Life-Sized Mechanical Robot of the Zhou Dynasty

A classic Daoist text  tells the tale of a craftsman named Yanshi in ancient China who  constructed a life-sized singing and dancing figure for the king. (Image: via  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
A classic Daoist text tells the tale of a craftsman named Yanshi in ancient China who constructed a life-sized singing and dancing figure for the king. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

From the first century before Christ to the 15th century, China held a leading position worldwide in many fields. Papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass are its most recognized inventions. China’s robotics and machinery craftsmanship was also very advanced.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 B.C.), a mechanical engineer apparently constructed a life-sized singing and dancing figure for the king. The robot entertainer even had realistic internal organs, bones, muscles, joints, skin, teeth, and hair.

A classic Daoist text called Questions of Tang: Lie Zi, which is thought to combine material from the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., tells the tale of a craftsman named Yanshi who met with King Mu of Zhou.

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The robot entertainer was brought before the king to sing and dance. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

“Who is that person with you?” asked King Mu. “I built him to sing and dance,” replied Yanshi. Intrigued, the King observed carefully as the figure began to sing and dance when music was played. Its voice and movements were ever-changing and in perfect rhythm. The King became increasingly suspicious whether it wasn’t, in fact, a real person, and called his concubines to watch the performance.

As the music ended, the robot began teasing the concubines, enraging the King. Yanshi immediately disassembled the robot in front of the King, who observed that the construct was made from leather, timber, glue, lacquer, and some other things that were black, white, red and green. Taking a closer look, the King discovered that the colorful pieces were internal organs — there was a liver, a gallbladder, a heart, lungs, kidneys, a spleen, a stomach, and intestines — and even muscles, bones, joints, teeth, and hair. They were all manmade, yet extremely realistic. Once reassembled, the robot danced and sang as before.

The King was shocked. He tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. “This really is superb craftsmanship!” exclaimed the King, excited. After reassembling the robot, King Mu ordered Yanshi to go with him to Zhongyuan (the area on the lower reaches of the Yellow River).

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Yanshi’s mechanical figure was based on the Chinese theory of five elements. (Image: Parnassus via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

In traditional Chinese theory, the five elements represent all physiological, mental, emotional, and spiritual processes in human beings. The fire element (red) is associated with the heart and speech; the wood element (green) with the liver, gallbladder, and sight; the water element (blue) with the kidneys and energetic drive — to name just a few. Yanshi’s mechanical figure was therefore based on traditional wisdom of the human body and the universe.

Translated by Fu Ming, edited by Emiko Kingswell

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