Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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The Arch Bridge at Zhaozhou

The well-known Zhaozhou Bridge, a large stone arch bridge on Xiao River in Zhaozhou, Hebei Province, is also known as Anji Bridge. It is the largest and oldest stone arch bridge in the world about which over the years many beautiful folk stories have been circulating.

One day in the Spring and Autumn Period, the skilful artisan Lu Ban of the State of Lu arrived on the bank of Xiao River, carrying his tools on his back. On the swift waters of the wide river he saw two small ferryboats hurrying to and fro with passengers. A crowd of people were meanwhile waiting anxiously on the bank, some with wheelbarrows, others with heavy loads on their shoulder poles. But the ferryboat could carry only a small number of people aboard. Suddenly Lu Ban heard some say, "If only a bridge could be built over the river!" When he saw all this, Lu made up his mind to build a bridge across Xiao River for the people of Zhaozhou.

According to the legend, at that very evening, Lu brought back some snow-white stone blocks from the Taihang Mountains to the south,and set to work immediately. At the daybreak when the cock crowed, Lu laid the last two stone labs on the bridge and the job was done. Picking up his tools, Lu Ban went on his way again to see what he could do for the people in other places.

Zhaozhou Bridge is 50.82 meters long and 9.6 meters wide, the span of the large stone arch in the middle measuring 37.37 meters. There are two smaller symmetrical arches, one at each end. This kind of structure not only requires less building material but makes sluicing at times of flood easier. The bridge floor is smooth and flat with pavements for pedestrians on both sides, while carriages and carts can move in the middle. The apex of the arch is fairly high so that boats can easily clear it. The bridge is ingeniously designed with a well-proportioned layout, a solid structure, and a magnificent and attractive outward appearance. At both ends of the bridge, willow branches sway graceful, while, seen from the afar, the inverted image of the arch in the water resembles a rainbow spanning the Xiao River.

News spread quickly that Lu Ban had built a stone arch bridge overnight. Towns people as well as villagers near and far flocked there in excitement to have a look at the bridge. Such a miracle also aroused the interest of Chai Rong the Fairy and one of the "Eight Legendary Immortals" Zhang Guolao. They wanted to test whether this large stone arch bridge was solid enough,and so decided to play a practical joke on Lu Ban.

One night, Zhang Guolao came riding on a donkey, facing backward. On the back of the donkey were hung two heavy sacks containing in one the "sun" and the other the "moon". Then came Chai Rong pushing a barrow on which were loaded the "five famous mountains." Arriving together at the bridge, they met Lu Ban and asked him whether they could cross the bridge at the same time. Lu replied proudly, "Why, such a solidly-built bridge not being able to carry the two of you? Go ahead, please." But to his astonishment, the bridge began to wobble as soon as they set foot upon it. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Lu Ban jumped into the water and, with all his might, tried to prop up the eastern half of the bridge. In this way the two immortals were able to cross the bridge with their "sun" and "moon" and the "five famous mountains." From then on, the bridge bore the hoof prints of the donkey Zhang Guolao rode, the dent left by Chai Rong's knee where he knelt on the ground, and the grooves left the wheel of the barrow. There was also Lu Ban's hand print where he tried to prop up the bridge. Today, the "imprints of immortals" are still there except Lu Ban's hand print because of a partial collapse later of the eastern half of the bridge.

Lu Ban, Zhang Guolao and Chai Rong did not belong to the same age and so couldn't have met each other in the first place. It is also evident that Lu ban could not have built such a large stone bridge overnight. The myths and legends, however, are a reflection of the admiration felt by ordinary people for this stone arch bridge and the foud memory they cherish for its builders. In spite of the buffeting of the elements and the visitation of natural disasters over more than a thousand years, this large stone arch bridge still stands rock firm today.

When, one may then ask, was Zhaozhou Bridge built? And who was it that designed and built it? The person in charge of its design and construction was an artisan called Li Chun who lived more than 13,000 years ago in the Sui Dynasty. His creativity and ingenuity in bringing into shape a bridge of such a unique design and structure have won the admiration of all.

The Zhaozhou Stone Arch Bridge was technologically the most advanced in the world then. It was remarkable achievement in the history of ancient Chinese civilization, turning over a new leaf in the annals of bridge construction in the world. Bridge building projects with a similar design did not appear in Europe until the 14th century, that is, more than seven hundred years later than the Zhaozhou Bridge.

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