Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse

The state of Shu’s Prime Minister Zhuge Liang invented the Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse to transport army provisions because the roads at Badu Mountain were dangerous and hard to pass. (Image: via  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
The state of Shu’s Prime Minister Zhuge Liang invented the Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse to transport army provisions because the roads at Badu Mountain were dangerous and hard to pass. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Modern people believe living conditions in ancient times were very primitive. However, ancient Chinese science and technology was quite advanced. Papermaking, gunpowder, and the compass were all invented in China. Stories of other incredible inventions have been passed down to the present day, though the mechanisms they describe have long been lost.

During the Three Kingdoms Period in China (A.D. 221-263), Zhuge Liang the Prime Minister of the State of Shu, invented a means of transport known as “Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse” as a solution to the considerable problem of transporting army provisions over the rugged and steep mountainous roads of Sichuan. Its recorded weight was “a year’s weight of grains,” or approximately around 400 jin (440 pounds). During a day’s travel, “a single person could cover several dozen kilometers (15-20 miles), while a group could travel 15 kilometers (nearly 9.5 miles),” providing the state of Shu’s vast army of 100,000 soldiers with provisions.

In The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 102nd chapter, there is a description of Zhuge Liang’s Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse. It says that this form of transport “carries provisions, is convenient, and the cows and horses don’t need food or water and can move nonstop day and night.” The tongue in the mouth of the Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse was a mechanism that rendered the machinery useless if it was stolen by Prime Minister Sima Yi of the enemy state of Wei.

grain sack

This mysterious form of transport was used to provide provisions for a vast army of 100,000 soldiers. (Image: Phil Roeder via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Mysterious means of transport like this were not fabricated stories, as there are records in historical books. In Book of the Southern Qi Dynasty, the Story of Zu Chong records: “The Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse invented by Zhuge Liang was not afraid of the wind or rain. As long as the mechanism is turned on, it can operate automatically and does not require an ounce of manpower.”

Another historical reference, Shiwujiyuan by Gao Cheng from the Song Dynasty, recorded: “The state of Shu’s Prime Minister Zhuge Liang invented the Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse to transport army provisions because the roads at Badu Mountain were dangerous and hard to pass. Wooden Cow and Flowing Horse made it convenient to climb mountains and wade through waters. The Wooden Cow is well known today as a small chariot with two sticks in front; Flowing Horse is the modern day wheelbarrow.”

Translated by Fu Ming

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