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The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Congratulations to the People’s Republic of China for successfully landing its six wheeled rover “Zhurong” on Mars. Arguably China is now the second nation to land a functioning probe on the red planet (the Soviet Union landed a rover on Mars back in the 70s–but the craft quit broadcasting immediately after touchdown, providing no new information and a questionable asterisk in the hall of space records). You can read about the mission here at the AP, however I am writing this short blog post to note that, as of the time of writing this, there is no mention of this epic accomplishment on either the FOX news homepage (which announces that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most partisan member of congress and is harassing her colleagues) nor on CNN (UPDATE: there is a small notice on CNN deep in the weeds).

Undoubtedly the moguls of both partisan sites know what their readers will click on, but I can’t help but wonder if American media consumers are becoming ever more separated from a larger grasp of human affairs as our nation is torn apart by the messy divorce of our political system from reality.

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.


The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!


A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).


Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

Multibanded Krait Bungarus multicinctus multicinctus_Zhuzihu Party_05


This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.


To celebrate the beginning of the twenties, Ferrebeekeeper featured a wish-list article which requested (1) democratic reforms, and (2) more money for scientific research.  Today we are following up on the second part of that post with a somewhat dispiriting report from the boringly named National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation).   As you might imagine, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has compiled a list of statistics concerning the state of science and engineering in the USA (it is their mission to present such a report to Congress every two years).

The report concentrates on 2017, when the United States spent $548 billion on research and development–more than any other nation! However the report also analyzes larger R&D trends among all nations over time–which makes our relative decline more apparent.  In 2000, nearly 40% of the worldwide R&D budget was spent here in America. By 2017, the total world R&D budget was 2 trillion dollars, which means the American share is down to (approximately) 25%.

You would probably guess that a lot of the new worldwide R&D budget is Chinese, and that is correct.  The report’s authors speculate that by 2019 (which was too recent for the statisticians to have comprehensive numbers) the Chinese R&D budget actually surpassed the American research budget.  I guess we will see.  China tends to spend more money on applied research, whereas we are still world leaders in blue-sky research, but they are catching up everywhere.

science banner

More and more national wealth is being pointlessly hoarded by robber barons.  Do these plutocrats imagine they will live forever? Why not spend their ill-gotten lucre on developing robot workers, immortality potions, and alligator soldiers to guard them against popular insurrection?  Even if the prospect of astonishing & miraculous innovations don’t beguile the Davos class, you would think the prospect of Chinese supremacy in tomorrow’s marketplace and battlefield would get them to spend more money on the lab.   In the lack of business/private leadership (which, frankly, hasn’t been leading America to anywhere other than the underworld anyway) the solution is obvious.  Write to your elected officials and demand more money go to scientific research.  The future is on the line (and I wouldn’t mind some immortality potions and omniscient robot servants, even if the 1% don’t care for such things).


16_chos rje de bzhin gshegs paThe Karmapa is a very important Lama/guru of Tibetan Buddhism and acts as the head of the Karma Kagyu (the black hat school), the largest sub-school of Himalayan Buddhism.  According to tradition, the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–1193 AD) was such a gifted and sedulous scholar (and so very, very holy) that he attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga. To his adherents, the Karmapa is seen as a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas (not to me though, I prefer to think of Avalokiteśvara as the luminous Kwan Yin, not as some sad middle-aged Chinese puppet).


Ahem, anyway, due to religious and political controversy so convoluted and schismatic that it would make an antipope blush, the identity of the 17th (current) Karmapa is disputed.  This matters little to us though, for our purposes today, which, as you maybe guessed from the title, involve the Karmapa’s remarkable headress, the black crown.  As implied by its heavy metal name, the black crown’s roots are said to lie beyond this world. According to folklore, the black crown was woven by the dahinis (sacred female spirits of Vajrayana Buddhism) from their own gorgeous black hair. They gave this gift to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual attainment.  The 5th Karmapa was a tutor to the Yongle Emperor (arguably China’s greatest emperor) and the wily emperor claimed that he could see the immaterial black crown above the Karmapa’s head.  The Yongle Emperor was sad that lesser mortals could not perceive this ineffable headdress and so he had a worldly facsimile made for the Karmapa, not out of the hair of dahinis, but instead from coarser materials such as rubies, gold, and precious stones. That’s it, up there at the top of this paragraph (adorning the head of the 16th Karmapa).

I wish I could show you a better picture of the jeweled hat which the Yongle Emperor commissioned for all Karmapas, past, present, and future (fake and real?), but unfortunately, some of the political strife of Tibet, China, and India is reflected in the provenance of the sacred item.   The 16th Karmapa brought the black crown to a monastery in (Indian) Sikkim during the tumult of the 1960s when China’s relationship with ancient cultural traditions grew rather fraught.  When the 16th Karmapa transcended this mortal world in 1993, the crown went missing. It has not been seen since, but one hopes it might reappear at some point when the true 17th Karmapa is revealed (or when all contenders are gone and we move on to the 18th Karmapa).  Alternately, perhaps a careful inventory of Rumtek monastery will cause it to turn up.



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.


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).


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.


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.


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.





I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).


If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?


One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.


All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.



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.


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.


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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September 2022