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Chinese National Treasures

imagesEveryone seems to be moving faster than I am this morning in Wuhan. Everyone except the very old woman walking in front of the coffee shop one half-step at a time. Rain is coming, and it is very hot and humid. I had a rough night with GI problems, so I’m thankful just to be out and about without any “incidents,” shall we say. I do feel slow, and I can’t figure out if it’s just me, or if the locals are actually moving with more purpose than they were yesterday or last week. The demolished market has mostly recovered–vendors have set up shop across the street and along the sidewalks in either direction. I passed a stall of hanging meats (one woman’s only job was to fan the flies away) and a stall selling fish–bins of water full of swimming (some floating) fish alongside a man on a stool scaling and cutting fish over a multi-colored tarp. The fishmongers were borrowing electricity through a long cord from a nearby building to aerate the tanks. People are quite industrious this morning – the vendors, the construction workers, the street cleaners, the students – but I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, like the old woman.

I took a taxi to the Hubei Provincial Museum yesterday so I could get a chance to linger over the exhibits I saw on Sunday and take in some of the ones I missed. Several items in the museum, including an incredible array of bronze bells and stone percussion instruments, are considered national treasures. The term “Provincial” refers to how the country is split into regions. It is different in China than in the US. Where the US is divided into country, state, county, and city, China is divided into country, province, city, county, and town. The town part sort of reminds me of boroughs in New York City. images-1Almost every display at the Hubei Provincial Museum has an English translation, which is pretty amazing to me. And helpful. One of the exhibits I like the most is the Tomb of the Marquise Yi of Zeng. From what historians and archeologists have surmised, Yi of Zeng was a feudal king in northern Hubei Province (the same province where Wuhan is located) 2,400 years ago. Sixteen females were buried with Yi of Zeng to keep him company in the afterlife. I heard them variously described as his wives, his concubines, and his maidservants. They were dancers and musicians ranging in age from twenty-six to thirteen. When he died, they were killed – or rather, they chose to take their lives – with poison or by hanging. According to our guide, it was a great honor to be selected to die and be buried with the Marquise. The feminist in me said YEOW, but this tomb represents a very different time and a very different culture than mine. No judgement, just curiosity.

My favorite part of the Marquise Yi of Zeng exhibit is a little wooden suitcase found in his tomb. images-2On this lacquered wooden suitcase is a diagram of Twenty-eight Constellations, at the center of which is dou, the Big Dipper. These constellations are flanked on either side by a tiger and a dragon, and next to the constellation of kang (four stars, like four horses drawing a chariot, which represents the return of spring), there are four Chinese characters recording a date. Scholars have figured out that the date is the evening of the third day of the first lunar month of 433 BC. This is considered an “auspicious” day of the moon phase. I saw this word so many times at the museum that I decided to look it up, just in case it didn’t mean what I thought it did. And guess what–it meant something different. I thought “auspicious” meant something worth noting, like if something is auspicious, you should pay attention. Actually, though, it means lucky, promising well for the future. In addition to dates being described as auspicious, many of the mythological creatures made into statues and adorning objects were also called auspicious… which makes me think of how out-of-control life can feel for travelers or for ancient Chinese, so of course, an auspicious date or creature would be a happy find indeed. (note: the root of “happy” is “hap,” which means luck. Ha!).

Back to what I loved about the suitcase. In China, there are many issues with copyrights and plagiarism. Books and films are often copied illegally. When Chinese students come to the US to study, one of the most difficult concepts for them to grasp is plagiarism, as in, if you copy it or paraphrase it, give the source. I’ve always just tried to be patient with this cultural difference, reminding myself that the idea of individual authorship is actually relatively new in the West. In academia, we’re all about citing sources, but that’s really a quite recent (several centuries old) invention. So, I sort of extrapolated that the norm before the rise of the individual author was collective authorship. However, this description of the diagram on the little suitcase makes me think something else is up–“The positional relations of the Dipper to the constellations in the diagram is unique to the Yellow River Basin, which is proof that the pre-Qin system of twenty-eight constellations was not brought to China from ancient India.” images-3I asked Minru, the Chinese-American scholar who helped found the Ohio State/Wuhan University partnership, about this claim that China originated its own calendar, and he said that yes, there is debate in a scholarly way (and in a nationalistic sort of way, too) about the origin of this Chinese calendar. So, the Chinese, like other cultures, do care about claiming first rights to some kind of invention or technology. And if this is the case, then I think they probably also care about who originally said what. They certainly attribute specific lines of poetry to their favorite poets, and they quote Confucius and other scholars. What’s up, then, with the plagiarism and copyright issues? I haven’t figured it out yet.

At the Yellow Crane Tower on Sunday, our guide had us stop at the Mao Poem Pagoda, which is strangely absent in the description of Yellow Crane Tower on Wikipedia. Anyway, our guide talked on about all of Chairman Mao’s talents, that he was a poet and a philosopher and a statesman, and that children in China grow up learning how to recite several of his poems. It reminded me of how Americans will say Thomas Jefferson was a a man of many talents, a great statesman, an architect, and an innovative agriculturalist. What many of them leave out is that he owned slaves and had children by one of those slaves. Hmm. When I heard the tour guide going on about Mao, I wondered if perhaps she was worried there was some camera filming her, making sure she was extolling the proper virtues of this controversial leader of China. More on that another day.

UnknownOther highlights: from the Yellow Crane Tower–the roof tiles are made of yellow/orange glazed clay – unlike the green tiles of most other buildings – because some distant emperor gave the locals permission to use this royal color; the upper floor is reserved for worthy poets to come and write; from Hubei Provincial Museum–Chinese bands up to pre-Qin times played “metal-and-stone music,” which sounds like a precursor title for rock and roll and heavy metal; the bianqing is a stone percussion instrument whose base is made of creatures with “dragon heads and crane-bodied beasts,” which looked a lot like brontosauruses; the displays for Yunxian Man (skulls dating back 1,000,000 years) are all written in plural first-person, as if the display were being told to the viewers from the point of view of long-dead prehistoric Chinese.

More on the Yunxian Man (and evolution) exhibit later. I fear my toilet-free interlude is nearing an end. Sigh.

1 thought on “Chinese National Treasures”

  1. Wow! What a history lesson! Thanks for sharing so much info. Your head must be swelling with all the info you’re taking in. What a lifelong treasure this trip will be for you! Love you!

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