Four Great Inventions

Although Chinese culture is replete with lists of significant works or achievements (e.g. Four Great Beauties, Four Great Books of Song, Four Great Classical Novels, Four Books and Five Classics, Five Elders, Three Hundred Tang Poems, etc.), the concept of the Four Great Inventions is adapted from the European intellectual and rhetorical commonplace of the Three Great (or, more properly, Greatest) Inventions. This commonplace spread rapidly throughout Europe in the sixteenth century and was appropriated only in recent times by Chinese scholars. The origin of the Three Great Inventions—these being the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass—was originally ascribed to Europe, and specifically to Germany in the case of the printing press and firearms. These inventions were a badge of honor to modern Europeans, who proclaimed that there was nothing to equal them among the ancient Greeks and Romans. After reports by Portuguese sailors and Spanish missionaries began to filter back to Europe beginning in the 1530s, the notion that these inventions had existed for centuries in China took hold. However, this did not extinguish competing claims for a European origin, in part due to the technological superiority of European firearms and printing presses. By 1620, when Francis Bacon wrote in his Instauratio magna that “printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass . . . have altered the face and state of the world: first, in literary matters; second, in warfare; third, in navigation,” this was hardly an original idea to most learned Europeans.

Wikipedia: Four Great Inventions

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