Category Archives: Historical Wonders

Historical Wonders / ,

The Ten Great Buildings of China, and Their Gruesome Pasts

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 to erect ten great buildings to honor his grand achievements. They would represent the people, the peasants, the army, the minorities — each building had a great semantic purpose. He would name them The Ten Great Buildings!

And for 18 months I’d been talking with the Professor about hosting a 十大建筑 bike tour. 40km of self-guided Beijing history in 4 hours. (I put up a map here.) This was going to be historic.

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Historical Wonders /

Photographing India, Then and Now

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 inside, I keep gagging at the photos that I’m retaking 30 years later.

Some are awfully obvious, like these crackers of the Taj Mahal…

and Humayun’s Tomb…

But these are the de rigeur shots. Of course Dad shot them in 1983, and of course I re-shot them 30 years later. But then I keep finding less traditional shots, like this so-specific angle of one stretch of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu…

Mahabalipuram? I can’t remember being there, let alone that very specific 15-degree angle. Or how about this off-centered angle shot of

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Historical Wonders, Offbeat Museums, The Occult / ,

The Ossuaries of Paris…

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 bones, all to us. Entirely alone. So damned romantic.

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Historical Wonders / ,

Goodbye Telegram / Hello Telegram

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.

telegram1

It turns out India actually still uses telegrams. Barely. The service is closing in days!

When I read this, I sent Woo an urgent SMS. “We’ve got to send a telegram. Pronto.” I looked at the note, and added one word to the end: “Stop.” And I knew, this was going to be awesome.

The local post office didn’t think it was as awesome as we did. “No, we don’t send telegrams,” the guy behind the counter said. “That stopped weeks ago.”

What!?!?

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Historical Wonders / , ,

Murder, Incest, and Fratricide led to The Taj Mahal?

Well, we made it to the Taj Mahal last weekend. Huge. Overwhelming. Magnificent. I wiped away a tear or two.

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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 the time. It’s a great book. And according to it, Shah Jahan wasn’t just a mad romantic. He was also the head of one seriously fucked-up family — a generation plagued by incest, murder, harems, fratricide, sororicide and even patricide. It’s less Shakespeare than it is Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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Historical Wonders / , , ,

Bizarre Old North Korean Stamps Celebrating Regal Excess

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…

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Historical Wonders, Strange Tourism / , , ,

Rediscovering Beijing: Finding the Elephants

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 receive a kind of adoration.

A central-Beijing stable with kneeling elephants? How much cooler can you get?! I had to find this place.

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Historical Wonders, Strange Tourism / ,

Rediscovering Beijing with an 1897 Guide

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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Historical Wonders /

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 eat it,” I asked.

“No! Very bad. In the jungle, they eat. But not here.”

Looked tasty to me!

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Historical Wonders /

Classic Chinese Torture Methods (and their cute names)

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 Law and the Lore of China’s Criminal Justice (Paperback)


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  • “The Phoenix Suns Her Wings” – Hang the prisoner by his arms and legs from a beam, and spin him.
  • “The Fairy Maid Presents Fruits” – Make the victim kneel, with a heavy rack around his neck. Weight it down further with large tiles.
  • “The Jade Maiden Mounts The Stairs” – Force the victim to stand on a high board with a rack around his neck. Pull the rack back until he keeps his balance only through great strain on his legs.
  • Chinese Torture Chamber Story (DVD)


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  • “The Brain Hoop” – Loop a rope around his head, and tighten by placing a stick inside the loop and twisting it.

Should none of these do the trick, resort to The Five Penalties – Cut the victim’s nose off, then his or her limbs, after which beat him or her to death. Then decapitate them, chop them into mincemeat, and display the remains in the public marketplace.

A Chinese Torture Garden (Mass Market Paperback)


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As reported in Sidney Shapiro‘s “The Law and Lore of China’s Criminal Justice”

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Historical Wonders /

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 was the one up-side of the cultural revolution. “Everyone was together then,” said a 96-year-old Maoist I met the other day. And these two kids really are.

The little Red Guard — maybe he’s a farmboy, or maybe he was sent down to work in the fields and learn from the people — cradles a rural Red Pioneer. They study characters together. “One… two… three…” “Tractor… atomizer… rice basket.”

The title, 农村儿童看图识字, means “Picture Cards for Rural Children.” One of Mao’s great plans was to educate the entire country and eradicate illiteracy. I don’t know if he really managed that — but this book was part of the effort.

There’s no publisher, date or price on the booklet, but it’s marked up with a child’s doodles, and held together with dusty string.

I laughed when I noticed the marijuana plant, or 麻, in the top left above.

“But doesn’t it make them go insane?” a Chinese coworker asked me, eyes wide, when the topic of smoking pot came up at work. “I hear it’s very dangerous,” another said. Except for a small crowd of dreadlocked Chinese hippies I hang out with sometimes, I know few locals who would admit to smoking up.

As a crop, though, you’ll find its shadow everywhere. In Guangzhou, we walked down an alleyway named “Sell Marijuana Street” (卖麻街). In Shenyang, at a national linguistic conference, my hotel grew tall and stinky plants just outside my window. And a junior farmer should definitely know how to read and write about what they grow.

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Historical Wonders /

Pages from an Amazing English Textbook

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 revolutionary operas and ballets. The movies were all incredible revolutionary melodramas.

And the English books? Well, they were few. But they, too, were one hundred percent revolutionary.

My good friend Ginger recently gave me this incredible English language textbook printed in June 1971, the height of the cultural revolution. It sold for 2 cents, and has 81 pages of Maoist lessons on learning English.

But why would closed-off in-focused China want to study English in 1971? I’d thought it would even be illegal. But no. “With English as a tool,” Lesson Six’s dialogue reads defensively, “we propagate Mao Tsetung Thought among the people of the world. With English as a weapon, we fight against the imperialists, revisionists and all reactionaries.”

It’s absolutely fantastic. Simple grammar is explained with military furor. “I ___ a Red Guard. She ___ a Little Red Soldier. We ___ Chairman Mao’s Red Guards.” (The appropriate forms of the verb “to be” are hand-written in.)

Class discussions are focused along themes such as “Who are our enemies?” and “How many militiamen are there in your company?”

Vocab samples include “re-educate,” “oppress,” “put [as in ‘put proletarian ideology in first place’],” and “running dog [as in ‘Defeat the U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs’].”

My favorite part of the book is the notes made by the original owner. Some of them are simple — the pronunciation of “construction” (“kan’straksan”), underlined words, lots of marks my linguist friends would probably recognize.

But then, in the middle of Lesson Eight (“The Happiest Day in My Life”), he strikes out several lines. It appears as below:

“At 10 a.m., the happiest moment came! Chairman Mao and his close comrade-in-arms Vice-Chairman Lin Piao walked up the Tien An Men rostrum. In excellent health and high spirits, Chairman Mao warmly waved to the revolutionary masses. Millions of red hearts turned to the red sun. We cheered again and again.”

Lin Biao’s Chinese name, 林彪, is scribbled out. It’s almost unreadable.

In September 1971, a few months after this book was printed, Lin Piao/Biao died in a mysterious plane crash. He was Mao’s planned successor, but Mao was a jealous and paranoid man at this time. Lin Biao may have been fleeing for fear of his life, or perhaps — as is recorded in China — fleeing from a failed coup against Mao. Perhaps he was murdered. Perhaps he died in error. It’s all very unclear. But overnight he went from national hero to national traitor. His name was struck from books like these, his deeds struck from history. I’m sure every version of this book has the same line struck out.

See below for more pictures from this curious and crazy textbook. And don’t miss a similar book I recently picked up in North Korea.

/ by Dean Pickles / 4 Comments
Historical Wonders / ,

A Noble Slave and an Imperial Cannibal

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?

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Historical Wonders, Offbeat Museums / , ,

America started the war, and lost it, too.

“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 pale Americans. “That’s awesome.”

They probably didn’t realize I understood what they were saying. I didn’t stick around to find out.

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Historical Wonders, Sweet Movies and Wild Books / , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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.

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Historical Wonders, Modern Ruins / , , , , ,

One Ghostly Cambodian Ruin

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 casino, a ballroom, a hotel, and when all the sinning was done, a Catholic church.

But this was a century ago.

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Historical Wonders, Sweet Movies and Wild Books / ,

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

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, bloodshed, and misery. Sanmao is one seriously weird comic book. (Many more pages, plus clip from the movie, below)

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Extraordinary Eats, Historical Wonders, Strange Tourism / , , , , , , , ,

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.

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Extraordinary Eats, Historical Wonders / , ,

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

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!”

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Historical Wonders, Holy Curiosities / , ,

This Chinese Temple is Filled with Insanely Disturbing Sculptures

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.”

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