Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Myanmar (Burma): Introduction

Myanmar posts are coming*.  B. and I just returned from ten days of travel in Myanmar; I'm currently sifting through several thousand photos, picking my favorites.  Myanmar is a fascinating country and I haven't yet figured out what story to tell.  Do I tell about the "Golden Land", rich with rubies, sapphires, jade, gold, petroleum, and teak?  Do I tell about the distant past, about the mighty empires that rose and fell over thousands of years, the battles waged, the gods worshipped?  Or about the recent past, about British colonialism -- the fall of the Burmese monarchy, the fracturing of Burmese ethnic groups, the utter destruction wrought by the Japanese invasion during WWII, the fight for independence?  Do I tell about the isolationist military regime which strangled Myanmar's growth and development for decades and is now loosening its grip?  Or about a people (many peoples) whose spirit endures, endures and flourishes, and who dare to dream of much, much more?

Myanmar is all of these.  All of these and more.  I encourage you to visit and hear their stories yourself.

In the meantime, here's my Myanmar reading list:

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma (Thant Myint-U)

Saving Fish from Drowning (Amy Tan)

The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh)

Letters from Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi)

* But may take some time.  It's back to work tomorrow and, while my US-based clients have been off, my China-based chemists have not.  Two weeks of backed up emails are screaming for my attention.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Foods of China: Part III

Americans tend to think of the following as Chinese food: General Tso's chicken, moo shu pork, beef and broccoli, hot and sour soup, and, of course, fortune cookies.  While you can find all of these foods in Shanghai, they're available only at Fortune Cookie -- an American-style Chinese restaurant favored by expats and avoided by locals.  In reality, Chinese people would find little familiar on that list.

China offers a smorgasbord of different cuisines; each region has its own specialty food.  As part of my very sporadic series on food in China (Part IPart II), I bring you a post from Xi'an's Muslim quarter, a boisterous and delicious street food scene.

This area around the Drum Tower and Beiyuanmen in Xi'an has been home to the city's Muslim community for centuries.  Most belong to the Hui ethnic group, descended from Arabic and Persian merchants who made their way to China along the Silk Road as early as the 7th century.  Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty officially allowed the practice of Islam in 651 AD.  For an interesting commentary on the treatment of Muslim minorities in modern China, see here.

Pork is often the meat of choice in China.  In the Muslim areas, though, lamb and beef predominate.
Below: lamb kebabs (yang rou chaunr, 羊肉串)


Dried fruits and nuts

Making huasheng gao (花生糕) -- peanut crisp

Spicy peanuts

Liang pi (凉皮) -- cold noodles


hongzao (红枣) -- dried jujubes 

pickled garlic.  delicious!

Yangrou paomo (羊肉泡馍), crumbled flatbread in lamb stew

Watermelon, jackfruit, cherries, and Buddha-shaped pears

Friday, December 11, 2015

China: Terracotta Warriors

I love trips which combine travel and science.*  To visit the terracotta warrior exhibit (兵马俑, bīng mǎ yǒng) in Xi'an is to see discovery in action -- both historically and scientifically, ancient and modern.

How did the terracotta warriors come to be?  Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of China in 221BC by conquering six rival kingdoms to unify China under a single bureaucracy. He then standardized the coins, weights, and measures, the writing system, and the legal code.  He interlinked the states with canals and roads, and is credited for building the first version of the Great Wall.  He planned to rule forever, sending out search parties for an elixir of immortality.  In case that failed (it did.  The "elixirs" likely hastened his early death), he planned to rule in death as he had in life, taking all that he might need -- a great necropolis with an army, officers, even acrobats, musicians, and exotic animals -- with him.

Qin Shi Huang began constructing his necropolis when he became emperor.  Over 700,000 workers toiled for 11 years to construct the subterranean life-size terracotta army, which was buried with the emperor after his death in 210-209 BC.

And then?  The Qin dynasty was not destined to last long.  Qin Er Shi, the emperor after Qin Shi Huang, ruled as a puppet for a few short years, a time plagued by internal discord between advisors.  He fell in 206 BC to the Han dynasty, which ruled for the next four centuries.  The terracotta army, which has silently stood guard over Qin Shi Huang for more than two millenia, were first plundered and desecrated -- some of the figures and ceiling rafters show signs of fire damage; missing weapons were taken to supply real-life armies -- and then forgotten by time.**

In modern times, the existence of the terracotta warriors was unknown; ancient accounts of Qin Shi Huang's tomb make no mention of them.  Then, in 1974, fragments were uncovered by farmers digging a well in Lintong district, Xi'an.  The terracotta army excavation is considered to be one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century.  The warrior museum, built shortly after the discovery, now displays the three main excavated pits.

Pit 1 is believed to contain 6,000 warriors; 2,000 are currently on display.  At 252 yards long, 68 yards wide, and 16 feet deep, this is the largest pit.  One side displays warriors which are largely reconstructed, standing shoulder to shoulder in formation; the other side holds the warrior "hospital", where archeologists work to uncover, preserve, and put together the shattered warriors piece by piece (think Humpty-Dumpty).  Spots for thirty-eight horse-driven chariots are scattered through the formation; the terracotta horses remain, marking gaps where wooden chariots once stood. 

Pit 2 contains warriors in combat formations that are more complex than Pit 1, including kneeling and standing archers and a chariot war array.

Pit 3 is the command post.  Only 68 terracotta figures are present in this grouping, all officials.  Interestingly, no commander is present among the officials.  It is speculated that Qin Shi Huang would serve as commander, and that no terracotta representation of him could be prepared.

Pit 4, not part of the tour, is reportedly empty -- perhaps unfinished, suggesting that the scale of the necropolis was limited by time and Qin Shi Huang's death rather than his vision.

Accessory pits have also been uncovered in the surrounding area, including three builders' graveyards holding real -- not terracotta -- skeletons.  Some of the skeletons show clear stab wounds and signs of hasty burial, indicating that the builders were killed after working on the mausoleum.

There is science at play here -- perhaps more than visitors realize at first glance.  The warriors offer some of the greatest insights we have into this period in ancient China and, with science, we can learn about both the processes and the people who created them.  The soldiers tell about ancient army formations, in accordance with the ancient directives on the Art of War.   The soldiers were originally armed with real weapons -- bronze swords, longbows, arrows, spears, and dagger-axes.  Some swords were kept sharp and unrusted for 2000 years by a thin layer of chromium dioxide coating.  Modern industrial methods for chrome plating weren't developed until the 1920s!

An account of the production of the tomb was written by historian Sima Qian one century after the mausoleum's completion.  According to his account, 100 flowing rivers in the mausoleum were simulated with mercury; high levels of mercury in the soil give credence to this account.  For unknown reasons, the original account makes no mention of the terracotta army.

Production of the terracotta warriors included aspects of mass-production -- heads, arms, legs, and torsos were constructed separately and then assembled.  The base structure for each warrior was modified to produce figures that were all unique; final figures were signed by the master craftsmen.   Researchers now are using the latest analytical chemistry, scanning electron microscopes, and X-ray techniques to learn more about the production techniques used in the creation of the terracotta army. Each warrior bears different facial features and expressions, giving an indication of appearance at that time.  Bones recovered from the builders' graveyards have undergone genetic analysis (PLoS One23andme), showing that workers were conscripted from all parts of China.

Some faces of the terracotta warriors

Much of the terracotta army remains buried, including Qin Shi Huang's tomb; current archeological efforts are purposefully proceeding slowly.  They are waiting for a time when technology and preservation methods have improved.  Some progress has been made in this regard.  The warriors were originally colorfully and realistically painted.  Figures bearing this paint have been uncovered, but the color rapidly fades and flakes when exposed to Xi'an's hot, dry atmosphere.  As reported in a top chemistry journal, scientists have discovered ways to preserve the paint using, essentially, superglue to affix the lacquer permanently to the terracotta (Angewante articleNew Scientist).  Other studies have revealed the chemical composition of the paints.

Remnants of red and yellow paint

As you exit through the gift shop, you are given the opportunity to buy your own life size terracotta warrior replicas.  Qin Shi Huang's army of 8,000 has been multiplied many-fold by modern production.  And who knows... maybe that terracotta warrior you buy to stand guard in your home will stand by you in the afterlife!

* When we visited Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos, for example, I had to find out why the water was such a striking blue color.  Science is everywhere, of course!  But we don't always highlight it.

** For another example of forgotten and rediscovered ancient treasures, see Angkor Wat.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

China: Xi'an

Xi'an (西安), in Shaanxi (陕西) province, is a city with deep connections to the beginning of China as a unified country.  It's also a city with deep connections to the beginning of our China story.

China's story began with this man: Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, "first emperor of the Qin dynasty").  As king of the state of Qin, he conquered all of the other Warring States and unified China in 221BC.  The European name for "China" is thought to be derived from Qin (pronounced "chin").  Rather than maintain the title of "king", Qin Shi Huang styled himself "emperor" -- a title that would be used by the rulers of China for the next two millennia. His capital was located in Xianyang (咸阳), a few kilometers from Xi'an, and is now integrated into the Xi'an metropolitan area.

Qin Shi Huang is perhaps best known outside of China for his terracotta warriors and necropolis -- see the next post for photos.

Part of our China story begins with this woman: Weilei Huang.  She, more than anyone else, bridges our Cambridge and Shanghai chapters.  Weilei was introduced to B. by his Chinese tutor in Cambridge.  She quickly became a part of our lives, with delicious home-cooked Chinese food, Chinese movies, and Chinese family.  My very first Chinese sentence, 我吃饱了 -- I'm full!, was acquired and used repeatedly at her table in Cambridge.  While Weilei now lives near her children in England, her family in Shanghai has become our Chinese family and our closest Chinese friends.

When Weilei invited us to her home in Xi'an during one of her trips to China, we jumped at the chance to see her and visit Xi'an for the first time.  Xi'an is the oldest of the four great ancient capitals of China, the former eastern terminus of the Silk Road.  With a population of about 5.5 million people, it is the largest city in northwest China.  We stayed with Weilei in her apartment, in a complex for retired army officers (her husband, who passed away many years ago).  She and her younger sister remarked on the great changes they've seen in China during their lifetimes -- and how, not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for them to have foreigners in their home.  They also remarked on my Chinese; last time I saw Weilei, I had just started my first Chinese class!

While spending time with Weilei was our top priority on this trip, she arranged a busy program for us covering many of the tourist highlights of Xi'an.  Our first, very rainy day found us at the Shaanxi History Museum, which contains artifacts from the neolithic era through the Qing dynasty.

Painted funerary guards of Prince Qinjian of the Ming Dynasty

Statues from the Zhongshan grottoes

When the weather cleared, we went to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda  (大雁塔), originally built in 652 AD during the Tang dynasty to store translations of Buddhist sutras from India.  A nearby square boasts the largest fountain in Asia, with a water show that rises and falls in time to music. 

Later, Weilei arranged for a "young friend", a Chinese student and Xi'an native studying in England, to show us around the city.  After meandering along the Xi'an city wall, a 14km-long barrier originally built in the 14th century, we wandered through the neighborhoods and explored one of the most important parts of China -- the food!  Scenes from the Muslim quarter, with its lively food street, deserve their own post and will follow shortly.

We caught dance rehearsal next to the city wall

Just inside the wall were older-style buildings with convoluted streets.  
Outside the wall were high-rises and crazy designs.