Been There, Done That First:
10 Things Asia Started

It’s a pretty common game–people do love to brag. Among schoolchildren, it’s called “my dad/robot/dog is better than yours”, and when the kids grow up and attend their high school reunions, they play “been there, done that”. So if the eastern and western hemispheres got into a pissing contest, here are 10 things the Asians would say they’ve done first.

1. Write Notes

It would have been nice if the first note ever written were a love letter, but no, it was an accounting record in Mesopotamia (Iran-Iraq in the present day) sometime 3000 BC. It was created by making marks on soft clay, which was then fired until it hardened. So in a sense, the first banking document was written in stone.

Cuneiform artifact

An account of barley rations in cuneiform

  • Printing soon came after, with the use of embossed cylinders that made impressions on soft clay as it rolled over them.
  • Ink was invented in China around 1100 BC, block printing in 220 BC and paper in 200 AD.

2. Count to Ten

Abacus, the Chinese calculator

An abacus–because people ran out of fingers to count with.

We take for granted that the way we count now and the numbers we use are how it has always been done by everyone, but ancient peoples had to figure it out from scratch, and came up with different ways of doing so. We inherited our decimal number system (based on 10s) from the Indians who got it down by 500 AD. But there is now evidence that the Chinese already had a decimal system two thousand years earlier, so it may be that the Indians got it from them. While the scholars delve into this juicy piece of history, we can just sit back and appreciate the zeroes in our bank statements.

3. Blow Things Up

Fireworks over a harbor

Fireworks, the prettiest use for gunpowder.

In the middle of the 9th century AD, Taoist alchemists in China discovered the formula for gunpowder while trying to cook up the “elixir of life”–ooh, so ironic! The party people and artists used this discovery to make cool fireworks, while the warriors predictably used it to make rockets and bombs.

4. Flip-flop Around

Zori, the precursor to flip-flops

Japanese zori

Flip-flops with their distinctive Y-shaped straps are based on the Japanese zori slippers. American soldiers coming home from World War II brought some of these babies home and made rubber versions of them. Today these footwear have come to represent easy breezy style and laid-back chic.

5. Checkmate a King

Stylish chess pieces

I would like to capture these uber-stylish chess pieces.

Chess began in Northwest India in the 6th century, and the military strategy game soon spread to Persia, where the exclamations of “shah!” (king!) and “shah mat!” (king is dead!) were first called out, echoing in today’s “check” and “checkmate”.

6. Lather Up With Soap

Handmade soap bars

People in Ancient Babylon (a city-state in Mesopotamia) were already taking sudsy baths 4000 years ago. There was even a recipe for soap in 2200 BC, inscribed in a slab of clay.

7. Cross Legs into Lotus

Extended downward facing dog pose

Way before Madonna ever chanted “Shanti Ashtangi”, yoga was being practiced in India, 3000 B.C at the latest.

8. Get Together for Tea

Yi xing teapot

The yi xing teapot, preferred for brewing certain teas.

Tea has been drunk in China since perhaps 28th century BC, but for sure by 10th century BC, and it has since elevated into a much loved, ceremonial ritual. That’s a few millennia before the beverage was taken with crumpets and cucumber sandwiches.

9. Slurp Up Noodles

Ancient noodle fossils

Care to sample these noodles?

The debate on which culture initially brought forth noodles can now be put to rest with the discovery of these 4,000-year old noodles, found along the banks of China’s Yellow river.

10. Get People to Listen Kindly to Amateur Singing

Karaoke mike

Karaoke unleashes the pop star and the mike-hogger in you.

A combination of Japanese and Filipino ingenuity has given wannabe vocalists the permission to rock out in public, even when no band would take them. In karaoke culture, less than stellar singers are given encouragement and support instead of being booed offstage. As music formats evolved, so did karaoke, switching from cassette tapes in the 80’s to today’s discs, data cards, and video games.

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