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Single-wheeled mobility: the housed-wheel barrow on the plains of preindustrial China.

For the last two millennia, and up to about half a century ago, wheelbarrows were a common sight on Chinese roads and paths. With industrialisation they have been replaced by bicycles and small motor vehicles. Nowadays traditional wheelbarrows can be seen in use in and around farmyards, much as we would expect them to be from our European experience. Joseph Needham and Rudolf Hommel, who still observed only marginally industrialised mobility systems, have pointed out that wheelbarrows used to be common for the transport of goods and people throughout flat and moderately hilly country. (1) This article focuses on the large housed-wheel barrow in the late imperial period (1368-1911), exploring its technical features, uses and increasingly important role in the mobility systems of the north China plain and its southern extensions across the Yangzi (see Figure 1).

Research into wheelbarrows in China has not advanced greatly since Needham's work. (2) To some extent, the scarcity of source materials may account for this seeming lack of interest. The technology of mobility rarely receives mention in Chinese literary writings or political discussions, and the chances of being taken notice of were even less for a vehicle that was lowly, humdrum and familiar almost everywhere. (3) Antje Richter has recently shown that such oversight was an elite attitude not shared in more popular levels of culture. (4) Nevertheless, as the written tradition is almost entirely an elite affair, the effect poses a significant obstacle to research. (5)

The terminology adds to the difficulties. Most commonly wheelbarrows are referred to as 'little carts' (xiaoche), implicitly contrasted with 'large carts' (dache). Depending on the context, xiaoche may refer to wheelbarrows, two-wheeled pushcarts or the standard two-wheeled cart laid out for one draught animal as opposed to larger carts or waggons. Alongside the often unidentifiable 'little carts' we come across specific designations, such as 'single-wheeled cart' (dulunche), 'single-wheeled pushcart' (dutuiche), 'cockerel cart' (gongjiche) or 'little goat's-head cart' (yangtou xiaoche). At present it is impossible to establish whether these designate types or are simply names used in different periods or localities.


For these reasons an exploration of wheelbarrows in China has to rely heavily on observations by foreigners, which are mostly of fairly recent date, and to turn to somewhat unusual sources such as court paintings and poetry. (6)

Not unusually, foreign visitors, startled by a sight that was novel to them, left detailed descriptions. The Korean scholar Pak Chi-won (1737-1805), who travelled with an embassy from the Choson court in Seoul to the imperial court of the Qianlong emperor in Beijing in 1780 (see Figure 1), was a proponent of practical-minded statecraft and keenly observed differences in the economic systems of the two countries. In his travel diary he describes 'single-wheeled carts' in the section on wheeled appliances:
   Single-wheeled carts are pushed by a man who holds the shafts from
   behind. They have a wheel in the middle, half of which sticks out
   over the body of the cart, while to the left and right crates are
   made. The weight of the load must not tilt but be placed so that
   the wheel divides it into halves. A drum-shaped frame keeps the
   wheel and the goods apart so that they cannot rub against each
   other. Under the shafts two short beams hang down: when moving,
   they are lifted with the shafts; when stopping the cart rests upon
   them. Serving as pillars, these beams prevent the cart from tipping
   over. Those who sell cakes and fruit on the roadside all use these
   one-wheel carts. They are particularly convenient for transporting
   nightsoil to the fields. One also frequently sees two village women
   sitting, each on one crate, holding a child. The water transporters
   use five to six buckets on both sides of the cart. When the load is
   heavy and bulky a man pulls it along with a rope; sometimes two or
   three may pull, like trackers of a boat. (7)

Pak provides valuable information on the wheelbarrow in the northeastern part of the north China plain in the late eighteenth century. (8) A Qianlong era (1735-95) version of the famous Song painting 'Qingming shanghe tu' (Going up river on the Qingming festival) copies the general arrangement of its eleventh-century predecessor while updating the scenery to the late eighteenth century. (9) It shows wheelbarrows perhaps not unlike the ones seen by Pak Chi-won (Figure 2). About one-fourth of a page, Pak Chi-won's description and the detail from the painting provide a first impression of the 'one-wheeled cart'. The two sources show a versatile vehicle, capable of transporting quite heavy loads or several passengers. Features of the construction may help to explain how this peculiar vehicle came to be so widely used.



When Westerners started to travel to China in larger numbers, from the late nineteenth century onwards, they found the vehicle and its uses in rural and urban mobility much as Pak had described them. Their descriptions and photographs provide detailed information for the late period of preindustrial mobility. Hommel took a photo of a wheelbarrow in a Jiangxi farmyard of the 1930s which clearly shows the construction (Figure 3).

The core feature of the vehicle is the large housed wheel with racks for loads on either side of the housing. There is a basic constructional difference between these vehicles and the European type of wheelbarrow as well as those in use in other parts of China. These 'ordinary' wheelbarrows have comparatively small wheels well in front, so that the weight of the load is distributed between the barrow man and the wheel, whereas the housedwheel barrow places the load over the axle. Consequently propelling this vehicle was a much less tiring task, since the barrow man balanced, steered and pushed the vehicle, without--as long as balance could be maintained--having to lift the load. When stationary, the barrow rested upon its short legs under the shafts, tilted well backwards. A sling attached to the shafts, which the barrow man pulled over his shoulders and neck, took the strain off his arms and enabled him to use his shoulders as well as his arms to balance and steer the cart. Owing to these construction features, the large-wheeled barrow, despite its size, could be employed in transporting heavy loads, and the barrow men could work them all day, making the vehicle suitable for middle and even long-distance mobility.


The wheel of Hommel's barrow was about 90 cm in diameter, as apparently typical for the type used throughout the lower Yangzi region since the early seventeenth century. It seems that the wheels of large northern barrows, those worked by several men or pulled by a donkey, could be well over 1 m in diameter, i.e. approaching the size of a cart wheel. (10) In his analysis of wheel construction in China and Europe, Wegener Sleeswyk has convincingly argued that the precondition for the housed-wheel barrow was the ability to build large yet extraordinarily strong wheels. Resistance to horizontal torque is the key difficulty to be overcome in building barrow wheels. With four-wheeled wagons, in which the main load rests upon the rear axle, forces exerted on the wheels when the vehicle turns a corner are relatively mild, because the front wheels carry little weight and the rear wheels are pulled around a broad curve. With two-wheeled carts, by contrast, the wheels need much greater strength to withstand the forces they are subjected to. The single wheel of a wheelbarrow, which has to withstand high torque at every tilt and turn, is consequently the wheel most exposed to all kinds of pressures. Wegener Sleeswyk argues that whereas in Europe constructional adaptation centred on developing four-wheeled vehicles with independently moving axles, Chinese cartwrights never took to four-wheeled vehicles, but instead perfected large, exceptionally strong cart wheels. Contrary to what one might expect, these cart wheels had narrow rims suitable for the soft loess soils of northern China. (11) It was this ability that made the development of the large-wheeled barrow possible.

We have a fairly good picture of the general construction of wheelbarrows, but some details are only beginning to be addressed. While Wegener Sleeswyk emphasises the considerable technological know-how required for the building of barrow wheels, Chinese sources remain almost entirely silent on the issue. (12) Very piecemeal evidence spread over almost a millennium suggests that wheelbarrows were locally made, while cartwrights exclusively made carts. (13)

The possibility that carts and wheelbarrows were built by different specialists leads us to another constructional difference. Chinese and Western descriptions agree on the loud squealing noise made by wheelbarrows, whereas carts are said to have rumbled. At least from the Song period onwards, 'yaya' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was the onomatopoeic sound used in connection with the wheelbarrow. The sound can be identified as the squealing noise of wood on wood, for it is also mentioned in connection with waterwheels, looms, oars, sedan chairs and basket chairs. (14)

Hommel mentions that wheelbarrows were never oiled. (15) If this was the case, it would explain the squealing. It does not, however answer the question of why cart wheels were oiled while barrow wheels were not. The answer can be found in an important constructional difference: With the exception of primitive carts in local, usually seasonal, use, cart wheels turned on the axle. The noise of the cart wheel, therefore, was that of metal on metal or of metal on wood. By contrast, the barrow wheel turned in the holes of the two brackets on which the barrow's frame rested, generating a sound of wood on wood and a type of friction that oiling would not improve.

Poetry from the Song through the Qing periods thus helps us to establish this constructional difference between cart and barrow wheels. It implies that barrow wheels may have been as demanding to make as any cart wheel as far as the making and setting of spokes, hub and felloes was concerned but did not require the skills of axle-making and fitting the axle into the hub. In other words, making a wheelbarrow primarily required a good carpenter, not the combined skills of metal and woodworking needed for a cart wheel. A barrow of good quality needed only an iron band as tyre round the rim of the wheel and two shorter ones around the hub. Fitting these would not try the skill of any village blacksmith. In addition, maintenance was simple. The part most exposed to wear was the hole in the brackets in which the wheel turned. When necessary, these could easily be detached from the frame and replaced.

Furthermore, this constructional difference means that material demands for wheelbarrow construction were comparatively low. Good-quality hardwood was required only for the wheel itself and for the brackets in which the axle turned, while softwood and some rope sufficed for the rest. Given the cost of metal, the low requirement for iron was particularly important.

In the context of cost and labour intensity, it is interesting to note that small sails were used in certain regions to provide additional traction. This feature has been thoroughly explored by Joseph Needham. He notes that sails attached to wheelbarrows are first mentioned by European visitors in the sixteenth century, while no mention can be found in Chinese sources. (16) According to Hommel and Needham, sails were still frequently used in Shandong and Henan in the first half of the twentieth century. (17) While traction thus relied primarily on human labour, with donkeys occasionally providing animal traction, in regions with steady and sufficiently strong winds a sail could ease the barrow man's job (Figure 4).


The brief survey of technical features has shown that, on account of the fundamental constructional differences between the 'ordinary' wheelbarrow with a relatively small wheel in front and the housed-wheel barrow, it would seem useful to consider them as separate vehicles, or at least to be cautious about regarding the latter as a direct evolution of the former. This caution somewhat changes our perspective on the history of both types of barrow. The 'ordinary' wheelbarrow as a farm vehicle is firmly documented in Sichuan and in Shandong by the second century, and remained widespread in farm, urban and regional mobility in the Sichuan basin, in the lowlands of Hunan, as well as in the Weihe and Hanshui valleys in southern Shaanxi. (18)


The origin of the housed-wheel barrow has given rise to much speculation. It appears, fully formed, as a common means of urban and suburban mobility in the metropolitan Kaifeng area of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Meng Yuanlao (active 1126-47) describes several types of 'single-wheeled carts' and their uses during Kaifeng's heyday. Zhang Zeduan's famous painting 'Qingming shanghe tu' (Going up river on the Qingming festival, Figure 5) shows several very large wheelbarrows, surprisingly similar to their counterparts of the late imperial and modern periods. The most obvious difference is the more makeshift appearance of the barrows in Zhang Zeduan's painting, with the loading platforms resembling woven baskets and the housing consisting of thin bamboo poles and a roof reminding us of a mudguard, all tied together with rope. (19)

Joseph Needham attributed the invention of the housed-wheel barrow to the great strategist Zhuge Liang (181-234) of the third century AD, following a Chinese tradition in interpretation that goes back to the eleventh century. (20) Zhuge Liang is recorded as having ordered the construction of two specialised types of vehicles for the purpose of transporting military provisions across the Qinling mountains, the natural barrier dividing the Sichuan basin from the Weihe valley. Needham's reconstruction of one of these vehicles, the 'wooden oxen' (muniu), as a vehicle with a single, encased wheel, firmly established that interpretation in modern Chinese scholarship and popular knowledge. (21)


Yet, while the wheelbarrow was evidently in use on the Chengdu plain in the period in question, and its adaptation as a means of transporting grain for an army marching out of Sichuan is certainly convincing, there are two difficulties in drawing a direct line to the one-wheeled cart of northern Song Kaifeng eight centuries later. First, while the 'wooden oxen' would have been specially designed to carry grain over one of China's most rugged mountain ranges in an age of badly deteriorated road conditions, the 'one-wheeled cart' was a vehicle of the plains. Up to the modern period, in the restricted lowlands of Sichuan or Shaanxi, small-wheeled barrows remained common, while there is no indication that the housed-wheel barrow was adopted. (22)

Second, I have not been able to trace the term 'single-wheeled cart' back further than the late Tang period, with the earliest reference probably not antedating the ninth century. (23) In the Song and Yuan periods it appears frequently, and can be identified as the standard term for the housed-wheel barrow. In the late imperial period its use becomes infrequent again, presumably as barrows became so ordinary that the relative designation 'little cart' was usually sufficient. The appearance of a new name suggests a novel thing. Although this sense of novelty may have been due to the diffusion of the vehicle to a region where it was unknown before, it still seems difficult to bridge a gap of eight centuries, since that requires the assumption of both long obscurity and a general transformation from a small mountain vehicle to a much larger vehicle of the plains.

Besides, the principle of a one-wheeled vehicle with the weight over the axle and steadied by servants had been known since antiquity: At court, a representative platform mounted on a wheel that was steadied by two to four bearers was used. (24) This construction, in which the wheel possibly served a symbolic rather than practical use, was obviously unfit for general use. With the principle of the centrally placed wheel and strong wheelbarrows suitable for rough terrain available, the reconstruction of Zhuge Liang's wooden ox as housed-wheel barrows appears convincing, but the likelihood of this vehicle constituting the forerunner of the large housed-wheel barrow is nevertheless slim. To the writer it seems more probable that the wooden oxen were carrying-poles with the addition of centrally placed wheels, so as to be suitable for mountainous terrain. The soldiers working this contraption would have been able to shift between carrying the load over rough ground and pushing it along on smooth stretches. It was a special device for a special purpose that did not become adapted for general use.

High-density mobility systems

Taking all these points together, the grounds for assuming a third-century origin of the housed-wheel barrow appear insufficient. I would argue that it is more appropriate to place the development of the housed-wheel barrow in the context of the 'transport revolution' of the tenth to twelfth centuries. (25)

The economic transformation which began in the tenth century and led to growth which enabled the Song (960-1279) and the Jurchen Jin (1115-- 1234) empires to feed populations of together almost 140 million, (26) at least twice the optimum of former eras, was characterised by the formation of densely inhabited, highly productive and commercialised core regions. The basis was an intensive agricultural regime, with cities large and small serving as centres of trade and manufacturing. Cash-crop, market-oriented production became widespread. Peasants in the vicinity of cities specialised in high-value produce for urban markets such as vegetables, fish, poultry and even flowers, while entire core areas relied on supplies of grain, wood, many raw products and even fertilisers from more peripheral zones, and extensive networks of finished products, medicinal and luxury goods extended across the empire and beyond. This economic system arose as a regional phenomenon during the Song and Jin empires. The demographic disaster of the Mongol period was almost fatal to it, but in the fifteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth centuries it spread to fill out all arable areas, with the exception of Manchuria.

An efficient mobility system obviously constituted an integral part of this economic structure. Water mobility was greatly furthered by technical breakthroughs in the navigation of dangerous mountain rivers and the open sea as well as the expansion of waterways built or made navigable by human effort. Unsurprisingly, the Lower Yangzi region with its dense networks of natural and artificial waterways rose to become the leading core region. Nevertheless, road mobility remained important and increased greatly to serve the needs of growing numbers of people in a highly mobile society. (27)

In transporting goods and people the housed-wheel barrow offered several advantages. With only one wheel and a frame consisting of four poles and some smaller pieces of wood, the friction, energy requirements and material demands for construction were low. This appears particularly important in the regions of busy road traffic, such as northern core areas of the Song empire, and even more so throughout the north China plain and adjacent lowlands in the Ming and Qing period.

Despite the dearth of data, a preliminary attempt at constructing an overview of carrying capacities in road mobility, with a comparison of energy sources used for propulsion and costs involved, is useful in our efforts at obtaining a general picture of the choice of transport modes in relation to each other (Table 1). (28) The most meaningful result of the list in Table 1 is the finding that wheelbarrows of all designations were considerably more efficient than wheel-less means of road mobility, such as porterage or pack animals, whereas the transport efficiency of large wheelbarrows differed little from that of small carts. Relative cost confirms these relative efficiencies. If we take a standard wheelbarrow as the point of comparison, we obtain the ranges of price relations shown in Table 2.

While displaying considerable variance, relative transport costs strongly suggest that carts were less expensive than barrows. It is interesting to note, however, that this gap narrows with the distance involved and with the size of the barrows used. Taken together, the tentative survey of capacities, efficiency and costs suggests that, while the wheelbarrow was in fact no cheaper than the cart, it was competitive on account of its availability and versatility as well as its ability to use narrow roads and paths. A closer look at regional mobility systems helps to elucidate this issue.

@@@@@@@@@@ When we try to sketch out the situation for the late imperial period, that is, mainly for the high Ming of the sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries and the high Qing of the eighteenth century, two different mobility systems emerge, namely a system, in the northern plains, largely relying on wheeled road mobility and another, in the southern extensions of the plains, relying on water mobility, with roads and paths providing extra density (see Figure 1).

The small cart of the north

Song Yingxing's (1587--?) Tiangong kaiwu differentiates between a larger northern and a smaller southern type of wheelbarrow. (29) According to his description, wheelbarrows worked by two men and a donkey carrying 240-350 kg were common far and wide between Beijing, at the northern end of the great plain, to Jining in the east and Xi'an to its west.

A sixteenth-century description of traffic on the main courier road south of Beijing provides a picture of northern overland traffic:
   Travelling merchants formed an unbroken line, moving along in
   groups of ten or more. There were riders, packhorses, donkeys or
   mules; large waggons were pulled by ten or more oxen or mules,
   smaller ones by five or six, the smallest by two to three. There
   were single-wheel barrows pushed by one man and carts laden high
   pulled by a horse. Those with heavy loads had an additional man
   pushing, and even heavier ones with a donkey or mule pulling and
   another man helping with the pulling and supervising the animal.

On the north China plain large housed-wheel barrows worked the roads alongside carts and waggons, porters and pack animals. Carts in this region used mostly mules, but also donkeys, horses and oxen. Porters and four-wheeled wagons for heavy loads were probably mostly used for short-distance hauls. Pack animals were also sometimes employed, and camel caravans reached the northern fringes of the plain.

In local mobility, wheelbarrows were much used for farm traffic, for itinerant trades or water delivery. In urban settings a variant of the housed-wheel barrow was common. This barrow had a flat frame providing a surface mounted on a slightly smaller wheel, and was used to transport merchandise, serving as a movable table-top (Figure 6). (31)


When considering traffic across the north China plain, we need to be aware of the shortage of draught animals in the late imperial period. This was closely linked with the sustained population growth during the Ming and again in the Qing dynasties, again concentrated in the plains. With technologies of intensive farming spreading to all arable land, marginal land that might have provided pasture vanished. In the expanding core regions, fodder consisted either of beans and other crops grown for the purpose or of straw and other dry plant matter that was often the only fuel available to rural households. Consequently the cost of raising and for the upkeep of labouring animals rose. Horses for riding were either a luxury or a means of military communication. Mules were preferred as draught animals, as they were hardier than horses and could get by with cheaper fodder, but horses, donkeys and oxen were also employed. In the context of the high cost of fodder and wood it appears particularly important that wheelbarrows required no animal traction and comparatively little wood. Against this backdrop of mounting ecologic pressures, the wheelbarrow may have contributed to keeping up or even increasing transport intensity.

The only form of wheeled mobility in the south

Through a long process of cultivation and transformation, in the plains and lowlands along the lower Yangzi an agricultural system of extreme intensiveness and density had formed, relying on irrigation and drainage systems, together with a dense network of natural and artificial waterways. In this area, and possibly including much of the region between Huaihe and Yangzi as well, water mobility was dominant, while wheelbarrows had become the only form of wheeled mobility, providing the alternative to porters. Figure 7 illustrates the intensity of land use, the secondary role of road transport and the double role taken by paths and roads, serving both as dikes and transport infrastructure. (32)

The road infrastructure came to be adapted to one-wheeled traffic. Roads were rarely more than 1.5 m wide, sufficient for two wheelbarrows to pass each other but unsuitable for carts. Roads and paths were usually paved with flagstones, but even with wide overland roads only the central lane was paved, leaving unpaved lanes to both sides. This provided a hard surface for rainy days and smoother dirt tracks for dry weather, said to have been preferred by the wheelbarrows in particular. (33) Grooves worn into the flagstones bear witness to intensive wheelbarrow traffic over a long period of time, and also show that this type of pavement was suitable for wheelbarrows, providing a relatively smooth surface and--with wear--a groove (Figure 8).

The southern wheelbarrow, according to Song Yinxing as well as modern accounts, was worked by a single man and carried some 120-140 kg. (34) Three reasons may be suggested for its comparatively small size. First, paths and roads frequently came to short but steep slopes, such as on dikes, arched bridges but also hills, while all but the major roads followed the twists and turns of the shapes of the fields and their embankments. Under these conditions, smaller barrows were more manageable. Second, in a region in which waterways formed the main mobility network, wheelbarrows mostly covered short distances, providing mobility within a locality or between two waterways. Third, labouring animals had become rare, with even the water buffaloes no longer much in use for ploughing. As a result, the barrow pushed by one man offered the most efficient use of the available human labour.



F. E. Forbes, who travelled in Jiangnan, then as now the richest area of China, comprising the lowlands south of the lower Yangzi, describes the traffic in the Shanghai area in the 1840s:
   The travelling is mostly by water but when a canal will not serve,
   and a land journey must be undertaken, the mandarin travels in his
   sedan, and his lady in a species of palanquin, or litter.
   Subordinates content themselves with a kind of wheelbarrow,
   propelled by two coolees, the body of which holds the luggage, and
   a seat on each side of the wheel (which is cased over) for the two
   passengers, the whole thing being balanced with great nicety, so as
   to require little more labour than that of propulsion by the
   coolees. A poor man, who cannot afford this mode, slings a pole
   across one shoulder, with a basket hanging from each end, which may
   contain a child, or luggage, as the case may be, the poor wife
   making the best of her way that her cramped feet will allow, behind
   him, carrying a basket in each hand. (35)

Nevertheless, even in the Jiangnan area, with its great density of waterways, wheelbarrows provided important overland links. A poem by Zhou Zhiyao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (active 1368-98) describes wheelbarrow mobility in Danyang county, a hilly area about half-way between Shanghai and Nanjing:
   The goat-headed little cart with its ironclad wheel
   Whines along, pushed behind and pulled in front.
   The eye roves across the plain, meeting only withered grass.
   Suddenly a westerly wind raises sand and dust.
   Toiling and bumping, we have covered but ten li,
   Over ever more winding, uneven roads.
   A pine forest hides the sky,
   Freezing fog makes snow that sticks to our clothes,
   Hills of yellow earth are high and steep.
   The barrow men, exerting themselves, grunt like bulls.
   A while later, how easy the going downhill!
   With the energy of steeds they race each other. (36)

The poem concludes half mockingly, half assertively, that the eight hills of Danyang, though unknown and unsung, are no easier for the traveller than the famously difficult roads of the Taihang mountains of Shanxi or the rugged ranges of Sichuan. Despite its playful mode, the poem leaves no doubt about the barrow men's toil and the established use of wheelbarrows to transport merchandise across higher country where waterways were not available.

Human labour and labouring animals

Having explored the technology and history of the housed-wheel barrow as well as the mobility systems in which it operated, we still have scarcely mentioned the men who worked them. Unfortunately we know even less about the barrow men than we know about their barrows, so that any attempt at reconstructing work conditions and organisation has to rely on conjecture. A rare photographic portrait of a wheelbarrow pusher, taken by Georg Wegener on his trip through Jiangxi in 1906, gives a face to a bygone trade (Figure 9).

We may assume that barrow men were organised along the general lines of late imperial transport. Transporters were generally hired through the mediation of transport brokers, who functioned as guarantors and organisers. Presumably wheelbarrow men, like porters, were organised under a headman and perhaps formed their own guilds. (37) Organised urban transporters can be expected to have been professionals who worked in their trade year-round. For much of the overland mobility, however, it appears probable that barrow men were peasants who worked in transport only during the slack season after harvest in autumn and through winter. This assumption is based on indications that late autumn and winter were the main transport season. It was at this time of the year that grain and other agricultural produce was sent on its way, while dry and cold weather provided good road conditions. Mostly from Western observers we know that road mobility along the major routes was organised in daily stages, with inns and stalls providing drinks, meals and shelter for regular stops. (38) This would have been the infrastructure which barrow men, especially those working in overland transport, relied on.

Somewhat clearer, though also anecdotal, is a particularly important characteristic of their work conditions, namely the long working hours. The departure of wheelbarrow trains before all other traffic starts is variously mentioned. It is depicted most precisely in a poem by the early Qing poet Tian Wen ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1635-1704). (39) He describes the wheelbarrows setting off as the last nightly disturbance before the drum is sounded to wake everyone in the inn at the fourth hour, in wintertime roughly equivalent to 6.00 a.m. Earlier descriptions from the Ming and even as early as the late Song period suggest that wheelbarrows had been the first to set out as early as the twelfth century. (40) The early departure shows that barrow men, having no draught animals to look after, were able to spend more hours per day on the road than carts or pack animal trains.


The long working hours and the probably seasonal nature of much transport work highlight another aspect of one-wheeled mobility: It profited from the flexibility and self-organisation of professionals and seasonal transporters working independently or in small teams and providing their own vehicles. Having largely dispensed with animal traction that had to be fed year-round, seasonal labour could be employed when peasants were glad to offer it. However, the race between barrow men described in Tian Wen's poem and the early morning start also throw another light on the grim mechanisms of exploitation and competition in a human-powered mobility system. Humans, after all, can make do with less rest than animals, they get themselves organised, and they compete against each other.


From the above exploration, three characteristics of wheelbarrow mobility with major implications for the economic patterns in the regions examined can be identified.

First, compared with both carts and boats, wheelbarrows needed only small amounts of wood and iron. Both materials became expensive in late imperial China, with supplies of timber reaching the plains from greater and greater distances. As the system of intensive agriculture expanded and, with the spread of New World crops in the Qing period, reached the upland peripheries, pressure on the environment mounted. Deforestation brought fuel shortages and rising timber prices, erosion caused loss and deterioration of arable land. (41) At the same time, due to increasing distances between ore mines and coal or wood-producing areas, the exhaustion of resources, and government restrictions, iron became scarce. (42) While carts and boats were sizable investments, building a wheelbarrow remained within the reach of peasant households, keeping themselves and their society mobile.

Second, reducing the surface area needed for infrastructure was important in the intensive agriculture of late imperial China. The narrowing of roads was a 'natural' trend, especially in the rice regions, since here it was not the fields that had to be protected from damage by traffic but the roads that were gradually worked down to become mere dikes separating the fields. Where the wheelbarrow became the only form of wheeled mobility, this trend could be tolerated.

Third, wheelbarrows were important vehicles in a mobility system which relied as far as possible on wind and especially human labour, allowing the role of labouring animals to be reduced, or even their use eliminated, in agricultural systems geared to the production of foodstuffs for human consumption and raw materials for commercialised manufacturing.

Though humdrum to the point of being easily overlooked, wheelbarrows thus contribute considerably to our understanding of mobility systems and economic patterns of late imperial China of the Ming and Qing periods.


I would like to thank Mareile Flitsch for having encouraged me to go back to academic research and to finally work on transport history no matter what the weather.


(1) Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China IV, Part 2, Physics and Physical Technology: Mechanical Engineering (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 274-6; Rudolf P. Hommel, China at Work: an Illustrated Record of the Primitive Industries of China's Masses, whose Life is Toil, and thus an Account of Chinese Civilization, reprint of 1937 edn (Cambridge MA, 1969), p. 322.

(2) Only three substantial papers have appeared since 1965. Two are comparative studies of technology, namely Andre Wegener Sleeswyk, 'Form and function in the evolution of the wooden wheel', in Hu Daojing (ed.), Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China (Shanghai, 1982), pp. 471-504, and M. J. T. Lewis, 'The origins of the wheelbarrow', Technology and Culture 35 (1994), 435-75. The most recent analyses attitudes to wheelbarrows in popular culture as reflected in new-year prints: Antje Richter, 'Mit Schatzen beladen heimkehren. Der Schubkarren als gluckverheipendes Motiv in volkstumlichen chinesischen Drucken', Monumenta Serica 52 (2004), 277-324.

(3) Although travel literature flourished in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods, the means of travelling are rarely touched upon. This also applies to writings of statecraft and administrative documents, for the simple reason that wheelbarrows were not importantly involved in state transport.

(4) Richter, 'Mit Schatzen beladen heimkehren'.

(5) Excluding novels--a genre in between elite and popular literature--only a single non-elite source could be located: a carpenters' manual. See Wu Rong and Zhang Yan, Xinjuan gongshi diaozhuo zhengshi Lu Ban mujing jiangjia jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Newly reworked manual of the master carpenter Lu Ban with measurements], reprinted in Xuxiu Siku quanshu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] vol. 879 (Shanghai, 1995), p. 111.

(6) Court paintings were recordings of important imperial events rather than 'high art'. Their emphasis on truthful--if idealised--depictions of scenery makes paintings of the inspection tours of the early Qing emperors and of military parades in Beijing useful sources for the purpose of this investigation. Poetry of the late imperial period had become a genre of personal observation and strong local flavour, making it an important though tricky source for precise, localised information.

(7) Pak Chi-won, Yolha ilgi [The Rehe diary] (Beijing, 1996), pp. 131 f.

(8) From his diary we know that Pak travelled along the usual overland route from the Korean border at Uiju to the first Qing capital, Shenjing (modern Shenyang), and then on along the main road to Beijing (see Figure 1). He spent several months in the capital and visited the imperial summer residence at Chengde (also called Rehe) before returning to Korea. We can assume that his observations of Chinese road traffic were based on his overland journey along the main highways and focus on Beijing.

(9) For an analysis of the street scenery see Na Zhiliang, Qingming shanghetu [Up river on the Qingming festival] (Taibei, 1993).

(10) All specimens I have seen in ethnological museums appear to originate from the Shanghai region and have wheels about 90 cm in diameter. Song Yingxing's collection of descriptions of technology of the early seventeenth century differentiates between smaller southern and larger northern 'single-wheeled carts', see Song Yingxing, Tiangong kaiwu [Exploiting the works of heaven] (1637), reprinted in Zhonghua congshu (Taibei, 1955), juan 9. Photographs and descriptions of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century suggest that this basic distinction persisted to the end of pre-industrial transport.

(11) Chinese waggons remained clumsy constructions with four small wheels on two axles directly attached to the bodywork, and were used only for carrying extra-heavy loads. Wheels with high, narrow rims are best suited to clayey ground, for they cut through the mud to the hard surface and come out reasonably clean, whereas broad-rimmed wheels would get caked with mud and soon become stuck.

(12) Wegener Sleeswyk, 'Form and function', pp. 500 f.

(13) The issue illustrates the scarcity of technical sources in Chinese writings. My conclusion is drawn on a few pieces of evidence: the eleventh to twelfth-century scroll by Zhang Zeduan, 'Qingming shanghe tu' (see below), depicts a wheelbarrow shop in the suburbs of Kaifeng. A fifteenth-century carpenters' manual ends with brief instructions on waterwheels and wheelbarrows. The fact that neither carts nor cart wheels are mentioned suggests that cartwrights were specialists in their own right, while an ordinary carpenter's work could include the building of wheelbarrows. See Wu and Zhang, Xinjuan gongshi diaozhuo zhengshi, p. 111. Lastly, according to all pictorial evidence, no wheelbarrow wheel displays the nails in the felloes typical of the Shandong cart, although these were important for the strength of large, slim wheels, according to Wegener Sleeswyk, 'Form and function', pp. 500 f.

(14) A full text search for 'yaya' in the Wenyuange Siku quanshu database generates over 700 findings. Of these, the largest number are from Song and Yuan poetry, the rest from late imperial texts. A clear-cut differentiation between [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as the sound of carts and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as that of oars, which is suggested by the Hanyu dacidian, could not be confirmed. See Wenyuange Siku quanshu dianziban [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [electronic edition of the Wenyuange edition of the Siku quanshu] (1773, repr. Hong Kong, 1998).

(15) Hommel, China at Work, p. 322.

(16) Needham, Science and Civilisation IV, Part 2, pp. 274-6. The earliest description of Chinese vehicles with sails quoted by Needham dates from 1585. By contrast, the earliest mention of wheelbarrows with sails I have been able to locate in a Chinese source is from the second half of the eighteenth century. See Zhao Yi, Yanbao zaji [Zhao Yi's Miscellanea], juan 4, in Guoxue baodian database, gxdb/ (consulted 5 January 2007).

(17) Hommel, China at Work, p. 322.

(18) Liu Xianzhou, 'Woguo dulunche de chuangshi shiqi ying shangtui dao Xihan wannian' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The invention of the wheelbarrow in China should be backdated to the late Western Han period], Wenwu 6 (1964), 1-5; Needham, Science and Civilisation III, Part 4, pp. 258-81. For pictorial sources see ibid., figures 507-9; Wu Hung, The Wu Liang Shrine: the Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art (Stanford CA, 1989), p. 290; Jiang Yingju, Wu Wenqi and Guan Tianxiang (eds), Shandong huaxiang shi xuanji [Selected Han stone reliefs from Shandong] (Jinan, 1982), p. 47; Gao Wen (ed.), Sichuan Handai huaxiang zhuan [Han period relief bricks from Sichuan] (Shanghai, 1987), p. 29; Gong Tingwan, Gong Yu and Dai Jialing (eds), Bashu Handai huaxiang ji [Collection of Han period reliefs from Sichuan] (Beijing, 1998), figure 32.

(19) For more examples of wheelbarrows in Zhang Zeduan's 'Qingming shanghe tu' see the details reproduced in Needham, Science and Civilisation IV, Part 2, figures 515-16.

(20) Needham, Science and Civilisation IV, Part 2, pp. 259-75.

(21) E.g. Li Di and Feng Lisheng, 'Dui "muniu liuma" de tantao' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [An investigation of the 'wooden ox and gliding horse'], online manuscript (2004), (2 April 2005), or entry on 'Muniu liuma' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Wooden oxen and gliding horses] in Wikipedia (Chinese edition), (consulted 5 January 2007).

(22) For the types of wheelbarrow in use in the mid-twentieth century see Needham, Science and Civilisation IV, Part 2, plates 512-17. Needham's examples of early wheelbarrow depictions from the Chengdu area in fact demonstrate that much the same type of barrow remained in use there to the modern period. See ibid., figures 507-8 and 513.

(23) To my knowledge the earliest occurrence is in a poem by the late Tang author Chen Shu which is recorded in the twelfth-century compilation Leishuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The author is otherwise unknown, making it impossible to date his poem.

(24) According to etymological reconstruction, it is thought that a ceremonial vehicle, consisting of a sitting platform mounted on a pole over one wheel and guided by four servants, had existed in ancient and probably also medieval times.

(25) For the 'transport revolution' see Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford CA, 1973), pp. 131-45.

(26) Chinese historical demography remains a contested field. The figures used here are based on Wu Songdi Zhongguo renkoushi: Liao-Song-Jin-Yuan shiqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Chinese population history: the Liao, Song, Jin and Yuan periods], ed. Ge Jianxiong (Shanghai, 2000).

(27) For the Tang-Song transformation see Elvin, Pattern of the Chinese Past, Part 2. For the Ming period see Timothy Brook, 'Communications and commerce', in Denis Twitchett and Frederick W Mote (eds), The Cambridge History of China VIII The Ming dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 2 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 579-707.

(28) This reconstruction is mainly based on data provided in Hans-Ulrich Vogel and Christine Moll-Murata, 'Staat, Handwerk und Gewerbe in Peking 1700-1900' (online resource, Tubingen, 2003:, a collection of data from government regulations on building projects, mainly from the eighteenth century; Julean Arnold et al., China: a Commercial and Industrial Handbook (Washington DC, 1926), and Song Yingxing, Tiangong kaiwu, with corroborative material drawn from travel reports of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as pictorial sources. The figures, being assembled from data as far apart as the mid-seventeenth century and the 1920s, are very preliminary, while the information on propulsion is a conjecture from the available quantitative data and pictorial or descriptive sources.

(29) Tiangong kaiwu, juan 9. For the most precise translation of the passage on wheelbarrows see Needham, Science and Technology in China IV, Part 2, pp. 273 f.

(30) Deng Yuanxi, Chaojing rilu [Diary of an audience in the capital], in Qiangu xiansheng zhuangao, juan 14. Quoted from Lu Jinglin et al. (eds), Zhongguo lidai jingjishi IV Minqing juan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Economic history of China IV (4), The Ming and Qing periods] (Taibei, 1998), p. 304.

(31) The many uses of housed-wheel and flat-topped barrows in Beijing are well documented, see e.g. the Hedda Morrison Photographs of China, 1933-1946 (online database of the Harvard Yenching Library), especially the albums 'Street life 1' and 'Street life 2' in (consulted 5 January 2007).

(32) Porters with carrying poles worked in local and urban transport as well as in long-distance transports across hills and mountains. Michael Dillon notes that, for the transport of porcelain through the hilly region of southern Anhui into Jiangxi and Zhejiang, porters rather than wheelbarrows were hired for the overland stretches because porters did less damage to the porcelain. See his 'Transport and marketing in the development of the Jingdezhen porcelain industry during the Ming and Qing dynasties', Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 35, 3 (1992), 278-90.

(33) E.g. Georg Wegener, Im innersten China. Eine Forschungsreise durch die Provinz Kiang-si (Berlin, 1926), pp. 170 f.

(34) Song Yingxing, Tiangong kaiwu, juan 9.

(35) F. E. Forbes, Five Years in China, from 1842-1847, with an Account of the Occupation of the Islands of Labuan and Borneo by Her Majesty's Forces (1848, repr. Taipei , 1972), p. 45.

(36) 'Danyang daozhong' [On the roads of Danyang], in Cao Xuequan (ed.), Shicang lidai shixuan [Shicang's collection of poetry through the ages], juan 343, in Wenyuange siku quanshu database (see note 14).

(37) For Chengdu, several guilds are mentioned, each with its own district within the city and its surroundings and charging a heavy entrance fee to new members. See Huang Hongjun Chema, liusuo, huagan: zhongguo chuantong jiaotong yunshu xisu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Carts and horses, rope bridges and sedan chairs: traditional Chinese traffic and transport customs] (Chengdu, 1993), p. 73.

(38) E.g. Wegener, Im innersten China, pp. 142-4, 156; Wm Barclay Parsons, An American Engineer in China (1900, repr. Taibei, 1972), pp. 236 f.

(39) Tian Wen, Guhuantang ji [Collection from the Guhuan studio], in Wenyuange siku quanshu database (note 14).

(40) See 'Xiaoxing' [Morning departure] by Fan Chengda (1126-93) and the poem by Zhou Zhiyao translated above, both in Cao Xuequan, Shicang lidai shixuan, in Wenyuange siku quanshu database (note 14).

(41) On ecological change in Jiangnan see especially Li Bozhong, 'Ming-Qing shiqi Jiangnan diqu de mucai wenti' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [The problem of timber in Jiangnan in the Ming and Qing periods], Zhongguo shehui jingjishi yanjiu 21 (1986), 86-96, and Anne Osborne, 'Highlands and lowland: economic and ecological interactions in the lower Yangzi region under the Qing', in Mark Elvin and Liu Ts'ui-jung (eds), Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 203-34.

(42) According to Robert Hartwell's research, the per capita supply of iron reached its highest point through Chinese history in the Song period, while it decreased through the Ming and Qing periods. See his 'A cycle of economic change in imperial China: coal and iron in northeast China, 750-1350', Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 10 (July 1967), 102-59.

Nanny Kim Heidelberg University

Address for correspondence

Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg, Akademiestr. 4-8, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany. E-mail
Table 1 Modes of transport

Means of transport                  Propulsion by          Carrying

Porter with carrying pole           1 man                  60 kg

Two porters with carrying pole      2 men                  80 kg

Pack animal (donkey, horse or       1                      50 (donkey),
mule)                               donkey/mule/horse,     60-100 kg
                                    with 1 man for each    (horse/mule)
Wheelbarrow, southern type          5-10 pack animals 1    130 kg
                                    man (sometimes
                                    aided by wind

Common wheelbarrow,                 1-2 men (sometimes     200-250 kg
northern type                       aided by wind

Largest northern wheelbarrow        2 men, 1 donkey; or    400 kg
                                    4-5 men

Common cart                         1 horse/mule, 1 man    500-800 kg

Large cart                          2 horses/mules, 1-2    1.2-1.5 t

Wagon (exclusively used in the      8-12 horses/mules,     Up to 3.6 t
plains particularly lacking in      2 men
waterways in modern western
Shandong and northern
Henan province)

Boat (Beijing region)               Human and wind         2 t

Boat (Shanghai region)              Human and wind         All sizes

Table 2 Relative cost of transport modes

                                                 Cost relative to

Location                                        Porter   Cart   Boat

Costs in eighteenth-century Changping county,    2.7     0.9     --
  just north of Beijing; wheelbarrow/small
  cart of 400 kg capacity (a)
Regulations on transport costs in eighteenth-    2.0     0.5     --
  century Dingzhou, south-west of Baoding;
  wheelbarrow of 240 kg capacity (a)
Arnold's data for Shanghai area, c. 1925:
  Long haul (b)                                  2.6      --    0.04
  Short haul (b)                                 7.1      --    0.02
Buck's national averages for transport,
  From the farm to local markets (c)             1.7     0.6    0.5
  Between towns (c)                              3.2     0.8    0.5

Notes (a) From Vogel and Moll, 'Staat, Handwerk und Gewerbe'. (b)
From Arnold, China: a Commercial and Industrial Guide, p. 501. (c)
From John L. Buck, Land Utilization in China: a Study of 16,768
Farms in 168 Localities, and 38,256 Farm Families in Twenty-two
Provinces in China, 1929-1933 (New York, 1964), p. 354.
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Author:Kim, Nanny
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
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Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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