In The Classroom: Modes of Ancient Chinese Alternative Power

Imagine life today without electricity.  For some, this seems impossible yet many others remember a time when computer chips and battery power was not available for every appliance or tool we used at home.  For this week’s installment of “In The Classroom,” we will explore alternative modes of power used to help the ancient Chinese make daily work faster, more efficient, and safer.   So put down that hand-held device and get hooked on ancient Chinese alternative power -- no electricity needed!


Kites | When thinking about wind power and China, it is difficult not to picture a beautiful kite shaped like a colorful exotic bird.  Kites were first used in China around the fifth and fourth century B.C. with a multitude of uses including measuring long distances, testing wind signals, meditation, and entertainment.  One of the earliest accounts of kite use was for military purposes from 547 – 549 A.D. in the T’ai-Ch’eng region, now known as Nanking.  The story goes, the T’ai-Ch’eng region was under siege and the Imperial Family had been cut off from the army.  Crown Prince Chien Wen used paper kites with messages to communicate vital strategic information to army leaders such as the position of the opposing army and their numbers.  The leader of the opposing army thought the kites were magic and ordered them to be shot down by arrow.  After all the kites were shot down, they rose back up as beautiful birds.  Another interesting use of early kites was for fishing.  Fishermen would attach a hook and bait on the kite string and fly it low over wide lakes and rivers.

Experimentation of man-powered kites used for flight were used in the fourth century B.C. by the first Northern Ch’I Emperor Kao Yang who reigned the dynasty starting in 550 B.C.  The beginnings of these experimentations (that soon evolved into obsession) is not a pleasant episode in ancient Chinese history.  Emperor Kao was systematically exterminating two families who reigned in the previous dynasty, the Wei dynasty.  Over 700 members of the T’opa and Yuan family were condemned to death through what was called the “liberation of living creatures.”  Emperor Kao would have his prisoners climb to the top of the palace’s 100-foot tower and harness them with large bamboo mats that would function as wings.  Unfortunately, none of the prisoners were able to fly to safety.

ACTIVITY: Here's instructions for making paper kites from recycled grocery paper bags from our blog post "Let go fly a kite"

Bellows | The double-acting piston bellow began to be widely used in China during the fourth century B.C. though there is no known record of its inventor.  The diagram below shows the simple workings of a bellow.  The piston would be powered by hand by pushing the piston in or pulling it out of the bellows box.  The bottom and sides of the piston would be surrounded by folded paper or feathers to ensure the piston is airtight.  When the piston is pulled out of the box, the air trapped inside would be forced through an inlet valve shown on the right of the diagram.  The same occurs when the piston is pushed in but with the air being forced through the left inlet valve.  The genius of the double-acting piston is the double action from both pushing and pulling the piston rather than a single piston bellow that only produces an action when the piston is being pulled out of the bellow.


Water-Powered Bellows | Water-powered bellows were invented during the first century A.D. for operating blast furnaces.  It was invented by Tu Shih, the Prefect of Nanyang, for the reciprocator for the casting of iron agricultural implements.  Similar to double-acting piston bellows, the water-powered bellows were used in a larger scale with river currents driving the piston movements and the resulting air or water action.  During the time, iron smelting and casting was done using hand-held bellows to create the necessary fires needed to smelt the iron.  With the adaption of using rushing water, iron implements became very abundant in China. 

Man-Power was also a widely-used source of alternative power in ancient China.  Take a look at our blog on "A Poor People's Taxi" to learn more about public modes of transportation that ran on clean human energy!

As SDG&E Partners in spreading the word about energy-conservation, SDCHM encourages all our followers to do their part to conserve energy.  From writing messages on dry erase board instead of cellphones or computers, to riding your bike or taking public transportation, it is everyone's responsibility to do their part.  Best of all, it is not too hard to be energy-conscious!  For tips on saving energy, check out SDG&E's website at

Related Content:
In The Classroom: Chinese Inventions that Changed Transportation
Cast Iron: A Strong Energy Saver


  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I've truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    Recycled Paper - The Green Directory has the most comprehensive selection of Green, Eco, Sustainable, Fair Trade and Environmentally Friendly Companies, Products and Services. Use the eco directory to find green, eco, fair trade, recycled and sustainable businesses, services, news, events, articles and guides.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts