Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: The Compass (And How to Make Your Own)

The Compass is one of the Four Great Inventions, along with Gunpowder, Papermaking and Printing. These inventions are celebrated in the Chinese culture for their historical and far ranging impact.

Model of a Han Dynasty Sinan - a precursor to the modern compass with a south facing ladle, carved from lodestone
There are references to the Chinese using magnetic south pointers as early as the 4th century BC. The first mention of a magnetic spoon used to point south, like the sinan in the above picture was around 70 AD. And the earliest reference to magnetic direction finder used for navigation is dated to 1040 -  these were said to be south pointing fish floating in a bowl of water. 

Initially the sinan would have been used for Feng Shui, an ancient system used to orient buildings, in order to increase energy flow and auspiciousness. 

Here's a short video which explains the use of a ladle, and shows various Chinese compasses.

Make your own compass

You will need:

  • a needle
  • a magnet 
  • a piece of cork, styrofoam, or craft foam
  • a dish, such as a pie pan, a plastic lid, or any type of shallow bowl
  • water

1. Magnetize your needle: run your magnet along the length of the needle, from the bottom to the point. Do not go back and forth. Run the magnet along the length of the needle, lift the magnet at the point, go back to the bottom of needle and run it down again along the same direction. Continue to do this about 30 times. You can test whether it's magnetized by putting it near another needle or pin, and see if they are magnetized to each other.

2. Spear your needle into the bit of cork or foam. This will ensure that the needle floats on the water.

3. Fill a shallow dish (we initially used an aluminium pie plate) with water. Make sure the magnet is at least two feet away, and that your dish is not near metal. 

4. Place your needle and cork in the water, and watch it as the needle rotates to point north.

We double checked with a compass to make sure it did, indeed, work. And though the cork floated off to the edge, the needle does point north.

How does it work? When you rub the needle with a magnet, microscopic bits of magnet material attaches itself to the needle, which creates a magnet. The reason the needle needs to float in water in order to point north is because it needs an environment with less friction. Once the needle finds itself in such an environment, the opposite poles of the needle are attracted to the Earth's magnetic field.

Once we saw that it worked, we decided to make our compass more akin to the Chinese water compass, with a fish pointing South:

Isn't Elle's fish so cute and happy?
We re-used a white styrofoam meat tray, and with permanent markers, indicated the cardinal directions on each side, with North being in red. Elle drew a fish out of craft foam, and we speared the needle on the underside of it. 

Though the fish's head points South, as the ancient Chinese compasses did, the tail inevitably points North, making it just as easy to use (as long as you remember to follow the tail!)

From left to right:
North,  East,  South,  West
But why stop there? (It was raining, and Elle loves playing with the creative side of things)

We needed a much smaller fish to fit into our glass ramekin. Elle wrote out the colorful characters, North being larger than the rest, with a tiny N under it, on a piece of paper that we glued to the bottom of the dish, on the underside, so that we could see it through the bottom. This is the compass Elle is keeping, refilling the water when she needs it, and may come to use when exploring Feng Shui. 

In order to draw her compass directions, we created a template by cutting a second circle of same size, folding it in half, then in quarters. Unfolding this circle, Elle traced the lines in dark marker. This was then placed under the paper circle she would use for the compass itself. She was then able to mark the directions at perfect intervals by seeing the lines through the paper.

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:

You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:

You can learn more about the Four Great Inventions with our other posts:


  1. Thanks for this tutorial. I pinned it to my Ancient China board. We did tons of activities when we studied China, but didn't make a compass.

    I love the artwork on your compass.


    1. I'll pass the thought along to Elle, who loves a project that involves markers :)
      I'm actually already following your board :) and have ideas bookmarked from your blog and your China studies for inspiration this year!

  2. This is SO cool. Thank you for sharing your great ideas.

  3. I love this, we'll have to do this when we cover ancient China next year.

    1. Thanks, I'd love to see a picture when you do it!

  4. Thank you for linking up at the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop #5. I enjoy all of your study posts on China. :)

  5. We also just made a compass in our own study of China, but yours is a lot more elaborate! I am impressed that you are spending an entire year virtually visiting a country!

    1. Thanks - I love your Chinese exploration bucket list :) Those are great ideas, especially for younger kids.


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