From Chariot to Carriage

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In our studies of the transmission of Indo-European language and culture across the Eurasian continent, one of the most vital research topics is that of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles.  During this past semester, I taught one of the most satisfying courses of my entire half-century career, namely, "Horses and humans".  Among the many engrossing subjects that we confronted are the nomenclature for wheeled vehicles, how horses were hitched to them, and so forth.  Many of these questions are now authoritatively answered in the following paper by three of the world's most distinguished scholars of equine equipage.


Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-fourth issue:

"From Chariot to Carriage: Wheeled Vehicles and Developments in Draft and Harnessing in Ancient China," by Joost H. Crouwel, Gail Brownrigg, and Katheryn Linduff.


Chariots drawn by horses harnessed in pairs under a yoke appeared in China, without apparent local antecedants, in burials of the late Shang dynasty (ca. 1200–1045 bce). The system of paired draft and their characteristic design – two large, multi-spoked wheels set on a long axle placed centrally under the wide body – remained virtually unchanged for nearly a thousand years. By the time of Emperor Qin Shihuang (ruled 221–210 bce), covered traveling vehicles in which the passenger could sit or recline had been developed. The two superb bronze models from his tomb have enabled a study of the details of their construction and harnessing. Under the Western Han dynasty (206 bce–9 ce), an innovative type of vehicle emerged – the prestigious, lightweight carriage for swift personal transport drawn by a single horse between shafts, harnessed with a breaststrap. Like the chariots, they were driven from the box; the occupants knelt or reclined rather than stood. Though the use of breast traction continued to be the traditional form of harnessing horses, mules and donkeys in China, the fast carriages in their turn went out of fashion after the end of the Eastern Han period (24–220 ce), to be replaced by a stately, slower-moving vehicle with a single draft animal between the shafts, controlled by an attendant on foot.


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Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 9:18 am

    Unfamiliar with the concept of a tripartite wheel, I found mention thereof at, in which the author make several mentions of "lunate openings" (or "lunate recesses"). However, he appears to offer no explanation of the intended function of these openings/recesses — could anyone enlighten me, please ?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 11:20 am

    @Philip Taylor

    I've always thought of those lunate openings as proto-spokes, intended to lighten the weight of the otherwise solid wheels, which are very heavy.

    I found a tripartite disc wheel in a desert cemetery at Qizilchoqa / Wupu, 60 km west of Qumul / Hami in the far eastern part of the Tarim Basin. It is dated to about 1200 BC.

    In my classes and lectures, I have a lot to say about tripartite disk wheels — why and how they are made that way. Here I'll give an abbreviated, bullet-pointed version:


    • originally, disc wheels were essentially sections of large tree trunks

    • as the wagon and cart makers moved eastward out into the steppe and scrub land, the diameter of the tree trunks gradually grew smaller in the increasingly arid conditions, till they were no longer larger enough to make a cart wheel

    • the wheelwrights ingeniously took three sections from the smaller trees and held them together with dowels



    I always stress how high tech the development of means of transportation, weaponry, utensils for daily use, and other such advancements in civilization were. They depended on an intimate knowledge of wood, metal, glue, leather, sinew, tendons, etc. I can talk about these things for hours on end. No problem holding the students' interest!

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 1:10 pm

    "lighten[ing] the weight of the otherwise solid wheels" now makes perfect sense to me, with the benefit of hindsight, and it is clear from (e.g.,) Fig.~13 of that the "lunate openings" occur at the mating faces of the three component parts, but while it would have been relatively easy to bore a semi-circle in the two outermost planks, was the additional weight-saving achieved by carving a considerably more complex shape into the outer surfaces of the central part sufficient to justify the work involved ? If not, might there be some other reason for preferring a lunate opening to a non-lunate opening that would have been far easier to create ?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 1:39 pm

    From Robert Drews

    The Chinese chariot is different enough from those in the N.E. that some intermediary may have accounted for some of the changes (much bigger wheels, many more spokes, and a central axle, lower superstructure). But the Lchashen chariots, as the authors point out, are in some respects similar.

  5. Chris Button said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 2:01 pm

    It's nice when articles like this back up the lingusitic evidence that the word represented by 車 is a loanword.

    I've recently been looking at 銀, which for about 150 years has been treated as a loan into Tocharian. The problem is that the Chinese evidence doesn't support that. An article by Witczak independently proposes an internal evolution of the word in Tocharian. If correct, the direction was almost certainly Tocahrian into Chinese.

    Chariots or silver, the other issue is a reliable Old Chinese reconstruction, which cam then be reinforced by the proposed loanword origin rather than manipulated to fit it. But that's another matter

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 4:07 pm

    chē 車 ("car; cart; vehicle")
    yín 銀 ("silver")

  7. Chris Button said,

    May 5, 2024 @ 9:51 pm

    Minor typo: I meant 50 years rather than 150 years. Although it could have been proposed before then. It seems Adams' Dictionary has a refence to Rahder from 1963, but I haven't seen that,

  8. Laura Morland said,

    May 6, 2024 @ 1:28 am

    Since you mentioned (glancingly) I-E chariots, I thought I'd mention how I always find amusing that the word "chariot" is retained in everyday French in one context: shopping carts — but only the large kind available in grocery stores. (The smaller ones for personal use are called "caddies".)

    The word "chariot" used as well to refer to the luggage carts those of us with voluminous suitcases use at an airport. It's perhaps worth remarking that these "vehicles" have in common with the ancient chariot the need for an animal (here, a human one) to enable themto function.

    As you know, unlike in English, the word derived from chariot is not used for an automobile — however, the word "car" *is* used for what we call in AE a "coach" (a fancy, private bus).

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