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UPDATED: August 26, 2008 No.35 AUG.28, 2008
Do We Need to Redefine the Top Four Inventions?
While papermaking and printing remain but are merged into a single one, compass and gunpowder are replaced by bronze, silk and porcelain


China's traditional top four inventions have taken on a new look. An exhibition recently held at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing showed that the old stalwarts of compass, papermaking, printing and gunpowder no longer hold pride place. While papermaking and printing remain but are merged into a single one, compass and gunpowder are replaced by bronze, silk and porcelain.

According to Zhao Feng, Vice Curator of the China Silk Museum and a leading planner of the recent Beijing exhibition, the former Four Great Inventions no longer fully represent the highest level of ancient China's science and technology.

Zhao said that the inventions were first named about 400 years ago, but the research methods and the way of thinking at that time are different from today. Westerners at that time did not know much about China and they selected several Chinese items that were very helpful to their own development as China's top four inventions, especially compass and gunpowder, said Zhao.

Zhao said that the items on the redefined list are selected by Chinese experts, from the perspective of their impact on world civilization and peace and the new group of top inventions represent the highest sci-tech level in ancient China.

Although Zhao said there are a number of reasons for this new list, this counter-tradition proposal triggered many debates.

Some people argue that the former top four inventions of ancient China are widely recognized at home and abroad. Making a new list seems baseless and is China's own proposal, without the participation of world experts, they said. Others say we should not be restricted to just four items. After all, they say, Chinese civilization is rich in scientific achievements and four items cannot represent all these achievements.

Let it be

Li Ning (www.cnhubei.com): The traditional Four Great Inventions were chosen by Europeans according to the global and Asian scientific and technological development level at their time. They are cultural symbols that showcase excellent Chinese inventions and innovation, and have after several generations become part of the core Chinese culture. We have no reason to overthrow their status.

Furthermore, is it really necessary to redefine these inventions? Even if we don't classify silk, bronze and porcelain into the top four inventions, every Chinese still knows their importance.

With the progress of scientific levels, to update our understanding of ancient Chinese culture will help to enhance the nation's cultural cohesion. We are eager for cultural innovation and development, but every progress in culture should be used to further enrich us, but not to overthrow or abandon our traditional culture.

Le Yi (Chengdu Business Daily): We should not forget that the wide recognition of ancient China's Four Great Inventions is not because of the dominance of Western opinion, but because of proper selection standards. The spread of papermaking and printing skills effectively helped the spread of knowledge, profoundly improving the intellectual quality of society. The compass contributed to the era of navigation. Gunpowder completely changed the way of warfare. Such inventions have significant and profound influence on the whole world, while silk and porcelain do not have such revolutionary social impact, although they enjoy a longer history and also reflect excellent techniques. Moreover, in China and most parts of the world, silk and porcelain are luxurious products for the rich. They did not bring great changes to social structure or power.

Mo Yanfeng (www.dbw.cn): The concept of Four Great Inventions of ancient China was first proposed by missionary and Sinologist Joseph Edkins and it became a relatively stable concept after the argumentation of Joseph Needham, a British biochemist-historian. Seemingly, it is because the original Four Great Inventions were selected by Westerners that some Chinese might be distanced from them. Driven by this "feeling of distance," some people want to recapture the naming rights of China's top inventions.

Actually, it's not shameful that the Four Great Inventions were named by Westerners, instead, it shows they are great not only because they promote China's progress but also because they influence the whole world.

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