Friday, November 27, 2015   

Battle for the dragon's lair

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Towns across the mainland are locking horns in a fight to claim the title as the undisputed birthplace of the `soul of the nation,' writes Steven Ribet

A t first glance the prefecture- level city of Puyang - on the north bank of the Yellow River about 500 kilometers south of Beijing - is a typical, unremarkable Chinese city.

A population of nearly four million makes it bigger than most European capitals, although very few Europeans will ever hear its name. Its main drag is lined with tacky mock classical buildings. On a busy day three-wheeled motorcycle taxis jostle with market barrows piled high with peeled pineapples and sticky dough pretzels.

Move east along the road, however, and you will start to sense Puyang's claim to uniqueness.

The art and craft shops at the far end are a riot of dragons; serpentine beasts with flowing manes, deer horns and sharp talons. Crafted from bronze, wood and jade, dragons snake out from every doorway and coil up in the street.

The shops inside are a clutter of dragon pieces. There are dragon designs on porcelain vases and embroidered silk robes. Dragon ink seals and snuff bottles compete with dragon-carved furniture. A local speciality is exquisite dragon pictures, meticulously pieced together from cut fragments of wheat straw.

Other eye-catching items are scrolls of dragon calligraphy. Some feature a hundred different ways of writing the character for "dragon," used by scholars across China before the First Emperor Qin Sh
ihuang unified the writing system more than 2,000 years ago.

Puyang's most famous dragon is older than this; about three times as old in fact. It was created in the Stone Age and experts put its age at 6,460 years, give or take a century.

The city calls this artefact "The First Dragon of China." It is now pouring money into branding itself as the hometown of the Chinese dragon.

Puyang is not alone. Three other cities are vying for ownership of China's national emblem. The prize on offer is not just a claim on the nation's soul. It is also a stake in the wallets of its tourists, in particular those from Chinese communities overseas.

Engineers stumbled across the ancient burial ground of Puyang's first dragon during construction of a reservoir to the city's south in 1987. Archaeologists were called to the site. Their excavation turned into a vertical timeline as they opened layer below layer. First came graves from the Song dynasty, and then lower down from the Tang, Jin, Han and Eastern Zhou.

Initial finds included pottery and weapons of soldiers. The site's real treasure, however, lay in its deepest level. It was here that the diggers unearthed the last resting place of a tribal chieftain of the Yangshao; the earliest identified culture in Chinese history.

Three sacrificial victims lay sprawled at the tomb's lower end. Their heads had been smashed in with blunt objects so they could join their master in the next world. The big man himself was lying north to south. He was flanked on each side by a two-meter animal design fashioned from clamshells. To his east was a tiger; a beast revered by primitives for its fierceness and power. To his west was a dragon.

It was only a short time before news of the find made it to the capital. Excited experts rushed south and whisked the remains away. Later on, Jiang Zemin himself arrived on a voyage of congratulation.

While the original tomb is now in Tiananmen Square's Museum of Chinese History, a park behind the buildings of Puyang's main market street houses a replica.

"The dragon has its origins as a totem, a composite animal worshipped by our ancestors in prehistory," says a guide in the small museum hosting the replica.

"There's no mistaking the image because it shares most of the characteristics we see in dragons today," she continues. "That's why experts from the Forbidden City Museum have named it The First Dragon of China. Puyang itself is known as hometown of the dragon, dragon city and sacred place of the ancestral dragon."

As chairman of the China Dragon Culture Research Institute, Sun Minsheng elaborates. "China is the country of the dragon," he says. "The spirit of the dragon permeates the bones and blood of our people. The dragon is the soul of China.

"Other places say they are the hometown of the dragon. But this source of the spirit is here in Puyang."

Sun is a consultant to Puyang city government and also chief author of the plan to turn Puyang into the dragon capital of the world. In autumn ground will be broken on a Dragon Research Institute offering courses in dragon culture. This is an interdisciplinary subject mixing elements of history, archaeology, anthropology and sociology.

This month work starts on a project to take a 300-hectare expanse of silt that was once a flood plain of the Yellow River and convert it into a 700 million yuan (HK$713.37 million) "China Dragon Garden."

The cultural park will be studded with dragon structures - bridges, gates, pavilions, pillars and so on - and will include just about every imaginable dragon-themed attraction. A five-story dragon culture museum will enrich visitors' knowledge of Chinese heritage. A gallery will show off dragon art and craft. A theater will screen dragon films and stage martial-arts demonstrations.

Betrothed couples will be able to marry in a dragon temple before banqueting in an adjoining dragon convention center. In later years they might return to celebrate their wedding anniversary, while their tots gasp at the thrills and chills of a dragon adventure palace - a haunted house-type fairground attraction - and other dragon rides.

Dragon-boats will race together in a lake fed by a dragon waterfall. On other dragon festivals, a dragon plaza will stage folk performances. There will even be a dragon botanical garden to cultivate the 101 different species of plant named after the dragon.

Visitors may well leave the place never wishing to never see another dragon in their lives.

According to Sun, a Hong Kong company has already stumped up 32 million yuan to build the research institute, although he declined to name the company. Much of the financing for the park, he says, should come from a central grove. This will be a sanctuary in which pilgrims can erect a stele (a small pillar or monument bearing an inscription) commemorating their visit - for a sizable fee, of course.

"Progeny of the Yellow Emperor. Children of the Dragon," Sun remarks at the prospect of hordes of overseas Chinese flocking in pilgrimage to Puyang with wallets chock-full of cash. "These are words that no Chinese can deny and still know who he is, where he is from or where he is going.

"Last year I went to Hong Kong Disneyland and paid a whopping HK$88 for a couple of plastic trinkets," he adds. "That's why we should learn from the Americans. For us Chinese the mouse is a most disgusting animal. Yet the Americans can take it and create a multi-billion dollar industry."

Unfortunately for Sun, another city is also looking to make this next step in the glorious tradition of Chinese theme parks.

To follow the dragon back to its genesis, some have suggested the mythical beast started life in the Yellow River basin as the snake totem of China's original Huaxia tribe. This people was led by the Yellow Emperor. The father of China created a hybrid totem by incorporating bodily elements from emblems of the tribes he conquered.

Legend has it that Huangdi - as the Yellow Emperor is known in Chinese - reigned for a century until 2599 BC. He was then immortalized as a dragon and ascended to heaven. Through his 25 sons he spawned the entire Chinese nation. His birthplace is said to be Mount Shizu, outside Xinzheng city about 150 kilometers southwest of Puyang.

The second day of the lunar calendar's second month is said to mark the end of winter hibernation, when the dragon raises its head. This year that day fell on March 20. Shizu Mountain became the center of national media attention as construction restarted on a giant project to build The First Dragon of China.

On a cliff overlooked by the mountain, staff of the company behind the project - the Zhengzhou Dragon Realization Company - held a flag raising ceremony. Behind them the dragon's head towered 10 storys high. Its nine- meter unfinished gray cement body veered off to the right, snaking for hundreds of meters along the mountain's ridge.

A company spokesman read out solemn manifestos of dragon erection and dragon protection. Company vice chairman Li Xiong declared his project to be "a new Great Wall ... a symbol of the nation ... China's biggest museum of dragon culture ... a golden bridge of eternal peace and unification ... a destination of patriotic tourism."

An entrepreneur from Shenzhen, Li told attending reporters he has already committed 300 million yuan to the project and that spending will eventually reach 4 billion. Some of the investment, he said, will be recouped through associated dragon-themed attractions, including display rooms devoted to themes such as patriotism and filial piety. A visitor railway will run along the entire length of the dragon's body.

Another source of revenue will come from selling individual scales of copper and gold on which visitors can leave dedicated inscriptions marking their visit. Some 5.6 million of these will eventually cover the dragon's body, says Li, signifying the 56 ethnic groups of China. Its finished length will traverse 21km of mountain ridge as "a symbol of the Chinese people's resurgence in the 21st century."

The third day of the lunar calendar's third month is Xinzheng's biggest festival because it marks the anniversary of the Yellow Emperor's birth. Thousands of entrepreneurs from both China and Chinese communities overseas descend on the city for ceremonies and celebrations.

This year Huangdi's birthday fell on April 19. Li Xiong's original plan was to use the jamboree to hustle for investment. Before he had a chance, however, his dragon project was once again at the center of national media attention, this time because officers from the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) had come in and shut it down.

Shizu Mountain, it turned out, is a national forest park. Planning permission for projects in national parks can only be given at provincial level. The Henan provincial government in Zhengzhou had never given the go- ahead for the First Dragon.

The local authorities in Xinzheng city were quick to distance themselves from Li Xiong. A special panel was immediately convened to look into how the project could have got so far along without it knowing in the first place. Subsequent newspaper investigations, however, exposed this as a charade.

The First Dragon, it turned out, started life as part of a major effort to develop tourism on Mount Shizu. This kicked off in 1996 when the authorities changed the mountain's name from Juci to its present Shizu, which can be literally translated as first ancestor.

Under the slogan: "Progeny of the Yellow Emperor. Children of the Dragon," it embarked on a program of building infrastructure and mountain follies with historical-sounding names; Huangdi Temple, Emperor Grotto, First Ancestor Palace and the like. One shrine was constructed in the form of a huge tree stump and named The First Root of China.

A private initiative launched in 2002, the First Dragon was welcomed as a godsend. The tourism bureau of Xinzheng government signed an agreement guaranteeing land and also undertaking to relocate local farmers as necessary.

A lack of funding halted construction in 2003. But after Li Xiong came in as a new backer at the start of this year, the Xinzheng government once again gave its support for a "priority project." A member of Mount Shizu's board of governors openly declared the dragon to be a "grand undertaking that is accomplished in one generation, but of benefit for a thousand autumns."

The Zhengzhou Dragon Realization Company even signed a land agreement with the local farming collective.

Starting projects on the assumption that planning permission will be forthcoming is a commonly followed procedure in China. So where did the plan go wrong?

Part of the problem can be put down to bad luck. Mount Shizu was only made into a national park in 2005; three years after the project was started, but two years before it was restarted. In a Catch 22-style turn of events, to continue the project must now show it can conform to environmental regulations for national parks. These regulations, however, do not yet exist. They are not expected to be promulgated until 2008.

Li Xiong's real blunder seems to have been March 20's publicity event, which was reported nationwide and hence drew the attention of the capital and SEPA. As always in China, attracting too much attention to yourself is often a bigger error than discretely circumventing the rules.

Li Xiong is now reported to be looking for a way around the impasse "I'm making the necessary applications," he said when contacted by the Weekend Standard. When pressed further he said: "Go and find out for yourself," and then hung up.

For a visitor trekking the necessary few kilometers from the park's main attractions, even the unfinished project seems impressive enough.

From the viewing platform that fans out under the beast's head, a cliff drops down hundreds of meters onto orchards of apricot and plum. To the left, the rocky peak of Mount Shizu looms skywards. In front, terraced fields of wheat stretch off across a province of nearly 100 million people.

"It's magnificent. The real expression of the dragon's spirit," enthuses Chang Liuwei, an officer worker on visit from the provincial capital Zhengzhou. "You can see how when it's finished it will look like the Great Wall, running off along the mountain ridge into the distance."

Poking at holes ripped in the animal's fiberglass head, however, another day tripper, Zhang Huasong, is less than satisfied. "People come to this place for the scenic value and historical significance. This has neither," he says.

Down the hill in Shizu village, visiting factory worker Liang Hongxing agrees. "If Huangdi wants to be proud he can look at how our nation is becoming stronger and the rising caliber of our people. He doesn't need this tacky crap," he says.

"You don't express the spirit of the dragon with a bigger building than everybody else. The real dragon is inside. You find it through self cultivation and developing a sense of your own worth."

Sun Mingsheng voiced similar sentiments early last month. In an interview with the popular Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekly, he called the Shizu project "vulgar" and "insulting to the dragon."

By the time he came to talk to the Weekend Standard, however, he had moderated in his opinion.

"People will look at the project and see what they want to see," he says. "My own opinion is that if you want to embark on a cultural enterprise, dragon-related or otherwise, you have to make sure your planning is sound."

Although the Mount Shizu project has been suspended indefinitely, more competition for Puyang could soon be arriving from elsewhere.

No fewer than six mainland cities are planning their own institutes of dragon culture, if they do not have one already. Three more intend to build museums of dragon culture. Shenzhen, for example, may soon have both.

On top of this, two other cities now claim ownership of the original Chinese dragon.

At Sanxingtala Township near the city of Chifeng 300 kilometers northeast of Beijing, for example, a large jade dragon was unearthed in 1971. It has been dated at around 3,000 BC and is called The First Dragon of China. Chifeng city refers to itself as the hometown of the dragon.

The figurine is coiled in a "C" shape and was probably worn as a waist pendant by a chieftain or shaman. It may not be as old as Puyang's dragon. But it is a lot more photogenic than a pile of clamshells. The medium-sized domestic lender Huaxia Bank, for example, uses this dragon as its logo.

In 1994, in China's northeast, archaeologists excavating a small Stone Age farming community at Chahai near the city of Fuxin discovered a 20-meter stone-laid dragon. Probably used as a shrine for sacrifices, experts agree it is about 8,000 years old.

Similar discoveries in the area have led archaeologists to conclude: the "cradle of the Chinese dragon" is not the Yellow River, but the valley of the Liaohe, a waterway that winds through Inner Mongolia and Liaoning before emptying into the Gulf of Bohai.

Fuxin already has its own institute of dragon culture and is looking at further development around what it calls The First Dragon of China.

"Of course this name benefits a city by raising its profile," says a worker at Fuxin's bureau of culture named Cao. "Puyang has done a much better job of focussing on the issue. It has done well at raising money and promoting itself by inviting experts in for conferences and digs.

"Right now Puyang claims it has the first dragon. But the issue is far from settled."

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