Ancient Chinese Technology: Han Zhihe, Ingenious Craftsman Who Created Flying Mechanical Birds

Shi Ran, Ed.

PureInsight | July 12, 2004

[] Series Note: The ancient Chinese technology of mechanical engineering 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.

We will introduce in this article an ingenious ancient Chinese craftsman, Han Zhihe, who had created mechanical birds that could actually fly.

Han Zhihe was originally from Japan. He later moved to China during the period of Emperor Xianzong (806 – 820 A.D.) of the Great Tang Dynasty and worked as a security guard in the Chinese royal court. He was also an excellent mechanical engineer who could create mechanical birds carved out of wood. He created phoenixes, cranes, crows, and magpies, all in wood, that would drink, eat, chirp and warble just like real birds. Han also installed mechanical devices inside the wooden birds to make them fly. After turning on the switches, these bird robots would flutter their wings and fly in the sky as high as 100 meters for a distance of 100 to 200 times an average man's footsteps before landing. Han Zhihe also made wooden cat robots that were able to catch birds and mice.

Han presented the Emperor Xianzong his marvelous creations and Emperor Xianzong was very pleased. Han even made a wooden bed that was several feet high. The bed was decorated with gold, silver, and colorful paintings. Han named it "a bed with a dragon on demand." The dragon was hidden inside the bed, and it would only show itself when someone stepped on the bed. The dragon would jump out from the bed with its head up, revealing its head, claws, scales, whiskers and the rest of its body. After the bed was presented to Emperor Xianzong at the palace, he wanted to try it out and stepped on it. Then all of a sudden, an incredibly life-like dragon sprang out and startled Emperor Xianzong. The emperor was terrified and immediately ordered the bed to be removed from the palace.

When Han learned of the incident, he went to the palace, knelt down before Emperor Xianzong, threw himself down on the floor and said, "It was ignorant of me to present this bed that startled your majesty. Please allow me to present your majesty another gift for your majesty's entertainment. Hopefully, your majesty will spare me from the pain of death if your majesty is pleased with my humble gift." Han reached inside his robe and pulled out a box several inches wide that was made of paulownia wood. [Paulownia: any of a genus (Paulownia) of Chinese trees of the snapdragon family; especially: one (Paulownia Tomentosa) widely cultivated for its panicles of fragrant violet flowers.] The box contained at least 100 to 200 geckos in reddish orange color, which was unusual for geckos. Han Zhihe explained that it was because he fed them with cinnabar (artificial red mercuric sulfide used especially as a pigment.) Han opened the box and let the geckos out. Then he divided them into five teams and ordered them to perform a traditional Chinese dance called Liang Zhou. Emperor Xianzong summoned his court musicians to play the accompaniment music for their dance. The geckos danced gracefully in cadence and rhythm to the music. When it came to the musical segment where a dancer should chant a verse, the geckos would hum in unison in lieu of chanting. When the music came to an end, the geckos made their way back into the box in an orderly fashion, as if they had different ranks among themselves. Next Han placed a gecko on a finger. The gecko caught flies swiftly. Like an eagle catching sparrows, the gecko hardly ever missed a prey.

Emperor Xianzong was so impressed that he gave Han all sorts of colorful fabric, blankets, and silver as gifts. However, as soon as Han walked out of the palace, he gave everything away. A year went by, and at that time, no one knew of Han's whereabouts.

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