I read in The Economist recently about the Anji Bridge in China. Some online research says it was built from 595-605. It’s the oldest arch bridge in the world. And it’s fascinating.
I should at this point state that I have never been to China, apart from Hong Kong. The bridge in question is in the province of Hebei, which apparently is in the north of the country. I’m taking all this information off other websites because I don’t know much about China but I know that the country is vast.
But here’s what I know about architecture in the Western world: the Egyptians and the Greeks built some impressive buildings and had other impressive cultural achievements, but their surviving above-ground monuments were constructed using basic stone-upon-stone. It wasn’t until the Romans that arches and domes were constructed. Even then, the Romans limited themselves to the classic semicircular arch.
Not that semicircular arches are anything to be sneezed at, as anyone who has seen the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain can attest. But the Romans don’t seem to have evolved to other arch-shapes.
I had long thought that the next big step in building design was the invention of the gothic arch, as used for example in various European cathedrals. However on a trip to Jordan several years ago I noted gothic-style arches in the foundations of Ajloun Castle, which was built in the 12th century and thus predates anything in Europe. I realised then that my knowledge of historic architecture was far from complete.
There are some impressive European single-span arch bridges from the 13th and 14th centuries, and years ago I saw a documentary that covered Grosvenor Bridge in Chester in England, which dates from the 19th century and has a span of about 60m. That was quite an engineering feat for the time.
Which gets me to the Anji Bridge in China. I’ll repeat the dates in which it was built: 595 to 605. The main arch spans 37 metres.
That’s pretty impressive but I’ll admit to profound scepticism. The issue is that the design looks remarkably modern and it just radically predates everything else built anywhere else. I am reminded of the Guinness Book of Record’s comment about the mental calculation feats of the Indian mathematician Shakuntala Devi: “Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to Mrs Devi on the grounds that her achievements are so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other investigated prodigy that the authentication must have been defective.” Amen to that. Mrs Devi’s remarkable accomplishment was not so much the absolutely incredible feat of multiplying two 13-digit numbers in her head, as the fact that she did so in only 28 seconds.
Which gets me to the Anji Bridge. How on earth was such a technically sophisticated bridge built in China, so long ago? Or more to the point, is it really as old as it is said to be? I have no idea.