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Manned Flight in Ancient China

Even to people familiar with the advanced technology of ancient China through the works of Joseph Needham and their summaries the discovery that the first instance of manned flight occurred in China in 559 AD comes as a shock. It involved a man being held aloft by kites. But lifting a man aloft through kites is not terribly difficult as shown below for some modern examples.

This occurred in England in 1905. The kite passenger was lifted to a height of 2600 feet and remained there for one hour.

This occurred in France in 1909.

The occurrence in China in 559 AD was under much less congenial circumstances. There was a kingdom north of the Huang He (Yellow River) around the modern city of Lin-Chang. It had been ruled by a family named Yuan. Originally their family name was T'oba, but because that is not a Chinese name they changed it to Yuan. They lost control in 550 to a man named Kao Yang.

Kao Yang considered the Yuan family as his mortal enemy captured and executed as many as he could. In the last year of his reign he had 721 members of the Yuan family killed. So at any given time he had a large number of prisoners scheduled for execution.

Initially Kao Yang had the victimns thrown off a hundred foot tower called The Tower of the Golden Phoenix. Then he became a Buddhist. This conversion did not make him a better person, but it modified his actions. Buddhists, along with others, celebrate special occasions by freeing captured creatures such as birds and fish. Fiendishly Kao Yang decided he would release his Yuan captives as birds. He had large bamboo mats tied to their backs so they vaguely resembled large flying creatures. They were then thrown off the tower and told to fly like birds. Kao witnessed these experiments in manned flight. All of the victimns were killed.

Kao obviously had become intrigued with the possibility of human flight. He successively had each prisoner attached to a number of kites on the tower. One individual, Yuan Huang-T'ou survived the experiment. The handlers for his kites kept him aloft and moved him and his kites for two miles. All of the rest of the prisoners were killed in the experiment in man-lofting by kites. Although Yuan Huang-T'ou survived the kite experiment he was later starved to death.

There were even earlier literary references to manned flight or at least attempts at it. Ko Hung (283-343 CE) was a Taoist who was knowledgeable about the science and engineering of his time.

Someone asked the Master (Ko Hung) about the principles of mounting to dangerous heights and traveling into vast empty space. The Master said, "Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion. As the Teacher says, 'The bird flies higher and higher spirally, and then only needs to stretch its two wings, beating the air no more, to go forward by itself. This is because it starts gliding on the hard wind.'

Marco Polo reported that man-lifting kites were used throughout China in the thirteenth century. It was not until 1894 that this feat was achieved in Europe. This was carried out by Baden Fletcher Smyth Baden-Powell, a younger brother of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting Movement.

Raising humans by kites was not as significant as the use of hot-air balloons but it was still notable. Small hot-air devices were used in ancient China as lanterns but were never constructed on a larger scale.


John Temple, The Genius of China: 3000 Years of Science, Discovery & Innovation, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2007.

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