King Mu of Chou made a tour of inspection in the west. He crossed the K’un-lun range, but turned back before he reached the Yen mountains.
On his return journey, before arriving in China, a certain artificer was presented to him, by name Yen Shih. King Mu received him in audience, and asked what he could do. ‘I will do anything,’ replied Yen Shih, ‘that your Majesty may please to command. But there is a piece of work, already finished, that I should like to submit first to your Majesty’s inspection.’ ‘Bring it with you to-morrow.’ said the King, ‘and we will look at it together.’ So Yen Shih called again the next day, and was duly admitted to the royal presence. ‘Who is that man accompanying you?’ asked the King. ‘That, Sire, is my own handiwork. He can sing and he can act.’ The King stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that any one would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it started posturing, keeping perfect time. It went through any number of movements that fancy might happen to dictate. The King, looking on with his favourite concubine and the other inmates of his harem, could hardly persuade himself that it was not real.
As the performance was drawing to an end, the automaton winked his eye and made sundry advances to the ladies in attendance on the King. This, however, threw the King into a passion, and he would have put Yen Shih to death on the spot had not the latter, in mortal terror, instantly pulled the automaton to pieces to let him see what it really was. And lo! it turned out to be merely a conglomeration of leather, wood, glue and paint, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the King found all the internal organs complete–liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines–and, over these, again, muscles and bones and limbs with their joints, skin and teeth and hair, all of them artificial. Not a part but was fashioned with the utmost nicety and skill; and when it was put together again, the figure presented the same appearance as when first brought in. The King tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth would no longer utter a sound; he took away the liver, and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys, and the legs lost their power of locomotion.
Now the King was delighted. Drawing a deep breath, he exclaimed: ‘Can it be that human skill is really on a par with that of the Creator?’ And forthwith he gave an order for two extra chariots, in which he took home with him the artificer and his handiwork.
Now, Pan Shu, with his cloud-scaling ladder, and Mo Ti, with his flying kite, thought that they had reached the limits of human achievement.
‘Pan Shu made a cloud-ladder by which he could mount to the sky and assail the heights of heaven; Mo Ti made a wooden kite which would fly for three days without coming down.’
But when Yen Shih’s wonderful piece of work had been brought to their knowledge, the two philosophers never again ventured to boast of their mechanical skill, and ceased to busy themselves so frequently with the square and compasses.