Category Archives: Historical Wonders

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The Ten Great Buildings of China, and Their Gruesome Pasts

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In 1959, Mao was one hell of a proud man. As the new Emperor of China, he'd led an unbelievable boom in food production, completely eliminated the need for medicine and science, and "enticed the snakes out of their caves" with a hundred flowers -- all in just ten years! So he decided ...

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Photographing India, Then and Now

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In London, I found the old box of slides. It was hidden in the back of my parents' closet. I had to move fifteen other boxes to get to it. It hadn't been touched in decades. I bought a slide scanner immediately, and went to work. Going through the treasures ...

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The Ossuaries of Paris…

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This was like the trip to Disneyworld I've never taken. My golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. Our trip to North Korea. I know you've already been. Many times. But walking these two kilometers, I realized why this was one of my mom's favorite places in Paris. Two kilometers of stacked-up ...

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Goodbye Telegram / Hello Telegram

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If you'd asked me, I'd have confidently told you the telegram service was long gone, relegated to dusty 1930s spy thrillers, retro New York hipster bars, and awesome games I'm building. I would have been so completely wrong. It turns out India actually still uses telegrams. Barely. The service is closing in days! When I read this, I ...

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The Taj Mahal… Murder, Incest, and Fratricide

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Well, we made it to the Taj Mahal last weekend. Huge. Overwhelming. Magnificent. I wiped away a tear or two. Shah Jahan built it in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. That's like the awesomest romantic gesture, ever. But I was also reading William Dalrymple's City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi at ...

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Bizarre Old North Korean Stamps Celebrating Regal Excess

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On my way out of Deshengmen Tower -- where you'll find a strange collection of ramshackle museums crammed in together -- I noticed the most remarkable thing for sale: old North Korean stamps, celebrating European regal excess! There was the Versailles stamp, which reeks of excessive opulence... Franz Joseph I hot on the chase... And of ...

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Rediscovering Beijing: Finding the Elephants

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On using an 1897 guidebook to explore modern Beijing... My adventures begin with the elephants. A few hundred yards westward of (the Shun-chih-men) is the place for the Imperial elephants, the Hsün-hsiang-so, a large enclosure in which the elephants of the Court are kept... The intelligent animals are taught to salute the Emperor by kneeling down, and ...

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Rediscovering Beijing with an 1897 Guide

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Did you know that Beijing has a dozen or so elephants that kneel as the emperor passes by? Seriously. At least that's what my book says. It's a Beijing travel guide from 1897, author unknown, that Charlie Custer found on archive.org. The copy originally belonged to Herbert Hoover, China expat and one-time US President. ...

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Monitor Lizards on the Road

The bus ahead screeches to a halt, and we swerve into a ditch. "Iguana," says our tuktuk driver with a grunt. I've never seen an iguana like this. This was more like a dinosaur or a dragon. It could probably eat a small child. (Komodo Dragons maybe used to eat pigmy elephants.) "Can you ...

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Classic Chinese Torture Methods (and their cute names)

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From the strange reign of Empress Wu Zetian (690-705): "Inviting the Gentleman into the Jug" - Place the victim in a large vat, and heat it to roasting temperature with fires around its base. "The Phoenix Suns Her Wings" - Hang the prisoner by his arms and legs from a beam, and spin him. "The Fairy Maid Presents ...

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Cute Little Cultural Revolution “Learn Chinese” Booklet

The cultural revolution-era "Learning English" book blew my mind, but when I stumbled on this little "Learn Chinese" booklet the other day, I was touched. It represented such a different side of the Cultural Revolution. Instead of war/hate/fear of the "Learn English" book, this one radiates with the hope, promise, and togetherness that ...

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Pages from an Amazing English Textbook

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Back in the cultural revolution, China was in turmoil. Almost anything could get you in trouble. Han Xin, a blacklisted artist, told me that painting the sun the wrong shade of red would mean jail time. Absolutely everything had to be in unquestionable service to Mao and a Maoist China. The only plays were ...

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A Noble Slave and an Imperial Cannibal

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Two and a half thousand years ago, Prince Zhong'er was hungry. He was in exile. His state was in turmoil. He'd lost his castle, his kitchen and surely his chef as well. So what else was there to do but start eating his followers? That's what I discovered on Mianshan Mountain in Shanxi Province, in the ...

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America started the war, and lost it, too.

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"Look at that soldier," said a burly Dongbei redneck, shoving past me to get a better look at the painting. "He's on fire. He's a real man." His sweaty pal leaned in, and laughed. The torched soldier was still letting loose a volley of bullets from his machine gun, mowing down a row of terrified ...

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Inspector Black Cat: China’s Gore-Soaked Answer to Tom & Jerry

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Cute baby bunnies, frolicking in a field. Identical twin monkeys, playing hide and seek. A sweet baby panda, serving soup to his sickly mother. This is how the 1986 mainland cartoon for kids, Inspector Black Cat (黑猫警长), always starts. But then... well, let's just say it's Tarantino time. Plenty of cartoons are violent, but in Inspector ...

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One Ghostly Cambodian Ruin

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It used to be a retreat. 90 years ago, the French spent 9 months building Bokor Hill Station up as the ultimate getaway: escape from the miserable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh. 900 laborers died while building it, but to the French all these ghosts were worth it. There was a ...

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China’s all-time favorite (and all-time darkest?) comic book: Sanmao

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Not many foreigners know about Sanmao. Here in China, though, he’s bigger than Disney. He's as prone to mischief as Bart Simpson. As endlessly honest as Richie Rich. And as dark as Charlie Brown. Darker. Even though Sanmao comics are as much for kids as they are adults, they're filled with death, ...

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Video of the Cultural Revolution Restaurant

I gave all the juicy details of this restaurant where you can make merry, while celebrating the best of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, earlier this week. But here, for your pleasure, is some video of the mad show and the flag-waving audience. For China: For elsewhere:

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Relive the Cultural Revolution (aka The Weirdest Dinner Theater in Beijing)

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Update: read the story below, but don't miss the video of the performance! "Two foreigners in the RED restaurant?" Reverb howled, "I think this will be more fun than the restaurant itself!" Red Restaurant, in the east of Beijing, is an opportunity to relive the passion and pain of China from the late 50s through the late ...

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18 Terrible Moments from a Taoist Hell

Oh, the horror...

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Incredible Taoist Gods -- cool court officers tasked with enforcing rules of life and the afterlife. Well, to further display how far traditional Taoism strays from the mystical romance of the Tao Te Ching, here are some of the darker views of the Taoist "Way." I found ...

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