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The Big Four Inventions
Special> The Big Four Inventions
UPDATED: August 26, 2008 NO. 35 AUG. 28, 2008
Our Past Glories
The question of what the Four Great Inventions should be is of course open to debate

When China's ancient scientific and technological achievements are mentioned, the nation will generally refer to the Four Great Inventions. The four symbolic creations--compass, papermaking, printing and gunpowder--are the pride of China's 5,000-year-old culture, because of their recognized role in the development of human civilization.

It is therefore no surprise that the recent proposal by a group of scholars to redefine the Four Great Inventions has caused a heated reaction. According to the proposed new version, papermaking and printing are merged into one entry, and compass and gunpowder are delisted. The three new inclusions are silk, bronze and porcelain (also called "china" in English), which proposers said could more scientifically exhibit the most advanced and most influential scientific contributions of ancient China as opposed to previous items selected by Westerners.

There has been longstanding controversy on the authenticity of the conception of the Four Great Inventions since it was finalized by Joseph Needham in the 1940s. Needham, a British biochemist-historian who was best known for his work on the history of Chinese science, had also compiled a list of 26 other major ancient Chinese inventions that he believed had equally enormous impact on Western culture as the most famous "four." Other "inventions" that Chinese scholars said are more eligible for being listed in the "big four" also include traditional Chinese medicine, the equator coordinating system, the decimal system, woodblock printing and the Chinese lunar calendar.

The question of what the Four Great Inventions should be is of course open to debate. The latest redefinition attempt, which is reportedly based on careful studies of available written records and antiques, can at least help today's people, the younger generation in particular, know more about the brilliance of ancient Chinese civilization.

China used to be a leader in the field of science and technology. In more than 1,000 years after the fifth century, the large amounts of innovations in China formed a sharp contrast to the dim situation in Europe. But after the Renaissance and especially when Europeans ushered in the Industrial Revolution, China was overtaken.

Over the past several hundred years, scientific and technological breakthroughs that have been realized in China have accounted for only a minor part of the world's total. A notable fact is that it was the Europeans who finally transformed many original Chinese inventions into technologies that completely changed the lives of people around the world, including the Chinese.

To be frank, many detractors have spoken against the redefinition of the Four Great Inventions largely out of fear that an overemphasis of the past glory might intoxicate the public and therefore cover up China's still weak innovation capacity at present. Innovation, represented by the Four Great Inventions, no matter what they are, is the powerhouse of the Chinese nation's long-cherished rejuvenation. From this point of view, creating history is more significant than only recording history, even if it is more accurate.

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