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Ancient science and technology: Tang dynasty master craftsman Ma Daifeng
Edited by Ming Xin
[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.]
Records in an ancient book, Travel News, tell us that at the beginning of Emperor Tang Xuan Zhong’s Kai Yuan rule, someone repaired the emperor’s travel vehicle in the palace. Ma Daifeng was an accomplished craftsman of the Eastern Sea region. He rebuilt and repaired such items as the lead carriages, drums for recording the journeys’ mileage, and birds for indicating wind directions. These items were made more delicately than those of even more ancient times.
Ma Daifeng also made a dresser for a queen, containing a mirror in the center and two shelves with doors beneath. When the queen needed to dress and apply her make up, the mirrored cabinet was opened and the doors beneath automatically opened. Then, a wooden robot woman emerged carrying washing paraphernalia. The queen removed all the towels and then the wooden woman went back into the cabinet. Items such as rouge and powder, eyebrow pencil and hair adornments all were handed to the queen by this wooden robot. After she finished, the wooden robot went back and the doors closed automatically. As soon as the doors closed someone would remove the dresser. The top of the dresser was decorated with gold, silver, and colored paintings. The dress and ornaments of the wooden robot were very delicate as well.
Over several years, Ma Daifeng made a variety of instruments for the Emperor in the palace, but he did not give Ma an official position. Ma Daifeng thus felt ashamed The Emperor only ordered his people to deliver food and articles for use in daily life to him. Ma asked the Emperor to grant him permission to make useful mechanically enhanced articles, such as drinking vessels and a money-saving jar. Emperor Xuanzhong granted his request. All the vessels were made from silver. The drinking vessel and money-saving jar were operated by machinery. The drinking vessel can be opened from four directions so wind passed into it. The blowing wind spun the machinery inside, thus, forming negative and positive opposites, allowing the wine to flow out like spring water and filling up all drinking cups and drinking jars. Moreover, mechanical servants controlled the pouring of the wine. These inventions were even finer and more ingenious than anything nature could have engineered.
After Ma Daifeng manufactured the mechanically operated utensils (Part 1), he went to report to Emperor Xuan Zong. The Emperor gave an excuse that he had matters to deal with at the palace and so did not grant an interview to Ma Daifeng. Ma Daifeng felt bitter that his fortune was not good, and decided to change his name and live in seclusion at the mountains of Xi He. At the end of the Kai Yuan period (713 - 742 A.D.), Ma Daifeng moved from Jinzhou to the capital city of Changan. He referred to himself as a Taoist monk by the name of Wu Ci and often fasted.
The Taoist monk Ma Daifeng together with the officer in charge of Cui City constructed a wine-dispensing utensil modeled like a mountain. They also made containers of baked clay that had a tilting mechanism for storing money and so on. The model mountain that Ma Daifeng constructed was placed at the center of a round disc that was four feet, five inches in diameter. A huge tortoise was built under the disc and acted as its support. All the operating mechanisms were built into the tortoise’s abdomen. The mountain model, which was three feet high, was built at the center of the disc. The mountain had wonderful and remarkable peaks and ridges. The inside of the mountain was hollow and could hold three dou (1 dou equals 10 liters) of wine. A number of “ponds” were arranged around the mountain, and their purpose was to hold wine. Other mountains surrounded the ponds. In the ponds of wine were “lotus plants”. The flowers and leaves of the lotus plants were made of cast iron. The flowers looked like they were blooming and the leaves like they were unfolding. They could be used as plates or trays. They were filled with dried meat, meat sauce, vegetables and fruits that were to be eaten with the wine. A dragon was placed at the south side, half way up the mountain. Its body was hidden in the mountain. When its mouth was opened, wine poured out from it. Wine glasses were placed on the lotus leaves below the mouth of the dragon. When each glass was filled to eighty percent of its capacity, the wine would stop flowing. The person wishing to drink the wine from the glass could immediately take the glass away. If it took too long for a person to finish drinking the glass of wine, a door at the two-tiered platform on top of the mountain would automatically open. A well-dressed mechanical man who wore a hat and held a board, would appear from the open door to remind the drinkers to drink faster. When the drinkers replaced the empty glasses on the lotus leaves and had their glasses filled with wine from the dragon’s mouth, the mechanical man would go back inside the two-tiered platform. The door would then close automatically. If there were people who still drank slowly, the mechanical man would again appear to urge them to drink their wine. In this manner, by the end of the feast, all the wine in the model mountain would be consumed and the automatic mechanical components would not have made any error. On the four sides of the mountain were the mouths of dragons pouring out wine. Sometimes the wine would be poured into the ponds, but there were hidden holes in them that would drain the spilt wine into the wine storage at the center of the mountain. This would continue till the end of the banquet when not a drop of wine would remain in the container.
The wine pouring mechanism that Ma Daifeng installed in the model mountain to dispense wine was equipped with automatically tilting wine glasses to enable the wine to be poured from the dragon's mouth into each of the glasses. When the glasses were empty, they would assume an inclined position; when they were half-full, they would stand erect; and when they were full, the glasses would automatically tilt over, pouring the wine into the pond. This was what the Confucian temples referred to as the "urge-to-sit mechanism". What it meant was that "the gentlemen had already been warned that they had enough to drink".
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