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Charles Custer

Charles Custer China News Blog

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Ancient Pots

Thursday May 29, 2014

I'm always impressed by the things archaeologists dig up, because I'm pretty sure I couldn't even make a pointy stick if you dropped me in the middle of ancient times. But the Yangshao culture, one of China's earliest, made something I couldn't even make now: amazing pottery.

The Yangshao are especially well know for their earth-toned pots and basins, which were decorated with colorful patterns and unique symbols. The symbols are especially interesting because no one quite knows what they mean or why they were significant, although they repeat over and over. The very beginnings of Chinese? They could be.

China's Ivy League

Thursday May 29, 2014

When you talk about the elite colleges in China, Tsinghua's name is going to come up almost inevitably. But while most people know the school is among China's best, fewer know of the troubles it has endured throughout its century of history.

In fact, even the most fundamental facts about Tsinghua--that it's in Beijing and it's called Tsinghua--haven't always been true. During the Japanese invasion, the school was forced to move and changed names several times. Today, it's back home in Beijing where it belongs, but there were other bumps along the way. It's a school with an interesting history, for those who care to look into it.

Confucius Says: Read the Book

Monday May 26, 2014

Long before all those stupid "Confucius says" jokes, someone actually did write a book full of things Confucius said. It's called The Analects and it forms the basis for our modern understanding of Confucius and his philosophy.

Still, it's hard not to wonder what we might be missing. The book wasn't compiled until around a century after Confucius's death, and other texts seem to indicate there used to be a lot more to it than what we have now. Was there some radical shift in the parts that got cut out? Probably not. But it's still interesting to wonder how different China, and indeed all of Asia, might be if Confucius's followers chose to write down other things he said instead of the few sayings preserved for us in the Analects.

Let's Go to College

Monday May 26, 2014

I had a great time at college, and I learned a lot (including how to speak Chinese). But although I love my alma mater, there's another college that's also dear to my heart, and that's the Chinese Imperial College in Beijing.

It's one of my favorite tourist spots in Beijing because it's got very nice architecture and landscaping but it's generally not crowded at all. In fact, if you visit during a workday and avoid vacations, you can sometimes get the place more or less to yourself. What must it have been like to sit in one of its halls and listen to the Emperor himself deliver a lecture? I have no idea, but visiting the Imperial College is probably as close as I'll ever get.

His Toe is Taller Than You

Monday May 26, 2014

When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas at the turn of the century, it was bad news for everyone except for one guy. One really, really tall guy. The Leshan Giant Buddha, an ancient stone sitting Buddha carved into the rock of riverside Leshan, became the largest stone Buddha in the world the minute those explosives detonated.

And while the loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas is a tragedy, the Leshan Buddha is no slouch. He's well over 200 feet tall (and that's sitting down, mind you!) and nearly 100 feet wide. He's also pretty darn old at this point; work was completed on the statue in 803 which makes him well over 1,200 years old.

Spice Up Your Life

Monday May 26, 2014

When people who've been to all the usual, you-must-see-this places in China ask me where to go, I always say one thing: Sichuan.

And indeed, why say anything else? The province has everything: natural beauty, ancient culture, modern urban tech centers, and pandas. Plus, fans of spicy cuisine simply cannot miss the local eats. Sure, you've had Sichuan food at a restaurant in Beijing, but believe me when I tell you it's definitely hotter in its home province.

Ancient China's Brooks Brothers for the Dead

Monday May 26, 2014
So, imagine you're an ancient, dead Chinese guy and you need a suit. What should you wear? A normal cloak? How gauche. A Western-style getup? That's not going to keep your spirit from seeping through the holes in your corpse. What you need, my friend, is a jade burial suit. Jade burial suits were once the rage in China, and no self-respecting ruler would be caught dead (literally) without one. They were eventually outlawed, but the workmanship in those that have survived is incredible, and the reasons they were worn in the first place are even more interesting.

What's Your Favorite Dynasty?

Monday May 26, 2014

Silly question time: what's your favorite Chinese dynasty? Was it the conquering Qin? The heroic Han? Perhaps the marauding Mongols (Yuan)? Or the so-called pinnacle of Chinese civilization, the Tang Dynasty?

Personally, while "favorite" definitely isn't the right word, I find the Qing most interesting. Outsiders who shunned the Chinese but eventually became Chinese, and then crumbled in the face of modernity; it's definitely an interesting story.

Whence Dragons?

Tuesday April 29, 2014

If there's one thing that the rise of Game of Thrones has reminded us of, it's that dragons are awesome. Of course, that's something they've known in China for thousands of years. Virtually as far back in the archaeological record as we can go, there are dragons appearing in Chinese art and pottery. Why?

No one knows the answer for sure, although there are a number of theories. Personally, the one I find most convincing is that dragons are the explanation ancient Chinese peoples came up with for the massive dinosaur bones they occasionally found, but the crocodile theory is also deeply interesting. How about you; which theory do you buy into?

The Queen of Fashion

Tuesday April 29, 2014

I'm not generally one for fashion, but I'll admit that I enjoy the sight of a pretty woman in a nice-looking dress as much as anyone else, especially if the dress is unique. And if you're looking for unique, Chinese-culture-inspired dresses, one of your best options would be to check out the closest red carpet and hope for a sighting of Chinese film star Fan Bingbing.

Fan is one of China's most popular actresses, but also one of its most prolific. In addition to her work in films, she has also appeared in dozens of television shows, she sings and has released an album, she is deeply involved in the world of fashion and modeling, and she runs a nonprofit organization that assists Tibetan children with heart issues. And now she's even branching out into the world of Hollywood!

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