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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists). Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history. One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty. The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red). These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago: laying out fine clothes and setting the table. One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch. The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.
The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries. Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”). Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires. The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea. To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument. But look at these amazing paintings! Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.
The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right. The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life. Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines. If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.
These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.
Today is International Women’s Day, although, to my mind, one unofficial holiday in the doldrums of March doesn’t really capture the contributions of, oh, let’s see, more than half of humankind (and the good half, by-in-large). Anyway, Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the event with “Princess Week”, a week of musing on gender, politics, power, and roles. Instead of featuring some made-up princesses invented to sell toys or strange movies, today’s post tells the story of a particularly magnificent real princess, Princess Zhao of Pingyang.
Zhao was the daughter of Li Yuan the hereditary Duke of Tang during the Sui Dynasty–a politically weak and troubled dynasty which lasted from 581 to 618, when it was supplanted by the glorious, uh, Tang dynasty (I am maybe giving some things away). Zhao was was Li’s third daughter, but, his other daughters were the children of concubines, whereas she was the only daughter of his wife Duchess Dou (who gave birth to Li’s heirs, Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin, Li Xuanba, and Li Yuanji whose fratricidal conflict is one of the great stories of Chinese history). Zhao was fully as cunning and martial as her brothers, which is saying something since one of her brothers was Li Shimin (one of the preeminent figures of world history–arguably the most capable Chinese Emperor).
Zhao and her husband were living in the capital Chang’an when the Duke (who had been at loggerheads with the Sui Emperor) sent secret word that he planned to rebel. Zhao’s husband slipped out of the city, but Zhao stayed behind long enough to sell her estate. She used the money to enlist an army of rebels. She then persuaded the famous rebel farmer He Panren to join her. As she conquered cities adjacent to Chang-an, other great bandits and rebel leaders bent their knee to her and became captains in “The Army of the Lady” which swelled up to a force of 70,000 soldiers as the civil war entered its definitive phase. Peasants rushed out to offer food and supplies to Zhao’s army which was famous for its discipline (and for the fact that its soldiers did not pillage the lands they took or rape their captives).
She defeated an army of the Emperor’s men and finally joined Li Shimin’s army as one of his co-generals. When li Shimin’s stratagems won the war, Zhao’s father became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and she was elevated to the rank of Princess.
Unfortunately Zhao died only two years after the dynasty was founded at the age of 23. She did not see the Tang Dynasty grow to become the most powerful empire on Earth during the 7th century (although she also missed seeing her brothers kill each other). When she died she was given a great general’s honors, and over the centuries her legend has taken on a life of its own in China and beyond.
Happy Losar! No—I didn’t hurl a confusing insult at you–today is the Tibetan New Year Festival “Losar.” Although it is putatively a Buddhist version of the Chinese New Year, Losar predated the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and it is on a somewhat different place in the calendar than Chinese New Year. According to scholars, the festival traces its origin back to a late winter/early Spring incense festival of the ancient Bon religion (which has so indelibly colored the Buddhism of Tibet).
Losar is also known as Shambhala day to adherents of Tibetan practices who believe it should feature mindfulness exercises and meditation (as well as other spiritual rituals and self-care practices). As with Chinese New Year, there are elemental animals which represent every year: and they are more-or-less the same as in the Chinese calendar, but with a different flavor. For example, instead of calling this year, “the year of the fire rooster.’ Tibetans call it “the Year of the firebird” which is the same…and yet oddly different.
Losar began on Monday February 27th and ends March 1st, so enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy the year of the Fire rooster/Fire Bird.
Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China. This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions). The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one. I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb. The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.
The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is a large tropical game fowl from the Phasianidae family. The junglefowl is closely related to pheasants, grouse, quail, partridges, and other such birds of the pheasant family. Wild junglefowl lives in a swath of south Asia and Indochina which runs from Tamil Nadu east to the southern parts of China and includes the Philippines and Indonesia.
These birds display strong sexual dimorphism. The hen tends to be a drab brownish color with a hint of red on her face—[erfect for blending into the dense jungle. Yet one look at the resplendent male with his iridescent green tail feathers, burnished yellow-orange back, and brilliant scarlet comb & wattle reveals a critical truth about the junglefowl: this is the progenitor chicken—the wild species from which all of our many beautiful and delicious chicken breeds descend. Geneticists tell us there may be a dash of gray junglefowl in there, but the domestic chicken is really effectively the same bird.
Indeed, the wild junglefowl has the same “cock-a-doodle-doo” call and the same truculent streak (but more so, to equip him for living in the tiger-haunted jungles of Indochina). Not only does he have excellent vision and a needle-sharp beak, the jungle rooster is also equipped with sickle-like spurs on his legs for self-protection and fighting for mates. Junglefowl are primarily seed eaters, but they opportunistically eat fruit, insects, small reptiles, and mammals. Cocks exhibit a courting behavior known as “tidbitting.” If they find a food source in the presence of a hen, they cluck coaxingly, bob their head, and pick up and drop the food in offering to the female.
Roosters live by Highlander’s “there can be only one” credo, and fight each other to the death if they come across each other. Junglefowl can apparently live longer than 15 years in captivity, but it doesn’t seem like they attain such old age often in the competitive and dangerous jungles where they occur naturally. They enjoy bathing in dust, are capable of short burst of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites. The female exclusively broods her eggs and cares for the chicks.
Ironically purebred junglefowl are starting to vanish from the world due to hybridization with feral domestic chickens. But it takes an ornithologist to tell junglefowl from feral domestic chickens anyway (since they are effectively the same animal), so I am not going to stress about this too much. It seems like chickens at least might be here to stay awhile.
Saturday (January 28th, 2017) was Chinese New Year! It’s now year 4714, the year of the fire rooster! Holy smokes, that sounds like an intense animal. Ferrebeekeeper is going to celebrate the spring festival with a whole week devoted to chickens (especially roosters). I write a lot about other animals, but I owe a truly inconceivable debt to chickens, since chicken and rice are my staple foods. Indeed, I eat so many chickens that, I am probably going to get to the afterlife and find hundreds of thousands of angry spirit chickens waiting for me with flame eyes and needle sharp ghost beaks. A week of pro-chicken posts can only help when that day comes.
Tomorrow we will talk about the ancestral wild chickens—the red junglefowl of the subcontinent—and how they became humankind’s favorite bird (if you look at the scale of chicken farming, I think you will agree that no mighty eagle, or super-intelligent pet parrot can compare in our collective esteem). We have some other observations to make about chickens as domestic animals and some rooster anecdotes. A brain-damaged rooster was the animal sidekick in Disney’s latest (amazing) princess film. My parents have an ugly multicolor rooster who is somehow endearing himself to them. Before then though, so I have something on this first workday of, uh, 4714, I would like to present these 4 chicken themed flounders.
The one at the top is a fairly straightforward rooster, greeting the dawn from the back of a turbot which is swimming between classical urns and stars which look like flowers. We will talk more later about the second flounder/chicken hybrid (which not only evokes the lost world of zoomorphs, but also speaks to my roommate’s latest creative/spiritual/magical pursuits (?). This leaves the third flatfish (in glowing green), a clear allegory of the serpent tempting humankind to taste chickens (as various mythical animals and imps excluded from creation look on from beyond the charmed circle).
Finally, there is a contortionist aiming her bow at a target beyond this world as a glowing multicolor cock stares her beadily in the eye. The sable flounder is surrounded by bats in the crepuscular sky as well as an armadillo and a horny toad. We will talk more about chickens tomorrow, but these images should give you plenty to think about as you start off the new year.
OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that: the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017. The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand. The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers. All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).
The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015. Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans. It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path. The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically. Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.
However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade. Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over. Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts. If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.
Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur! You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?
Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy. As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world. However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.
Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China! In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail! This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.
The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan). Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.
If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room. Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.
As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead. Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations. What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?
We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States. This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations. For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”
The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there). Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.
Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China
Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit. The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born. So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there. Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.
To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:
The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.
The ants live in extreme penury. They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated). So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country. China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects. The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish. They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.
Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.