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The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province.  The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers.  So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain.  Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds.  It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle.   The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years.   There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.

Laoye Miao Temple

Lake Poyang did not always exist.  In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded.  Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China.  Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven.  By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze.  The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses.    The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered  over 850,000 men.

Artist’s Conception of the Battle of Lake Poyang

Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out.  To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line.   Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.

Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate.  Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure.  A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned.   On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.

Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous.  Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents.  Local legend is more inventive.  According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake.  Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent.  The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang.  When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.

Lake Poyang is drying out.

Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself.  The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste.  A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze.  Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers.   If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.

Lake Poyang

The latter half of the summer is the silly season for journalism.  During August, in particular, when legislative bodies are on break and the titans of finance are estivating in Gstaad, the papers are filled with stories about pie-eating contests, surfing dogs, and other similar bucolic follies.   The evocative Swedish phrase for this indolent time is “rötmånadshistoria” which literally means rotting month—a time when every Swede is on holiday elsewhere and the forgotten leftovers rot in the fridge.

Silly Season 2011?

Well that is how it is supposed to be anyway. This summer the paper is filled with disasters.  America’s leaders have collectively decided they would prefer to see the country ruined as long as the opposite party is blamed.  US Government bonds have been downgraded. The markets are crashing. Darpa’s experimental scramjet is lost.  London is on fire.  Internecine wars grind on in west Asia. Bullet trains are crashing in China. Syria is taking another step on the road to genocidal civil war.   This year seems like a dark literal version of rötmånadshistoria–in which everything is revealed to be rotten. The silliness is simmering over into madness.

Rushton Triangular Lodge (1595)

Sadly there are no facile solutions for any of those problems here.  This post is not meant to be a blueprint for fixing society, but rather a paean to the traditional summer silliness we should be enjoying.  Instead of concentrating on the bad news, let’s pretend none of it is happening! Sit back, imagine that it is a traditional silly season, and enjoy this post dedicated to frivolity.  In keeping with the finest tradition of Erasmus we will embrace absurdity and literally praise folly—or actually follies. So here is the first half of a two-part post concerning garden follies–extravagant ornamental structures intended solely for the amusement of bygone aristocrats. Such structures were expressly built not to be useful.  Oftentimes follies were purposefully manufactured as ruins or were designed with a glaring structural anomaly—like a tower without stairs, or a greenhouse without windows. A folly was often the centerpiece of a large garden and tied together the disparate themes.  Additionally, like powdered wigs, hoop skirts, and most other luxury goods, the very uselessness of a folly was testament to a nobleman’s power and prestige: he could afford to throw away princely sums on a decorative building.

Rococo Folly from Painswick Garden (Ca. 1750s)

Follies originated just prior to the 17th century. It was customary for gentlemen of that era to take a grand tour of southern Europe when they came of age.  As they traveled through Italy and southern France these elite tourists were exposed to actual Roman ruins.  When they returned to England or northern France they built copies of Greco-Roman temples to symbolize various classical virtues and ideals (which were already enshrined in the educational system of that time). Although the first wave of garden follies in the Seventeenth century was motivated by classical and religious ideas, the craze for extravagance and eccentricity deepened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  As France and England reached the apogee of their economic power, the ruling classes of those nations went all out to show their taste, sophistication, and rank with increasingly lavish and increasingly novel garden architecture.  Follies proliferated and took the shape of the eclectic pursuits of the lords commissioning them.  An interest in the Levant filled England with orientalist fantasies. The gothic revival led to a host of spooky medieval towers and pseudo-crypts.  The Earl of Dunmore, a Scottish Earl who loved tropical fruit commissioned an immense stone pineapple as a cupola for his hothouse.

Painshill Turkish Tent (mid 18th century)

The Dunmore Pineapple (1776)

Follies were meant to be beautiful and/or striking. Since they were designed specifically to be interesting ahead of all other concerns they often possess unique fantasy flourishes. In many cases the purpose of an architectural folly was to provide a direct allegorical lesson, however, even when no clear lesson was meant the structures clearly reflected the nature of human beliefs and desires…

The Chanteloup Pagoda (1775)

Perrott's Folly (1758)

To be continued tomorrow

By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

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