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From Gunpowder to Alipay: Find Out How Chinese Technology Has Changed the World

Nov. 3, 2017

Chinese history is fascinating! The reason I became interested in learning Mandarin Chinese is due to first being interested in Chinese history and culture. When I first began studying ancient China I was blown away by how rich and surprising the 5,000-year history is. Some still don’t know about China’s history of inventions that would spread beyond China to change the world forever. Traditionally, there are four major ancient inventions that Chinese acknowledge:

Chinese General Discovery

• 造纸术 (zàozhǐ shù) = papermaking

• 火药 (huǒyào) = gunpowder

• 印刷术 (yìnshuā shù) = printing

• 指南针 (zhǐnánzhēn) = the compass

Of course, these aren’t the only past Chinese inventions that spread to the west, but they are the most influential overall.

Today, China is experiencing an entirely new technological era. Modern China is a much different place from ancient China, obviously!

Recently, the Beijing Foreign Studies University Silk Road Research Institute asked foreign students in China which Chinese inventions and technologies they would like to see in their home countries. The students voted on four major “modern Chinese inventions”:

Chinese General Discovery2

• 高铁 (gāotiě) = high-speed rail;

• 支付宝 (zhīfùbǎo)= Alipay;

• 共享单车 (gòngxiǎng dānchē)= dockless shared bicycles;

• 网购 (wǎnggòu) = online shopping.

These four technologies may not have all been invented in China, but they have taken off here and spread faster in China than anywhere else on the planet! Let’s take a look at each of these modern “inventions” and also what makes them so successful and widespread in China:

1. 高铁 (gāotiě) = high-speed rail

China may not have invented high-speed rail, but China is making it faster, better and more far-reaching. China has 22,000 miles of the high-speed rail, which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s total. High-speed rail is a safe and convenient alternative to flying. It’s also a great way to see the Chinese countryside whiz by at an exciting speed. China today holds many new patents that are pushing high-speed rail into its next stage of development!


Wǒ jiāng chéng gāotiě qù lǚxíng.
我   将     乘      高铁    去   旅行。
I will take the high-speed railway for traveling.

Nǐ zài zhōngguó zuò guò gāotiě ma?
你 在     中国     坐   过    高铁   吗?
Have you tried to take high-speed railway in China?

2. 支付宝 (zhīfùbǎo) = Alipay

Alipay is a part of daily life for young Chinese. The online payment service was created in 2006. Over 400 million users are registered in China today, with 42.3 billion transactions having been made via Alipay to this date. It’s fast, convenient and actually saves time over using a credit card or making the payment in cash. Those in China love using it and it’s certainly something that foreigners in China will miss when they leave!


Wǒ měitiān dōu yòng zhīfùbǎo mǎi zǎocān.
我   每天      都   用     支付宝     买    早餐。
Every day I pay for my breakfast with Alipay.

3. 共享单车 (gòngxiǎng dānchē) = dockless shared bicycles

Bike-sharing programs have been around for decades in European cities, but China has made great progress in revolutionizing how users access the bicycles, making the Chinese shared bicycle programs the most convenient and widely-used programs on the planet today.

This year, Mobike, China’s largest bike-sharing company expanded into the Washington D.C. market, allowing Americans to access bicycles throughout the city at all points, with users being able to “unlock” the bicycles with their smart-phones and taking them from point A to point B without restrictions. If the D.C program is a success, we will surely see expansion into other U.S cities as well!


Xiànzài yuè lái yuè duō de rén zài qí gòngxiǎng dānchē.
现在     越  来  越    多   的 人  在 骑     共享       单车。
Nowadays, more and more people are riding dockless shared bicycles.

4. 网购 (wǎnggòu) = online shopping

Although eBay and Amazon have been around for decades outside of China, the Chinese are now more crazy than anyone else when it comes to online shopping. China is the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market. The e-commerce industry has seen rapid growth in the past few years, including a surge the delivery and distribution industry. The online shopping phenomenon has also supported the growth of a multi-billion dollar express delivery industry with hundreds of thousands of workers delivering all kinds of goods to Chinese consumers on a daily basis.

Economists now consider the Chinese e-commerce market to be the #1 consumer market in the world today, growing by 25% each year!

The Chinese are famously busy “工作狂 (gōngzuòkuáng) workaholic” and love to shop online at their convenience. Foreigners in China are also enjoying this market, with many of them admitting to becoming a “购物狂 (gòuwùkuáng) shopaholic.”


Nǚ háizi men dōu ài wǎnggòu.
女  孩子  们    都  爱   网购。
Girls like online shopping.

So, now you know which technologies foreigners in China are taking advantage of the most. Don’t be surprised if you see these Chinese advancements and conveniences spread to other countries in the near future. While they might not all be Chinese inventions, they are certainly technologies that China does bigger and faster!


1. Which of China’s 4 major “modern” inventions can you use to get from Beijing to Shanghai in 4.5 hours?

A. 支付宝 (zhīfùbǎo)

B. 网购 (wǎnggòu)

C. 高铁 (gāotiě)

D. 共享单车 (gòngxiǎng dānchē)

See Answer

―Written by Philip Reed―

Philip Reed is a Mandarin Chinese student in Beijing. He has been studying for one year in China
and before that had an interest in Chinese at university in the U.S. He loves Chinese music and culture
and can sing a few Mandarin songs at the KTV when he has free time!

Chinese Culture

General Chinese (Beginner Level)

General Chinese (Intermediate Level)

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