Hell of a handcart
March 13, 2013 5:33 AM   Subscribe

"For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history." Low-tech magazine gives an illustrated overview of the history of the Chinese wheelbarrow. [Via]
posted by Abiezer (45 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
When the wheelbarrow finally caught on in Europe, it was used for short distance cargo transport only, notably in construction, mining and agriculture. It was not a road vehicle.

Not a road vehicle. Someone had better tell the Australians.
posted by three blind mice at 5:40 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is interesting, but could really do without the "genius Asians make magical device that confounds Westerners" angle that it's pushing for some reason. The story of Chinese technology doesn't need to be told as an alternative to Western technology.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:48 AM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am a little bit confounded by the simple yet obviously superior Chinese design.
posted by Segundus at 5:56 AM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Colour me confounded as well.

How much load can a robust bicycle wheel carry, btw? It seems to me that making a Chinese type wheelbarrow to use around the house is a quite simple project if you base it on an old bicycle frame and wheel.
posted by Harald74 at 6:06 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The story of Chinese technology doesn't need to be told as an alternative to Western technology.

Anyone familiar with the history of technology can tell that that's exactly how it needs to be told. China developed technologically both earlier than and separate from Europe. The many parallels and non-parallels are an interesting story from an engineering POV.

There's nothing in there about magical, genius Asians. The blog selects good, low-tech solutions to problems. This one happens to come from China.
posted by DU at 6:10 AM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Apparently they're really good for loading ammo into those robot exo-skeleton things (the APU Corps) in the last Matrix movie.
posted by Thistledown at 6:12 AM on March 13, 2013


How much load can a robust bicycle wheel carry, btw?
The rural Chinese experience there seems to be a family of three and a fair amount of farm produce.
posted by Abiezer at 6:15 AM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


How much load can a robust bicycle wheel carry, btw?

it depends
upon
the wheel
barrow
posted by The Bellman at 6:19 AM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


If someone had told me this was a new idea for a wheelbarrow, I'd have told him it's a rotten idea. The load is really high, so it looks hard to balance and like it would be difficult to load with heavy things (like a big rock). And you need a secondary container for dirt or concrete, which also means you can't dump it forward into a hole. And yet it has worked for hundreds of years.
posted by 445supermag at 6:25 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I did think that fore/aft balance could be a problem. But I disagree about the dumping problem. If anything, the balance thing turns into a feature here. Because it's so easy to overbalance it forwards, it's EASIER to dump out. You just have to make sure your container is affixed to the barrow. Better yet, build a front and sides (and wheel well).
posted by DU at 6:33 AM on March 13, 2013


445supermag: The load is really high, so it looks hard to balance and like it would be difficult to load with heavy things (like a big rock). And you need a secondary container for dirt or concrete, which also means you can't dump it forward into a hole

Yeah, seems like it would be very poorly suited to the majority of things I use a wheelbarrow for, primarily moving loose goods like dirt/mulch/gravel or individual heavy items like boulders.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:34 AM on March 13, 2013


That's not to say it's not a superior design in general, just maybe not for my purposes.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:34 AM on March 13, 2013


It's not a garden or construction wheelbarrow. It is not designed to dump things out. It is designed to carry loads long distances, not across the job-site. It's like confusing a Radio Flyer wagon with a prairie schooner.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:36 AM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


fantastic link! Seriously, what a well-written and informative piece.

the point of the Chinese design is that it is used for long-distance transport, not moving dirt around the yard. it offers weight distribution more like the two-wheeled vendor cart seen in turn-of-the-century photographs of the lower eastside of New York City and elsewhere.
posted by mwhybark at 6:42 AM on March 13, 2013


China developed technologically both earlier than and separate from Europe.

Europeans developed their technology in the absence of hundreds of millions of Chinese laborers. If they had the same vast pool of human labor available, given that ingenuity is a universal human trait, the Europeans would have developed more or less the same thing.
posted by three blind mice at 6:44 AM on March 13, 2013


Anyone familiar with the history of technology can tell that that's exactly how it needs to be told. China developed technologically both earlier than and separate from Europe. The many parallels and non-parallels are an interesting story from an engineering POV.

The fact that China developed technology separate from Europe is a reason to tell the story separately. The comparison between designs can be interesting, but it really dominates this article in ways that makes the article really about the Europeans, rather than the Chinese. Presenting Chinese history as a counter-narrative really just keeps Europeans at the center of the story.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:49 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, fascinating site as a whole.
posted by mwhybark at 6:50 AM on March 13, 2013


Presenting Chinese history as a counter-narrative really just keeps Europeans at the center of the story.

Umm...yes, that's the point of the blog. "Here, European-derived English-speaking people, is a better-designed, low-tech alternative to something you are doing now." It's not about the history of technology. It's about finding better solutions in the energy-hungry world of today.
posted by DU at 6:57 AM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Combine one of those with a small electric motor and regenerative braking system, and allow loads to be a little lower slung for just a bit more stability, and it could be the most amazing urban delivery vehicle. You could put a thousand kilos on one if it had a good brake, and just gently guide it around the sidewalks, running your deliveries etc.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:59 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


China developed technologically both earlier than and separate from Europe.

Saying Chinese technology developed earlier may or may not be incorrect, and must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Also, the Arabs, Byzantines and Indians were doing some really neat things at the time, too - a lot of European technology and science was cribbed from what their neighbors in the middle east and north Africa were up to. Also, there were asymmetrical developments - the Chinese developed gunpowder, but it was the Europeans who invented firearms; and as late as the Qing invasion in the 17th c., they were still waging war with spears and swords with some limited artillery support.

More, there are developments that just don't translate. The Europeans had a vast network of navigable rivers and canals interlacing the continent - there just wasn't a need for a wheeled conveyance like the chinese wheelbarrow. Roman roads were for moving Legions, not merchandise. Same deal with the Inca - their vast trade empire was built on the sides of mountains and atop plateaus - a decent set of stairs would be vastly more important than a smooth path for something with wheels.

This isn't a good match for comparing the two cultures, I'm afraid.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:11 AM on March 13, 2013


What impresses me is that it's an obviously inferior design for my needs. Yet my wheelbarrow would be a poorly suited cargo vehicle it was to transport goods or people long distances.

It looks to me the genius of the Chinese version is that it was well suited to China's needs, rather than mine.

I'm curious if the design is even unique to that part of the globe. Certainly, Europe has seen times when people might have made good use of this design, long distance transport without the aid of pack animal. I wouldn't be surpised.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:32 AM on March 13, 2013


Presenting Chinese history as a counter-narrative really just keeps Europeans at the center of the story.

And so what? Someone is the narrator, right? An English speaking Westerner talking to a largely Western audience is not supposed to be himself? Poppycock.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:34 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy, you say this isn't a good topic for comparing the two cultures, but you just did compare the (more than) two cultures, and to great effect I might add. That kind of comparison is enlightening and fascinating and seems to be exactly what the article engages in:
The importance of the Chinese wheelbarrow can only be understood in the context of the Chinese transportation network.
Your post delves into an area that the article doesn't, but I'm curious as to the core of the criticism here. I see no stereotype, trope, or racial essentialism being used in the article. If there is some, please point it out. The incidences of wowed Westerners were quotes from primary source documents, not editorializing by the author. (The worst I could find is a single use of the word "stupefied" to describe someone impressed by novel technology.) The invention is posited as progress caused by reason and chance. So I don't see any problematic tone.

I expect any history of wheelbarrows, particularly one introducing me to a version I'm not familiar with, to use the version I am familiar with to compare and contrast. So I don't see any problematic framing. What's the issue? What could the article have done better, specifically?
posted by daveliepmann at 7:47 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article is great, the website is very interesting.

Look on the Ecotech-myths page for lots of debate material.
posted by KaizenSoze at 8:16 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Europeans developed their technology in the absence of hundreds of millions of Chinese laborers. If they had the same vast pool of human labor available, given that ingenuity is a universal human trait, the Europeans would have developed more or less the same thing.

Checking Wikipedia, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire had 88 million people in an area of about 2.5 million square miles, while the Han, a bit later, had 57 million in a very slightly smaller area, so Rome, at it's height, had a larger population to draw on China did. The big difference, it seems to me, is that the Roman Empire had a huge sea in the middle of it, allowing maritime shipment to almost anywhere, while the rivers of China mostly run West to East, with North-South travel very difficult. China also had to deal with more varieties of difficult terrain (while the Romans had some impressive mountain ranges and arid land to deal with, they could usually sail around the worst of it). Contrary to your ideas of technological determinism, the Romans never really became great sailors, and their technological developments in ships and related areas were few and far between. On the other hand, the Romans were never great technological innovators. When they got a good idea, they deployed the heck out of it but showed little interest in tinkering with or improving the concept.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:48 AM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Fun fact about Roman shipping: it cost as much to transport materials thousands of miles by sea as it did to transport it a few miles overland. Sea travel is mad economical.
posted by cthuljew at 8:57 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


but it was the Europeans who invented firearms
I'm going to be a little pedantic here and note that the first firearms were in fact invented by the Chinese, but Europe took the innovation to a much higher level after transmission from the Middle East. It was a much more useful to improve the cannon and handcannon against fellow Europeans than for the Chinese against the Mongolians. As an interesting sidenote, they found grenades on the Mongolian boats that were swept by storm at the coast of Japan. The most deadly horseback warriors of the ancient world with GRENADES.

If they had the same vast pool of human labor available, given that ingenuity is a universal human trait, the Europeans would have developed more or less the same thing.
A more credible factor would be the thriving mercantile class at various periods in Chinese history, particularly pre 1200 AD. I say more credible because one would not the make the same population->innovation claim of Nigeria or Indonesia. The Chinese (using rough analogy) sorted out a lot of feudalistic political issues way before the Renaissance. Beijing and Baghdad were the cultural powerhouses around 1000 AD, and Europe was very much a backwater. For various reasons this balance was pretty much entirely overturned by the end of the Mongolian invasions...
posted by helot at 8:57 AM on March 13, 2013


Fun fact about Roman shipping: it cost as much to transport materials thousands of miles by sea as it did to transport it a few miles overland. Sea travel is mad economical.

Once read that is is cheaper for somebody in California to buy a fridge built in China than one built in, say Florida. Transportation costs indeed making all the difference.

On the other hand, there's a lot of pollution costs that sea transport can externalize..
posted by DreamerFi at 9:15 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


A more credible factor would be the thriving mercantile class at various periods in Chinese history, particularly pre 1200 AD.
This made me think of a documentary I saw about the tea-producing area in the south of Anhui which had a very wealthy merchant class, who IIRC paid for the construction of paved pathways with a central rut for a barrow wheel to enable the easy transport of their product.
posted by Abiezer at 9:17 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fun fact about Roman shipping: it cost as much to transport materials thousands of miles by sea as it did to transport it a few miles overland. Sea travel is mad economical.

Buoyancy beats bicycle baggage bearing?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:33 AM on March 13, 2013


This is a very interesting article, and well worth posting, though I wasn't thrilled with the framing used in the article.

I think where the article may be problematic is that it moves smoothly from a depiction of an alternative technological solution to 19th Century traveller's stories. It does this in a context of difference between Chinese and European technology. The values and perspectives of that period, orientalism if you want, feel like they're being imported into the article as a whole, even if that wasn't the intention of the author.

I'm also not sure that the European wheelbarrow is comparable to the Chinese one. They serve very different purposes and, I suspect, do not have any shared history in their development. They look the same to use because they both have a single wheel, but perhaps they are different technologies. A better comparison might be to a handcart.
posted by sfred at 9:58 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah, I missed Abiezer's title. Oh well.
posted by sfred at 10:01 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think they get called wheelbarrows in English because of the single wheel; I see Wikipedia defines a cart as having two. I think you're right about handcart being the better analogue, and my title was mostly due to casting around for a bad pun.
posted by Abiezer at 10:13 AM on March 13, 2013


Beijing and Baghdad were the cultural powerhouses around 1000 AD, and Europe was very much a backwater.

Byzantine Renaissance.
posted by ersatz at 10:34 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I should have said Western Europe; what action there was at that time was at the outer edges of Europe. Yes, the Byzantine empire was significant but was still dwarfed by the Chinese & Indian empires and the Abbasid caliphate. This is in terms of population, area, military, crude GDP estimates, technological innovation...
posted by helot at 11:37 AM on March 13, 2013


I'm also not sure that the European wheelbarrow is comparable to the Chinese one. They serve very different purposes and, I suspect, do not have any shared history in their development. They look the same to use because they both have a single wheel, but perhaps they are different technologies. A better comparison might be to a handcart.

That's pretty much the point of the article. "Hey, isn't it interesting that the Chinese figured out this one-wheel handcart while the Europeans only ever figured out the one-wheel wheelbarrow, which is a much more limited tool."
posted by yoink at 2:18 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but the point is that they should be comparing the Chinese one-wheeled handcart to the European two-wheeled handcart, not the European one-wheeled wheelbarrow.
posted by sfred at 2:31 PM on March 13, 2013


Yeah, but the point is that they should be comparing the Chinese one-wheeled handcart to the European two-wheeled handcart, not the European one-wheeled wheelbarrow.

But they are. They're pointing out that two-wheeled carts--of ANY kind--do not have some of the advantages of the one-wheeled carts; i.e. in order to go longer distances, two-wheeled carts demand wider graded roads. Thus the Chinese carts allowed the Chinese to maintain wheeled transportation for the movement of people and goods even when their resources did not allow for extensive road building, while the Europeans never figured out an equivalent technology.

How is that not an interesting contrast? What can possibly be wrong about pointing out the fact that different cultures invent and embrace different technologies that have different advantages and disadvantages and different implications for broader cultural impact?
posted by yoink at 2:50 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


while the Europeans never figured out an equivalent technology

As has been mentioned, Chinese waterways run west to east. European waterways run every which damn way, augmented by canals, and Europe is bordered by the Mediterranean to the south, the Baltic to the North and the English Channel to the west. The Europeans had trade by water covered, and didn't need a fancy system of wheelbarrow tracks. The article is baloney in that regard.

It's awesome for pointing out a technology, in that particular time in that particular place, that was notable and fascinating... it's baloney for trying to force a "Noble Savage" narrative on the deal that forces an "East vs. West!" competition where none could exist.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:02 PM on March 13, 2013


Great link! Thanks, Abiezer.
posted by homunculus at 11:41 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


For there to be Noble Savage trope going on, there would have to be some sort of mythologizing or putting-on-a-pedestal of the Eastern approach. While the article notes that the Chinese invented it, they didn't do any of the requisite "oh they are so much more in tune with technology" or "we didn't make the same development because we're so materialistic" or whatever. It just notes that it happened in one place and not another. Maybe I'm missing something.

I found the comparison with European wheelbarrows and hand-carts to be useful because that's what I'm familiar with. I would've thought the article lacking context without it.
posted by daveliepmann at 7:55 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, to totally change direction, I understand that the Mesoamerican cultures clearly knew about wheels since small wheeled objects (apparently toys) have been found, but they never deployed wheels for larger objects. I seem to recall being told in some class that this was because they had no draft animals, but, while the Chinese had horses and oxen (the later being preferred as draft animals, as far as I can tell), they also had many human-powered carts, so carts and draft animals don't necessarily go together. Anyone have any ideas why Mesoamerica did not produce carts?

I realize there is a "cart before the horse" joke lurking there, I am going to ignore it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:26 AM on March 14, 2013


For some reason, GenjiandProust's comment reminded me about the use of sails. How wild is that? It struck me as unworkable, because I always (ignorantly) envisioned sails as unwieldy and difficult to harness in a specific direction (which made them useful for water transport but not on land).

Sails on land feels to me like the boats that rode on canals in upstate NY, pulled by horses or mules that were on land. Unexpected but ends up making sense.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's awesome for pointing out a technology, in that particular time in that particular place, that was notable and fascinating... it's baloney for trying to force a "Noble Savage" narrative on the deal that forces an "East vs. West!" competition where none could exist.

There is no "noble savage" mythologizing going on at all: technical innovation is nothing to do, at all, with the "noble savage" mythos--indeed it involves a rejection of technology as alienating from harmonious living in nature.

And you're simply wrong about river and canal transport being the reason that this technology was unneeded in Europe. If rivers and canals had provided such perfect networks of transportation throughout Europe, the Romans would never have bothered to build their roads, would they? The canal system in Europe is very late, for the most part: a product of the C18th and C19th. It is, broadly, contemporaneous with the emergent Industrial Revolution which it both enabled and which eventually rendered it largely obsolete. What the article is talking about is what happened in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance when the Roman roads fell into disrepair and disuse and no adequate substitute for them emerged in their place--certainly not river traffic and certainly not canal traffic. There was a genuine technological problem which the Chinese style single-wheeled handcart could have helped to solve. And it is, once again, interesting that it never emerged independently in European design as a solution to the problems it was addressing in the Chinese context.
posted by yoink at 11:56 AM on March 14, 2013


Yeah I just don't see the supposed massive advantage over a two-wheeled cart. The two-wheeled cart does require a more level area but on the other hand is quite a bit easier to load because there is less balancing involved. The one-wheeled cart does seem to have an advantage over longer distances. Perhaps in India, Middle-East and Europe the need for longer-distance man-powered transportation was less than in China?
posted by Authorized User at 2:12 PM on March 14, 2013


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