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Chinese history includes many important developments in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, the arts, literature, and philosophy. Of all these achievements, four are now recognized as the Great Inventions of Ancient China: paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder.

Gunpowder was discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists who were hoping to create an elixir of immortality. Soon, the potential of gunpowder as a military weapon was recognized and its use was diverted to strictly martial purposes. Over the next century, various formulas were developed, as well as corresponding weapons and launching apparatus.

Knowledge about gunpowder and weapons was kept secret for fear it would fall into enemy hands and the emperor prohibited the sale of the ingredients in any form to foreigners. Despite these precautions and their relative military superiority, early in the 12th century the Song were forced by the Jin Dynasty to retreat south of the Yangtze. After the defeat of the Song, all the Chinese craftsmen and engineers who knew how to make gunpowder weapons were captured and put to work for the new Mongol rulers. Because they had such a vast empire, the Mongols were unable to keep sole control over the gunpowder technology which started circulating around, and very soon, gunpowder and weapons were adopted by other areas of the world.