Among car enthusiasts are those to whom so-called vintage cars are a mechanical and historical work of art, yet these vehicles are no more than one hundred years old. Compared with the truly ancient horse-drawn conveyance, they are “modern”.
Two-thousand-year-old horse-drawn carriages are not, however, the oldest Chinese vehicles. In Henan’s Anyang ruins, archaeologists have painstakingly unearthed carriages from 3,000 years ago, but even these are not believed to be China’s earliest. It must therefore have taken the Chinese almost four millennia to go from the cart age to the automobile era.
Vehicles used in ancient China were mainly horse-drawn carriages, ox carts, and wheelbarrows. The horse-drawn carriage was a mode of transport for the nobility. Prior to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), carriages were an important item of battle materiel in which warriors stood to fight the surrounding enemy. Ox carts were for freight transport, and the common people used wheelbarrows both as passenger transport and for carrying goods.
Early animal-drawn carts had standing room only. Wooden boards on all four sides protected passenger safety and also provided a surface against which to lean. There was usually a canopy on top for decoration and shelter from bad weather. The higher the canopy, the more beautiful the cart was considered to be. Carts for carrying warriors or criminals had no canopy.
Carts with seats came later. There were generally three, the one to the left for VIPs, the middle one for the driver, and the one on the right for his attendant. This arrangement accorded with the ancient convention of the left position being most honored.
By the Han Dynasty a greater variety of carriages had developed. Those for use by the nobility were sumptuously decorated and comfortable, to the extent of being able to recline while travelling. The ox cart was used for passenger transport as well as for carrying goods. As an ox had the strength to draw a large cart steadily, with no jerks, passengers would often put a table inside and enjoy a mobile drinking party. It is recorded that certain ancients put their conveyances to more practical use by placing stone mills inside their carts, which rotated as the carts moved.
The ancient Chinese also developed special mechanized cart functions. Compass cart (upper): The wooden figure in the cart always faces south. Mileage cart
Nature has been generous to the Chinese, sending them both subterranean and surface oil. As early as 1,000 years ago, Chinese ancestors used surface petroleum as fuel, calling it “fat water.” It was regarded as a utility similar to coal and firewood.
On being burned this “fat water” produced black smoke, a phenomenon particularly noticed by an ancient scientist named Shen Kuo (1031-1095). He developed China’s first oil product — a new type of inkstick, from its black residue. This black ink dried to a slick sheen, and was of a much better quality than that made from charcoal. He named his new product Yanchuan Stone Liquid, and renamed “fat water,” calling it instead “stone oil,” which is to this day the literal meaning of the Chinese for petroleum.
His position as government official prevented Shen Kuo from devoting himself entirely to science. He was nonetheless sure that “stone oil” would in future be of inestimable value and have comprehensive applications. He predicted: “As from my own invention, this matter (stone oil) will have myriad uses.”
Unfortunately, the true value of this blessing from nature was not, as Shen Kuo predicted, realized until 880 years later. The birth of the national auto industry in 1956 brought the matter of oil to public attention, but it was not widely used until the appearance of family cars in recent years.
The earliest motor car in China can be traced back to 1902. The first car owner was Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty. On her birthday that year, Minister Yuan Shikai sent her a foreign-made car as a gift. The car, with its wooden body and wheels, resembled a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, with the driver’s seat at the front and two passenger seats behind.
Although the empress dowager liked the car very much, she never drove it, and neither is it certain that she actually rode in it. The story goes that she had problems with the driver’s dominant position in the car, and was unhappy at his being seated in front of her. She was less happy still that the driver sat, rather than kneeled, when driving. On the driver arguing with the empress dowager that he could not drive in any position other than sitting, in order to avoid further trouble hovering ministers stepped forward and anxiously urged Cixi not to ride in the vehicle. There are several versions as to what happened later, but one thing is certain — the car has never been used since. It was first placed in the Forbidden City and later moved to the Summer Palace.
Horse-drawn carriages depicted in a Han Dynasty tomb chamber mural.
In the decades following, only a handful of private cars appeared in the capital’s households. It was not until the 1990s that the number of family cars began to increase at such an astonishing speed. Today, if all Beijing residents in possession of a driver’s license were to drive a car, the number of cars on the streets would soar from 2 million to 3.5 million.
Cars are nowadays a popular topic of conversation among Chinese people, style, price, and special features being the aspects most discussed. Auto web sites and exhibitions have become commonplace over the past year, and new models emerge at a rate of knots. It is said that these days, Guangzhou has more car dealers than rice shops. This is not to suggest that rice is a purchase less popular than cars in the city.