Bert the Turtle teaches to duck and cover, in Japanese

Readers in the English-speaking world are used to seeing American and British scholars publish books on history of culture of other countries. But this, of course, is not a one-way process: scholars in the rest of the world are also publish results of their studies of all things American.

Recently, while browsing in a university library I've run across a volume that can be fascinating reading for someone who reads Japanese (I don't). Hiroko TAKAHASHI's compact, but densely packed volume, 封印されたヒロシマ・ナガサキ―米核実験と民間防衛計画 (Classified Hiroshima and Nagasaki: U.S. Nuclear Test and Civil Defense Program), published by Gaifusha Publishing, offers what appears to be a Japanese view of the civil defense programs started in the US in the late 1940s - once it became apparent that the USA would not be the world's nuclear power for long. The book's appendix contains lots of documents the authors obtained from US government archives using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - or, in some cases, the government's responses indicating that a requested document can't or won't be released.

I can't refuse myself the pleasure of reproducing one of the book's illustrations: the early 1950s Duck and Cover comic strip, teaching American kids to be prepared in case of a nuclear explosion nearby. Somehow, it seems strangely appropriate to see it with Dr. Takahashi Japanses translations of the captions, where Bert the Turtle becomes 亀のバート (Kame-no bāto)...

In the 1960s, people used to make lots of fun about the "duck and cover" drills, but in reality they weren't utterly useless. Apparently, during the recent meteor (bolid?) event in Russia's Chelyabinsk a quick-thinking teacher who must have remembered her own duck-and-cover drills was able to save her own 40 pupils from being hurt by breaking glass.

Pawnshops have some competition!

Until recently, I did not realize that Amazon.com has entered the second-hand goods market more directly. They, of course, have always welcomed vendors who, in effect, want to run their own small second-hand shops via Amazon.com web site (much like Ebay vendors do). But now Amazon.com actually invites customers to sell goods directly to them: when you browse the web site and look at a product page, you often see an offer to buy this particular product from you - the line of business which, in which, in the US at least, has been mostly reserved to pawnshops so far.

How good a deal do you get, compared to the retail price of a particular product (new or used)? Not always very good. For example, the web site offers to sell you a Nokia N900 cell phone / pocket computer for $160-190, and they can buy it back from you for $3.25. (That's three dollars and twenty-five cents). And, by the way, the payment is not in cash but in the form of an Amazon gift card.


Noah and Zheng He

Smaller than Noah's Ark?

Perhaps the one most heavily disputed issue is the scholarly and popular literature about the Zheng He's expeditions from the Ming China to India and Africa is the size of his fleet's flagships, the so-called "treasure ships (宝船). The literalists go along with the length preserved in the literary tradition, 444 chi, cobbling together various circumstantial evidence in its support. The skeptics argue that the traditional sizes just does not make sense, on a variety of grounds (e.g., comparisons to the sizes of the reliably documented largest wooden ships from other cultures, and the existent evidence about problems people had handling those other vessels). One can see an overview of various positions e.g. in Edward L. Dreyer's book, Zheng He: China and the oceans in the early Ming dynasty, 1405-1433 (2007); for a good exposition of the views of skeptical naval architecture historian, see e.g. Christopher Wake "The Myth of Zheng He's Great Treasure Ships" (International Journal of Maritime History, vol 16 (1), pp 59-75, (2004).

In any event, no one is sure exactly how long the chi used by Zheng He's shipwrights was, but it was somewhere around a foot - making the recorded length of the treasure ships about 450 feet, or 135 meters, give or take 10% or so.

Faithfulness in reproduction can only go so far...

The controversy does not of course stop the builders of scale models of Zheng He ships, and, on occasion, full-scale models as well. (Admittedly, the treasure ship constructed in Nanjing's Treasure Boat Shipyard Park, celebrating 600th anniversary of Zheng He's expeditions, is "merely" 63 m (210 feet) long; but the on-site signage explains that it is supposed to represent merely a "mid-size" treasure ship, rather than the largest one. Incidentally, the stationary vessel is actually built from concrete, merely lined with wood on the inside and outside. I guess this will guarantee the modern treasure ship greater longevity than the original could boast...)

While Zheng He's treasure ships may be the most famous maritime vessel of the Chinese historical and literary tradition, throughout the rest of the world this role is played by an even older - and even more poorly documented vessel: Noah's Ark. The Biblical description of the ark is, of course, not much more detailed than that of Zheng He's flagships, and the archaeological evidence is, uhem, scarce. But that is not stopping the believers from building full-size a replica ark, although not near the Biblically appropriate Mt. Ararat, but in the Biblically named Hebron, Kentucky. (The money may be an obstacle, however). The length of the venerable ship? The Biblical 300 cubits became converted to 500 feet (150 meters), just a tad more than the traditional size of the Chinese Treasure Boats!

I imagine that few (if any) of the people planning Kentucky's "Ark Encounter" park are familiar with Nanjing's "Treasure Boat Shipyard", and vice versa. But I think that it would not hurt the designers and operators of the two facilities to compare notes and exchange experiences. For example, the Nanjing treasure ship's holds are mostly empty (the park's exhibits are in separate museum buildings), meanwhile the Kentucky ark will perhaps house some animatronic simulations... Zheng He's fleet is know for carrying at least some exotic animals from overseas countries to China (notably, giraffes), besides of course many thousands of its own men and horses; so here's one possibility for "enhancing" the treasure ship model...

Who needs an ark if you have a literate turtle loaded with xirang?

Incidentally, Chinese mythic/historical tradition has a Great Flood of its own, possibly even contemporaneous with the Biblical one. However, there is no ark involved. Instead of building a ship and waiting out for God to drain the waters, as Biblical Noah did, the human protagonist of the Chinese Flood story, Yu the Great, was busy handling the flood waters on the ground level, becoming the founder of the nation's flood control work. Like Noah, Yu, too, had some divine help at his work. According to one version of the story, in front of him, a yellow dragon was dragging his tail, cutting channels in the ground; behind him, a black turtle sent by the Spirit of the Yellow River was swimming, carrying xirang (息壤) - a magic substance using which dry land could be created. Pressing engraved characters on its lower shell (plastron) against the newly created land, the turtle was then giving names to the emerging mountains and rivers of China. Although I am not aware of any Great Flood theme park in China, there is apparently a Yu-the-Great-centered sculpture park in Wuhan.