Category Archive 'China'
28 Aug 2018

The Chinese Military is Studying Military History

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Lyle J. Goldstein, in the National Interest, reports that The Chinese military appears to be making a careful study of the military history of its likely main opponents: the US and Japan.

China’s military has not had much combat experience in recent decades, and this is recognized among Chinese military leaders as a potentially serious problem. The reasons for this scarcity of battlefield know—how are obvious and might even be praise-worthy. It has been nearly four decades since Beijing undertook a significant military campaign, so how would its armed forces have attained this knowledge? As I have argued many times before in this forum, nearly four decades without resorting to a major use of force represents very impressive restraint for any great power.
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“China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sought to remedy its lack of actual combat experience by the careful study of military history, including the bloody Pacific War as I have noted in other Dragon Eye columns. August is steamy in the South Pacific and so the Guadalcanal campaign that began in August 1942 was hell. It was through that campaign that the fate of the Pacific was decided. While the dazzling miracle of Midway gets infinitely more attention, the grinding attrition battle just a few months later of Guadalcanal, which could be termed the ‘Verdun’ of the Pacific War, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Losing 38 ships and perhaps over 700 aircraft proved devastating for Japan, although these losses were quite similar to those suffered on the American side. The difference, of course, was that America could replace these losses quite easily.

“Late last year (Dec 2017), the Chinese Navy’s official magazine Navy Today [当代海军] carried a reasonably detailed analysis of the crucial Guadalcanal campaign. The article concludes that Japan’s ‘command decisions and weapons development errors greatly increased the losses [指挥决策和装备研发上的失误更是大大加速了失败],’ together with fundamental problems in Japan’s strategic culture. The Chinese analysis of Japanese mistakes in the campaign is neatly divided between errors in strategic judgment, operational and tactical errors, as well as mistakes in developing appropriate weaponry.

“At the grand strategic level, this Chinese Navy analysis assesses that Japan’s mistakes in the Guadalcanal campaign were partly a failure to reckon with the true significance of the Midway battle a couple of months prior in June 1942. Tokyo seemingly maintained its offensive posture in the South Pacific without recognizing the fundamental fact of ‘the mobilization of America’s enormous industrial capacity [美国强大工业机器启动].’ The analysis asserts that much of the Japanese military was not even informed of the truly devastating results (for Japan) of Midway and that Tokyo’s decision-making was plagued by an incessant and pervasive cult of the offensive. It is noted that the South Pacific could have been invaluable to Japan’s effort to sever U.S. supply lines, but that a critical shortage of airborne intelligence inhibited effective decision-making. The great importance of the U.S. capture of Henderson Field early in the Guadalcanal campaign is noted, and this Chinese analysis concluded, meant that the Japanese pilots flying from distant Rabaul could not offer effective support to Japanese ground troops on the contested island, while Japanese carriers ‘would not dare to overreach by approaching Guadalcanal’ [未敢过分接近瓜岛]. Japanese strategic decisions are assessed to have been plagued by poor coordination between ground and naval forces in the completely ‘unclear situation [情况不明].’”

RTWT

18 Aug 2018

Chinese Art Objects Returning, One Way or the Other

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GQ links a series of robberies of Chinese art from European museums with auction records for similar objects broken recently by Chinese billionaires bent on repatriating objects looted from China in the 19th Century, and wonders aloud if the burglaries were ordered by the Chinese Government or one of the billionaires?

The patterns of the heists were evident only later, but their audacity was clear from the start. The spree began in Stockholm in 2010, with cars burning in the streets on a foggy summer evening. The fires had been lit as a distraction, a ploy to lure the attention of the police. As the vehicles blazed, a band of thieves raced toward the Swedish royal residence and smashed their way into the Chinese Pavilion on the grounds of Drottningholm Palace. There they grabbed what they wanted from the permanent state collection of art and antiquities. Police told the press the thieves had fled by moped to a nearby lake, ditched their bikes into the water, and escaped by speedboat. The heist took less than six minutes.

A month later, in Bergen, Norway, intruders descended from a glass ceiling and plucked 56 objects from the China Collection at the KODE Museum. Next, robbers in England hit the Oriental Museum at Durham University, followed by a museum at Cambridge University. Then, in 2013, the KODE was visited once more; crooks snatched 22 additional relics that had been missed during the first break-in.

Had they known exactly what was happening, perhaps the security officials at the Château de Fontainebleau, the sprawling former royal estate just outside Paris, could have predicted that they might be next.

With more than 1,500 rooms, the palace is a maze of opulence. But when bandits arrived before dawn on March 1, 2015, their target was unmistakable: the palace’s grand Chinese Museum. Created by the last empress of France, the wife of Napoleon III, the gallery was stocked with works so rare that their value was considered incalculable.

In recent years, however, the provenance of those treasures had become an increasingly sensitive subject: The bulk of the museum’s collection had been pilfered from China by French soldiers in 1860 during the sack of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

In the low light before daybreak, the robbers raced to the southwest wing and shattered a window. They climbed inside, stepping over broken glass, and swiftly went to work dismantling the empress’s trove. Within seven minutes, they were gone, along with 22 of the museum’s most valuable items: porcelain vases; a mandala made of coral, gold, and turquoise; a Chimera in cloisonné enamel; and more. …

In each case, the robbers focused their efforts on art and antiquities from China, especially items that had been looted by foreign armies. Many of these objects are well documented and publicly known, making them very hard to sell and difficult to display. In most cases the pieces have not been recovered; they seem to simply vanish.

After that first robbery, in Stockholm, a police official told the press that “all experience says this is an ordered job.” As the heists mounted, so did the suspicion that they were being carried out on instructions from abroad. But if that was true, an obvious question loomed: Who was doing the ordering?

RTWT

13 May 2018

A Term You Will Find Useful

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白左 [Baizuo]

09 Apr 2018

Shades of Blue

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Christie’s ceramic expert Joan Ho offers a brief guide to the history of Blue-and-White porcelain in China.

Imported blue-and-white china called “Canton” was popular in the upper circles of American society during the colonial and Federal periods. Possession of a set of inherited Canton used to be an important caste marker in upper-crust American society.

In Virginia Horse Country, where I used to live, people would speak with admiration of certain old families, saying “they are the kind of people who put Canton in the dishwasher.”

The colour blue gained special significance in the history of Chinese ceramics during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The distinctive colour in blue-glazed pottery and porcelain comes from cobalt ores imported from Persia, which were a scarce ingredient at the time and used in only limited quantities.

In the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in particular, different types of cobalt ore and methods of application determined the distinctive feature of the shades of blue that appeared on blue-and-white porcelain ware. …

The Song dynasty (960-1279) marked a high point in the production of monochrome wares, but artisans of this period regarded the use of cobalt blue as an impossibility. It was not until the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty that the manufacture of blue-and-white porcelain came to maturity, which resulted in richer and more complex subject matter. In part, this development had a religious component: the Mongols counted as their mythical ancestors the ‘hazy blue’ wolf and the ‘white’ fallow doe.

RTWT

14 Dec 2017

Will China Invade Taiwan?

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Ian Easton says China hasn’t got the ability to do it right now, but the long-term ambition is there.

A Chinese diplomat in Washington recently threatened that China would invade Taiwan if the U.S. Navy sent a ship to visit the democratic island, something that Congress has called upon the Pentagon to do in 2018. Is this just empty rhetoric? Or does it reflect Beijing’s actual intentions? It’s actually a bit of both. …

China’s rapid military buildup is focused on acquiring the capabilities needed to annex, or conquer, Taiwan. Chinese publications euphemistically call this “achieving national unification.” The war plan for fighting a Taiwan invasion campaign is tattooed onto the PLA’s corporate memory. It is something that has been indoctrinated and encoded into the minds of all top-level officers. For them, the interests of the regime, not the people of China, are paramount, and their “main strategic direction” (supreme objective) is to end Taiwan’s life as a de facto independent country.

The good news is that the Chinese military almost certainly could not prosecute a full-scale invasion of Taiwan today and succeed. Even if a few hawkish generals were prepared to roll the dice, the costs and risks entailed by the war would be enormous and potentially fatal for the regime. PLA strategists know they still have a long way to go before they will be able to achieve their objective. The bad news is that China’s leaders recognize the roadblocks in their path and will continue to invest heavily in strategic deception, intelligence collection, psychological warfare, joint training and advanced weapons. Barring countervailing efforts, their investments could result in a world-shaking conflict and an immense human tragedy.

RTWT

04 Dec 2017

A Chinese Look at the Western Elite

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Puzhong Yao.

Puzhong Yao was born in China, but has studied and worked at some of the most elite institutions in the West, and he still finds the mindset of the Western elite strange.

[L]ike the Evangelical Christians, my life was changed by a book. Specifically, Robert Rubin’s autobiography In an Uncertain World (Random House, 2003). Robert Rubin was Goldman Sachs’s senior partner and subsequently secretary of the Treasury. Only later did I learn that certain people in the United States revere him as something of a god.

I first bought the book because I was puzzled by the title, especially coming from a man who had achieved so much. I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail. When I picked up the book, I was studying math at Cambridge University and, as I looked back at the standardized tests and intense study that had defined my life until then, I could see no uncertainty.

But since reading Rubin’s book, I have come to see the world differently. Robert Rubin never intended to become the senior partner of Goldman Sachs: a few years into his career, he even handed in his resignation. Just as in Rubin’s career, I find that maybe randomness is not merely the noise but the dominant factor. And those reasons we assign to historical events are often just ex post rationalizations. As rising generations are taught the rationalizations, they conclude that things always happen for a reason. Meanwhile, I keep wondering: is there someone, sitting in a comfortable chair somewhere, flipping a coin from time to time, deciding what happens in the world? …

I don’t claim to be a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, nor do I have much in common with this famous observer of American life. He grew up in Paris, a city renowned for its culture and architecture. I grew up in Shijiazhuang, a city renowned for being the headquarters of the company that produced toxic infant formula. He was a child of aristocrats; I am the child of modest workers.

Nevertheless, I hope my candid observations can provide some insights into the elite institutions of the West. Certain beliefs are as ubiquitous among the people I went to school with as smog was in Shijiazhuang. The doctrines that shape the worldviews and cultural assumptions at elite Western institutions like Cambridge, Stanford, and Goldman Sachs have become almost religious. Nevertheless, I hope that the perspective of a candid Chinese atheist can be of some instruction to them. …

It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school. My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again. Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade. But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles. …

Warren Buffett has said that the moment one was born in the United States or another Western country, that person has essentially won a lottery. If someone is born a U.S. citizen, he or she enjoys a huge advantage in almost every aspect of life, including expected wealth, education, health care, environment, safety, etc., when compared to someone born in developing countries. For someone foreign to “purchase” these privileges, the price tag at the moment is $1 million dollars (the rough value of the EB-5 investment visa). Even at this price level, the demand from certain countries routinely exceeds the annual allocated quota, resulting in long waiting times. In that sense, American citizens were born millionaires!

Yet one wonders how long such luck will last. This brings me back to the title of Rubin’s book, his “uncertain world.” In such a world, the vast majority things are outside our control, determined by God or luck. After we have given our best and once the final card is drawn, we should neither become too excited by what we have achieved nor too depressed by what we failed to achieve. We should simply acknowledge the result and move on. Maybe this is the key to a happy life.

On the other hand, it seems odd that this should be the principal lesson of a Western education. In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

RTWT

14 Oct 2017

Popular Music in the Politics of Ancient China

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A rather fascinating article by Harvard professor Xiaofei Tian in Lapham’s Quarterly.

[A Chinese] monarch created an institution that put [the] musical aspect of political ideology into imperial practice. The institution was the Yuefu, the “Music Bureau.” The monarch was Emperor Wu of Han, an ambitious, energetic ruler who ascended the throne as a teenage boy in 141 BC and reigned for fifty-four years, a record not to be broken for more than eighteen centuries. During his rule, he centralized state power, expanded the territories of the empire, opened up the Silk Road and sent many missions to Central Asia, adopted Confucian doctrine as mainstream ideology, and was an ardent lover and patron of musical and poetic arts. Around 120 BC he ordered the establishment of the Music Bureau.

There is not much information about the workings of the bureau in extant historical sources; what little we know about it comes from terse statements made about the office and its leader, whose title, director of music, was apparently coined by the emperor and literally means “commandant of harmony.” According to the historian Ban Gu (32–92), the bureau was in charge of “collecting song-poems [during the day] and having them rehearsed at night.” The song-poems were reportedly “ballads selected from the lands of Zhao, Dai, Qin, and Chu,” encompassing all four directions of the empire. Music, like state power, was centralized in the imperial court, and in turn it was seen as a unifying force embodying all regions of the empire.

Before Emperor Wu established the Music Bureau, court music had fallen under the aegis of court ritualists. This new office now institutionalized imperial music and for the first time gave it an independent identity. Although the office did produce ceremonial music for state rituals, an equally important purpose was to provide well-managed imperial entertainment. As such, it was appropriately led not by a hoary ritualist versed in ceremonial music but by a young, handsome, talented castrato musician named Li Yannian, who made for a rather extraordinary and unconventional appointment.

Li Yannian was from a family of professional entertainers. When he was a young boy, he had received the punishment of castration for some offense. Being a castrato led him to career choices beyond his family’s usual orbit: as a eunuch, he found employment in the Directorate of the Palace Kennels, even though his true gift was apparently in music rather than in breeding and caring for the imperial hunting dogs. While Li Yannian was employed there, Emperor Wu met his sister, a stunning beauty and consummate dancer, and became smitten with her. Soon, Lady Li bore the emperor a son, cementing her eminent status in the harem. Meanwhile, the emperor came to appreciate Li Yannian’s musical talent deeply. The boy became the emperor’s favorite musician—as well as the emperor’s lover.

Having been castrated at a young age must have given Li Yannian, already a good-looking boy, a striking appearance (as we now know, the loss of testosterone can result in unusually long limbs and make a castrato taller than average). It was not a known custom in premodern China, as it was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy, to castrate a talented young boy singer to keep his prepubescent voice. But we may well imagine how Li Yannian’s accidental acquisition of a voluptuous and sublime voice as a castrato might have greatly contributed to the charm of his singing. “All mouth and no trousers,” goes the saying—yet his fame came even more from his gift as a composer.

At the emperor’s commission, Li Yannian produced new music for state rituals, which were constantly being invented by Emperor Wu, who was obsessed with worship of the empire’s deities. (Neither these deities nor his devised rituals, however, were necessarily approved by orthodox-minded Confucian ritualists.) Li Yannian was apparently at his best in the composition of “new fancy tunes” that represented a “permutation” of serious ritual music (yayue, literally “elegant music”). He had modern, catholic, unconventional tastes: he not only reinvented contemporary regional melodies but also embraced foreign influences. He was famous for creating twenty-eight tunes inspired by the Central Asian music of what were called the Western Regions, astride the Silk Road. Even when the music was lost in later times, some of the tune titles endured and became established titles in the poetic genre known as yuefu, after the bureau.

At the peak of his career, Li Yannian would “sleep and rise with the emperor” and had his ear when recommending associates to offices. But the Li family’s good fortune did not last very long. Li Yannian’s sister died young, and the emperor’s favor faded. When Li Yannian’s little brother was caught having an affair with a palace lady, both brothers were executed, and, history tells us, “the entire family was exterminated.”

RTWT

15 May 2017

The Chinese Have a Pejorative Term for Holier-Than-Thou Western Liberals: “Baizuo” [白左]

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Chenchen Zhang informs us that the educated Chinese despise “baizuo,” soft-headed and soft-hearted Western liberals. And who can blame them?

If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, it’s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo, or literally, the ‘white left’. It first emerged about two years ago, and yet has quickly become one of the most popular derogatory descriptions for Chinese netizens to discredit their opponents in online debates.

So what does ‘white left’ mean in the Chinese context, and what’s behind the rise of its (negative) popularity? It might not be an easy task to define the term, for as a social media buzzword and very often an instrument for ad hominem attack, it could mean different things for different people. A thread on “why well-educated elites in the west are seen as naïve “white left” in China” on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website said to have a high percentage of active users who are professionals and intellectuals, might serve as a starting point.

The question has received more than 400 answers from Zhihu users, which include some of the most representative perceptions of the ‘white left’. Although the emphasis varies, baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”. …

In fact, heated discussions about baizuo on Chinese social media websites rarely make reference to domestic issues, except for occasionally and unsurprisingly insulting Chinese Muslims for being “unintegrated” or “complicit in the spread of Islam extremism”. The stigmatization of the ‘white left’ is driven first and foremost by Chinese netizens’ understanding of ‘western’ problems. It is a symptom and weakness of the Other.

The term first became influential amidst the European refugee crisis, and Angela Merkel was the first western politician to be labelled as a baizuo for her open-door refugee policy. Hungary, on the other hand, was praised by Chinese netizens for its hard line on refugees, if not for its authoritarian leader. Around the same time another derogatory name that was often used alongside baizuo was shengmu – literally the ‘holy mother’ – which according to its users refers to those who are ‘overemotional’, ‘hypocritical’ and ‘have too much empathy’. The criticisms of baizuo and shengmu soon became an online smear campaign targeted at not only public figures such as J. K. Rowling and Emma Watson, but also volunteers, social workers and all other ordinary citizens, whether in Europe or China, who express any sympathy with international refugees. …

The anti-baizuo discourse in Chinese social media gained stronger momentum during the US presidential election campaign. If criticisms of the ‘white left’ in the context of the refugee crisis were mainly about disapproval of ‘moralist humanitarianism’ mixed with Islamophobia, they became politically more elaborate as Chinese critics of the ‘white left’ discovered Donald J. Trump, whom they both identify with and take inspirations from. Following the debates in the US, a number of other issues such as welfare reforms, affirmative action and minority rights were introduced into online discussions on the ‘white left’. Baizuo critics now began to identify Obama and Clinton as the new epitome of the ‘white left’, despite the fact that they were neither particularly humanitarian nor particularly kind to migrants. Trump was taken as the champion of everything the ‘white left’ were against, and baizuo critics naturally became his enthusiastic supporters. …

From a domestic perspective, the proliferation of anti-baizuo sentiment is clearly in line with the dominance of a kind of brutal, demoralized pragmatism in post-socialist China. Many of the attacks on the welfare state and the idea that states have obligations towards international refugees appeal to the same social Darwinist logic of ‘survival of the fittest’. It is assumed that individuals should take responsibility for their own misery, whether it is war or poverty, and should not be helped by others. The rationale goes hand in hand with the view that inequality is inevitable in a market-economy-cum-Hobbesian-society. Although economic disparity in China has been worsening in recent years, sociologist Yu Xie found that most Chinese people regard it as an inevitable consequence of economic growth, and that inequality is unlikely to give rise to political or social unrest.

Pragmatism with an emphasis on self-responsibility seems to be the ideology of our post-ideological times. It is, in UK prime minister Theresa May’s words, ‘living within our means’. This is combined with a general indifference towards race issues, or even worth, with certain social Darwinist beliefs that some races are superior to others, leading many mainland Chinese netizens to dismiss struggles against structural discriminations as naïve, pretentious or demanding undeserved privileges.

Seen from the perspective of international relations, the anti-baizuo discourse can be understood as part of what William A. Callahan calls ‘negative soft power’, that is, constructing the Chinese self through ‘the deliberate creation and then exclusion’ of Others as ‘barbarians’ or otherwise inferior. Criticisms of the ‘white left’ against the background of the European refugee crisis fit especially well with the ‘rising China’ versus ‘Europe in decline’ narrative. According to Baidu Trends, one of the most related keywords to baizuo was huimie: “to destroy”. Articles with titles such as ‘the white left are destroying Europe’ were widely circulated.

In an academic-style essay that was retweeted more than 7000 times on Weibo, a user named ‘fantasy lover Mr. Liu’ ‘reviewed’ European philosophy from Voltaire and Marx to Adorno and Foucault, concluding that the ‘white left’ as a ‘spiritual epidemic’ is on its way to self-destruction. He then stated that Trump’s win was only “a small victory over this spiritual epidemic of humankind”, but “western civilization is still far from its self-redemption”. However ridiculous it may appear, the post is illustrative of how a demonized Other is projected onto seemingly objective or academic criticisms of the ‘white left’. Ultimately, the more the ‘white left’ – whatever it means – represent the fatal weakness of democracy, the more institutional and normative security the Chinese regime enjoys. The grassroots campaign against the ‘white left’ thus echoes the officially-sanctioned campaign against ‘universal values’, providing a negative evidence for the superiority of the Chinese self.

RTWT

07 May 2017

Two Chinese Skeletons Found in Roman Cemetery in London

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A reconstruction of Roman Londinium in AD 250.

Instapundit found a BBC report today, but the story actually originated last Fall.

The London Times reported last September 23rd:

It was an unremarkable Roman cemetery, containing the bodies of ordinary people. They lived and died on the banks of the Thames, making a living in the poorer and dirtier districts of Roman Londinium.

When an analysis of the skeletons came through, no one expected a result that could change our view of the history of Europe and Asia. But that is what they seem to have found, because two of the skeletons, dated to between the 2nd and 4th century AD, were Chinese.

Here at the most westerly point of the known world, in the cultural backwater of ancient Britain, lived people who came from its easternmost extremity. How did they get there?

To the Romans, the Chinese were a mysterious civilisation: technologically advanced, disquietingly powerful, and purveyors of, according to Seneca, obscene garments that corrupted the empire’s womanhood. To the Chinese, the Romans were a moderately intriguing civilisation with, according to one account, weak and pliant rulers.

It would be 1,000 years before the travels of Marco Polo would help properly to bring the culture of the east to the people of the west. Now, though, that history has to be revised.

After the excavation of a cemetery in Southwark, new skull analysis techniques identified a multicultural community containing four people who were ethnically African and two Asian, probably Chinese.

The find is spectacular but it is also mysterious, according to Rebecca Redfern from the Museum of London. She has no idea how they had ended up lying in this cemetery, so far from home.

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Kristina Killgrove (who is a Biological Anthropologist) expressed some reservations, in Forbes:

Several British news outlets today ran a story with headlines about Chinese people in Roman Britain. While there is no doubt that the Roman Empire was cosmopolitan, and it is entirely likely that people of East Asian ancestry will be found in all parts of the Empire, we need to take a step back from the hype and look at the data.

The new study in question is by Rebecca Redfern and colleagues, out in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The researchers looked at 22 skeletons from the Lant Street cemetery in the London borough of Southwark, dating to the 2nd-4th century AD. In order to figure out where people might be from, they examined oxygen isotopes from the teeth, carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the bones, and the shape of the skull, correlating those data where possible with burial evidence.

The data that Redfern and colleagues produced are really quite interesting. The oxygen isotope values, which were isolated from 19 of these people, range widely — too much to be explained by local variation in water sources. This means that many of them came to London from elsewhere, some time after childhood. Far fewer of the individuals produced good data for carbon and nitrogen analysis of diet — just half of the sample was testable, and those data reveal a diet similar to what was eaten in selected other parts of the Empire. (They did not compare the data to Rome itself, for example, only to Portus Romae, south-coastal Velia, and Herculaneum in Italy and to Leptiminus in Tunisia.)

But the new method that Redfern and colleagues use to figure out ancestry is not ancient DNA analysis, but a statistical modeling of variations in the skulls and teeth that could be linked to ancestral differences. In short, they employ a method similar to what forensic anthropologists use to figure out if an unknown skeleton is of Asian, African or European ancestry.

The shortcomings of this method, however, are considerable and are outlined by Redfern and colleagues in their article. For example:

    The fact that many of the samples were fragmented means that 41% of the sample had only two traits to score. As the researchers write, “This degree of missing data can affect classification accuracies, particularly among the sample having two or less (sic) traits.”
    “We recognise that this is a subjective approach… and that many of the individuals used to generate these methods derive from modern populations outside of the territories that formed the Roman Empire. […] The population affiliation divisions used here may disguise or fail to find many affiliations because they are subjective, and morphology varies between individuals and over time,” they further note. This is problematic because bioarchaeologists cannot be sure how much the skull and tooth shapes have changed over 2,000 years. Comparing an ancient population with a modern one may not yield accurate results. (For example, when I put metric data from skeletons from Rome into FORDISC, a software program that compares metric data from skulls, the program happily classifies them into Asian samples.)
    “The method development was particularly lacking in north African and southern Mediterranean populations, whose DNA shows a greater degree of genetic diversity compared to sub-Saharan and more northern ones. Therefore, the results must be understood in their temporal and spatial context, and the biases introduced by the methods acknowledged.” With few comparative samples from contemporary Africa and the southern Mediterranean, which are much more likely to be the origin of Roman Britons than is Asia, this means there may be bias introduced into the interpretation of the skull and tooth shapes.

This article is a remarkable attempt to correlate three different isotopes and skeletal morphology to answer questions about the diversity of Roman Britain in the later Empire, and it succeeds in showcasing that diversity even in this small sample. But it does not show, as the tabloids have been crowing, that there were Chinese in Roman London. The statistical results are intriguing, but the oxygen data from the two so-called Asians seem to be within the range of others in the sample, and only one produced dietary isotope data. For a slam-dunk, they need DNA. If and when they produce this, though, establishing a solid correlation between DNA from the Roman era and the results of the statistical method on the Roman skulls and teeth has the potential to help other bioarchaeologists assess ancestry without doing expensive destructive analysis.

RTWT

02 Apr 2017

Book Tunnel

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Boing Boing: Chinese bookstore Yangzhou Zhongshuge in Zhen Yuan, China has arguably the most breathtaking bookstore entrance in the world.

My Modern Met:

The dizzying space contains a grand optical illusion that you only see once you’ve set foot inside. Its lobby is a cavernous tunnel that most notably features striking black mirrored flooring. Together, the reflective ground and curved shelving creates the feeling that you’ve stepped into a perfectly circular room, making you question which way is up. Luckily, there’s help in finding the path forward. The shelves are split by a lightning bolt-shaped gap in the ceiling that leads you into the rest of the store.

Shanghai-based studio XL-Muse were the ones to come up with this clever configuration. Inspired by Yangzhou’s proximity to water, they designed the ground to mimic liquid. “In the past, guided by water, many literati and poets visited and gathered here,” they told Dezeen. “[The bridges] used to be the guiding factor of culture and commerce, and they represent that the bookstore is the bond between humans and books at the same time.” The mirrored flooring acts as a water current that draws you further into Yangzhou.

21 Oct 2016

Coiling Dragon Cliff Skywalk

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chinamountainview
Telegraph: Coiling Dragon Cliff Skywalk, Tianmen Mountain, China

10 Sep 2016

Losing Face

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losing-face

CHINESE IDIOMS ABOUT “FACE”

Illustrating the obsession with face-management, there are literally dozens of Chinese sayings and proverbs that have to do with “face”, including:

“Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.”
ren hou lian, shu hou pi

“A family’s ugliness (misfortune) should never be publicly aired”
jai chou bu ke wai yang

“Face project”
mian zi gong chen
For example, “That new expensive airport is just another face project for local officials to suck up to their bosses.”

“Blacken one’s face”
Wang lian shang mo hei
For example, “He blackened your face to get you back for what you did.”

A traditional insult is to say that someone “has no face”.
mei you mianzi

Similarly, one of the worst things is to “lose face”.
diu lian

Via Belacqui.

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