The First Robot Of The World

Maybe many people have seen science fiction movies. In some of these movies, man-made robots look like real humans and can even have feelings as humans. These kinds of movies are from high-tech imaginations, but the ideas of humanistic robots from these modern filmmakers might seem antiquated. If you have the opportunity to read a book entitled Liezi (列子), you will find that the ancient Chinese already had such ideas very early in time.

The original edition of Liezi was written by Lie Yukou (列御寇) who was a thinker of the Taoist School in the Warring-States Period. Later in time his book became scattered about and many parts were lost. In the Eastern Jin (东晋) Dynasty, a scholar named Zhang Zhan (张湛) collected the remaining parts of Liezi and re-wrote the book. The edition of Liezi that we can read today is the reorganized edition of Zhang Zhan. In the reorganized edition, there are recorded many thoughts of the people of the Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晋, AD 220-420). Liezi records a story where a craftsman presented a "robot" to Zhou Mu-King (周穆王). This story shows some of the ideas of the people of the Warring-State Period or the Wei and Jin Dynasties. Anyway, this fantastic story is so wonderful that it seems that ancient Chinese had really made such a smart robot.

In the 10th century BC, Zhou Mu-King, the most romantic ruler of ancient China, had a long journey to the western world. On the way home, a craftsman named Yanshi (偃师) visited Zhou Mu-King. The king asked him, “What can you do?” Yanshi said, “I can do what you want me to do. However, I have a finished product that I think you would like to see first.” Mu-King said, "OK".

The next day, Yanshi came to see Mu-King with another person. The king asked him, “Who is that person with you?” Yanshi said, “He is an actor that I made.” The king was very surprised. He watched the actor carefully. The actor behaved like real humans. Yanshi touched the jowl of the actor, and the actor started to sing. Yanshi held the hand of the actor, and the actor started to dance. The robot performed intricate and complex behaviors according to directions.

Mu-King thought the actor was a real man, and he called his concubines to watch the performance of the actor. When the performance was over, the actor actually made eyes at the concubines of the king. Zhou Mu-King was very angry, and wanted to kill Yanshi at once. Yanshi was scared. Right before Mu-King, he dissected the robot and showed its components to him. The king found the actor was made of wood, leather, glue, lacquer and coloring matters. The actor had internal organs, bones, muscles, skin, hair and teeth as humans, but all were artificial. Yanshi re-assembled the actor, and the actor could perform again.

Zhou Mu-King was very interested in this robot, and tried to test it. The king took out the heart of the robot, and the robot couldn't speak. He took out the liver of the robot, and it couldn't see anything. He took out its kidney, and it couldn't walk. In fact, these actions showed the characteristics of traditional Chinese medical science. According to the theory of traditional Chinese medical science, the heart is connected to the tongue, the liver is connected with eyes, and the kidneys can nourish the bones.

Zhou Mu-King genuinely admired the crafts of Yanshi. He highly praised him and said, “A human actually has such ingenious crafts that he is able to make the same things as the Creator!” Then the king let Yanshi and his robot ride in a carriage and follow him to the capital of his kingdom.

In ancient times, of course it was impossible to make such a robot. However, this story is so ingenious and it can certainly be compared with the Hollywood movies of science fiction today. Nowadays, humanoid robots have been made by scientists. In Japan, there is a kind of robot called Actroid. An Actroid robot looks like a real lady. This kind of robot has a lively behavior and authentic facial expressions. If Zhou Mu-King could come to the present world, how he would be amazed at these things!

Oriental Style
Since February 6th, 2006
Copyright © Yike Jiang