Ancient Chinese Technology: Robots

Ming Xin, Ed.

PureInsight | July 5, 2004

[] [Editor's Note: Ancient Chinese mechanical engineering technology was very advanced. Distinguished mechanical engineers at that time were able to create many marvelous types of robots. For example, King Mu (976 – 922 B.C.) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (10th century - 771 B.C.) once conducted an inspection tour of the west of his empire. A skillful artisan named Yan Shi made a robot to entertain King Mu during the inspection tour. This robot could sing and dance like a real person. It also had extremely realistic organs, bones, muscles, joints, skin and hair.]

An ancient Chinese book, Stories of Government and the People (or Chao Ye Qian Zai), contains many fascinating tales that occurred during and before the Tang Dynasty, among which are interesting historical records about the ancient mechanical engineering technology. Here are descriptions of four ancient robotic inventions.

King Lan Ling, who lived during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 A.D.), was ingenious in mechanical inventions. He once made a robot that could dance and that looked like a man of a non-Chinese ethnic group. When the King wanted to offer a drink to a man, the robot would turn to that man, and bow to the man with the drink in his hand. Nobody knows what secret mechanism was inside the robot.

A monk in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 A.D.), Ling Zhao, had many creative ideas and put them into his inventions. At the command of Emperor Wu Cheng, he once built a long pool next to a mountain pavilion. After the pool was finished, Emperor Wu Cheng enjoyed a feast next to the pool. Ling built a miniature boat with exquisite details and put it in the water. When the miniature boat flowed before the Emperor, he took a wine cup from it, and the boat would stop automatically. Then the small wooden man on the boat would clap its hands, and the boat would start to play music. When Emperor Wu Cheng finished drinking and put down the wine cup, the small wooden man would take the cup back to the boat. If Emperor Wu Cheng did not finish drinking the wine in the cup, the boat would stay there and would not leave.

Yin Wenliang, a county magistrate from Luozhou was a very skillful mechanical engineer and liked drinking. He created a wooden man and dressed him with an outfit made of colorful worsted silk. At every banquet, the small wooden man would propose a toast to each guest in order. Yin Wenliang also made a wooden woman. She could play the sheng (an ancient Chinese pipe with 13 reeds) and sing, and she did them in perfect rhythm. If a guest did not finish the wine in his cup, the wooden man wouldn't refill the cup. If a guest did not drink enough wine, the wooden singing girl would play the sheng and sing for him to urge him to drink more. Nobody could figure out the marvelous secret of these two wooden robots.

Yang Wulian was a superb artisan who was an inventor. He once made a wooden monk in Qinzhou City. The monk held a wooden bowl and could solicit alms. When the bowl was full of money, a device inside the monk would trigger the wooden monk to say, "Alms solicited!"

People throughout Qingzhou City fought to get a glimpse of the wooden monk. All of them wanted to hear it speak, so they couldn't wait to put money in the wooden bowl. Therefore, in just one day, the wooden monk could solicit several thousand wen (an ancient Chinese coin of the lowest value.)

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