they "speak Chinese".

Personally, having these ideograms isn't a bad thing. It makes it harder for me to type in Chinese. However, the way the language is setup has allowed me to think along different lines I would not have had, if I only knew English.

A different line of thought: our decendents may look back and say that the Internet had changed things profoundly, but not for the reasons we think of it now. The legacy may well end up being the ubiquitous use of the Unicode standard.


Another good list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_inventions:

  Decimal Number System
  Binary Numbers
  Panini-Backus Form (similarities to BNF)
  Chess


It's often said that the Chinese were on the leading edge of scientific advantage throughout much of history, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this extensive list.


Good list.

Another good one - Ancient Roman Technology:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_technology




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