Home » Huangshan Tours » Huangshan Travel Guide » Intangible Cultural Heritages in Anhui » Wanan Compass Making

Wanan Compass Making

Wanan Compass Making

The compass is one of the four greatest inventions from ancient China, vital to astronomy, geography, military affairs and navigation.  In China it is also a significant device, used to select a favorable site and aspect for houses and tombs, for example. The Wanan compass is the only existing compass that is still made according to traditional techniques, and it is produced in Wanan Old Street of Wanan Village in Xiuning County, Anhui Province.

The Wanan compass originated in late Yuan Dynasty, was further developed during the Ming Dynasty and finally reached to the peak in the mid-Qing Dynasty, but underwent a decline during the later years of the Qing Dynasty. The People’s Republic of China revived it during the 1960s, and 20 years later traditional production was revived again. 

The Wanan compass was based on traditional Chinese compass techniques and developed its own special characteristics during its long history. There are strict requirements in terms of the technical procedures and applied craft, and some of the techniques are closely-held family secrets. The best quality Bischofia wood (Bishopswood or Toog tree) is selected, and crafted into the circular model of the compass, with a central round hole for magnetic needles. The chart is drafted onto the surface of the wood, and painted with tung oil. The most crucial step is the installation of the magnetic needles – the steel needles are magnetized, checked and installed in strict secrecy. 

Depending on the size and number of circles depicted the Wanan compass can be divided into the Sanhe compass, the Sanyuan compass and the Zong He compass. There are 11 specifications according to diameter, which can vary from an inch to a foot, and up to 46 circles may be depicted. There are many designs, with different decoration, art and calligraphy.  The Wanan compass won the “Hui compass” reputation for its unique design, careful choice of materials, and high standard of craftsmanship.  In 1915, the Wanan compass and sundial was showcased in Panama World Exhibition and won a Gold Award.  Since then it has won numerous prizes and awards.

The Wanan compass combines the traditions of Chinese astronomy, geography, visual art, philosophy, I Ching and architecture with ancient magnetic technology and traditional skills. These reflect ancient Chinese scientific history, social and environmental history, particvularly the history and culture of Huizhou.

Nowadays the practical function and market demand for Wanan compasses is gradually decreasing. The old craftsmen have passed on and young people are less willing to be engaged in the trade, so this particular compass making technique is at risk of dying out unless it is protected and supported.