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At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

1973.7-26.366 Blue-and-white brushrest OA

Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

Congratulations are due to NASA today. Yesterday at 3:55 p.m. ET the Perseverance rover (with the Ingenuity flying probe aboard) touched down in good order on the surface of Mars after a 470.7 million kilometer (292.5 million mile) journey. The spacecraft lifted off back last July and my somewhat wistful post about the launch from back then is a reminder of the trying nature of summer 2020 (but also serves as a useful overview of the larger Perseverance mission). Right now, in the aftermath of the bravura landing on an alluvial fan delta within the Jezero Crater, Perseverance and NASA are running diagnostics and preparing to explore the 49 km (30 miles) diameter crater. Ingenuity has not launched yet (although I am super excited to see what a 49 km (30 miles) crater on Mars looks like from the air). We do have one picture from the mission already (top), and although the low res view is partially obscured by a dust cover, it already hints at great things in the future (while also somehow reminding me of terrestrial nuggets of ice on my walks to the subway this week). We will keep you apprized from Mars as we learn more (and Ferrebeekeeper also extends its best wishes to the Chinese space agency whose own rover is scheduled to reach the red planet in May).

Happy Lunar New Year! In the Chinese calendar it is already year 4718, the Year of the Metal Ox. Gosh, where does the time go? Weirdly, one of New York City’s symbols is, I guess, technically a metal, ox so I put him up there for visual interest. In both the Chinese and Western culture, the metal ox is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, and success. Let us hope that 2021…er, I mean 4718…brings such things to all of us (particularly to you, dear reader).

Humankind’s association with cattle and oxen goes way back to 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East around 10,500 years ago (genetic analysis tools really have a way of clearing up some of paleohistory’s cobwebs!) Since those days, selective breeding has allowed humankind to tailor-make cattle of all sorts of shapes, colors, and characteristics, to such a degree that it is hard to believe they all descend directly from that 80 original herd of four score. Next week I promise a very special kine post to show you what I mean! Here is a little teaser picture so that you will come back for that post (and by “little”, I mean this is a little pre-taste of cattle-themed excitement: obviously there is nothing little about that bull who is pictured with a normal-sized adult human)

But this is Chinese New Year, and we are straying a bit from Chinese oxen, so let us go straight to an undiluted Chinese masterpiece which celebrates the strength, beauty, and personality of oxen in the Middle Kingdom. Here is “Five Oxen” 五牛图 arguably one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.

Five Bulls (Han Huang, mid 8th century CE) ink on silk scroll

The work was painted sometime in the middle of the 8th century AD by Han Huang, AKA Duke Zhongsu of Jin. Han Huang is now renowned as perhaps the greatest cow painter in Chinese history, but in his life he was relegated the less glamorous task of running the Chinese empire as the chancellor/prime minister for Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty. The painting was lost in 1900 after European troops put down the Boxer rebellion and occupied Beijing, but it was rediscovered in Hong Kong during the 1950s and now graces the Palace museum in Beijing. Click on that painting fast, before WordPress changes something and you are unable to look at a high-def picture of the picture. It rewards close attention with its matchless bovine beauty!

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a statesman, Han Huang was a master of building form with calligraphic linework. In this grand scroll, he has utilized that skill to perfection to capture the overwhelming physical heft of five very different oxen. Yet the painting’s true strength does not come only from the oxen’s strength. Somehow Huang has not just captured their imposing bulk and might, he has captured the gentle curiosity and almost childlike diffidence of the great animals (except maybe for that first ox on the left, who has a very stolid cast to him).

Of course this juxtaposition is the very essence of oxen (to our human perspective anyway). They are the size of houses with the strength of small armies, and yet they are biddable and gentle…or at least they can be! In the west, bulls are known for being un-gentle! I have deliberately blurred the lines between bulls, oxen, steer cattle, kine, and cows in this post because I didn’t even want to talk about gender and number, and I certainly don’t want to talk about buffalo (the Chinese word can mean “ox” or “bovine creature” so arguably I could be parsing out the differences between water buffalo, yaks, bison, and cattle). We will talk about what all of that means later (if at all), but for the purpose of this post it means that cattle stand high enough in importance to humans (or at least to cattlemen) to demand incredibly specific and complicated terminology (I get the feeling that the Duke of Jin would understand.

In the Chinese zodiac, the steadfast ox was meant to be first sign, except it was tricked by the cunning rat. This was not just because oxen are tireless and strong, it is because they are first in importance to people and have been for a long time.

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween special feature concerning bats! If you like you can check out last week’s posts concerning bat mascots, Honduran white bats, and the Chinese good luck symbol Wu Fu. Bats are exceedingly wonderful and I love them…but where is the chilling Halloween horror?

Well, bats do have a dark side (at least to humans, when we eat them or intrude too far into their world). They are an infamous vector for zoonotic viruses which jump easily to closely related mammalian species. Although we are most attuned to this year’s worldwide pandemic, covid 19 (which seems not to have come from snakes, but from horseshoe bats) both the SARS and MERS epidemics were caused by bat-borne coronaviruses. Less memorably, bat coronavirues also jumped into the farmyard and caused a serious viral epidemic in China’s pigs. Bats are the natural reservoir for Ebola, Hendra virus, Nipah virus. A single bat can host many different viruses without getting sick. Because they live in close proximity in (sometimes enormous) colonies, viruses readily infect huge numbers of bats. Additionally bats are unlike other small mammals such as rodents and shrews in that they have long lifespans. Most bats can live 20 to 40 years (although, sadly, most do not because, as any World War I aviator could tell you (if any were alive), flying presents certain dangers).

All of this begs the question of why bats are so prone to viruses and yet also so resistant to their effects. Zoologists and Cell biologists are only beginning to unravel this puzzle, but what they have found presents a fascinating picture of the interplay between cellular biology and the physical characteristics of animals.

In the course of metabolizing, reproducing, fighting diseases and so forth, cells are sometimes destroyed in novel ways which release free DNA into places it should not be. This is potentially a big problem and animals cope with it through a mechanism known, sensibly, as DNA-sensing. Alas, this is about as far as I can reasonably describe this process, but you can check out a diagram which explains cytosolic DNA sensing machinery in humans below.

Perhaps this diagram also explains why molecular biologists sometimes find it difficult to characterize what they do in pithy buzzwords

Uhhh…at any rate, among mammals bats have uniquely rigorous physiological demands due to the energy requirements of flight. The high-impact demands of flying lead to substantial cellular damage, but also preclude the solution other mammals adapt (which, as you can see above, is inflammation). If bats were prone to inflammation to the same degree as other placental mammals, they would lose their ability to fly. Instead they have lost various genes and have a more muted response to miscellaneous DNA. This diminished ability to clean up random intracellular DNA makes our fluttery friends more prone to all sorts viruses, yet they have found some other way to endure viruses without over-responding.

As you can probably tell, the cytological processes we are talking about seem to play huge and important roles in cancer, autoimmune disorders, and a host of chronic metabolic disorders like heart disease & diabetes. Not only would it be immensely beneficial to understand bats’ seemingly unique DNA sensing apparatus (and response) in terms of virology and epidemiology, it might bear fruit in many other branches of medical inquiry.

Horseshoe Bat

Alas, this sort of blue skies research (or should we call it dark skies research in honor of our nocturnal subjects?) is exactly the sort of thing which enormous companies are disinterested in and which the Federal government has turned its back upon. Fortunately (?), the Chinese government is extremely interested in finding out more about but-human zoonoses and has been diligently working to figure out more about DNA sensing and concomitant immune response in chiroptera. In fact, if the grotesque bowdlerization of the subject which I have presented in this post does not satisfy your curiosity, you can read a rather fine (albeit technical) Chinese article from 2018 about the subject.

Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

Yuan Jie (ca. 720 AD to 772 AD) was a poet, scholar, and politician of the Tang Dynasty. His intellectual and literary gifts allowed him to score high marks on the imperial exam which, in turn, allowed him to rise to high office. He helped finally suppress the An Lushan Rebellion (a dark era of insurrection and strife which left society in tatters). Although he rose to the rank of governor, Yuan Jie disliked his office and felt uneasy with his rank (and with the shallow fragile nature of society). As soon as his mother died, he resigned his rank. According to the sinologist Arthur Waley (who translated the following poem by Yuan Jie) the Chinese scholarly opinion of Yuan Jie at the end of the Ching dynasty was that “His subjects were always original, but his poems are seldom worth quoting.” Here is one of his poems (as translated to English by Waley) so that you may judge for yourself:

Stone Fish Lake

I loved you dearly, Stone Fish Lake,

With your rock-island shaped like a swimming fish!

On the fish’s back is the Wine-cup Hollow

And round the fish,—the flowing waters of the Lake.

The boys on the shore sent little wooden ships,

Each made to carry a single cup of wine.

The island-drinkers emptied the liquor-boats

And set their sails and sent them back for more.

On the shores of the Lake were jutting slabs of rock

And under the rocks there flowed an icy stream.

Heated with wine, to rinse our mouths and hands

In those cold waters was a joy beyond compare!


Of gold and jewels I have not any need;

For Caps and Coaches I do not care at all.

But I wish I could sit on the rocky banks of the Lake

For ever and ever staring at the Stone Fish.

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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

1920px-Diagram_of_the_perseverance_rover-instruments

Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

wildgoosetowering2

In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.

xian-location-map

Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.

big-wild-goose-pagoda_523

Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

ca-times.brightspotcdn.com

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