Is that Meritocracy I see in that Burial Chamber?


J’s parents came to visit me weekend before last.  I love these people.  The sound of his mom’s voice just feels like warm sunshine.  She reminds me of my friend Rahima in Holland- graceful and light, generous and kind.  She has the same gentle inflection in her voice and upturn to the end of her sentences.  She’s a straight talker and gets right to business.  Meeting her allayed my fears that some day J’s patience would turn and I’d be on the receiving end of how I’m too… too… too…  He’s used to women that don’t have a problem taking charge. His dad is this adorable Hunan absent-minded professor type.  Everyone in the family calls him “Uncle Bear” since his last name sounds like “bear” in Mandarin.  He laughs all the time.  I usually have no idea what’s tickled his funny bone, but I’m always glad to hear the result.  The fact that I don’t usually know what he finds so funny makes the laughter that much more delightful.

It meant a lot to me that they were coming to Xinzheng from Shanghai to see me.  In the 20 years I’ve lived away from Memphis, I’ve had 2 visits from family- both from my mother, and both to actually see my son, not me.  I was absolutely giddy with excitement, and the students got in on it.  They bought flowers for them and wrapped them with care, and we made a card and bought little presents to give them at the airport.

Their flight was delayed more than 4 hours, so we ended up not meeting them at the airport after all, and instead had everything in their room for them when they got in.  Their flight was equally delayed when they left—which has me nervous about making my connecting flight in Seoul on my way out next week.  But that’s another matter…

In anticipation for their visit, I got a copy of Gary Todd’s book about this region. Gary is a history professor here at SIAS, and has written a book for laypeople about the deep and rich history of the Henan province- the birthplace of Chinese civilization.  Here in Xinzheng, where there are more than 600,000 residents but everyone refers to it as a “small town”, there is the burial site of a duke from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770BC-256BC).  He buried himself as a king- including 7 dings and wine vessels instead of the 5 that his station called for.

The burial spot of the Duke.  You can see the vessels around him.  The magnificent lotus & crane vessel is there in the corner.

The burial spot of the Duke. You can see the vessels around him. The magnificent lotus & crane vessel is there in the corner.

Asian culture is very specific about stations of rank, and the Chinese are no exception.  In ancient times, the amount of food and wine vessels and the other supplies that someone was buried with were regulated by their rank.  In some dynasties, even the animals that one was allowed to have on their vessels and dishwares was determined by station. As for the dings and vessels, Emporers had nine, Kings had seven, and so on.  The man found in the site in Xinzheng was actually the equivalent of a Duke, but buried himself as a King.  His fiefdom did very well under his rule, so he believed he deserved it.  The idea and attempts at meritocracy pop up again and again in the Chinese history I’ve learned while here.  (For a more modern treatment, the TED talk by Eric Li is very interesting)

Though apparently, the King he’d defeated in a battle at the beginning of his career didn’t agree with the Duke’s self-placement.  He buried “ugly people”, as the guide told us, at a higher level to ruin the feng shui of the gravesite.  I am often amazed at how people with so much power can be so insecure, and this little tidbit from the guide got me pondering this again.  That insecurity is the basis of greed.  It drives someone to think that no matter what they have, its not enough.   How often do all of us struggle with not feeling we are enough or have enough?  If its important to us to not be cruel, unjust, greedy and so many other qualities, then we must wrestle with the voice that tells us we’re not enough and don’t have enough that will drive us there before we know it.  Tyrants don’t see themselves as tyrants—they see themselves as victims.

The unwanted of that society- the old, sick, and handicapped- were buried at a higher level many years later. You can see the buried chariots and the Duke-King’s chamber at the bottom.

The unwanted of that society- the old, sick, and handicapped- were buried at a higher level many years later. You can see the buried chariots and the Duke-King’s chamber at the bottom.

Horses were put in first, then the chariots were put on top of them.  The chariots were dismantled so that other souls couldn’t use them in the afterlife.  When the grave was initially discovered and then later opened in the 1970s while apartment buildings were being built, the red paint of the chariots was still visible.  The air oxidized it so quickly that the paint can be seen no more.  I heard a few stories about paintings and fabrics changing and disintegrating seemingly instantaneously upon opening chambers and vaults.  For this reason, you’ll find many sites that haven’t been opened yet.  Having learned their lesson, they’re waiting until they can fully protect the articles inside once they’ve opened it before they unseal any more.

crane and lotus ding

Crane and Lotus ding excavated from Xinzheng

Crane and Lotus ding excavated from Xinzheng

The Crane & Lotus piece is the reason that the Provincial Museum of Henan was established in Zhengzou.  We headed there the next day.  Google maps said it would take us 45 minutes.  It took us more than two hours.  Zhengzou isn’t far, so getting to the city went quite quickly.  We’re in the harvest season, so the freeway was covered in corn.  First they shuck the corn.  The husks and cobs are later burned with other harvesting debris beginning  October.  There is a heavy soot that hangs in the air and gets on and into everything, I’ve heard.

corn on road

Then they separate the kernels and spread them out to dry.  In many places, they’d spread out over a full lane of the highway.


The next step is crushing and grinding the corn into meal.  There are many creative ways to do this- Kristine saw a motorcycle being used on her trip.

I can neither confirm nor deny that this moped was used to grind corn...

I can neither confirm nor deny that this moped was used to grind corn…

At one point, I saw a woman on a moped on the freeway with a 15 month-old toddler standing up between her legs as she rode along.  I couldn’t get my camera on fast enough to snap her picture as we passed by.  And we look back on the days of kids unbuckled in the back seat as being reckless!  I can’t help but wonder if the emergency room is full of toddlers that have tumbled off the moped in such a situation, or if it happens no more frequently than the accidents we have even with all of our straps and restraints and such.  I just can’t imagine such a little one staying still that long—but I guess they learn quickly about consequences if they don’t do what mom says…

But while we’re on the subject of things-seen-out-cab-windows, I thought I’d share this one with you:

pet store

This is a pet store.  At least I hope it is.  There are birds, parrots, kitties, puppies, rabbits and turtles on that truck-icle.  I saw this on the road leading up the museum in Zhengzou.  Zhengzou is the capital city of the province of Henan.  It is big, noisy, polluted and overly full with cars.  Traffic was wretched on a Sunday.  It took less than 30 minutes to get in to Zhengzou, but it took well more than an hour and a half to get to the museum once in Zhengzou.

We were told by the folks at the front desk here in Peter Hall that the train didn’t really go close to the museum, so by the time we bus-train-train-bussed it, it would be faster & easier to just hire a car.  Stuck in traffic, I wondered which was more bothersome.  The cab didn’t have air so we were either blown away by the air, or choking on the stagnant air.  The difference in air quality between Zhengzou and Xinzheng is significant.  I went straight into the shower when I got home—I just felt so grimy and disgusting.  Most Chinese take their showers at night for precisely this reason.  They don’t want to go to bed covered in grime, but slip into bed clean.

apartment building entrance

This was an entrance to an apartment building.  The name comes from a poem that was made into a (not so) mini-series, and is often used for dwelling names, even though the story itself was full of betrayal and all sorts of drama and intrigue.  We all like a pretty name, don’t we?

beijing peking duck

This is a famous Beijing Peking Duck chain.  The big plastic duck says “high class”, doesn’t it?  My original intention was to take some of my students out for Peking Duck my last weekend to treat them for all of their help.  Since getting sick twice, I’ve dropped that idea.  Jason’s mom said this place would probably charge more and one of my students could find something for less, but that we could come here and know it would be good.

Still can’t get over the bathroom-toy duck with a chef’s hat in front of such a beautiful façade…

We finally arrived at the Provincial Museum- at 11:15.  We told the driver to pick us back up at 3.

God, I love these people.  Made me so happy when Kristine exclaimed "What a beautiful woman!" when she saw this picture.  "What a beautiful and healing spirit she has!"

God, I love these people. Made me so happy when Kristine exclaimed “What a beautiful woman!” when she saw this picture. “What a beautiful and healing spirit she has!”

Once we got inside, we realized there is no café in the museum.  There goes lunch.  Probably just as well.  My stomach had been gurgling all morning.  I was terrified that it was going to decide that I needed to be near a lou in a very short time and I’d be stuck in traffic in a shoddy cab.  I’m so very happy to report that is not what happened.

The shape of the museum takes after the vessel shapes that were very popular in the early bronze period (around 2000 BC), which was about when the countries of the Levant were experiencing their bronze period- The Silk Road connecting the two eventually.  Unlike Western Europe, this period in history is not considered pre-history in China, but the time of an incredibly advanced and complex society.

Animals, animals everywhere, and not a bite to eat.  (Sorry, couldn't help m'self)

Animals, animals everywhere, and not a bite to eat. (Sorry, couldn’t help m’self)

This motif of an animal’s face is repeated through every dynasty until we got to the works of the 20 century where a purely geographic design took over the organic and nature-based designs and embellishments that went before.

There was this lovely summary of the most common animal designs outside one of the galleries:

most common animal designs

I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason that animal and animal faces were put on almost everything was to serve as a reminder that everything has an energy- a being- about it and to treat it with the respect that it deserves.  There are people that work for forensic departments that can touch an item and know information about its owner- or even be able to find them.  The materials to make the items, as well as the energy and intentions of those that use the item are held there.  Putting an animal face on it can act as a reminder to leave good mojo there—a reminder of the Buddhist admonition to “Treat all things with loving-kindness”.

Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious would also nudge us to look at the states of mind, qualities, and such that each animal would invoke within its respective society.  One of the things that got me into symbology, comparative folktales & religions was noticing that the same characters or symbols show up in tales from opposite sides of the world yet have similar meanings (or completely opposite- which says something about the way that each culture interprets core meanings or concepts).  My brain was buzzing with connections throughout the museum.  But I’ll have to save that for another post—another tale of meritocracy ruling the day—even if the museum signs brushed over it.


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