Ancient Chinese And South Asian Flights Of Fancy
It may not be surprising that early cultures pondered the wonder of flight: people in most parts of the world could see birds, bats, and insects flying about, and this likely inspired a great sense of curiosity. Many likely imagined rising aloft, and flying about like a bird — or at least, they could imagine their spirits and deities flying around the heavens, from place to place. But what is curious in historical terms is that a wide variety of sources, from folktales to romances, discussed the use of mechanical devices for flight, and at times even included attempts at technical descriptions of a device’s construction and operation. This historical artifact has eluded most modern studies, with a few notable, brief exceptions such as Berthold Laufer's engaging essay, The Prehistory of Aviation.
Flying Celestial Apsara (Feitian 飛天) (Seventh Century) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Chinese Flights of Fancy and Mechanical Flight
Early narratives about flying likely do not reflect historical records of actual mechanized flight, but they do imply an important integration of technological ideas into ideas about the past held by early cultures themselves. Some early cultures had the idea that the cultures that had preceded them were more advanced in terms of the machines that they had created. This can be framed as part of a more general concept of "mechanical mythologies", and it is worth examining how various early texts treated the subject of something as technologically sophisticated as mechanized flight.
The stories recounted here in relation to flight, make a clear distinction between individual entities who flew under their own power — such as the Chinese fei tian (飛天), or "flying beings" — and mechanical devices that flew, marked by a different term in Chinese: fei che (飛車), that is, "flying vehicles". There are two basic story types related to early discussions of flight. The first type involves humans with magical powers, special anthropomorphic entities, or other creatures for example dragons, that were capable of flight on their own. In Chinese culture popular tales often tell of adepts, divine entities, or other beings flying through the air. The xian (仙) were immortals who were capable of flight under their own divine power. They were said to be feathered, and a term that has been used for Daoist priests is yu ke (羽客), meaning "feathered guest."
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Dr Benjamin B. Olshin is a Professor (ret) of Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His areas of expertise include sociology of science and technology, design, Eastern / Western philosophy, as well as cross-cultural management. His latest book is: Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories.
Top Image: Pushpaka Viman from Tulsi Ramayan Tej Kumar Book Depot by MahaMuni (CC0)