In the Beginning

In my final year at university I discovered a new hero – one whom I would quietly admire for the rest of my life. His name was Lu Ban; Chinese Philosopher Engineer. I found him on a late night Channel 4, alternative, foreign film season. I should have been studying or better still catching some much needed sleep, ready for another round of lectures in the morning. I must have been tremendously bored with everything that night to settle for a black and white, 1930s movie about a little old Chinese engineer. Yet, I was quickly gripped by the story and the strange romance of it all. It gave meaning to the last five years of university life and something to strive for.

(starting at 17min 25 seconds)

With a little, more recent research I discovered the film was actually called ‘The Legend of Lu Ban’ by Sun Yu, made in the 1930s. A description of the film and Lu Ban himself read;

“Lu Ban (Sun Yu’s penultimate film) is the best of them, a celebration of the legendary father of Chinese architecture as a self-effacing man of the people. It imagines three episodes from Lu Ban's wanderings around China two millennia ago. In each, he comes upon a building or design problem in the making, obliquely provides the craftsmen with the solution and then slips away without waiting for credit or thanks. Devoid of Maoist propaganda, the film is enjoyable for Sun's simple, elegant mise en scène and for its historical naturalism. Wei (the prostitute's lover in Street Angel, twenty years earlier) plays Lu Ban with real charm and grace.”

The character of Lu Ban instantly appealed to my growing love of ancient knowledge, spirituality and accumulated wisdom. At the time I was a new convert to Christianity, though a rather singular and unguided form in which I remained the ultimate authority on God and his plans for us all. Only in my fiftieth year did I finally settle on Roman Catholic theology as the one true faith and actually feel the need to get confirmed and to submit to some form of higher authority. Lu Ban presumably being Confucian was still acceptable since Jesus Christ never claimed to be an engineer and neither did the apostles. So the ancient engineering concepts and the peripatetic lifestyle espoused by Lu Ban was transferable and wholly valid according to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. The thing that made me laugh the most, after twenty odd years of random references to Lu was the day my wife Jill asked me who Lu Ban actually worked for; was he the country director of Oxfam (Ethiopia)? She now denies this vehemently but I swear it was true.

So in my hierarchy of beliefs and in the study and application of engineering truths, Jesus Christ is the main man and Lu Ban is right up there with the best of them. These guys are followed closely by some of my old lecturers at Loughborough University and the Water Engineering & Development Center (WEDC) like Bob Reed who spent much of his time lecturing from on top of the table, in the squat position with no shoes on demonstrating just how it is done in much of the world and John Pickford who flung himself physically into an imaginary pipe showing us the real and important effects of friction loss and thrust in a distribution network. But more of them later.