Archive for February, 2020

February 16, 2020

What Britain called “The Great Game”, Russia referred to as “The Tournament of Shadows”.

Wars of the Heavenly Horses

February 13, 2020

Wu-Ti ruled second century BCE China as a living divinity but was, as one might expect, frustrated by his apparent lack of immortality. He dispatched his Central Asian specialist Chang Ch’ien to negotiate for a herd of supposedly divine horses from the Ferghana kingdom in what is now eastern Uzbekistan, to help China fight its border wars against militarized nomad pastoralists, but probably also to draw his imperial chariot skyward – past Jade Terrace, up, up, and up – into the afterlife. In the end, Chang had to depose the local king, rustle the horses, and drive them 3,000 miles east. Punchline: that herd may have been descended from Bucephalus, the war horse of another living god, Alexander the Great.

Two thousand years later, in the midst of The Great Game, a British spy named William Moorcroft (the first licensed veterinarian in the UK, subsequently appointed head of the Bengal Stud) covered some of the same ground as Chang Ch’ien, and for ostensibly similar reasons. He ventured deep into Central Asia on several occasions – in (pathetically transparent) disguise, with and without permission from the Raj – under a cover story of securing breeding horses for the government in Calcutta. A British subject caught surveying that area would have very likely been executed. So, a boy in his entourage who had been trained to walk in paces of exactly twenty-four inches apiece would periodically scratch the number of steps he’d taken, and an orientation code, with a fine quill pen onto his fingernails. Afterward, valuable maps were reconstructed from the child’s hands. Over time, the walled Uzbek city of Bokhara – where a fabulous herd of horses was rumored to be found – became Moorcroft’s idée fixe. The more I read, the more I think that – unbeknownst to Moorcroft, perhaps – these were the very same horses Wu-Ti sent Chang Ch’ien into the steppes to procure: the progeny of Bucephalus.

The Death of Cain

February 12, 2020

There is a rabbinical tradition in which Cain is killed not in the annihilating flood or when, at the age of 730, the city he founded collapsed upon him (a magnified echo of his bashing in his brother’s skull with a stone), but rather when his great-great-great grandson Lamech, himself old and blind, was led through the forest by his son Tubal-Cain. Tubal-Cain saw what he thought was a deer moving between the trees and pointed his father’s bow-arm at it. When they realized what they had done, Lamech, wild with grief and fear, clapped his hands together with such force he killed Tubal-Cain too – thus ending the direct line of the first fratricide with the first infanticide: a Cartesian murder-axis God targeted with a rainstrike from heaven, having finally had enough of the fourth sapience, despite its resemblance to His own image. Or because of it. 

The Beginning of Postlapsarian Pedagogy

February 12, 2020

In the Quaran, Cain carries the corpse around, not knowing what to do with it until he sees a crow peck dirt, hide another crow’s carcass in the hole, and bury it. In some versions of the story the crow that buries its companion kills it first.

Jade Purity

February 11, 2020

Speaking of the Jade Purity, have you heard of the Ming-era génocidaire Zhang Xian-zhong? He thought he was an incarnated star sent down by the Jade Emperor to destroy humankind. After exterminating 100,000 inhabitants of a Sichuan city, he had a stele erected with the following inscription:




Original Tibet

February 10, 2020

The Buddha of Compassion’s holy monkey mated with an ogress (who extorted sex from him by threatening to procreate with demons if he refused her). She gave birth to five yetis that later shed their fur and became the Tibetans. The first seven kings who ruled over those prehistoric Bonpo Tibetans are supposed to have used something like a space elevator to descend/ascend into/from the Himalayas at the onset/end of each reign. It eventually broke (or was severed), causing the 8th king to crash to earth.

Was the Red Mars space elevator terrorism scene prefigured by a shamanic post-yeti insurgency, to free themselves from a high-altitude dynasty of extraterrestrials?

Taoist Meteorology

February 10, 2020

A year ago, in a book about Han-era Taoist “immortals”, I read that there are three Taoist “Purities”, alternately represented as gods or heavenly abodes: Jade Purity, Upper Purity, and Great Purity. What got me thinking was a curious footnote about the latter. The Great Purity was traditionally believed to rest 40 li in the sky and be solid as crystal. Knowing the li has changed repeatedly over the centuries, I looked up what it was in the Han: 415.8 meters. So, 40 li = 16,632 m. My thought was – huh – wonder if an atmospheric effect at that altitude would make someone think they were looking at the difference between a gas realm and a solid realm. And guess what? The tropopause – representing the boundary between the troposphere (which extends all the way down to the surface and below) and the stratosphere – ranges in altitude latitudinally between 8,000 m at the poles and 18,000 m at the equator. In mid to southern China? ~16,500 m. Presuming it isn’t coincidence, Taoism has encoded atmospheric (and probably other species of) science. How on earth – literally! – they managed to record such an accurate measurement is a mystery.


February 6, 2020

From Eliot Weinberger’s brief essay about the Tien Wen: “There used to be a theory that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by William Shakespeare, but by another man of the same name.”

Zheng He

February 5, 2020

Zheng He, the Muslim eunuch admiral of the Ming Chinese treasure fleet, commanded an armada of 317 ships, the largest more than 450 feet long and 100 feet wide (two side notes: 1.) ships that size weren’t built again until the late 19th Century and 2.) the Ming government had ~3,500 ships when he was active. The U.S. Navy currently has only 430 vessels.). He definitely made it around SE Asia, South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa. Some folks claim he made it all the way to North America. Color me skeptical.

Anyhow, reading about the recent LiDAR-based discovery of the 1,000,000-inhabitant megalopolis surrounding Angkor Wat, it occurred to me that Zheng He might very well have visited it – in the century of its collapse as a population center – during one of his seven voyages. This map of his routes suggests otherwise. But would he really skip from medieval Vietnam to medieval Thailand without stopping along the way to catch a glimpse of the largest city in the world, even if it did require a journey inland by horseback? I mean, this is a guy who stopped occasionally to prosecute whole land wars. Anyhow, if he did see it, there may be a description of the city somewhere in the output of his faithful chronicler, Ma Huan.

And if there isn’t, I might have to write it for him – if only by claiming, Borges-like, that it exists.

Cetacean Telco

February 5, 2020

There is a horizontal extent of ocean called SOFAR in which — owing to environmental factors — sound waves travel more slowly. Slowly enough, in some cases, to propagate for thousands of miles before they attenuate. During the Cold War, the US built an autonomous acoustical array in the South Pacific to listen through SOFAR for Russian submarines. It’s still down there, in the deep waters, listening. Even more remarkably, it would appear that some species of whales know it’s there and use it to place long distance calls. They swim down and sing into it, to other whales at the same depth miles away. Basically, it’s telecom infrastructure for cetaceans.