Lu Ban, born some time between 770 and the 5th century BC, is the divine protector of Chinese carpenters and artisans. He is credited with inventing the basic tool kit of the carpenter and the rules, measurements and rituals associated with building construction. He and his wife* are featured in many Chinese folktales. One story, as told by the Bai ethic minority of Yunnan Province involves how the palm, or planing stop, was invented.
The Origin of the “Palm”**
When Lu Ban needed to plane a piece of wood he would call his wife to come and hold one end of the wood with both hands. She would use all her strength to hold the wood steady. But this was not a good way to evenly plane the entire piece of wood. Too light a hand and the wood would not be smooth and too heavy a hand and the plane would run into his wife. Once, Lu Ban’s strength on the planer was too heavy and the head of the plane hit his wife in the chest, the blade cut her hands and she was pushed to the ground. Lu Ban dropped the plane and rushed to help his wife.
Lu Ban’s wife sat dazed on the ground gazing at her bloodied hands while Lu Ban fretted and did know know what to do. His wife suddenly smiled and realized what she should do. She got up, grabbed a saw and cut two pieces of wood in the shape of a palm. Next, she nailed the pieces on the bench top. She had Lu Ban place the wood to be planed between the two pieces to hold it steady and there was no longer any need for a person to hold the wood while the carpenter used the plane.
Lu Ban admired this idea of his wife and he called the two pieces a “palm.” Later, carpenters changed from wood to iron but still called this invention a “palm.”
Finding the “Palm”
I asked Chris if he could visualize the palm and he suggested placing your hand palm-up (that was the bench surface) and bend four fingers pointing towards the ceiling (the stop). But that configuration didn’t help me see a “palm.” Many images of the low Chinese workbench are hand-drawn and do not show a huge amount of detail. So, the next step was to check through the images I already had and also look for new ones.
The Arrowmaker has a planing stop, but it doesn’t look as though it would be termed a “palm.”
Four benches but no “palms” here.
In this 20th century Chinese comic strip Lu Ban’s wife nails what looks like a doe’s foot to the bench. The doe’s foot, a work holding appliance, is featured in Plate 14 of the forthcoming “Roubo on Furniture” and you can read a blog post Chris did about using one here.
The notch in the doe’s foot seemed to be closer to what the “palm” might look like. The answer came from “Qingming shanhe tu,” a scroll done with ink and brush by Zhang Zeduan during the Song Dynasty in the first quarter of the 12th century. The scroll is 25.5 cm high, 5.25 meters long and is in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The scroll shows the gatherings for the Qingming celebration in a vibrant riverfront city. The image at the top of this post is one of two where a woodworker’s bench can be seen.
In a short passage in a book about 15th-century Chinese carpentry there was mention of a wheelwright’s shop in the scroll and whether the workman at the bench is using a drawknife or spokeshave.
Find the large tree just off center in the scene above. The wheelwright’s shop is just to the left of the tree and partially under an overhanging roof.
Given the large size of the scroll the scene is too small to discern which tool is in use but what can be seen is the workman is pushing the tool as evidenced by the V-shaped wooden ‘bench stop’ nailed to the end of the bench. This ‘bench stop’ is called a “Lu Ban qi” which translates as Lu Ban’s wife. As Lu Ban’s wife knelt at one end of the bench she held her hands on either edge of the wood. Placed together her hands would form a V. This is the “palm.”
*In the folktales of the Bai Lu Ban’s wife is not given a name, but in other stories she is called Yun.
**This story is based on a Bai folktale translated by Jessica Marinaccio for her thesis for a BA with honors in Chinese at Williams College in 2006.