« Gas Bag Vehicles | Main | The art of producing sustainable consumer goods: basketry »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Kris De Decker


Please reload the page in your browser before you make a comment. Our blog software does not allow comments if the page has been inactive for more than 60 minutes.

Paul McManus


Wow, great post! Do you think any of those old wheelbarrow roads still exist? I'm doing a bike tour in China next year and it would be awesome to find them.

Dominic Brown


Thanks for an outstanding article. Some points, though, about the European wheelbarrow:

It’s low-slung, balances itself when not in motion, and has the form of a bin, box, or hod. That makes it vastly easier to load, especially for soil, manure, root crops, or construction materials, all of which start out on the ground. I’ve shifted many a ton of limestone building blocks in my day, and many a barrowful of mortar. I would not have wanted to prop up a one-wheeled vehicle, lift everything much higher, and meticulously balance the load, for a trip of only a hundred metres. The European design is also easy to empty by dumping, as everything is held in place by gravity alone, not strapped on.

Basically, if you’re carrying the load a long distance, it’s worth the extra trouble to load a Chinese-style wheelbarrow. If you need to move something terribly heavy a short distance (say, to get a load of swedes from the field to the barn) then easy loading and unloading out-weigh efficiency in carriage.

For the purposes to which the Chinese put their wheelbarrows, their design was clearly better—and the Europeans did, as you say, suffer for the lack of that design. For the purposes to which the Europeans put their wheelbarrows, I think their design was better. No doubt that’s why the Chinese also used wheelbarrows of the European type, as you mention. Too bad the reverse wasn’t also true.



This remember me other transport system.

T.M. August


The same narrow wheelbarrow-roads would also be perfect for bicycles; the footprint is about the same.
I could see the two technologies complimenting one another nicely, since wheelbarrows are much cheaper and lower tech than bikes.

Ted Fineran


No mention of Geoffrey Howard who crossed the sahara with a similar wheelbarrow in 1974-5?

Kris De Decker


Sorry for my late reply.

@ Paul (#2): The only present-day example I could find are the remains of the "Ancient road of mules and horses": http://english.china.com/zh_cn/tourism/news/11020847/20071016/14393885.html

I suspect many more of these paved pathways remain, but it will take someone with Chinese language skills or travel experience to find them.

@ Dominic (#3): The European wheelbarrow has its advantages, indeed. But these were somewhat smaller in earlier times. In "The Medieval Wheelbarrow", Andrea Matthies writes:

"The European wheelbarrow has several characteristics that make it useful on construction sites. Since its carrying surface rests just off the ground, objects need not be lifted far. This feature also makes shoveling rubble or earth into the wheelbarrow much easier, though loose material is frequently shown within a wicker basket perched on the wheelbarrow's carrying surface. Dumping material in a basket would reduce the amount of time that the wheelbarrow sits idle while the shoveling is done. The modern means of dumping loads, through tipping the wheelbarrow up over its front wheel or twisting it on its side, may have been too rough for wooden wheelbarrows."

@ Ted (#6): I was not aware of that. Thanks. Here is a bit more info about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheelbarrow_across_The_Sahara

Marco Cecilio


There is a similar vehicle in Africa, Angola, except it uses straight boards and a car tire, but the principle is just the same, just search google pictures for "roboteiro angola" and you will find a contemporary design of the Chinese Wheelbarrow. Love Low Tech Magazine, should be a must read for many graduates.

Kris De Decker


Marco: thanks! Here are some pictures of it: http://www.notechmagazine.com/2012/02/chinese-wheelbarrow-lives-on-in-angola-africa.html

Shannon Love


It's really a misnomer to call the Chinese one-wheel cart a "wheelbarrow" because functionally the Chinese cart and the Western wheelbarrow are much different machines with different design goals. You really can't compare the two. All they really have in common in the use of a single wheel.

The Chinese one-wheel cart is a cart designed primarily for carrying static loads over long distances. The Western wheelbarrow is designed to carry lose loads e.g. soil, ore, manure etc, over short distances. Efficient travel was the primary design goal of the Chinese one-wheel cart. Ease of loading, dumping and the ability to navigate a 6 inch wide blank dominated the design of the Western wheelbarrow.

Niether can you compare the road systems. Europe never had a mercantile road system because it never needed one because of the excellent water transport. Europe has the highest density of navigable rivers in the world as well as the longest fractal coastline. Few places in Europe were more than a half-day travel by wagon from water transport. All they needed were short stretches of local road to connect to the nearest water transport.

The vaunted Roman roads were exclusively military and largely useless for the transport of commodities. The roads were narrow, ruler straight and ignored grade. Some even have steps running up steep hillsides. They were designed to move marching troops on foot and pack animals quickly and to do nothing else. The pictures you see of wider roads or roads with rail like slots were found only in the immediate vicinity of major cities. All Roman cities, even on the frontier, were next to water transport. No significant trade was carried on roads.

China by contrast has very little relative coast line and a relatively low density of water transport, especially running North to South. Just as with the Roman empire, the ancient Chinese road and canal system was first and foremost a military system but the paucity of navigable rivers caused them to be used to carry more trade than the Roman system.

Europeans also had a technology that the rest of the world lacked: the ability to breed large draft animals. Medieval draft animals were easily twice as large as those found in China and far more numerous per capita. It was usually easier for Europeans to simply add more (literal) horsepower to a transportation problem than to build a road system.

Road systems are vulnerable tech because they are more software than hardware. The hardware is the actual physical road itself but the software is the organizational system that maintains the roads.

All road systems will disintegrate and lose critical components e.g. bridges, within a couple of decades unless actively maintained. Losing just a few dozens feet of road owing to a washout can render useless hundreds of miles of roads that route through the fail point. The software/organization has to be in place to constantly maintain the road system or the system is useless.

Most of our serious technology has similar vital software component that we pretty much ignore to our peril.

Oriom Lisboa


All posts that i have read, and all comments on this to date are insightfull, im really happy for finding this site!

@ Shannon (#10) Really good point. Yet you have to agree that this was a very interesting article! And its nice that this site have educated readers like you, its make all the difference. Still Kris also have a point about privately build and maintained "roads". It had a huge importance in the development of commerce and communication, and was make useful for those who actually finance it, the people in general! Great read!



What an excellent article.



Just want to thank you for putting this together and posting it. Very interesting.



One point I didn't see in the article is that the high weight-to-power ratio of the chinese wheelbarrow depends crucially on (piecewise) flat terrain. Although a person can start, stop and steer 200+ kg on a one-wheeled barrow, even a relatively shallow grade will render it impossible for them to go downhill safely or uphill at all. I would expect to see roads used for these wheelbarrows with occasional steps rather than continuous grades.

ezra abrams


Carrying stuff was the easiest way to go; there was no need to build roads or vehicles, nor to feed animals. But humans can carry no more than 25 to 40 kg over long distances
I don't think this is right - a year or so ago in National geographic was an article about the porters who carried tea across the asian mountains; they carried loads well in excess of 100 pounds, moving two or three steps, resting, etc
their packs had wooden legs that allowed them to easily rest the load

also, if you have visitied the white mountains in the US state of NH, you may know their are huts , where breakfast and dinner are provided; at at least one hut is a list of record time from th road to teh hut; some of the records indicate that young men were running two or three miles up the mountain with a 100 + pound pack

also, you should have indicated that in much of china, horses are not viable - I'm not sure why, something to do with the climate.

finally, the lack of emphasis on the notoriously unhealthy life of hte coolie..shame on you



Well..I'm not sure if this design was ingenious to china...My father and grandfather informed me that this design was also existing in India for ages and even today..you can see these small carts are preferred in India where roads/streets are narrow and not in good condition

Christopher de Vidal


Anyone know how to build or buy one of these? I even looked for instructions on the roboteiro with no success.

Colonel Panik


We lived in China for the year of 2000. Never saw these but they
used 2 wheeled wheelbarrows everywhere, I would never go back to
the one wheeled type.

@ T.M. August (5)
Have you ever heard of the Ho Che Min Trail? One man with a
bicycle could move 200 to 300 pounds up to 20 miles a night on
a hand full of rice. The cargo was suspended from the the bike
frame and the operator balanced and pushed the bike.

Jim Baerg


This reminded me of another culture's response to good roads disappearing, or maybe the roads disappeared in response to the development. The middle east gave up on using wheeled carts for over a millennium.


A short summary of the ideas in the book also is given here:



Really interesting article.

I love to learn about human powered technology in history.

But I don't think we would ever go back to using wheelbarrows for long distance movement of goods even if we were limited to human power.

Even if roads deteriorated you would simply see people using mountain bikes with wide grippy tyres, suspension, and low gearing for rough terrain. Bikes being the most efficient human powered means of transport save for sailing.

Interesting point brought up about water transport in Europe.

I'd be interested to see a comparison between long distance movement of goods by ship versus bicycle in speed and effort required.

I'd imagine cycling would be quicker especially if moving something inland it eventually has to be moved by land anyway, with the main advantage of ship freight on a low tech ship being the same on a high tech ship, the amount of goods that can be carried in volume and weight is vastly superior what you could move with human powered transport on land.



..but how do you actually make one ? Where are there any woodworking plans that give dimensions and method to construction ? Thank you.



I love this article, from time to time I come back and give it a look ... it gives me many ideas and inspiration

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)