Chinese Model Dragon Kit

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Back in October I picked up a couple of wooden model kits in a mall near the Drum Tower in Beijing. Yesterday my daughter and I finished the first one, an Imperial Chinese dragon (count the toes), brought to life by a talented but uncredited kitmaker. I built one of these kits, an apatosaurus, when I was a teen. And now a grand-daughter of the Empire is eager to start building our second kit, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven.

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Social Nucleus and Accretionary Matter

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Once in the early 90s two Stockholm girls went to college to major in Chinese. They became friends: one was half-Chinese, the other had spent part of her childhood in China. They would one day become the Architect and the Sculptress. But first they went to China to pursue their studies, and made friends with an expat Chinese Stockholm girl who had come there for the same purpose. She would later become the Journalist.

In China the Architect picked up a local Painter whom she brought along when all three girls returned to Sweden. In the end it didn’t work out, but Architect and Painter remained friends. Instead the three girls settled down with the Philologist, Saxophonist and Archaeologist, and Painter paired up with the Industrial Designer.

Today we all had lunch together, the people who have accreted around those two college undergrads, accompanied by our progeny (n=6 and counting) and two kids from the neighbourhood. Afterwards we went down to the beach, a little colony of Chinese with groupies, and sat down next to a clutch of Africans with groupies. That beach looked like the United Nations.

Snow White Engrish

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Looking closer at this cover of a Chinese pirate edition of Disney’s 1937 animated feature Snow White, we find a couple of fine Engrish phrases.

“Latinum Edition” is pretty good. But wouldn’t you agree that “Still the Fairest of the Mall” takes the cake?

A Pox on Both Houses

A reader has pointed out that a propaganda website friendly with the Chinese government and hostile to Falun Gong is quoting a recent blog entry of mine. She suggests that this means that I am aiding the government in its harsh persecution of the cult.

I, of course, don’t see it that way. Two crooks are wrestling here, and I’ve made my opinion known that both combatants are crooks, period. I find it really funny that the propaganda site is blithely repeating my words, “Most people with democratic opinions see the Chinese government as a group of autocratic villains with a history of persecuting good people.” I look forward to the day when the Chinese people no longer suffer either under dictatorial leadership nor religious delusions.

Falun Gong Puts On a Song and Dance

i-eb22068e8f45845ec77736cc51f67ecf-spectacular.jpgIn every story there is a villain, and his adversary is either a hero or a hapless victim. But we don’t live in a story.

Most people with democratic opinions see the Chinese government as a group of autocratic villains with a history of persecuting good people. When such a government persecutes a religious movement, it’s easy to assume that this movement must be quite nice. This not necessarily the case.

The much-publicised and long-standing conflict between the Chinese authorities and Falun Gong is an example of a nasty autocratic regime persecuting a nasty manipulative cult. Falun Gong’s leader Li Hongzhi preaches racism, anti-science, space aliens possessing humans, the emotions of plants, the ability to evade gravity and to walk through walls. His word carries absolute authority within the movement, as he is held to be the only person ever to understand the laws of the universe. “Whoever believes Falun dafa is just a health movement is the most worthless of living beings”, the cult’s web site used to explain. Think of it as Chinese Scientology or Raelianism.

The cult has put on a traveling show named the “Shen Yun Divine Performing Arts Chinese Spectacular”. Who really lies behind the show isn’t readily apparent from the posters, as it lists mainly newspapers and other media companies (Epoch Times, New Tang Dynasty Television and others) as its supporters. These are all, however, controlled by Falun Gong, and that’s where the profits end up.

The Shen Yun Chinese Spectacular visits Stockholm from 24 to 26 March and Linköping on 27 March. Wherever you are, Dear Reader, think twice before buying a ticket if the Spectacular comes your way.

Update 12 March: Here’s a recent New York Times story describing what the propaganda shows are like.

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Magic Holy Bird Frisbee

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Back in October when myself & the family were in Beijing, we spent a Friday at the city’s main amusement park. The place was almost deserted, so the kids didn’t have to stand in line at all. They would repeatedly ride these huge attractions all on their own.

Beijing amusement park has an old 80s part full of run-down Japanese gear, all flaking paint and rusty welding work. Then there’s the northern periphery where they’ve installed new bigger attractions, each with a long explanatory sign in Engrish. One is a two-story carousel intended to create the impression of visiting a European castle. For some reason, this is achieved by plastering the place with pictures of the Baron Münchhausen.

The weirdest ride is named, and I kid you not, Magic Holy Bird Frisbee. It’s inspired by Mayan civilisation in a grotesquely plastic way, but also for some reason features colossal statues of lizard people, a female one of whom is being mean to a busty bikinied hominid.

Try saying the ride’s name out loud. Magic. Holy. Bird. Frisbee. That is just pure poetry!

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Chinese Archaeology Loses Proto-Historical Innocence

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Turquoise mosaic dragon and bronze bell in rich male burial at Erlitou, phase II, c. 18th century BC.

A really good historical source is coeval with the events it describes, or it may even form a part of those events, such as in the case of a land deed. It is written by a knowledgeable participant in the events, one who is not strongly politically biased or whose bias is at least known. And any statement in a good historical source is ideally corroborated by other independent good historical sources.

Now, in no part of the world is there any historical source older than the first proto-cuneiform inscriptions in Mesopotamia about 3300 BC. In most areas, the oldest sources are many thousands of years younger. But before the historical period in each area, there is usually a proto-historical era: one for which there are only few and bad sources, often quite extremely bad ones. Typically, proto-historical sources are written centuries after the fact by political propagandists, and there exists no corroborating historical evidence.

Proto-history offers a powerful lure to all students of the past: oh, how we all wish that we could somehow dig good historical knowledge out of those crap sources! Less than a century ago, certain Scandinavian scholars were still looking for the battlefield of Brávellir and trying to pair up the kings of the “Ynglingatal” with great grave barrows at Old Uppsala and elsewhere. All futile, a chasing after the wind. Those texts must be treated like fairytales, because they most likely are and there is no way of finding out if they aren’t.

Everywhere on earth, the proto-historical sources that appear to stretch the farthest inte the past are usually genealogies, often royal ones. “Lo, King Freddie reigned for 253 years and begat King Ronnie who smote the Fellatians and reigned for 346 years and begat King Reginald who reigned for 123 years and begat King Humpty” etc. At the head of the list is usually a god who acts as mythical ancestor of whoever is king at the time when the genealogy is compiled.

For a blatant example, some Anglo-Saxon king lists are headed by Odin and Julius Caesar. A Sumerian king list from about 2100 BC appears to reach more than 1900 years into the past, but better evidence shows that the kings on the list all lived within a 600-year interval. The compiler of the king list has gathered royal genealogies from several coeval Sumerian city states and stacked them on top of each other to get a really long list.

As historical scholarship has improved, one area after another on Earth has lost its proto-historical innocence and relegated the king lists to a position as sources on the royal propaganda of far later ages than they purport to treat. But this process isn’t complete yet. A good paper by Liu Li & Xu Hong in the current issue of Antiquity (available behind a pay wall) shows that China is finally beginning the necessary reevalutation. This is a painful process, as the current Chinese elite quite likes the idea of unbroken historical continuity way back into the Bronze Age. But it is encouraging to see that although Liu is an expat working in Australia, Xu is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. The English of their paper is excellent.

The first historical sources for China are brief inscriptions from the third quarter of the 2nd Millennium BC, found at palatial sites in the Yellow River valley. Some names of kings mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions from about 1300 BC onward are identified in much later historical texts as kings of the late Shang dynasty. The Shang gave way to the Zhou in about 1000 BC. But the royal genealogies used to reconstruct the early dynastic chronology date from after 300 BC, that is, they are at best products of the final decades of the Zhou dynasty.

Shang and early Zhou China are typical proto-historic periods, though many Chinese historians will tell you otherwise. Yet Chinese proto-history reaches even farther back. Before the Shang, say the late sources just mentioned, there was the Xia dynasty, a separate people that was conquered by the Shang around 1600 BC. This means that the archaeologists of the Yellow River Valley have been called upon to identify a noteable discontinuity in the material record of the period around this date. “Show us the Xia/Shang boundary!”, cry nationalistic historians.

Liu & Xu’s paper concentrates upon China’s earliest palatial site at Erlitou. It rose into prominence about 1900 BC from Neolithic village roots and flourished until about 1500 BC or later. This is inconvenient from the point of view of the royal genealogies, because they suggest that there should be a big break around 1600 BC. Liu & Xu demonstrate that no such break is actually to be found at Erlitou, despite many attempts by earlier contributors to the debate to massage the archaeological evidence. And Liu & Xu draw the obvious (yet far from uncontroversial) conclusion: if really bad historical sources are found to clash with the archaeological evidence, then this needn’t worry either archaeologists nor historians. The Xia dynasty — kings, dates and all — is simply a later fiction.


Liu, L. & Xu, H. 2007. Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology. Antiquity 81:314, December 2007. York.


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Impressions of Luoyang

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Came to Luoyang in Henan province on the Yellow River by train yesterday morning, passing factories and quarries, fertile fields and homes cut into hillsides like hobbit homes. We were booked into the Yaxiang Jinling hotel, a high-rise in Luoyang’s vast new area of airily spaced skyscrapers outside the old town. Such developments surround all major Chinese cities these days and give a strange impression, as if Manhattan had been stretched out to cover all of New York State, the intervals filled with car parks, lawns and expressways. The hotel has 23 floors, all decorated in a space-themed style. The hallways and elevators are straight out of Star Trek, and our room was classic Kubrick.

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The bar is named the Apollo, and NASA colour photographs from the 60s and 70s adorn every wall. I wonder if the decorator realises that what s/he has achieved is retro-futurism, far from most current ideas about what the future will look like. And looking at the details I got an eerie feeling that it was all a stage set: laminated chipboard, primitive plumbing and unconnected electrical wires dangling behind fake bulkheads. Ten years from now the place will be a shabby dive unless a continued economic boom allows the management to re-decorate. My son reported that his gameboy couldn’t find a single wireless access point in the whole spacy edifice. But we slept, showered and breakfasted in excellent comfort.

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On to Baima, the Temple of the White Horse, founded in AD 68, birth place of Chinese Buddhism. Here two Indian monks translated the sutras and taught local disciples under the patronage of a Han emperor. The oldest stuff visible today is a few post bases of a Tang cult hall, an exquisite Song pagoda and some Yuan religious sculpture, that is, nothing older than the 7th century.

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Seeing the breakneck development of Chinese cities I have often winced at the thought of the archaeology that must be obliterated every day. But I was heartened to learn that a vast Sui and Tang cemetery in the new developments had been spared construction and laid out as parkland because of the cost to excavate all the graves. So at least they’re digging their cemeteries. One of our hosts, an eminent Umea biochemist, proudly told me that his family was once reknowned antique dealers and that they had found some of the most famous inscriptions known from the area. I refrained from asking by which methods they had found these stones, what else they had found and whether perchance they had kept any records of the find contexts…

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Today to the Longmen Buddhist sculpture site, Dragon Gate, a stretch of the River Yi where it has carved itself a wide channel through limestone. For about a millennium from the 5th century AD on, the cliff walls here received thousands upon thousands of carved niches, all harbouring images of Buddha, many of which were themselves carved from the living rock. Today, most of the niches are empty and those Buddhas that remain often lack heads or faces. This is not only due to 20th century looting, but largely also to three episodes of Imperially sanctioned anti-Buddhist iconoclasm either side of AD 1000. I was wowed and delighted by the serene majesty of a HUGE and well-preserved Tang Buddha. And I kept thinking of the generations of stone carvers that laboured here for so long, and the painters, and how different the sculptures must have looked in their original garish colours.

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As for Luoyang city itself, it is largely charmless busy grimy post-war 7-floor housing, but the area along the old main street has been preserved with lower buildings and alleyways, and the town gates and preserved wall section are most impressive. Our hosts seemed to labour under the misapprehension that at least someone in our group might be or know a venture capitalist, and so we were encouraged to place orders for heavy machinery and ball bearings and given price quotations for up-scale apartments. The latter cost 2000 yuan per square meter, that is, peanuts.

Beijing in October

Third day in Beijing, and I think my internal clock may finally have synched with local time. The past two nights have seen me spinning sleeplessly in bed in the small hours and finally reading Proust in the lobby. I padded around the hotel before four o’clock, listening to the snores of the night man, watching from the roof terrace as a night-shift demolition man in an excavator took down another low old house to build a shop or hotel for us, the tourists. A Hanoi-style temporary sidewalk restaurant had sprouted in our hutong lane near the Gulou bell tower. There was no sign left of it when we went out at nine.

The funny thing about Beijing’s tourist make-over for the Olympics is how patchy and piecemeal it is. Along the lanes intended as tourist traps, every third property is a knick-knack shop, every third is a newly demolished ruin and every third remains the run-down home of a poor family. Ostentatious 19th century Qing architecture, which is rather amply preserved around the city centre, is largely in pretty poor shape, plaster and paintwork flaking, the reinforcing straw sticking out. This goes even for the Imperial private apartments in the Forbidden City! Yet I’m not entirely unhappy with these signs of decay, as they signify authenticity. The Chinese are all too fond of tearing down the real thing and re-building because they are ashamed to display anything that looks old and worn.

Travelling with children adds new pleasures and takes accustomed ones away. Forget lounging in a park with a book unless there’s a set of swings nearby. Forget concentrated study of architecture and museums. Forget walking for walking’s sake. But we get a lot of friendly attention from the locals thanks to the kids, particularly our Swedish-Chinese daughter. A pretty Asian-looking four-y-o with chestnut curls can pull quite a crowd even in Beijing where foreigners are a common sight. With a bit of luck the world will have more kids like that soon, as a consequence of tomorrow’s wedding. I hope my suit hasn’t become too rumpled in my suitcase. And that I’ll still remember how to do my tie.