What do China, Automatic Looms, the Compass and Theatre have in common?
The answer is the character we’ll discuss in this post – and his name is Ma Jun.
Inventor, engineer, and Government officer in the China of 200 DC, Ma Jun is an extremely modern character: he conquered a position of fame and importance not through his wealth (he was, it seems, of humble origins) nor through his charms (he was described as being shy, and introverted), but thanks to the genius of his inventions. As we anticipated, one of his first projects was an automatic loom of a totally new conception: rather than the fifty pedals which were typical in the looms at the time, Ma Jun introduced a model which boasted no more than twelve – and yet, not only allowed for faster, better work, but also to weave patterns which had been, up to then, impossible.
But Ma Jun’s fame is more tightly tied to an object which was almost legendary in China at the time, an object which has been several times forgotten and reinvented during history: the “South-Pointing Chariot”, practically a movable, reliable compass. In Ma Jun’s time, it was considered a legend, a mythological object which could not actually be built, and when Ma Jun argued that it could actually be realized, he became the target of the jeers of a good part of the Court. But the Chariot COULD be built – and he did it: a cart carrying a statue which, thanks to a system of differential gears (which marks one of the first uses in history of this kind of gear) also was a perfectly functioning compass, whose arm always pointed South.
Yet, perhaps, another invention, which Ma Jun created as a gift for Emperor Wei, can impress us even more. When the Emperor asked if it was possible to make the puppets move in the miniature theatre that had been gifted to him, Ma Jun’s answer was a definite “yes”. Not only did he manufacture different, perfectly articulated puppets, making each capable of several movements: he built them linking each one to a gear which, when moved by a hidden water flow, could animate the entire scene. To describe the result, let us give you an excerpt of a contemporary account:
“ … [Ma Jun] furthermore arranged images of singing-girls which played music and danced, and when a particular puppet came upon the scene, other wooden men beat drums and blew upon flutes… Government officials were in their offices… cocks were fighting, and all was continually changing and moving ingeniously with a hundred variations…”