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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

How did people in ancient China fight the summer heat?

By Minjun Xu

August 8

The Chinese have been looking for ways to cool off for millennia, creating some astounding inventions in the process.

The Chinese have been looking for ways to cool off for millennia, creating some astounding inventions in the process.

 It might be hard to imagine a world without any air-conditioners in a scorching summer. But do you know that people in ancient China explored various ways of making the mid-summer heat more tolerable? Here are a few of them.

1. Wind-up Fan 发条风扇

Wind-up Fan in Qing Dynasty [Image Credit: Beijing News Daily]
Wind-up Fan in Qing Dynasty [Image Credit: Beijing News Daily]
Fans are a common summer appliance in homes today, but according to Tiangong Kaiwu (天工开物, or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature), a Chinese encyclopedia from the Ming Dynasty, a primitive threshing tool called Yangshan (飏扇) that could also be used as a fan was invented in the Han Dynasty.

Yangshan (飏扇) for Threshing [Image Credit: Beijing News Daily]
Yangshan (飏扇) for Threshing [Image Credit: Beijing News Daily]
In the Qing Dynasty, wind-up fans became a feature of the imperial household. They were made by the Imperial Household Department (内务府) , and can be seen today at the National Palace Museum (故宫博物院) in Beijing.

2. Porcelain Pillows瓷枕

White-glazed Boy-shaped Pillow, Ding Ware [Image Credit: news.xinhuanet.com]
White-glazed Boy-shaped Pillow, Ding Ware [Image Credit: news.xinhuanet.com]
Pillows influence sleep quality heavily, especially during hot nights. In China, people used pillows made of jade or porcelain to beat the heat. Originally used during the Sui Dynasty and popularized in the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties, porcelain pillows were thought to improve health, especially one’s eyesight.

Some ancient porcelain pillows are still well-preserved in museums, such as the famous White-Glazed Boy-Shaped Pillow (宋定窑白釉孩儿枕) at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

4.  Ice Basin (Bing Jian) 冰鉴

Wine Vessel (Fou) and Ice Basin (Jian) [Image Credit: news.cctv.com]
Wine Vessel (Fou) and Ice Basin (Jian) [Image Credit: news.cctv.com]
The ice box, called Bing Jian (冰鉴), was invented in the early Warring States Period over 2000 years ago.

Most Bing Jian sets consisted of two vessels: one kept outside to store ice and another kept inside for cooling wine and fruits. Apart from being an ice box, the Bing Jian became a primitive air-conditioner by opening vents that let out cold air.

A wine vessel and ice basin discovered in an early Warring States Period tomb is now exhibited at the National Museum of China (国家博物馆).

4. Automatic Rain Pavilion (Ziyuting) 自雨亭

Restore Picture of Automatic Rain Pavilion [Image Credit: news.cctv.com]
Restore Picture of Automatic Rain Pavilion [Image Credit: news.cctv.com]
In the early Tang Dynasty, the rich built pavilions that cooled themselves. According to Tang Yulin (唐语林), written by Wang Tang during the Song Dynasty, a water wheel provided power to raise water to the pavilion’s eaves, which then flowed down  to imitate rain.

No original automatic rain pavilions can be found today. However, a reconstructed pavilion has been built in the Chongqing Expo Garden (重庆园博园) in Chongqing.

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