China, since the earliest times, has exhibited extraordinary creativity and the ancient Chinese cultures have produced some of the most iconic creations that have profoundly shaped the world.

Often described as the ‘Four great Inventions’ the most well known innovations of Chinese culture are the first creations of paper, printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass.

The invention of paper to record writing dates to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), and has played an incalculable influence upon the dissemination of knowledge throughout the world, and it is virtually impossible to imagine civilisation, as we understand it, to have developed without its use.

Prior to its creation, written text was confined to fragile papyrus leaves, stone, clay tablets, wooden strips, bones and expensive silk. The portability, relatively light weight and durability of paper, together with its economical ease of manufacture revolutionised administration, learning and record keeping.

Aside from the lofty philosophic and educational merits of the discovery of paper, wrapping presents and making envelopes arose among its earliest usages. The first use of toilet paper also originates in China, making its historical debut in 589 AD.

During the Han dynasty, block printing had already been devised as a means of printing onto silk, itself another of China’s notable inventions, and paper was not long in use before the idea of moveable block printing of Chinese characters came into use, with the earliest example of printed paper unearthed at Xi'an, dating to 650 AD.

Moveable re-useable type was also first used in China during the early Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) and copper plate printing was later developed in China by the twelfth century, used in the widespread production of yet another great Chinese innovation, paper money, an idea first tried out in the seventh century, during the Tang dynasty.

Moveable printing innovations eventually reached Europe by the fifteenth century, and the techniques were emulated by Johanes Gutenburg in the development of his printing press, which was of instrumental importance in the dissemination of the great revolution of ideas in European culture.

Chinese experiments with saltpeter date back to the first century and, fascinated by the colours of flame created by different mixtures with other substances, led to the Chinese invention of fireworks in the seventh century, which were used to create marvellous displays even at this early time, and indeed fireworks remain to this day hugely popular and significant in Chinese culture.

Somewhat later, in the ninth century, these substances were mixed with other ingredients by Taoist alchemical practitioners, in search of chemical immortality through attempts to create the fabled elixir of life, during which the acolytles of eternity unwittingly stumbled upon the incendiary properties of the substance now known as gunpowder.

Inevitably, it would not take long before the latent power of gunpowder was applied to military uses, and subsequent inventions included flame throwers, bombs, mines, rockets and the gun, the latter originally defined as a fire-lance, the precursor of all firearms, all of which were first used in early China.

The understanding of natural energies and their focus in space, time and directional forces arose from ancient Chinese divination practices and evolved into the philosophic notions which underpin the principles of Fung Shui, which shares its mystic heritage with Chinese astrology, Taoist yoga, Tai Chi and Kung Fu.

The crucial importance to the Chinese mind of seeking out the most auspicious harmonious locations for the alignment and orientation of important structures was made easier in practical application by the discovery by the Chinese of the directional properties of magnetism.

Lodestone, a form of natural occurring magnetite which, when suspended, was found to orient itself toward the poles, was utilised by the Chinese to develop the magnetic compass in the Han dynasty (202 BC-9 AD) initially as a complement in the armoury of divination tools and geomantic endeavour.

As far as is known, however, the Chinese, despite clearly understanding its significance, did not develop the compass as a portable navigational aid until the ninth century AD, whereafter the invaluable benefits of its use quickly spread into Arab and thence European culture, which would ultimately drive the European age of discovery.

One of the most playful innovations to have emerged from China is that of the kite, which made use of its other iconic inventions, silk and paper, achieving the status of a highly evolved art form, used for both sport and play since the fifth century BC, and was even employed as a method of fishing. The fishing reel itself is a Chinese invention dating back to the fourth century.

When it comes to sport, football is far and away the most popular of all, and now practically a global ‘religion’ followed by some three and a half billion people. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body recognises the ancient game of Cuju in China as the earliest form of football, known to have existed since at least the third century BC, during the warring states period.

There are countless other early Chinese inventions which have helped to shape the modern world, to which a modern Chinese may well raise a toast, reflecting that the first known deliberate fermentation and imbibing of alcohol is found in the archaeological record at Jiahu in Henan province, dating to 7000 BC.

By morning however, the preference would probably be for a restorative and refreshing cup of tea, perhaps the most internationally beloved of all Chinese creations, served in a fine porcelain tea set, another of China’s great gifts to the world.

China throughout its long history has always excelled at ceramic innovation, and the earliest known functional pottery vessels found anywhere on earth were unearthed at Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi province, dating back to 20,000 BC, just as the peak period of mass glaciation engendered by the last ice age tentatively began to relax its influence. Glazed pottery also first appeared in China, from around 15,000 BC.