Others: China

© Bob Denton, 2016
Forward to Others: Maya
Forward to B – Middle Ages   –  Advance to DD and D
Back to Unpublished writing

As we saw in ancient times the Chinese were early to use rivers as their means of transportation and communication.

A collection of poems and songs, Shih Ching, includes references to irrigation from 800 BCE. They also have reference to a 300 BCE irrigation scheme – see Zhengguo Canal below. Irrigation was both significant and formeative of the folklore in China!

In 206 BCE the Han Dynasty capital was Chang’an, northwest of today’s Xi’an city. It was built on the foundations of the Qin Dynasty palaces. As it grew in importance something needed to be done about water supply.  Waters from the Jiao River were flowed into a man-made reservoir, the Kunming to provide a store of water. A stone-built weir was placed at the inlet of the reservoir so that in times of flood the water could be diverted into the Feng River to avoid any calamity. Canals led the reservoir water to the city and for the irrigation of agricultural areas.

A system or embankments, water gates, weirs, canals, channels, culverts and aqueducts provided a grid of water supply to the city that at its peak contained 300,000 people. Major canals provide water first and foremost for imperial use, then subsequently was applied for washing and drainage. Later canals were added for transportation.

Dikes had long been built to try to manage the waters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers (see Yu the Great earlier). These had needed to become higher and higher across the years and during the second century BCE several devastating dike failures damaged large tracts of agricultural land. As a result by 120 BCE some 700,000 people had to relocate to other regions. An exceptionally dry period in 109 BCE permitted them to repair the dikes.

Seventy years later another breach prompted a more successful approach to repair. Bamboo cages were filled with rocks and plugged gaps – this technique is still used today!

Bamboo cages for construction
Image source: www.alibaba.com

Near Turpan in Xinjiang province, between 206 and 24 BCE, they created a system of qanat wells, underground canals. These proved crucial in establishing Turpan as an oasis stopover along the Silk Road. They were locally called karez, ‘well’ in Uyghur language. Wells and dams were used to store water. The location was the second deepest depression in the world, so the water was readily gravity fed and providing relief from the dry and sand-stormy summer.

Karaz well system
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Yellow river travels for 5,500 kms (3,395 miles) transporting two billion tonnes (tons) of sediment with it. Its routine yet catastrophic floods have earned the rived the sobriquet ‘China’s Sorrow’.

Sanyangzhuang archaeological site
Image source: en.people.cn

Around 2,000 years ago (11 – 69 CE) the Chinese version of Pompeii was engulfed by a Yellow River flood, this was Sanyangzhuang. This otherwise unremarkable village is in north-central China in the Henan province. The river had flooded the town on four occasions before this and would do so on a subsequent occasion too. This time it seeped across the village’s fields of millet and wheat and insistently yet gently deposited 4.5 metres (fifteen feet) of silt on the village. It happened without warning and so all their belongings were abandoned as they rushed for the high ground – thirty miles away! No trace of organic material has been discovered beneath the silt, leaving open the question open as to whether the villagers escaped.

Archaeologists have uncovered fourteen compounds containing substantial homes and expect there to be more. They have found agricultural implements, iron tools, copper coins, grinding stones, pottery jars, a weaving loom… One roof tile was found with the inscription Yi Shou Wan Sui meaning long life.


Recognising the value of water transportation the Chinese became prodigious canal builders. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) the Chinese built the Bai Canal, the Liufu Canal and the Karez system and were proficient well diggers (see earlier).

One early canal is on the UNESCO World Heritage List #1001, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System (256 BCE). This was created during the Qin dynasty to manage the Minjang River and use its waters to irrigate the Chengdu fertile plains. The system shares its listing with Mount Qingcheng the birthplace or Taoism (142 BCE) with its eleven significant temples.

The water system was awarded its UNESCO listing with the comment, ‘a major landmark in the development of water management and technology, and is still discharging its functions perfectly.’

They did not use dams but instead has a Weir Works up at 726 m above sea level. Normally dams stop the to-ing and fro-ing of fish, but this system does not. By a skilful use of its conical Yuzui Levee and a by-pass dike this separates the river’s flow in to two canals. One, the outer canal, is shallow and wide and serves to take away most of the silt and pebbles. The Inner Canal is deep and narrow to divert the waters down towards the irrigated area. A 200m flying sand weir links the two canals. A bottle-neck channel swirls the flow here so that when it is in spate the excess water is carried over the weir to the outer canal. The system ensures that almost two-thirds of the flow is maintained for irrigation. Finally a channel was cut through the mountain to lead the water down to the farmlands.

The original work employed tens of thousands. The levees were constructed with woven-bamboo baskets filled with stones and anchored with wooden stakes in a tripod arrangement, this part of the task took four years of construction.

Processes used for Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Image source: www.tripadvisor.com

Having not yet invented gunpowder and having tools inadequate to cut the channels, the ‘architect’ Li Bing came up with an innovative solution he stuffed grass into any available crack and set fire to this to heat the rocks, then cooled them with chilly water so that they would fracture and crack. This part of the construction took eight years.

The security this system brought allowed the region to become the most productive in China. As a result other Chinese suggest this region’s descendants have become rather laid-back, given they need not fear floods and can routinely expect a regular good harvest.

Dujiangyan has withstood earthquakes and, by being regularly updated and expanded down the ages, still functions today, irrigating almost 700,000 hectares of farmland.

Anlan bridge over Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Image source: www.chinavacations.biz

Anlan Bridge runs right over the river connecting the artificial island to both banks. It is known as one of the Five Ancient Bridges of China though this is not Li Bing’s original.

The Chinese Grand Canal
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

During the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) they built the Grand Canal of China. Though its oldest section, the Han Gou, was in fact built earlier from 486 BCE, taking three years to join up the Yangtze River and the Huai River. This would eventually (by the 6th century CE) link Beijing with Hangzhou (south of Shanghai) to become the longest artificial river in the world.

Beijing has three rivers, the Chaobai, Juma and Yungding, and a number of tributaries of the Hai River. Peking Man dates back to 230,000 to 250,000 BP, and the first traces of Homo sapiens only back to 27,000 BP. There was a walled city here, called Ji, from the 11th century BCE. Its importance grew and waned in the early period but once it had been established in the 5th century BCE as the northern terminus of the Grand Canal its future as a capital became more assured.

Hangzhou is on the bay that is also the location of Shanghai and its West Lake, a significant attraction. It was the southern capital for the Song dynasty and is the southern terminus of the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal is UNESCO Heritage Site #1443bis, and very popular with tourists. It links the Yellow River with the Yangtze River and runs for some 1,794 kms (1,115 miles). It was heavily renovated in the Ming Dynasty between 1368 and 1644 CE.

The Grand Canal at Suzhou
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Zhengguo Canal
Image source – www.kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com

According to the historian Sima Qian, the c300 BCE Zhengguo Canal was named after the water engineer who designed it, Zheng Guo. It was conceived by the Ham kingdom to create a physical barrier to contain the Qin kingdom. The Qin threatened to kill the engineer when they realised its purpose but reprieved him when they saw it brought huge irrigation benefits, making fertile a previously salty area. The Qin gained 27,000 sq kms of irrigated land and this enabled them to support even greater armies! However, it became heavily silted and routinely needed maintenance for the next two millennia.


Chinese bathtime
Image source: viewofchina.com

The Chinese did manufacture a detergent from vegetable and herbal oils but proper soap was not created until the modern era.

Chinese bath equipment, 2000 years BP
Image source: viewofchina.com


The Chinese appear to have separately developed the notion of a waterwheel, this seems quite clear as many of theirs from the 1st century CE were mounted horizontally.

Chinese Waterwheel
Image source: waterhistory.com

The Chinese also appear to have been the first to use a waterwheel to power the bellows of a furnace used in production of cast iron.  They also first applied the power source for moving an astronomical device.


Model of toilet with pigsty (see Pig toilet, China, Eastern Han dynasty 25 – 220 AD)

Human waste was recycled by the Chinese, in part because they had next to no cattle manure. One notion of recycling toilet output was developed in both China and India, with a toilet outhouse set up so that the excreta passed down a chute into a pig sty. But of course the subsequent slaughter and eating of the pigs presented a serious risk for consumers.

In the year 2000 a press release from the Chinese news agency Xinhua was picked up as an AP release and the story was carried by many broadcasters and western print media operations. The release announced that, at Shangqiu county in central Henan, the Han Dynasty tomb had been excavated of Prince Liu Mai, a descendant of the Han emperor.

The Prince died in 136 BCE and his tomb was said to include a toilet with running water and a flush. It was carved from rock and included a stone toilet seat and an armrest. The article conjectured that the Chinese therefore invented the first flush toilet (even if true these dates would not substantiate this claim – see Orkneys latrine.)

This was very close to the Henan Shangqiu Steel factory, a manufacturer of deluxe toilets fabricated in steel and in a commercial battle with American Standard in their home market, it is clear that this sort of release would be helpful to their cause.

The release did suggest that there was also a consort’s tomb adjacent, it had thirty rooms with a bathroom, toilet, kitchen and an ice-store. But at the time of writing I could find no additional information issued across the intervening years, apart from this rather unconvincing blog post. So it’s your call?

Shangqiu WC
Image source: www.jaimeleschoristes.blogspot.co.uk

Toilet paper, 589 CE

The Chinese had invented the modern way of making paper back during its Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE).

Cai Lun Paper Culture Museum
Image source: china.org.cn

One tale suggests that it was Cai Lun an official of the Imperial Court who first produced it using mulberry fibres, hemp and rags. They subsequently used short lengths of bamboo and later added cotton linen rags that had been soaked in water and pounded into a pulp. This was formed into sheets and dried.

Yan Zhitu
Image source: chine.in

It was during the Sui Dynasty in 589 CE that the first mention of paper used as toilet rolls was obliquely mentioned (aren’t toilet rolls always obliquely mentioned?). A Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui (531–591 CE), mused (while using a toilet?) that ‘Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.’

BRIEFER: During the 5th century CE a jealous first wife of a local official, murdered the second wife by drowning her in a cesspit during a festival. The ‘Ruler of Heaven’ took pity on her and declared her the goddess of the toilet. The people would call out to her and place small images of her in their privies on the fifteenth day of the first month, referring to her as the ‘Purple Maiden’. She would also respond to questions either making the figure dance if she approved or causing something in their hand to move.

Silk Road routes
Image source: honors.uoregon.edu

The notion would travel along the Silk Road to the Middle East and via Iberia into Europe where, because its raw materials were so low cost, it took over from parchment, papyrus and vellum. In 851 CE an Arab travelling through China stated, ‘They [the Chinese] are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper.’

By the mid-14th century during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 CE), it was recorded that ten million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper were manufactured annually in the Zhejiang province alone

BRIEFER: It took many centuries for toilet paper to reach Europe not that other parts showed a lack of innovation. As we saw Greeks used their pessoi clay discs, Romans had used rosewater, wool and their tersorium sponge-on-a-stick, Vikings used sheep and lamb’s wool, Hawaiians used coconut shells, Eskimos used tundra moss, in the middle ages Europe used grass and hay, Iberian sailors used old hemp ropes, one French writer, Francois Rabelais, proposed a well-downed goose neck…

One of my favourite toilet jokes is perhaps appropriate here, though perhaps it is generally inappropriate to mention at all! A bear catches sight of a rabbit in a sylvan glade going about his business, so decides to join him. Finishing up he asks the rabbit, do you find that your shit sticks to your fur? The rabbit replies that it did not. So the bear grabs the rabbit and uses him to clean off his backside.

Bear and Rabbit gag
Image source: youtube.com

Forward to Others: Maya

© Bob Denton, 2016
Forward to B – Middle Ages   –  Advance to DD and D
Back to Unpublished writing