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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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It is not a secret that my least favorite month is February.  Winter keeps holding on with grim ferocity while the joys of spring are, at best, far away.  Every year when the end of winter comes around I keep looking out at the garden waiting for the first green shoots to appear.  But the garden is still a sea of gray rubble and dead stalks (plus I failed to plant windflowers or snowdrops and the crocuses and hellebores have yet to flower).

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So this year, instead of going all the way outside (where it sounds like there is a windstorm), I went to the internet to find some early blooming flowers and I came across the witch hazels (the family Hamamelidaceae).  I have encountered them before–in liquid form as an astringent aftershave, however the living plants turn out to be very lovely in a small wilderness meadow sort of way. There are four North American species of witch hazels and two Asian species (one from China and one from Japan).  They are small deciduous shrubs/trees with large oval leaves. The American species are also known as winterbloom (which should have served as a hint that they bloomed in the cold season). The picture at the top of the post is the Chinese witch hazel ((H. mollis) currently blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic garden.

Witch hazels have red and yellow flowers with droopy corkscrew petals.  From a distance these have a winsome loveliness, but up close they are pretty crazy–like a Murano glassblower got the hiccups or an abstract expressionist sent you a bouquet. Here is a little gallery of witch hazels which I lovingly stole from around the web.

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Branding is a powerful force, and I have always assumed that these plants were used in ancient magics by various priestesses, enchantresses, sorceresses, and other suchlike lady thaumaturges.  Imagine my distress to learn that the witch hazels are in no way affiliated with witches or any other sort of dark magic.  Apparently this version of the word “witch” comes down to us from the Old English word “wice”, which means pliant or, uh,  bendy and is unrelated to the magical sort of witch.  Thanks a lot, English, what other misleading homonyms do you have lying around the garden beds.   Anyway enjoy the witch hazels and pretty soon we will go out and look at some proper spring flowers (if and when the wind calms down).

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(that witch better have an OED somewhere)

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The Meijiang River is located in Hunan Province just to the northwest of Lianyuan City.  The river features the classic picturesque landscape of China: karst gorges with vertical limestone mounts, mysterious cliffs, and ancient caves.  The caverns and cwms of the region are home to many locally important spots with names which would not be out of place in “Journey to the West”:  “Immortal Village”, “Avalokitesvara Precipice”, “Sutra Cave”, “Immortal’s Residence”, and “Incense Burner Mountain”.

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The scenic valley would be an ideal vacation spot for landscape painters (if they could ever escape their dead end jobs), but it is hardly as famous as some of China’s other Karst landscapes like the vast South China Karst or the Li River.  So why have I picked out this sleepy river to dream about as winter wears on?

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Well it has been a while since we have featured a mascot post (although you shouldn’t forget that the 2020 Olympics are getting closer and closer).  I don’t want to write about pig mascots (even if that would be perfect for Lunar New Year), but there is a different gluttonous animal which jumps instantly to mind when I think of China: a sort of feathered pig which features heavily here on Ferrebeekeeper.

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I am of course talking about geese and the Meijiang River has a special mascot: a ten meter (30 foot) tall white inflatable goose!  Here are some pictures of the giant floating toy, which obviously owes a debt to Florentijn Hofman’s famous inflatable ducks.

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I guess there isn’t really much more to this post than the visual dynamism of the giant goose (which I like better than the huge bath ducks).  It is a really good mascot though! How do you top that (especially as a small provincial river)?

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Happy Year of the Earth Pig!  Today (February 5th 2019) marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4716 in the Chinese calendar.  I really meant to write more dog-theme posts last year during the year of the dog: how did it run off so quickly? But no matter…we can always write more about man’s best friend. Today belongs to the pig and, despite a somewhat grubby nomen, the earth pig has a great deal to recommend it!

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In the Chinese zodiac, pigs are water sign animals. The easygoing and affable earth pig thus betokens a year of friendship, camaraderie, and social success.  Pigs love having fun together, so, in addition to social delights, the year will feature plenty of luxuries, treats and opulent spectacles.   Friendship and social bonding are one thing, but romance is quite another, so, although the year may be marked by new friendship and bonhomie, it is not likely to be especially happy one in terms of love and intimacy (which is fully in line with broad international trends).

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Financially speaking, the Earth Pig moves slowly yet inexorably towards abundance.  The ground is the root of all wealth and this pig has all four feet squarely upon the earth. The online oracle which I consulted states “This zodiac sign has a solid work ethic and is willing to put in the hours to get ahead. Patience and willpower are the name of the game for anyone wishing to get ahead in 2019. And don’t forget the power of building friendly alliances with colleagues.”  I suppose that sounds pretty good, but I have been to farmyards and seen how things work out for pigs.  I would probably paraphrase this: your financial year will combine a great deal of hard work with some foolish lapses due to inattention, greed, and other people’s guile.  Be careful! The rewards of your labor could be enjoyed by someone else…

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Sadly, all pig years come with an admonition not to overdo it with sweets, rich foods, and alcohol, but I hardly see how gluttony could be a problem here in [checks notes] oh…um…yeah, I guess we will also have to keep a careful eye on what we are eating.

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Speaking of gluttony, no conversation about pigs would be complete without a mention of China’s literary superstar pig, Zhu Bajie, one of the three animal heroes of “The Journey to the West” (well, actually there are four, but the horse is usually just a horse and only jumps into the game in moments of true duress).  Zhu Bajie is an immortal pig monster with enormous strength and bravery…but he is also cursed with constant hunger, laziness, and a desire for other joys of the flesh.  Zhu’s earthy passions cause substantial trouble to both him and his sharper companions (although, ironically, the monkey, who represents intellect, will, and arrogance, usually gets in even more trouble by leaping out ahead of everyone).   This is of course o remind everyone that we need the intellect in the upcoming year, but we also need the tolerance, soft-heartedness, and the optimism of the pig.  Humans are monkeys after all.  Like Sun Wukong, the monkey god, we tend to be rather cruel to pigs.  Let the Year of the Earth Pig remind you to be more gentle and compassionate to our big-bellied curly toed friends…or even to yourself if love of luxury or your hungry belly leads you astray.  The great lesson of the Chinese zodiac is that we are all animals, but animals have a celestial magic! Be wary but embrace your inner pig and have a wonderful year 4716.

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Shaanxi is one of the ancient cradles of Chinese civilization: indeed at various points of  Chinese history it has been the center of China.  The former Chinese capitals Fenghao and Chang’an were both in Shaanxi.  Can you imagine how exciting it would be to be an archaeologist in a place with such a long rich cultural heritage? Well, in our era of instant news, you don’t have to imagine!  Archaeologists of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology just finished excavating a cluster of 12 ancient tombs discovered beneath a village in the province.  The tombs date back to the Sixteen Kingdoms period of Chinese history (304-439 AD), a chaotic time of collapse when small kingdoms fought each other in endless internecine wars.  Some of these kingdom were led by (gasp!) non-Han peoples of proto-Mongolian and Turkic ethnicity and cultural artifacts from the era often betray a curious mix of Chinese and steppe characteristics.

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To quote archaeologynewsnetwork, “The tombs are laid out in two rows, and each tomb consists of a tomb passage, a door and a path leading to the coffin chamber, according to Liu Daiyun, a researcher with the academy.”  The whole complex is thought to belong to a single family, but the exact relationships between the ancient bodies therein interred will not be known until DNA analysis is complete.

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The photos in this blog show earthenware pieces which were found within the tombs.  The little sculptures bring to life a world of farm and family from 1500 years ago (such sculptures were meant to bring the most important aspects of life to eternity with the departed…and in a way they have worked.  Keep that little earthenware pig in your mind! He will be important  the very near future.

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A quarter of a billion years ago a shallow sea covered what is now Hubei, China (the parts of the world that are today Manchuria, South China, and Southeast Asia were large archipelagos in this shallow sea).  The warm water was perhaps a meter or so deep–a child could stand in it, and it was filled with proliferating shrimp, worms, and mollusks. The early Triassic was a strange time for life on Earth:  the world’s greatest mass-extinction (thus far) had just swept traditional Paleozoic players off the world stage, but the famous stars of the Mesozoic–the dinosaurs–had not yet taken over the land.  Peculiar creatures were fast evolving to fill empty ecological niches once filled by now extinct animals.

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You are probably wondering what sort of creatures lived in this vanished ocean–and you are in luck, because the answer is amazing!  Paleontologists in China discovered the remains of…a marine reptile (?) with a cartilaginous beak.  The creature had a rigid body and tail and 4 stubby little flippers for steering and swimming.  It also had bony plates on its back like a stegosaurus and tiny little pinpick eyes.  Scientists named the creature Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. The most analagous creature in today’s world is the platypus, and, indeed, Eretmorhipis looked like a crazy platypus (combined with a blind penguin and a stegosaurus).  The analogy however is rather misleading since, 250 million years ago the first monotremes were probably evolving in the same addled post-apocalyptic world (monotremes are amazing and bizarre, but, sadly, we don’t have a complete fossil record of them, so we have to base some of what we think about them on genetic paleontology which provides a rough timeline).

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Eretmorhipis carrolldongi was a hupehsuchian reptile.  It was a relative (or maybe a precursor) to the ichthyosaurs which soon took over the world’s oceans and evolved unique graceful mastery of the planet’s oceans before something went terribly wrong.  I want to write more about the icythyosaurs (their story illustrates something exceedingly important about life), but before I do that I wanted to share this stubby ridiculous platypus analog creature with you so you can think about the comic reptile rooting around its ancient ocean at night with its beak hunting shrimp and invertebrates with its sensitive beak in the turbid darkness.  The world is a mad grab bag and you never know what is going to be successful.   We probably out to talk about the end-Permian mass extinction too, but it is the stuff of ultimate nightmares, so I am going to slow walk that post for now… maybe when (if?) we are feeling stronger.

What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

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