10 Random But Amazing Facts About China (Part 2)

Due to a combination of moving house, exhaustion and severe internet censorship that blocked WordPress, it has taken me way too long to update since I posted part one. I could go on complaining about how frustrating it is to live under the yoke of extreme censorship, but instead I’ll go in the other direction and post more positive and fascinating facts about the Middle Kingdom.

5. The Plethora of Inventions that Originated in China

An early representation of gunpowder weapons can be seen on the upper right corner. The man with snakes (I think?) coming out of his head is aiming a firelance; the man below him appears to be holding a grenade.

As one can likely imagine, a civilization that has been around for more than 5,000 years has probably introduced a lot of shit to the world.

I was schooled on China’s “four great inventions” – printing, paper, gunpowder and the compass – within my first few weeks in the country. It just seems to be something that has often come up during small talk with my various students. Many of them assume Americans don’t know much about China (can’t argue with that) so they’re happy to enlighten me. I’m usually happy to listen.

But while the four great inventions may be the most celebrated, they hardly make a dent on the enormous list of items that were developed in the Middle Kingdom. (A note on printing: Chinese printing, which dates as far back as 200 AD, relied on woodblocks or movable type that were hand-pressed onto paper by workers. This is different than the mechanical printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. )

Paper money was introduced as a form of currency in during the Tang and Song dynasties in the 7th century. Europe, in contrast, did not begin to use paper currency until after the 13th century – and only after it had been seen by explorers like Marco Polo during their adventures in Asia. Gun fanatics can also thank the Chinese for their preferred  instrument of self-defense, since the first gunpowder weapon was reportedly produced in China sometime during the 10th century.

The list of inventions can go on and on and on: kites, parachutes, crossbows, the decimal system, suspension bridges. Even an early version of ice cream.

In my personal opinion, the seismoscope (earthquake detector) may be the most impressive contribution on the list. Just hearing its nickname – the “Dragon Jar”–  is an indication of how epic it is.

earthquake detetcor
A replica of the device invented by Zhang Heng.

Dating to 132 AD, the nearly 2,000-year-old device was remarkably accurate even by modern standards. The detector is based around a giant bronze vessel with eight dragons snaked down the outside of  it, each with a bronze ball in its mouth. Each snake represents a primary compass direction. When the seismoscope picked up the direction of an earthquake tremor – which were not detectable to humans in the same location –  the bronze ball would fall from the mouth of the corresponding dragon and into the mouth of the toad at the base. As a result, observers could estimate the location of an earthquake.

4. The Peking Man Confirmed Existence of Homo Erectus Humans

peking man
Most of the Peking Man fossils disappeared in 1941. The Chinese Academy of Scientists is in possession of a tooth found at the scene.

The fossilized remains of the Peking man, as noted in the title, confirmed the existence of the Homo Erectus stage of human evolution.

This is a notable fact because the discovery convinced scientists of the idea that the Homo Erectus species – the first of which had previously been discovered in Java and dubbed Pithecanthropus erectus (“upright ape-man”) – were predecessors to modern humans, and not simply the remains of “deformed apes.”

Discovered by a Swiss scientific team, the prehistoric fossils were found in a cave near Beijing (then known as “Peking”) in 1921. After a series of excavations throughout the 1920s, archeologists managed to recover several teeth, skull fragments and a lower jaw that were thought to be as much as 750,000 years old. Follow up excavations by Chinese scientists also unearthed additional skull caps as well as stone tools and evidence that the prehistoric people who lived there used fire -– all in all, the largest hoard of Homo Erectus fossils that have ever been found.

Interestingly, the discovery of the Peking Man fossils led some researchers to suggest human development originated in Eurasia, and not in Africa as commonly accepted by the scientific community.

But the most fascinating part of the Peking Man story may be its ending. The fossils disappeared in 1941 while they were being prepared for transport to the United States, following the Japanese invasion of China. There are several theories about the fate of the famous fossils. Some hypothesize they vanished into the ocean during shipping on a sunken American ship; one theory suggests they may have been ground up and then used as medicine (for reasons I don’t understand and couldn’t find a satisfying explanation for). According to National Geographic, there is a possibility the lost fossils were buried in a Chinese port city under what is now an asphalt-paved parking lot

3. China (Might) Have the Longest Continuous Written Language on the Planet

This ancient bone fragment contains examples of early Chinese writing.

China is often cited as having the world’s longest continuous civilization still in existence, an honorific that is actually hotly contested by some academics and writers .

Of course, it’s difficult to speak in terms of absolutes when discussing millennia-old history. What we do know is the Chinese written language (then old Chinese) is at least 3,500 years old. Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian were likely written down before old Chinese; however, unlike its predecessors, the Chinese written language survived.

The earliest samples of written Chinese date to around 1500 B.C. during the Shang dynasty. The writing samples were a record of divination practices and were etched onto animal bones and shells, leading them to be called “oracle bones.”

Chinese written characters were standardized during the Qin dynasty, the first to unify the country’s collection of small city-states under the control of a single imperial dynasty (221-206 BC).

China is considered to be one of the world’s “cradles of civilization.” Its oldest settlements were located in the Yellow River valley and reportedly date to at least the Bronze Age.

2. Shanghai Gave Refuge to Thousands of Jewish Refugees Fleeing Nazi Europe 

A Jewish girl with her Chinese friends in the Shanghai Ghetto  (photo: Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum)

When European Jews were rushing to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, there were few places where they could find refuge. At the time,  the United States was turning away refugees unless their visa was guaranteed by a U.S. citizen. Thirty-two countries simply wouldn’t provide haven to any but the most selective group of prominent Jews.

Only the ports of the Dominican Republic and Shanghai remained open to Jews hoping to escape from Nazi persecution. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was an open port city – meaning, anyone could enter without a visa. Unlike the rest of the country, Shanghai was not solely governed by the Republic of China. Instead, the city was split between a number of Chinese and foreign business interests into “concessions”: self-governing sections of the city controlled by China, Imperial Japan, the United States, Britain and France.

Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat serving in Vienna during the 1930s, purportedly took advantage of Shanghai’s open port to issue a number of “fake visas” to the Jewish citizens of Vienna.  The fake visas, although unnecessary for entrance into Shanghai, allowed Jews to book passage on ships leaving Europe for the Pacific.

jewish chronicles
A 1940 edition of the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle

Ho’s scheme was discovered in 1939 and he was removed from his post. But he managed to distribute about 500 of these “visas” per month before the German and Chinese authorities became aware of his actions.

Shanghai had taken in more Jewish refugees than any other city in the world by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, according to a report from The Atlantic. But while the city’s Jewish population may have swelled to as many as 200,000 people, most didn’t stay for long. By 1943 Japanese forces had taken control of Shanghai and forced the city’s foreign population – including most of its Jewish residents – into housing for stateless refugees that is now known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.” While its residents were liberated in 1945, a majority of Shanghai’s Jews chose to either return to Europe or immigrate to the United States – which had loosened its visa restrictions – during the late 1940s.

“From 1949 to 1956, the Jewish community in Shanghai effectively ceased to exist,” Rabbi Shalom Greenberg told The Atlantic in 2013. At that time the city had about 2,000 Jewish residents.

But some remnants of Shanghai’s Jewish population have managed to survive decades later. The Jewish Refugees Museum, which operates inside of a former synagogue, still stands in a neighborhood that contains multiple buildings that were used by Jewish organizations in the 1930s and 1940s.

1. The Earliest Recorded Use of Marijuana Comes From Chinese Medical Texts

The Chinese character for cannabis (“Da Ma”). “Ma” can alternatively describe hemp, cannabis or numbness, while “Da” translates to big or great. So marijuana is… “Big Numbness.”

Cannabis is among the oldest cultivated crops and has been used for one reason or another by humans for estimated 12,000 years. And despite where you may stand on the modern-day debate regarding medical cannabis, its medicinal properties have been noted by healers for at least two millennia.

Archeological evidence indicates the cannabis plant originated in central Asia. Chinese societies began cultivating hemp for its useful fibers and was the primary source of clothing for thousands of years. Chinese legend suggests  the medicinal benefits of psychoactive cannabis (Cannabis sativa and indica – Cannabis sativa L., which does not get people “high”, is the source for hemp fiber, oil, etc.) was discovered by the mythical Emperor Shun Nung around 2800 B.C.  According to legend, Shun Nung discovered the property of several plants used in traditional Chinese medicine by testing the products on himself.

The first written record about medicinal cannabis can be found in The Chinese Book of Herbal Medicine (200-250 AD) which was purportedly a compilation of oral traditions based on Shun Nung’s discoveries. Cannabis is recommended as treatment for approximately 100 ailments, including gout, rheumatism and (in what seems counter-intuitive by today’s standards) “absentmindedness.”

The early Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo is credited with being the first person to use cannabis as a surgical anesthetic, drying and powdering the plant and then mixing it with wine for easy consumption. As many sources report, the Chinese characters for anesthetic used today literally translate to “cannabis intoxication.” Tuo would reportedly use a combination of cannabis and acupuncture to dull pain during both external and internal procedures.

But while cannabis may be one of the 50 fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine, in modern China possession of the plant can be met with a hefty prison sentence and in some cases of trafficking, even death. The potential consequences for marijuana possession are, however, far lighter for Western expats in China, who often are not charged at all.

3 thoughts on “10 Random But Amazing Facts About China (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: An Ancient Jewish Community in China is the Target of a Government “Crackdown” – Stranger In a Red Land

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