The Chinese Compass Invention

Looking at this interesting device with a spoon in the middle, can you imagine that it is the earliest south-pointing instrument in the world? It was called Sinan and could be dated back to the Warring States Period (475 — 221 BC). The spoon handle could automatically point south after it stopped rotating on a smooth plate. However, Sinan had some disadvantages. It was very heavy and not easy to carry, and if the surface was not very smooth, the spoon may not rotate because of too much resistance. Ancient Chinese people continued to improve the device and replaced the spoon with a magnetic needle. The invention of the magnetic needle quickly led to the discovery of magnetic declination.

Chinese Compass

In the long development of the compass, South-pointing Fish (not real fish but made of steel or wood), South-pointing Tortoise (also made of wood) and Water-floating Magnetic Needle were invented and used for a while. Take South-pointing Fish for example. It did not need a smooth plate. A bowl of water would suffice. Since the friction of liquid is smaller than that of solid, the fish would rotate more freely, and it was more sensitive and accurate than Sinan. Then how ancient Chinese people did this? First, carve a piece of wood into the shape of a fish as small as a finger. Then dig a hole in the mouth of the fish, place a magnet in the mouth with the south pole towards the head of the fish, and seal the mouth with wax. Next, insert a needle into the mouth of the fish, and it’s done. After putting the fish on the water, the needle just pointed to the south.

South Pointing Fish
South-pointing Tortoise

Then a new generation of compass (called Luopan) was invented by combining the magnetic needle and index plate. Do you know that this great invention was first used in Feng Shui (a Chinese art which is based on the belief that the way you arrange things within a building can affect aspects of your life such as health, wealth and harmony)? Feng Shui masters could find the ideal position or time for a specific person or matter through the rotation of the magnetic needle. Now Feng Shui is not as important as it used to be, but the compass has become a national intangible cultural heritage. And there’s even a compass culture museum in Wanan Ancient Town, Anhui Province. If you are interested in this, you totally should check out the museum on your Huangshan tours. The museum is housed in the nearly 300-year-old Wu Luheng Compass Store. The old store is still in operation and run by the eighth generation of the family. Here you can experience the most traditional way of making a compass.

Wanan Ancient Town
Wanan Ancient Town

We all know that it is impossible to sail on the ocean without knowing directions. Before the compass was invented, people identified directions according to the position of sun in the daytime and pole star at night, but it didn’t work if it was cloudy or rainy. Losing direction would lead to the loss of ships and lives. The invention of the compass made a huge difference to navigation. In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), the compass found application in navigation. At that time, there was frequent maritime trade between the Song Dynasty and Arabia, and China’s fleets used the compass. The Arabs learned how to use the compass and brought this technology to Europe. Europeans further improved the compass and made it more convenient.

Wanan Ancient Town

In the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), a famous eunuch, Zheng He, led a fleet traveling from Nanjing to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean seven times and even reached East Africa and the Red Sea. He visited more than 30 countries and regions. The first voyage took place in 1405 and the last in 1433. These seven voyages took the longest time and involved the largest number of ships and seaman in ancient China. The voyages were also the biggest series of maritime expeditions in the world before the European fleets started the geographical discovery at the end of the 15th century. This simply would not happen without the help of the compass. If you want to know more about ancient Chinese inventions, please keep an eye on our website for updates.

Zheng He
Zheng He


  1. I wish that there is more information about the compass and what it did and how it work and why did the chiness used it and what they used it for.

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your comments. We’ve updated something new about the compass here and will keep updating more in the future. We are hoping to keep communication with you:)

      Best Regards,

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