Lu Ban: The Great Master of Architecture and Trade Crafts

By Xin Di

PureInsight | November 10, 2008

[] The Chinese civilization is not only one of the oldest civilizations in the world, it is also the only one passed down without interruption. From ancient times, through successive dynasties, by reincarnating among men, divine beings continuously passed on a rich cultural heritage to the Chinese people. There is a Chinese folk saying, “Among three hundred and sixty professions, if a profession has no founder, then that profession can’t stand [the test of time].” The founder of each profession was actually the reincarnation of a divine being who, upon entering society, either directly or indirectly founded that profession. In China, folk culture has gradually developed the notion that each profession worships its founder and regards him as a “guardian god.”

The Chinese people’s living environment, including the furniture, buildings, city, and so on, can also be perceived as a direct reflection of their civilization. The culture of traditional architecture in China is rich and colorful, broad and majestic. China’s history of civilized architecture was taught by several divine beings in ancient times, such as Youcaoshi and Dayu, and so it can be said that architecture, too, is part of China’s semi-divine culture. Among these architectural masters, the most famous was Lu Ban from the Spring and Autumn Period. His craftwork has been circulated for thousands of years, earning him great esteem. Carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, the construction industry and furniture manufacturers all worship Lu Ban as the founder of their profession. According to a book from the Tang Dynasty called The Treatise of Lu Ban, construction workers kowtowed to Lu Ban before they set the upper beam of a building. In the Qing Dynasty, whenever the government began a big construction project, they offered gifts and worshipped Lu Ban, praying that the divine being would bless their project. This is still a custom in Taiwan today. Among the Chinese people, all professions related to architecture have worshipped Lu Ban as their founder.

“Master Craftsman”

Lu Ban was born in the state of Lu. His real name was Gongshu Ban, also known as Gongshu Zi. His stylized name was Yizhi, but he was most commonly referred to as Lu Ban. He was an outstanding civil engineer and craftsman in Chinese history and was once an official in the civil engineering department.

Lu Ban was born in the afternoon on May 7, 507 B.C. At the time of his birth, cranes gathered together and an exotic fragrance permeated the house. People were all surprised by it. This was an auspicious sign that a divine being was about to reincarnate in a human body. When he was young, he didn’t like reading or writing. Instead, he was very interested in crafts such as sculpture. At the age of fifteen, he was suddenly awakened to his life’s purpose and went to study under Duanmu. After several months of comprehensive study, he achieved mastery of the subject. Lu Ban lobbied in various states, asking them to respect Zhou (a nation at the time), but those states didn’t listen to him. So he withdrew from society and lived in seclusion in the south of Tai Mountain, also known as “Little He Mountain.” Thirteen years passed. One day, he went out and ran into Old Bao. They chatted for a long time. Finally, Lu Ban took Old Bao as his teacher and studied sculpture and drawing. Lu Ban wanted to bring a completely new outlook to Chinese culture. Lu Ban studied with great concentration, learning carpentry, stone carving, and other skills. He invented many marvelous tools and taught many students.

The books of Hanfeizi, Huainanzi, Lun Heng, and Mozi all recorded that Lu Ban made a bird from wood. After Lu Ban set it to flight, the bird stayed up in the air for three days. In the book of Hongshu, it was said that the wooden bird could take a man up in the air to spy on the enemy. This ingenuous design was the prelude of today’s scout planes.

Who knew that this wooden bird would also lead Lu Ban to make a wooden immortal?

According to the book The Treatise of Lu Ban, Lu Ban made the wooden bird fly to the Chu state to find his sister. Lu Ban’s father was so anxious to find his daughter that he decided to accompany the wooden bird without telling Lu Ban. Since Lu Ban’s father didn’t know how to fly it, the wooden bird crashed in the state of Wu. People in the state of Wu wanted hold Lu Ban’s father hostage to force Lu Ban to make a wooden bird for them. Lu Ban’s father refused to cooperate with their demands and was killed. Lu Ban then made a wooden immortal to avenge the death of his father. The wooden immortal’s finger was pointing toward the Wu state. It caused the Wu state to suffer a drought for three years. When the people of the Wu state realized this, they bestowed lavish gifts upon Lu Ban and apologized for their wrongdoings. The benevolent Lu Ban forgave them. Then he cut off the finger of the wooden immortal and carried out some magic arts. Rain immediately fell upon the Wu state.

Lu Ban also made a wooden horse that could walk on the ground automatically. This is the earliest recorded form of an “automobile.” During the Three Kingdoms Period, Zhuge Liang utilized Lu Ban’s wooden horses to transport food. However, these skills were later lost.

Lu Ban cared for his family very much, and this inspired him to invent several notable tools. For example, when Lu Ban first drew a line using the modou (a carpenter’s ink marker), he asked his mother to hold the other end of the string. Then they finished the work together. Later, Lu Ban didn’t want to tire his mother by always asking her to help, so he made a hook at the end of the string so that his mother didn’t need to hold it any more. In order to commemorate Lu Ban’s filial piety, successors named the hook ban mu or mu gou (mu means “mother” in Chinese). Another example is that when Lu Ban first planed pieces of wood, he would ask his wife to hold the other end of the wood so it wouldn’t slide off the bench. In order to allow his wife to tend to her housework, he nailed a small piece of wood on the bench to prevent the wood from moving forward. Thus, successors named this device ban qi (qi is a Chinese word for “wife”).

Lu Ban also created numerous carpentry tools for the Chinese people, such as the drilling hook, the stone mill, the shovel, dividers, mudou, and the ruler. It was said that Lu Ban invented the saw after his finger was cut by a blade of grass. Lu Ban also made the cloud ladder and the nine implements used in warfare. He also made the earliest three-dimensional topographical map, Jiu Zhou Tu, which was highly respected by Chinese emperors in history. Through his inventions, Lu Ban brought great benefits to the people.

However, Lu Ban’s greatest contribution was not that he excelled in creating these tools, skills and mechanical devices. More importantly, Lu Ban advocated following the Tao. Lu Ban said, “Heaven and Earth don’t need the compass or the angle board to make a circle or square. But when it comes to the human world, people need the compass to draw circles and need the angle board to draw squares. The universe and its works are already in the Tao, but human beings walk away from the Tao. Thus human beings need the compass and the angle board to make the circle and square.” Hence we can see that when Lu Ban passed on his skills, he also felt he had no choice. People need tools because they are far from the Tao. Of course, through teaching about these tools, what Lu Ban taught helped people get back to the standard of being human.

If Lu Ban didn’t make those tools or devices, and if his successors didn’t have the same clear thinking as Lu Ban, then Lu Ban’s skills might have been lost. Therefore, Lu Ban had to invent those craftsman’s tools so that they could be passed down for generations.

In his forties, Lu Ban went back to live in the mountains where he met a divine being. The divine being taught him some secrets. Later, Lu Ban travelled all over the world. Finally, when he was seventy years old, he levitated in broad daylight. His axe and saw were left on the White Deer Rock. You can still see these ancient relics. The book The Treatise of Lu Ban is the only book handed down to today’s generations that recorded the houses, furniture, agriculture and handicrafts of Lu Ban’s time. Initially, the book was circulated by word of mouth among craftsmen in the form of pithy formulas. During the Ming Dynasty, the book was finally put in writing. Since the frames of ancient houses were made from wood, the book recorded a lot of techniques in carpentry. It also included things related to feng shui and Taoist magic figures, which manifest the Chinese ideology that nature and man should be in harmony.

Throughout the ages, craftsmen have inherited Lu Ban’s teachings. At the early stage of training apprentices, he advocated that the most important thing was not to learn how to use the tools, but instead, to learn the moral standards and to conduct oneself to be upright, to learn to be kind to others and be strict with oneself. Moreover, one should learn to concentrate, learn to cultivate one’s mind, to harmonize one’s mind with the heart. These requirements for heart and mind would help one to achieve a clean and pure mindset. With such a mindset, when one works on a project, he can forget himself and focus on the work, integrating the work with the Tao. Under these guiding principles, throughout the ages there emerged many famous craftsmen.

For example, a craftsman who lived during the 2nd century B.C. was Lu Ban’s disciple. He founded the industry of bricklaying and invented the tools for bricklaying and taught them to people. He was respectfully called the “Lotus Divine Master,” as well as the “Lines Divine Master.” According to legend, the Lotus Divine Master was the incarnation of a divine being. Initially, he taught people how to make tiles to build houses. Then, more and more people came to learn from him. Upon finding that his skills were far above average, they asked him to formally take them as disciples. The Lotus Divine Master said: “If you want me to be your master, follow me.” Then he jumped into the burning kiln and flew away as an immortal. After that, people realized that he was a divine being. Because of the teachings of the Lotus Divine Master, in Chinese history, the Qin Dynasty and Han Dynasty were well known for their bricks and tiles.

Emperors throughout the dynasties of Chinese civilization granted many titles to Lu Ban. For example, in the Ming Dynasty, over ten thousand people built Beijing’s Dragon Hall, a huge project that could only be accomplished under the guidance of Lu Ban’s instructions. The people at that time built a temple to make offerings to Lu Ban. The horizontal inscription on the sign of the temple read “Lu Ban Gate.” The emperor at the time granted Lu Ban the title “nobleman to assist the country.” People used Tai Lao to hold the memorial ceremony for Lu Ban twice a year. Tai Lao meant that they used a whole cow, goat and pig for the ceremony. That was as grand a ceremony as had been held for Confucius. There were two purposes for building the Lu Ban temple. One reason was to thank Lu Ban, and the other was that when craftsmen had questions in their work, they could go to the temple to ask Lu Ban for guidance.

Lu Ban influenced every man’s life, and his tools are still being used even today. In the dynasties following Lu Ban’s time, cities, buildings, doors and windows were all “orderly.” Lu Ban helped us live safely and comfortably. Moreover, he used this residential environment to impart the standards and ways of conduct to the Chinese people. This helped to maintain the moral level of the Chinese nation over five thousand years.

Today, Chinese Communist Party officials are pursuing bizarre building designs and urban planning. This reflects the social chaos of modern day China. Innovation doesn’t mean abandoning the principles of one’s profession. Only by returning to the principles left to us by divine beings can our society live in peace, harmony and prosperity.

Reference: Wu Rong’s book: The Treatise of Lu Ban (Ming Dynasty)

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