Pushpaka Viman from Tulsi Ramayan Tej Kumar Book Depot by MahaMuni (CC0)

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)

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.          

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