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February 8, 2015

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Bridge building in China spans 6,000 years

ARCHAEOLOGICAL discoveries indicate that ancient Chinese began to build bridges as early as 6,000-plus years ago. By the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), China had already developed technologies for erecting four types of bridges — beam, arch, hanging and flying.

Beam bridges, the simplest of the four, appeared in the country first. During the Stone Age, people put a single roughly processed log or a raft of two or three logs across streams to overcome the obstacle.

Such structures were found in Banpo, an archaeological site discovered in 1953 near Xi’an in northwest China. The remains of several Neolithic settlements there date back 5,600 to 6,700 years.

In Hemudu, another Neolithic site in modern Yuyao in east China’s Zhejiang Province, archaeologists have found evidence of beam bridges made of timber frames. The Hemudu are believed to have existed from 5,000 to 4,500 BC.

After entering the Iron Age, the ancient Chinese could not only build more complex wooden bridges, but also more solid and enduring stone bridges. In AD 22, Duke Mugong of the Qin Kingdom in northern China built the Ba Bridge, a beautiful marriage of stone piers and wood beams. The 380-meter-long and 7-meter-wide bridge was connected across a total of 67 spans, with each covering a distance of nearly 6 meters.

The remains of the bridge were unearthed in 1994 by locals dredging the Ba River to the east of Xi’an.

During the same period, such stone pier-wood beam bridges appeared in many other places across the country, such as in today’s Zhejiang Province and the southwest Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

With improved tools and new technology, people began to build more elaborate bridges in the following centuries.

One of the best examples is the extant Yuzhao Feiliang in Jinci Temple in northern China’s Shanxi Province. Erected during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the cross-shaped stone bridge is today hailed by many architects as the gem of ancient Chinese bridge-building art, thanks to its elegant design and unique structure. The bridge’s name means “flying beams across the fish pond.”

Cross-sea bridges

At the same time, people living along the coastal areas began to build long, cross-sea stone bridges to connect with nearby islands.

People used boats to ship heavy granite slabs, which could be more than 10 meters long and weigh up to 25 tons each, and then take advantage of high tides to place the beams onto the erected stone piers.

Such bridges could be as long as 2,000 meters. The Anping Bridge near Quanzhou in southeast China’s Fujian Province spans 2,070 meters. Consisting of 331 spans, the bridge used to have five pavilions for travelers to rest, but now only one remains.

Construction of this cross-sea bridge kicked off in 1138, and it was not completed until 1151. Now it is listed as a state cultural heritage under government protection.

After the appearance of stone bridges, less-durable wooden bridges fell out of fashion. But in areas without easy access to large and high-quality stone or granite quarries, people invented wooden bridges covered by tiled roofs to make them last longer and help shelter travelers from bad weather.

In Zhejiang Province, the Bailiang Bridge (or the Hundred-Beam Bridge) and the Shouxi Bridge are widely regarded as the best example of this type of bridge.

Many covered wooden bridges can be found today in ethnic areas of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. For instance, the Chengyang Bridge, built by ethnic Tong people in 1912 in Sanjiang County in Guangxi is a 64-meter-long and 10.6-meter-tall covered bridge. It is an ingenious combination of a beam bridge, with beautiful pavilions and verandas.

In order to solve the problem of a shortage of long beams, ancient Chinese builders also invented cantilever bridges that could cross wider spans and use fewer piers. Even today, the beam bridges remain the most common type in use in the country.

悬臂简支梁桥 (Xuánbì Jiǎnzhī Liángqiáo)

Cantilever Bridge

In ancient times, people mostly used timber or stone to build bridges. But sometimes they couldn’t find beams long enough to span a wide stream or river.

Later, the cantilever bridge was invented. To construct a cantilever bridge, builders used two horizontal beams supported on only one end and extended them from opposite sides of the supporting piers to meet midair above the water.

The Chengyang Bridge, a famous covered wooden bridge built by ethnic Tong people in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is a masterpiece among cantilever bridges in the world.


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