Haiwang YUAN

Chinese tradition often attributes inventions to a legendary person, and Lu Ban, based on a real person named Gongshu Ban (who lived late sixth to early fifth century BCE), is regarded as the creator of many of the tools of carpentry, such as saws, squares, and planes.

China has a tradition of attributing an invention or a series of related inventions to a deified or legendary person. Lu Ban is therefore worshiped as the originator of many of the tools used in carpentry in the same way that Cang Ji is venerated as the author of Chinese characters and Cai Lun the creator of paper.

The real person behind the consecrated Lu Ban was said to be Gongshu Ban (507–442 BCE). Lu Ban was simply his nickname meaning “Ban from the state of Lu.” He was either a skilled artisan or emancipated slave from the state of Lu in the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE). The great Confucian Mencius (372–289 BCE) gave Gongshu Ban, or Lu Ban, credit for inventing the first quchi (carpenter’s square). Many historical records claim that Lu Ban was also behind the invention of such tools and devices as the bao (plane), modou (ink marker), chi (ruler), ju (saw), zuan (drill), shuan (bolt), xie (peg), chan (shovel), san (umbrella), lulu (windlass, a machine for hoisting and hauling), and shimo (millstone). These records include Gushi kao (Examination of Ancient History) by Qiao Zhou (201–270), Shiwu ganzhu (Of All Things) by Huang Yizheng (around 1601), and Wuyuan (Origin of Things) by Luo Qi of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Some of the contraptions are even associated with Lu Ban’s family members, suggesting that they had a part in their creation. For example, the little hook attached to the tip of the line from an ink marker is called a banmu (Ban’s mother), and the little fixture on a bench that catches a piece of wood while it is planed is named banqi (Ban’s wife).

Many tales have been told about Lu Ban and his inventions. A textbook classic tells that one day Lu Ban was assigned to build a large palace in a limited time. The only tools available at the time were axes, which were very inefficient when it came to felling trees and separating timber into lumber. He was told that if he and his fellow workers failed to meet the deadline, they would face serious punishment, which usually meant decapitation. Worried, Lu Ban went to the mountain to oversee the loggers. He grabbed what he could lay his hands on to clamber up when something cut his fingers. Ignoring the pain and bleeding, the curious Lu Ban studied the object that had hurt him. The discovery of a serrated leaf of grass gave him an idea: A metal blade with notches and sharp projections would cut into wood as fast as the teeth of the leaf cut into his hand. And it would speed up lumbering significantly. Hence the ju (saw) came into existence. But not all Chinese believe in this tale. The ethnic Yao in China ascribed the creation of the ju to Yayou, a deity working for the Yao’s mother goddess, Miluotuo.

Deity of Artisans

The artisan deity Lu Ban, known also as Gongshu Pan or Kungshu Phan, is discussed by China scholar Joseph Needham in his seven-volume Science & Civilisation of China.

Just now we read Fu Hsuan’s reference to Kungshu Phan, the greatest of all the tutelary deities of artisans. In spite of the fact that much of what was handed down about him is clearly legend, there is no reason to doubt his real existence in the State of Lu (hence his other name, Lu Pan) in the 5th century, and we shall meet him from time to time in connection with kites and other devices. He lives in proverbs, for instance “brandishing one’s adze at the door of Lu Pan” (Lu Pan men chhien lung fu tzu), which is as much as to say, in our less elegant idiom, “teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs.

… Here is the place to mention a curious little work called the Lu Pan Ching (Lu Pan’s Manual), which circulated widely in the resent past among China’s craftsmen. As it seems not to have been studied by any sinologist, some descriptions of it may be appropriate. Its author or compiler, Ssucheng Wu-jung, and its editors, Chang Yen and chou Yen, are quite dateless, but much of its content is so archaic that one gains the impression of dealing with material some of which might well go back at least to the Sung. Anything so traditional will always be hard to date.

The book opens with a series of illustrations showing operations of constructional joinery, sawyers at work, and various kinds of houses, bridges and pavilions, partly built or completed… Then there follows, after a legendary biography of Kungshu Phan, a mass of detail about the cutting of timber in forests, the erection of pillars and the characteristic houses, furniture, the wheel barrow, the square-pallet chain pump, the piston bellows, the abacus and many other things. Precise specifications and dimensions are all interspersed with lore about lucky and unlucky days, samples of charms and appropriate sacrifices. As the book proceeds the magical element preponderates more and more over the technical, and thus at the end we find a “physiognomy” of buildings, directions for exorcistic and luck-bearing incantations, and descriptions of permanent protective cantrips. The whole work, therefore, which deserves serious study, constitutes a unique piece of traditional technology and folklore.

Source: Needham, J.. (1965). Science and civilization in China, Vol. IV: 2. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 44–46.

Further Reading

Ruitenbeek, K. (1993). Carpentry and building in late imperial China: A study of the fifteenth-century carpenter’s manual. Lu Ban jing. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Yi, Jinmu, Ban Lu, & Rong Wu. (2007). Lu Ban jing: Yi bu gu dai jian zhu ying zao fa shi de gui nie zhi zuo. Zhongguo jian zhu kan yu wen hua shu xi. Beijing Shi: Hua wen chu ban she.

Ching, E., Ko-Shee Ching, & Austin, T. (1991). Lu Ban & old Sir Lee; Umbrellas. Chinese children’s stories, 36. Cerritos, CA: Wonder Kids Publications.

Wei, Heling, Baoluo Li, Xin Zhu, & Yu Sun. (2004). Lu Ban de chuan shuo. Lao dian ying jing dian zhen cang. Jinan, China: Qi lu yin xiang chu ban she.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang (2009). LU Ban. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1351–1352. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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