Monday, June 25, 2012

The most awesome tomb ever

The fabled tomb of Qin Shihuang might look like this.
(from China Cultural Heritage)
Ancient tombs and burial treasures are awesome.

Booby traps and diabolical machines are awesome.

So it goes without saying that ancient, booby-trapped tombs filled with treasure and diabolical machines are absolutely, mind-numbingly awesomely awesome!

Such is the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 Qín​ Shǐ​ huáng).

In 1974, in rural Shaanxi Province, a group of farmers who were digging a well stumbled across one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

No, it was not the double-penetration sex toy that someone threw down an 80-meter well that villagers thought was a type of rare mushroom.

It was one of the now iconic terracotta soldiers, that number in the thousands, silently guarding the tomb of Qin Shihuang, one of the most venerated figures in Chinese history.

Since that discovery, other underground chambers have been unearthed, containing terracotta versions of warriors, horses, acrobats and every other type of person who would have been part of the imperial entourage. However, the main burial chamber eluded discovery, even though it was pretty clear where it was.

Si-Ma Qian wrote the book
on the best tomb ever

The main source of knowledge about the tomb (and most other ancient Chinese history) comes from the "Records of the Grand Historian" (史记, Shǐ jì). It was written by Si-Ma Qian (司马迁 Sīmǎ Qiān), in around 100 BCE, approximately a hundred years after Qin Shihuang's death. Here is an excerpt from that momemtous tome:

Original text: 始皇初即位,穿治郦山,及并天下,天下徒送诣七十余万人,穿三泉,下铜而致椁,宫观百官奇器珍怪徙臧满之。令匠作机矢,有所穿近者辄射之。以水银为百川江河大海,机相灌输,上具天文,下具地理。以人鱼膏为烛,度不灭者久之。二世曰:"先帝后宫非有子者,出焉不宜。" 皆令从死,死者甚众。葬既已下,或言工匠为机,臧皆知之,臧重即泄。大事毕,已臧,闭中羡,下外羡门,尽闭工匠臧者,无复出者。树草木以象山。

Translation: When the First Emperor ascended the throne, the digging and preparation at Mount Li began. After he unified his empire, he sent 700,000 people to work. They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper to place the outer casing of the coffin.

Palaces and viewing towers housing a hundred officials were built and filled with treasures and rare artefacts. Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders. Mercury was used to create a hundred rivers and the ocean, and set to flow mechanically. Above, the heaven is depicted, below, the geographical features of the land. Candles were made of "mermaid"'s fat whose light would not extinguish for a long time.

The Second Emperor said: "It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free", ordered that they be put to death, and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its secrets were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembled a hill.

If you didn't catch all that, here are the bullet points:
  • The underground palace is filled with rare and strange treasures (see my post on two of them!)
  • There are traps with crossbows set to kill intruders who dare enter the tomb
  • The tomb floor is a scale model of the country, complete with geographical features, and rivers of mercury that flow via some mysterious mechanical system
  • An ancient star map is painted on the ceiling
  • Candles made from mermaid fat illuminate the necropolis (Ooo-kay)
  • The entire complex is filled with the corpses of doomed craftsmen and concubines, who will most likely re-animate and be very pissed off.

Lara Croft has wet dreams
about this tomb

Even though it was clear that the tomb was located beneath Mount Li, nobody had been able to confirm this. Then, in 2002, a team of archaeologists used remote sensing (the technology, not the "men staring at goats" kind) and ground-penetrating radar to peer into the heart of Mount Li (骊山, Lí​ shān), where the central tomb was thought to be located.

In a word, they found it. The scans showed a soccer-field sized area with walls around it, and a central pit about 15 meters deep.

The team also did tests to see if there was a higher concentration of mercury in the soil around the site, which would be the case if mercury vapor were leaching into the ground from the mechanical mercury river system. Incredibly, there was a high concentration of mercury, with higher levels to the south, suggesting the flow may have stopped and the rivers settled on the southern side of the tomb.

Another notable discovery was that there were only two "tomb passageways," (dào). Later emperors always had four at the cardinal points of the compass, but Qin Shihuang had only two on the east and west sides. These are essentially passages that lead to and from the tomb. Another mystery...

The critically endangered
Chinese "mermaid"
Now, I know you are wondering what "mermaid fat" is. Assuming for a minute that they didn't have actual mermaids back then, we have to look for other explanations. One thought is that the word translated here as mermaid (人鱼 rén​ yú), might actually refer to the Chinese Giant Salamander. This critically endangered creature is referred to as the Baby Fish (娃娃鱼 wá​wa​ yú) since it has an eerie vocalization that can sound like a human infant crying. Another theory is that whale fat was used.

In any case, the idea was probably to have a bunch of long-burning candles in order to deplete the tomb of oxygen and better preserve the contents.  

Unfortunately there are no plans to excavate the tomb, since China does not feel confident that it can extract and preserve the contents of the tomb right now. One archaeologist said it would be at least 50 more years until the tomb was explored.

Until then, we'll just have to imagine the depths of insanity that await those first explorers...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chinese name for baby!

Me and the kids
A name is very important. It gives a person a basis for their identity, at least their identity as their parents saw it. In the case of my son, born a month ago, his name came to us during the early stages of the pregnancy, when we were just starting to think about names: Liam Xiong Williams.

We were thinking of another name for his middle name, Ahanu, meaning "He Laughs" in one of the American Indian languages. But then we thought of a Chinese name and it stuck.

Since we decided on a Chinese name for his middle name, I figured I had better come up with a full Chinese name for him. So here it is!

Wèi​ Lián Xióng

My Chinese name is 魏熊 (Wèi​ Xióng), so we have the same surname, Wei, which I was given since it is the first syllable in Williams.

Lián  is an old word meaning honest or incorruptible. It is often used in the Chinese version of the English name "William" (威廉 Wēilián), so since Liam is the second part of William, it makes sense that Lián means Liam!
And Xiong means bear, which I have as my Chinese name because it is my nickname from my Mom, and now Liam is our little bear cub. Michala's grandfather was also nicknamed Bear, and Liam's cousin has the middle name Dov which means bear in Hebrew. So, many levels of significance.
Of course, Liam might decide that he likes Italian or Portugese or Ancient Aramaic, or maybe he will not take to languages in much the same way I don't take to cold cow tongue sandwiches. Who knows? In any case, its the name we came up with for him. We consider it strong, unique and special, just like the kid himself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Treasures

The legends of these
two treasures point to
the first emperor of China,
Qin Shihuang.

This recounts the legends of two of China's most ancient, valuable and mysterious treasures. They are the Jade Disc of He (和氏璧 - Hé Shì Bì), and the Pearl of the Marquis of Sui (随侯珠, Suí​ hóu​ zhū).

Together they are known as the Two Treasures of the Spring and Autumn (春秋二宝 Chūn​ qiū​ èr ​bǎo). That is because they were both discovered during the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history, which lasted from 770-476 BCE.

Both of these priceless artifacts disappeared after being in the possession of many rulers and emperors over hundreds of years. What were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? Read on, adventurers...

The Marquis' Pearl
Legend has it that an ancient leader (c. 700 BCE) known as the Marquis of Sui (随侯, Suí​ Hóu) once happened upon a large, wounded snake by the side of the road. Feeling sorry for it, he had his servants apply ointment to its wounds, bandage the snake, and place it back in the grass. After the snake had fully recovered, it came to visit the Marquis, carrying a glowing pearl in its mouth. The great snake said: "I, Son of the Dragon King, thank you for saving my life, and have come to offer my gratitude."
The Marquis Pearl: What was it?
The serpent's mysterious gift became known as the Pearl of Marquis of Sui, 随侯珠 (Suí​ Hóu​ Zhū). Several theories exist as to what exactly this thing was. (Notably, the divine snake-delivery method is not questioned. Apparently, that kind of thing happened all the time back in the day.)
The "real pearl" theory is mostly dismissed since a real pearl would probably have degraded over the hundreds of years it was passed down, and natural pearls are not as big as the Marquis Pearl was supposed to have been. Other experts think it may have been a diamond, since one description says it "can light up a room like a candle."

Descriptions vary, but some hint that the object was larger than a person's thumb, and glowed in the dark, or at least shone brightly under moonlight. This description (it was sometimes called the "Pearl that Shines at Night" 夜明珠 yè míng zhū) has led some to believe that the Pearl was actually a chunk of fluorite, or fluorspar, which is found in some areas of China.

Fluorescing fluorite
Fluorite could fit the bill since it can be fluorescent, phosphorescent, photoluminescent, thermoluminescent and even triboluminescent. That means a really rare piece would glow: when exposed to UV light, for a while after being exposed to UV light, when exposed to regular light, when subjected to heat and when scratched, crushed or rubbed.

In any case, it disappeared from the historical record after the reign of Qin Shihuang, the ruler who unified China, standardized measurements and writing, had the terracotta warriors made, and invented the Internet. Speculation is that he had the Pearl buried with him when he died in 209 BCE, in his amazing, crossbow-booby-trapped.tomb, which features mechanically controlled flowing rivers of mercury. (More on that in a later post!)

Qin Shihuang's tomb remains sealed, so if it is ever opened, we may know the answer. Until then, the Pearl's secret stays buried. (Or in the private collection of some rich tycoon in Taiwan).

The Jade Disc of He
Bian He presents the jade three times

The first known story of this mysterious artifact is recorded in the Legalist philosophical work "Han Feizi," (韓非 Hán Fēizǐ), written by none other than the philosopher Han Feizi  (ca. 280 BCE – 233 BCE). Han retells the legend thusly:

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 BCE (a big year for mystical treasures), a man named Bian He (卞和 Biàn​ Hé) found a chunk of rock in the hills of his home near Jing Mountain (荆山 Jīng shān) in the State of Chu (楚国 Chǔ guó) (present day Hubei Province) while he was cutting firewood. Convinced that it was a piece of valuable, unpolished jade (璞玉 pú yù)​, he brought it to King Li (厉王 wáng), who had it looked at by a jade expert. The expert said: "石也." (shí yě: "It's a [freakin'] rock [you dumb hick].")

As a punishment for trying to trick the king (and probably for calling in the expert, who likely charged a totally unreasonable fee for simply showing up), the king had Bian He's left foot chopped off, a common punishment of the time known as  (yuè).

Years later when the next king, King Wu (武王 wáng), took over, Bian He went to him and presented his "rock" again. The king had his jade expert look at it. The expert said: "石也," (shí yě: "It's [still] a [freakin'] rock [you [one-footed] dumb hick].") And - you guessed it. They cut off Bian's right foot for attempting to swindle the king.

King Wu was succeeded by King Wen (文王 Wén wáng), but at this point Bian He finally caught on, and was afraid that if he went back with his treasure, most likely something very bad would happen to him since he had no feet left to chop off. So he took his chunk of rock and hid and wept for three days and nights until he was crying blood. Ow.

King Wen heard about this and fetched the miserable Bian He to ask why he was crying.

"There are many footless folks in these parts," the king said, somewhat outrageously. "So why are you so upset?"

"I'm not crying about my feet," replied Bian He. "I'm crying because people think my treasure is just a rock, and they think that I'm a liar!"

So King Wen relented and had a jade-worker break open the stone, and of course there was a beautiful piece of jade in it. Henceforth the priceless treasure was known as "The Jade Disc of He." (和氏璧 - Hé Shì Bì)

Why "disc,"you ask? At some point after King Wen cracked open Bian He's piece of jade, it must have been carved into a disc, since that is part of its legendary name.

璧(jade disc)
From neolithic times, Chinese cultures had been carving jade into flat discs with a round hole in the center, known as "bi." (璧 bì) The original purpose of these discs is not known, but the earliest ones were found in burial sites, so they probably had some kind of afterlife-type significance. One belief is that they are a type of information storage media brought by aliens from the planet M'Hoxxk, but no one else subscribes to that view besides me.

Han Feizi recorded the beginning of the story, but the legend of He's Disc merely starts there. The thing was passed down, stolen, used as a bargaining chip and finally lost sometime between the Tang and Ming Dynasties, or possibly earlier.

In 283 BCE, during the Warring States Period, the King of Qin heard that the King of Zhao had the Disc. He sent word that he would trade 15 cities for the object. Intrigue ensued, but essentially the King of Zhao held onto it until the famous Qin Shihuang (秦始皇 Qín​ Shǐ​ huáng (259-210 BCE)) defeated all of the other warring states in 221 BCE and united China as the First Emperor under the Qin Dynasty.

It's not clear how Qin Shihuang got the Disc, but he did, as well as the Marquis Pearl and other cool stuff, as evidenced by the words of famous bureaucrat, Qin Chancellor and Legalist philosopher Li Si (李斯 Lǐ Sī). In his famous treatise, "Advice against expelling immigrants," (谏逐客书 jiàn​ zhú​ kè​ shū)​, (which Li wrote because he was an immigrant and wanted to stay in Qin) he penned:

"Now, Your Highness controls the jade of Kun Mountain, possesses the treasures of Sui and He, holds the Bright Moon Pearl; wears the Sword of Tai Ah; rides Qianli, the Horse of Legend; flies the Jade Phoenix Flag, and holds the Drum of the Spirit Water Lizard. None of these treasures originated from Qin, yet Your Majesty speaks of them. Why?" (今陛下致昆山之玉,有随、和之宝,垂明月之珠,服太阿之剑,乘纤离之马,建翠凤之旗,树灵鼍之鼓. 此数宝者,秦不生一焉,而陛下说之,何也?)

The point being that the king has all these amazing treasures that are not indiginous to his homeland and yet are valued, so Li Si is saying that people from abroad (like himself) can also bring value to the kingdom. I think Obama used Li Si's argument in a debate with John McCain when they were talking about Mexican immigrants. (That's not true)

In any case, the "treasures of Sui and He" likely refer to the Disc and the Pearl. The "Bright Moon Pearl" might also be a reference to the Marquis Pearl as well. During his reign, Qin Shihuang made many decisions that would have long-ranging consequences. One of those was having the Disc made into an Imperial Seal, known as the Heirloom Seal of the Realm (传国玺 chuán​ guó ).

Live long and prosper.
The inscription on the 
Heirloom Seal may look like this.
It was inscribed with the phrase (also written by Li Si) "Having received the mandate of Heaven, may he live long and prosper forever." (受命於天既壽永昌 shòu ​mìng​ yú tiān​ jì​ shòu​ yǒng ​chāng). It was carved in the "birds and worms" script (鸟书, niǎochóng ​shū), a highly stylized form of seal script popular during the Warring States Period. (The image at left shows the inscription written in birds and worms.)

Over the next 1,600 years, the seal was passed between the emperors of nine dynasties. Defeated leaders would pass the seal on to their successors, and the seal was seen as a legitimizing symbol of the emperor's authority. It was lost sometime between the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907 and the start of the Ming in 1369. Or was it? One theory says that Qin kept the Disc and had it buried with him, and had the seal made from some other slaggy piece of jade that was lying around the palace.

In any case, after the seal disappeared, the country declined over the next thousand years from its peak at the height of the Tang Dynasty into the current bizarro-communist situation of today. Coincidence?

That concludes the tale of two treasures. Some day the mystery of their fates might be revealed. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Art Attack! Xu Beihong

Spring Rain on the Li River, by Xu Beihong, 1937

I recently took a trip to the Denver Art Museum to check out the exhibit on the Chinese artist, Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻 Bēihóng). 

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), whose name means "Greatness and Sorrow" (he changed it from his original name "Long Life and Health" after he found art), was an influential artist and art teacher in the early years of China's post-Imperial history.

The Denver show was the first time his works have been displayed in the United States. He was scheduled to have an exhibition in the U.S. in 1941, but the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened so the whole thing was cancelled.

Homemade chop: 阳朔天民
Xu was interesting because he was a master of the classical style of Chinese painting, but was also one of the first Chinese to master Western oil painting, and use it to portray scenes from Chinese legends. 

One thing that stuck out for me when checking out his exhibit was all the different seals, or chops, that he made and used on his works. Chops are usually made from carved stone or horn, and often serve as a sort of signature to a painting. But in addition to his chops with his name on them, he also made chops that are kind of whimsical and seem to reflect how he was feeling at the time.

It seemed like some paintings even required their own seal to be made. For instance, when he was living in Yangshuo, (which we visited last year), he painted a lot of mountain and river scenes. (See above: Spring Rain on the Li River)

The seal (above left) for many of those paintings says: "Resident of Yangshuo, Heaven," (阳朔天民 Yáng​shuò​ tiān​ mín), or as the translation in the museum said: "Such good fortune allows me to be a resident of Yangshuo."  If you have ever been to Yangshuo, you know what he means. It is a beautiful place filled with rivers and amazing karst mountains that jut up out of the earth. 

Another seal says: "Destitute hero from the south" (江南贫侠, jiāng​ nán​ pín ​xiá), apparently a reference to his fondness for martial arts. 

Yet another of his chops says "Pavilion of No Maple" (无枫亭 wú fēng tíng). The story behind this is that when Xu worked as a professor at Nanjing University in the 1930s, a hot female student "planted a maple tree in his courtyard," which may or may not be a euphemism for something. In any case, his wife at the time, Jiang Biwei, (蒋碧微, Jiǎng​ Bì​ Wēi​) totally freaked and ripped the tree out of the ground with her bare hands in a jealous berserker rage.

Xu was bummed about the tree, so he carved a seal to commemorate the lost maple. I may have embellished the story a little, but in her memoir, "Beihong and Me," Jiang does say that Xu had a  little "师生恋" (shī​ shēng​ liàn), or teacher-student affair when he was at Nanjing U! 

After he divorced Jiang in 1945, Xu dedicated most of his paintings (and many of the ones at the DAM) to his second wife, Liao Jingwen (廖静文 Liào Jìng​ Wén). He would include a line on the side of the piece that said: "For my beloved wife, Jingwen, to keep." (静文爱妻存 Jìng​ Wén​ ài qī​ cún) Okay, all together now: Awww

I thought the DAM put on a nice show of his works. Seventy years after it was originally supposed to happen, Xu made an impressive first foray into the American art scene.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

V26, Yeah!

[Due to popular demand, here is the story of my most successful foray into acting while in China. The following took place in like 1998.]

“They want a foreigner,” she said. “A fat one.”
Standing in her apartment on the north side of the Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, Chloe Wan was saying she wanted me to help out a friend of hers. The friend’s boyfriend was a director, mainly for TV commercials. He was working on an ad for a product called V26, the “American Diet Shake.” And since many Chinese marketing executives believe that using a foreigner in their commercial will convince people that their product is “international” and “world recognized,” he wanted foreigners.
He needed a fat white person to be in the ad. At first I was offended. “No way,” I said. But strange opportunities are not to be dismissed lightly. I had learned that when somebody offers you an outrageous proposition, you can usually learn from the experience, meet interesting people, or get paid. So I agreed to do it. They would pay me 500 kuai (about 60 bucks at the time), and all I had to do was jump around for a few minutes. Plus I would be on TV. I had been in an ad before, back in 1992. That ad was for Ya Di Jiu, a brand of baijiu, which is a strong, clear, flammable alcoholic beverage. My part was to yell: “Made from pure grains, doesn’t go to your head!” in Chinese and then drain the small cup, which was really filled with Sprite. But I had never seen the ad on TV, and this was a chance to actually see myself in a commercial.
 I arrived at the “studio,” which was actually a birth control education center that had been rented out to the advertising company to do filming in. I took in the scene. The area was a large auditorium, with cameras and lights everywhere. It appeared that several different scenes were being filmed at once. I greeted Chloe and the director, who explained his vision for the ad. My part of the V26 ad involved a really fat guy, a medium fat guy (me), and a skinny guy, to show the transformation from fat slob to slim stud, effected by drinking V26. The three of us were to jump separately in front of a blue screen, and in the end a gigantic cup of V26 would be superimposed in the frame. In the final version, it would look like two fat guys were jumping into a tall, cool tumbler of V26, and a skinny guy was jumping out the other side. But the really fat guy was Chinese, I am a white American, and the skinny end product was a white Belgian. So by drinking V26 not only are you transformed from fat to skinny, but also from one race to another. Amazing stuff.
I was led off to the makeup chamber. Perhaps this was a family planning counselor’s office? Several layers of goop were applied to my face, as well as lipstick. This was the second time I had had makeup applied. The first time had been ten or twelve years previous when I was in Bye-Bye Birdie in Middle School. Who could have guessed that my acting career would take me from phone-waving teen in Bye-Bye Birdie to playing the “before” guy in a Chinese ad for a diet shake?
I went back out to the main floor, and the costumes person gave me a skimpy, white stretchy piece of fabric and told me to change and get ready. I looked at it as if it were a noodle that was dropped on the floor and put back on my plate. It didn’t look big enough to cover one of my legs.
“I can’t wear this,” I said.
Mei guanxi,” the director grinned, using the highly versatile Chinese phrase meaning basically: “It doesn’t matter.” The phrase can be used in a variety of situations, where the implied meaning ranges from “you’re welcome” to “don’t worry about the fact that I just ran over your bicycle with my car, you can get it fixed.” In this case it meant: “Don’t worry if you look like an idiot.”
I slinked off to the dressing room to put on the outfit. Closing the door behind me, I tried to will some sort of disaster upon the studio so I wouldn’t have to go back out in the skin-tight outfit. I wrestled with the garment for a few minutes and eventually slid it up over my legs and torso. It was sort of like a weightlifter’s outfit, with short legs and no sleeves. I spent several minutes trying to suck in my gut and look natural.  
Coming out of the dressing room, I was relieved that no one paid much attention to me. I looked around at the various parts of the commercial that were being filmed. In one section, about a dozen young Chinese in a disco setting were dancing around to implied music, obviously enjoying their slimness. Behind a desk was a middle-aged businesswoman: slim, successful, and nursing a cup of V26. A pair of lovers; a family; and two friends walking along talking about how great it was to drink V26 were also part of the show. Except for the disco dancers, all of the actors were non-Chinese.
Meanwhile the stage was being set for our big jumps. A giant piece of blue cloth was draped against the wall and part of the floor. This was the blue screen which made it possible to digitally insert the giant cup later on. The really fat Chinese guy had done his jump earlier and so was just standing around in street clothes chatting with people. He seemed to be totally comfortable with the idea that he was totally fat. I chatted idly with the Belgian and he mentioned that he worked for a real estate firm. He had also been lured there by a friend, but he had been waiting all day for just one jump. Finally the director told me it was my turn. He said to jump as far and high as I could. When he said go, I sprang with all of my might into the middle of the blue cloth. I did two takes, and it was over. I wanted to go put my regular clothes back on immediately, but he said to wait. However, I did get a black tank top to put on over the white thing.
As I watched the Belgian do his jump, the director said he had an idea for another scene with me in it. This would be as a healthy, strong boy, not a fat boy, he assured me. The scene was me, shot from mid-torso up, and I had to take a big sip of the strawberry version of V26, look into the camera, flex a bicep and said “Yeah!”
This was the part that finally made it into the ad that appeared on TV all across China. The shot was just me and my arm and lasted less than one second, but some people recognized me from the ad. I had people coming up to me saying: “Hey, was that you in the V26 ad?”  All I had to say in response was “Yeah!” and flex a little and they knew it was me.
I was happy not to be shown as a fat person in transition to thin, but rather as a healthy American boy enjoying his shake. The fat Chinese guy and the skinny Belgian eventually showed up in one version of the ad, but the flying middleman in the white leotard was never seen.