Friday, December 31, 2021

Jung Chang, "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China"

My 19-year-old son is reading and loving this book, which inspired me to rerun my 2011 review:

This amazing, beautiful book captivated me from the first sentence: “At the age of 15 my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general.” Jung Chang was born in China in 1952, and in this book she tells the story of her family from the 1930s to 1978, when she left China for England. Her grandmother was born into a middle class urban family in Manchuria, in far northeast China. Her great grandfather was a police official who raised his beautiful daughter to be a pawn of his ambitions. Her feet were bound and she learned to play chess, go, and an instrument called the qin, used by courtesans. When the time came he displayed her to a visiting general, who took to her. The match worked out well for the father, who was promoted, but the daughter became a prisoner of the warlord’s servants and then, when she bore a child, an abused servant of his wives. Thus is introduced one of the story’s two themes, the terrible cruelty of humans toward each other. In this telling – which came to Jung Chang from her mother in the 1980s, after her grandmother was already dead – the wives, servants and concubines of General Xue are like starving rats fighting over scraps of meat. The general barely notices this squabbling among the women. It’s only women, after all. Eventually Jung Chang’s grandmother flees, taking her daughter Bao Quin with her. At home, she is abused by her father’s concubines, who see her as a rival for his none-too-lavish fortune. Eventually she marries a kind Manchu doctor named Xia, a much older man whose grown children are so opposed to the match that one commits suicide. The survivors, of course, hate the new wife even more after their brother’s death, and do all they can to make her life miserable.

And that was peace. Then comes war, in the form of the Japanese invasion. At first life in the puppet state of Manchukuo is not so bad in material terms, although all Chinese are required to bow to any Japanese and they are subjected to intense propaganda. As a girl in a Japanese-run school Jung Chang’s mother Bao Qin had to sing songs like

Red boys and green girls walk on the streets,
They all say what a happy place Manchukuo is.
You are happy and I am happy.
Everyone lives peacefully and works joyfully free from any worries.
But when the war goes badly the Japanese conscript thousands into forced labor and ship most of the food out of the province, leading to starvation. In 1945 the Russians come, causing more destruction. When they leave they dismantle the city’s two oil refineries and take them back to Russia with them, leaving only bare earth.

After the Russians leave, Manchuria is reclaimed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). The officials they appoint are from the south and distrust the people of Manchuria, both Chinese and Manchu. Because Doctor Xia treated Japanese patients during the occupation, his family was always suspected of collaboration. The KMT were savage toward collaborators real and imagined, and even worse toward suspected Communists. At first Bao Qin works for the KMT, but she becomes aware of the torture and harsh treatment all around her she turns against them and begins to help the Communists. Soon the civil war between the Communists and the KMT is raging, and since the Communists control most of the countryside there is starvation in the cities. Children are sold for sacks of grain. Working actively with the Communists, Bao Qin meets her future husband, a senior Communist operative from Sichuan. They fall in love and marry in the communist way, without ceremony – despite much complaining from Bao Qin’s mother. Bao Qin applies to join the party. Despite her marriage to a senior official, she is subjected to intense scrutiny because of her bourgeois status and her brief association with the KMT. She is accused of carrying on love affairs when she was supposed to be working for the party and is forced to undergo hours of criticism and “self-criticism” in which she was supposed to berate herself for her failings. She appeals to her husband for help but he says this is the communist way, which it is. And it still is, in 2011, although I have the impression self-criticism is taken a lot less seriously now. Things are so bad for Bao Qin in Manchuria that she tells her husband they must leave. He applies to be transferred back to his home region of Sichuan. The party agrees, and they set off on a thousand-mile journey across war-ravaged China, during which Bao Qin miscarries but has to keep marching so as not to show bourgeois weakness among the peasant revolutionaries.

Once in Sichuan, they enter a period of relative prosperity. The civil war ends and Jung Chang’s father becomes a high official, and he and Bao Qing have three children. They live in a special compound for the families of officials, Jung Chang attends a “key” school with the best teachers. For Jung Chang, this was a wonderful time; her chapter on her own life in the years from 1958 to1965 is called ‘Thousand-Gold Little Precious’ – In a Privileged Cocoon. The 1950s were the golden age of Chinese communism. The party seized all farmland from landlords and redistributed it among the people, with the landlords (if they did not resist) getting the same share as everyone else. The banks and the biggest industrial businesses were nationalized, but smaller firms were left under the control on their owners, or under teams of workers and managers. There was oppression, but it was mostly limited to former KMT officials or people who spoke out against the party and its policies. The country was not wealthy, but after 20 years of war nobody expected it to be. Because of their land reform, the party was hugely popular with the peasants, and many workers were also pleased with the changes. The expulsion of most foreign “enclaves” and the reassertion of Chinese sovereignty pleased intellectuals. No doubt many people were unhappy with the generally puritanical tone of life, and the deluge of slogans and programs, but on the whole the party was very popular. Jung Chang's father was the perfect communist official, well educated, rigidly moral, and hard working. He refused to use his position to help his extended family, and he opposed corruption and nepotism within the party, which made him very popular with the people. One of the people who was not satisfied with the situation was Mao, who saw China settling back into familiar patterns. As Jung Chang admits, the children of high communist officials acted like spoiled rich brats, abusing the cooks and janitors in their compound. Communist officials were very much like the old mandarin class, entrenched in power and feared by all the people, and many were busy promoting their relatives in the traditional way. Peasants and workers were still despised. 

This was not the revolution Mao wanted, and he began casting about for ways to further shake up the system. Personally paranoid, he also saw enemies everywhere and suspected that officials from educated backgrounds despised him for his peasant roots and his obscure rural dialect. His first move was to announce an intellectual liberation – “let a thousand flowers bloom” – and then crack down savagely on anyone who used this freedom to criticize the party and its policies. This “anti-rightist” crackdown was limited to party members and intellectuals, though, so most Chinese did not suffer. Not so with Mao’s next gambit, the “Great Leap Forward.” Although the ownership had changed, the way Chinese business and agriculture were run had not. There were still bosses giving orders to workers, and peasants were still at the mercy of outside forces that set the prices for their products, and so on. Plus the economy, while growing, was not making the great progress Mao expected. So Mao resolved to revolutionize the economy. Peasants would be grouped into communes and share their work, which Mao thought would lead to a giant leap in productivity. All businesses were nationalized and production put under the control of party committees. If Chinese factories could not match those of the west, China would outdo them with the mass application of motivated labor. This led to the famous lunacy of backyard iron smelters; every commune and neighborhood was assigned a quota of iron to make, which led to the smashing of millions of cooking pots and the chopping down of millions of trees to make thousands of tons of useless slag. The disruption brought on by communization, the crazy mandates, and the diversion of effort into making slag led to a terrible famine across China in which about 30 million people died.

For Jung Chang, the Great Leap Forward was a sort of lark. Rations in her compound were cut, but her family still had plenty to eat and she did not learn about the famine until years later. For her parents, though, it was a much more traumatic time. They knew how bad things were because they were worked nearly to death trying to save the situation, and they both began to lose faith in Mao and the party.

Mao had to retreat and let more pragmatic officials take charge of the country, chief among them Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. They were able to stabilize the situation and end the famine. Mao was left stewing in his failure. His ideology and his megalomania had collided with reality, and reality won. A less proud and ambitious man might have slid into elder statesman status, but Mao was not ready for that. He schemed to get his power back. Realizing that he had lost control of the regular party bureaucracy, since thousands of key officials felt the way Jung Chang’s parents did, he resolved to go around it. The result was the Cultural Revolution.

Jung Change experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. Mao’s opening move was to promote a cult of personal devotion to himself, aimed first at young people, and Jung Change was just the right age to get swept up in it. She used to say to herself, “How lucky I am to be living in the great era of Mao Zedong!” She loved and worshiped Mao, as did millions of Chinese. Jung Chang has this to say about Mao:

Mao found the idea of peaceful progress suffocating. A restless military leader, a warrior-poet, he need action – violent action – and regarded permanent human struggle as necessary for social development. His own Communists had become too tolerant and soft for his taste, seeking to bring harmony rather than conflict. . . .
And Mao was sore. He felt that his opponents had humiliated him by showing him up as incompetent. He had to take revenge, and, being aware that his opponents had widespread support, he needed to increase his authority.

I have always wondered how anyone can take personality cults seriously. Whatever impulse it is that leads someone to idolize another person and view him or her as beyond or above the rest of us, I lack it completely. And yet the story of the Cultural Revolution shows that these cults can be created and that they can have profound effects. Mao demanded worship of himself, and he got it. It was at this point, in 1964, that Mao’s sayings were printed as the Little Red Book and distributed throughout the country. People did “loyalty dances” to Mao, holding up their books, chanted his name, sang songs in his honor, attributed every good thing to him and every bad thing to his enemies.

With the cult of himself covering the country, Mao’s next move was to encourage teenage students to rebel against their teachers. They were told to identify “reactionary” teachers and drive them from their schools. Beginning with the children of high officials in Beijing, they did so. Teachers with any aura of conservatism about them were attack by gangs of students, locked in their rooms, and shouted at for hours in “denunciation sessions.” Many were severely beaten. Education ground to a halt across China as revolution and denunciation took over. One group of students in Beijing proclaimed themselves to be “Mao’s Red Guards,” and this organization spread in weeks across the whole country. The Red Guards expanded their targets beyond the schools and began to attack other “reactionary” institutions – theaters, clubs, museums. In Sichuan, Jung Chang participated in closing the traditional tea shops, and her fellow students smashed all the statues in her centuries-old school.

Mao then extended this model to the Communist Party. He sidelined the regular bureaucracy and created “Revolutionary Committees” in each province and city, reporting directly to him. These committees singled out hundreds of old party officials as “class enemies,” or “blacks,” and persecuted them in Red Guard fashion: denunciations lasting for hours, with severe beatings. Some poor victims were brought back again and again for this treatment, their abuse providing a way to whip up the enthusiasm of huge public meetings. Some of the officials thus singled out were actual opponents of Mao, but some were not. Mao did not care, as long as the point was made that loyalty to him was now the only criterion of virtue. To further revolutionize the country, new targets were constantly announced for the people’s anger. All entertainment was banned except a few films, operas, and songs that glorified Chairman Mao. Everything old was to be destroyed, and all across China gangs of young people attacked historic buildings, works of art, and gardens. Even stretches of the Great Wall were demolished. Education was halted, and any educated person was suspect; books were burned by the millions. Absurdity was piled on absurdity:
One day in 1965, we were suddenly told to go out and start removing all the grass from the [school] lawns. Mao had instructed that grass, flowers, and pets were all bourgeois habits and were to be eliminated.
The grass at Jung Chang’s school, though, had a network of tough roots that made its elimination almost impossible, and this task was never finished. It did provide a convenient way of punishing “class enemies”; for the next few years, anyone who was denounced could be sent to whack away at the roots for a few miserable weeks.

Jung Chang’s parents were among the Communist officials targeted by the revolutionary committees. At first they tried to stay out of the conflict for the sake of their children, who would become “blacks” if their parents were denounced. But her rigidly moral father could not be kept quiet for long, and eventually he spoke out against the Cultural Revolution, writing letters to higher authorities. He disappeared into “protective custody” and eventually into a labor camp. There he discovered that his stand was much admired by many people, and his own guards honored his courage and gave him special treatment. Still, he did not long survive the life of hard work and meager food, and he died in a camp. By that time Jung Chang’s mother had also been sent to a camp, and the children were all working with peasants in the countryside. Mao intended that living with the peasants would revolutionize the children of party officials, so he closed the schools and sent millions of teenagers off to labor. There they were hated by the peasants, who resented having to share their food with such poor workers, and instead of being revolutionized they were turned against Mao and Communism. Later on they provided the key support for Deng Xiaoping's reforms. Meanwhile the Cultural Revolution had degenerated into a low-grade Civil War, as rival Revolutionary Committees called each other “black” and fought over power with guns and even artillery. As Mao declined, power came to be held by a clique of his closest supporters known as the Gang of Four.

In 1976, Mao died. After that point things moved very quickly. Deng Xioaping was released from prison, where he had spent years in solitary confinement, and he soon jailed the Gang of Four and took control of the party. The denunciation campaigns were halted, the Revolutionary Committees disbanded, and the reform program set underway that eventually led to the China was know today. Education was restored and Jung Chang was able to go to a university, where she studied English. In 1978 she was allowed to go to Britain to study, and there she stayed.

What can a rational person say about the Cultural Revolution? The “lessons” are hard to sort out. On the one hand it confirms that the basic structure of all civilizations, with an educated elite on top, is all but inevitable. Mao’s attempts to completely overturn this order led only to chaos and the decline of Chinese power. One of Deng Xioaping’s motives in launching his reform was to restore the might of China’s armed forces, which were crippled by Mao’s political upheavals and his assault on education. Peasants can’t make fighter planes. To understand what an educated elite does in a modern society, one only has to compare the catastrophe of the Chinese economy during the period of Mao’s personal ascendancy with its good performance under the Communist mandarins of 1950 to 1956, or its spectacular boom under Deng Xiaoping’s reformists. The right kind of leadership is the difference between ruination and prosperity. China paid other prices for Mao’s madness, including the flight overseas of a generation of its most talented citizens – in 1991 Jung Chang and all three of her brothers lived abroad.

Yet the fact that both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were disasters did not lead to the overthrow of Mao. The horror stopped only with his death, and because the people at the top of the system chose to end the freak show and return to a path of peace and development. There was never any effective opposition to Mao’s policies. As North Korea shows, an elite can keep ruinous policies going for decades as long as it remains determined to do so. What’s more, Mao’s reign of terror was not imposed by secret policemen or soldiers. He got the Chinese people to police and oppress each other. Maoist China had hardly any secret police, and they played no role in the Cultural Revolution. Mao set up a system in which insiders were empowered to attack and abuse outsiders, and people fought to become insiders. They willingly abused their own neighbors and colleagues as the price of not becoming “class enemies” themselves. The beatings, denunciations, and destruction of the Cultural Revolution were carried out by millions of ordinary Chinese people. With Mao’s encouragement, they brutalized each other. Jung Chang documents that no matter how bad things got, the horror was always mitigated by acts of individual kindness – this is her second theme, the way many people tried to get on with ordinary life amidst it all, and how they tried to take care of each other. Yet in political terms, none of this mattered. Probably a large majority of Chinese disapproved of the Cultural Revolution, but they could not stop it. The history of totalitarianism shows again and again that individual acts of moral courage are irrelevant. Opposition must be organized to be effective, so as long as totalitarian states prevented opponents from organizing, they stayed in power. Opposition must also be based on accurate information, so as long as the government retains control of all information, they can manipulate the people with ease. Another lesson of totalitarian history is that the way to sustain tyranny is to keep it as radical and brutal as possible. It was only after they reformed themselves that the Soviet and Chinese systems experienced any opposition. In North Korea, the regime is still firmly in power despite starving and brutalizing its people. I would say that it is still in power because it starves and brutalizes its people, since starved, brutalized people cannot rebel, especially when they are kept in a state of ignorance.

Perhaps the end result of the Cultural Revolution should make me more optimistic. After all, the Communist leadership did eventually turn against Maoism, and since 1980 they have accomplished amazing things in making China a better place to live. Besides, today's China depends on the accomplishments of the Communist period in many ways. Reading the earlier part of Wild Swans I got the sense that traditional Chinese society was so rotten, so sexist, so closed, that only something as radical as Maoism could have shaken the nation out of its old wickedness. Democratic nationalism had been tried but had failed, undermined by corruption, nepotism, localism, the absolute power of landlords over their peasants, and shear meanness. Post-communist China is unquestionable a better country for its poor citizens than pre-Communist China was. Perhaps the example of North Korea should inspire me to think how rare it is for a nation's elite to choose barbarism over development. The awful visions of a totalitarian world that preoccupied so many in the mid twentieth century have not come to pass, because the elites of Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere could not see any reason to carry out the necessary soul-destroying brutality. Yes, China and Russia are still authoritiarian countries, but their sort of loose dictatorship is something most people can live with, and it is far from the mad world of 1984.

Wild Swans is an amazing record of an extraordinary time, mixing historical writing with personal experience in a remarkable way, and I give it my highest recommendation.

July, 2011 

A Little Lullaby

She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down,
And rest your gentle head upon her lap,
And she will sing a song that pleaseth you,
And on your eyelids crown the god of sleep.

—Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1 III.1 

Ruth Scurr, "John Aubrey: My Own Life"

John Aubrey (1626-1697) was an ordinary sort of English gentleman with more breeding than money. He was no genius, and not really a great scholar, but he was intelligent and energetic enough to be welcomed in the society of his age's best minds. He was friends with people like Cristopher Wren, Thomas Hobbes, William Harvey, and Robert Boyle. He was a member of the Royal Society in its glory days, when Boyle, Hooke, Newton and others were making great advances in science and even greater advances in methods of publishing and verifying scientific discoveries from across Europe. His age was one of civil war and generally great political turmoil. Aubrey mostly tried to stay out of the fray, but he saw many of his friends ruined for their parts in England's conflicts, and a few killed in battles.

We remember John Aubrey as an antiquary and one of England's first historic preservationists. To me the most striking thing about Ruth Scurr's 2015 biography was how she brings out the frantic struggle Aubrey and some of his friends waged to keep the remains of England's past from being destroyed. Aubrey was the first intellectual to take note of the great megalithic monument at Avebury, which was being quarried for stone even as he tried to measure its dimensions. He eventually got King Charles II to issue an order preserving the site from quarrying, probably Aubrey's single most important achievement. But this was only one site among thousands that Aubrey worried about. He made the first accurate survey of Stonehenge, and one of the monument's features is still called the Aubrey Holes after him. England's monasteries had been dissolved a century earlier, and in Aubrey's time monastic ruins were fast disappearing under the assaults of time and looting. He studied and drew many now-vanished buildings, and his studies allowed to him to develop the first scheme for dating ecclesiastical buildings from the shape of their windows. (The forerunner of our Saxon-Norman/Romanesque-Gothic model.) The books and manuscripts from those monasteries had been scattered to the winds, and Aubrey repeatedly found pages of rare manuscripts being used by butchers to wrap meat or soldiers to stuff their canons. I sometimes find my contemporaries a little batty in their efforts to preserve everything, but their anxiety about loss is a small thing compared to Aubrey's.

Aubrey and his friends were all collectors, and they worried a great deal about what would happen to their collections when they died. Valuable artifacts had traditionally been preserved in the treasuries of royal and noble families, but in the 17th century many of Europe's greatest families were ruined, and their possessions dispersed. The solution Aubrey's circle hit on was to build some of the first modern museums. These were endowed institutions modeled on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge where precious manuscripts, books, and artifacts could have a permanent home. Aubrey helped to found the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and some of the rarities he collected ended up there. I mention this because modern museums are suffering from a crisis of conscience and wonder what they are for, and what their part is in perpetuating injustices; but imagine how much would have been lost if those great museums had not been built and funded to save what could be saved from the destructive march of history.

Aubrey was equally involved in preserving folklore, and he assembled (but never published) a compendium of sayings, tales and rituals that he thought were remnants of pre-Christian Britain. You will often read that the rise of science was accompanied by great contempt toward the wisdom of ordinary people, especially ordinary women, and certainly that happened; early modern doctors in particular spent a lot of time railing against village hags and their supposed cures. But the age also birthed men like Aubrey who delighted in nothing more than listening to old people describe the ways they celebrated Christmas in their youth, or tell their local ghost stories. Aubrey eagerly discussed the properties of herbs with unlettered women, and on more than one occasion he recommended to one of this friends a treatment he learned of in this way.

John Aubrey's Plan of Avebury

Let me mention two more things about Aubrey's life that especially struck me. First, the weirdness of money under the Old Regime. Noble families were all wealthy, at least compared to everyone else. But on the other hand they were very often bankrupt. Aubrey was a case in point; the houses and lands he inherited from his father were so encumbered by debts that he eventually lost everything. He spent years hiding from bailiffs who wanted to clap him in debtor's prison. This was partly because he was, as a friend put it, "Shiftless, roving and magotie-headed," more interested in drawing monastic ruins than estate management. But it was a constant theme of life in the period; Aubrey spent a great deal of time persuading his friends to donate their books to Oxford or Cambridge before they died, since many of their estates were also so debt-ridden that their possessions would probably have to be sold.

But of course even when broke Aubrey remained a member of the gentry. He continued to rent rooms in London, frequent coffee houses, attend the Royal Society, travel extensively. With no income, how did he do it? Scurr was able to figure a little of this out, using memoranda in which Aubrey recorded money lent to him by friends, and also sales of the books he had inherited or bought while young. But the sums we can account for don't add up to a living, and the memoranda also note that some of his debts were eventually repaid. How? One meets similar people in 19th-century novels from both England and Russia, noble characters who traipse through a glittering life while complaining that they have not a penny to their names. Some of it seems to be outright fraud, especially perpetrated against tailors, dressmakers, and innkeepers. (Thackeray's Vanity Fair has much of this). Some of it is simply camping for extended periods with your wealthy relatives; Aubrey spent much of his old age as the house guest of his cousin Sir John Aubrey. And then there was the way other members of the elite offered their friends opportunities; Aubrey was at various times offered the chance to take up land in both Barbados and Pennsylvania, but he didn't want to cross the ocean and lacked the acumen to profit from these grants from afar. One of  Thackeray's or Tolstoy's rogues would have found a way to turn those distant lands into cash.

And yet some people did have great wealth. This was absolutely not simply from owning land; as Europe commercialized, rents from average farm land declined steeply. Some land, such as that on the outskirts of growing cities, or with good coal fields or quarries, did provide a good income, but the average gentry family was simply getting by. Real money came from investments, for example in new housing developments on the edges of cities, or, especially, from holding office. Investments had the problem that they could go bad and ruin their investors; several English noble families were ruined by their attempts to build canals. Holding office was the real route to riches. Some of the viciousness of politics in this era came from the simple fact that the holders of great royal offices were enriched to a staggering degree, even compared to their aristocratic peers, while those who lost out often faded into obscurity and (comparative) penury.

But even knowing as much about the economics of life in this period as I do, I still find the operations of money mysterious, and wonder how people – especially naifs like John Aubrey – managed to survive. And that's before we get into questions like how factory workers survived when the mills sometimes shut down for months at a time, or how peasants got by in years when the harvest failed. Some just died, but most did not, and none of it makes much sense to me. I have to imagine that it was possible to live without money because much less of the economy was handled by cash. Much work was done for food, or food and shelter. Goods were often exchanged by barter, and used items retained much more of their value than they do now, so households could subsist by trading (say) blankets for food. A gentry household could raise much of its own food, brew its own beer, and so on. And yet the sources don't really show us this; how people got along in tough times is one of the things nobody thought to write down.

Stonehenge, drawing by John Aubrey

Second, the porous boundaries of science in its early stages. As I said, Aubrey was a member of the Royal Society when its leading members were discovering the properties of air and the equations of gravity. Yet most of the papers he presented concerned the properties of England's healing spring waters. He collected samples of water and evaporated them, displaying the resulting mineral residues so the assembled scholars could discuss the smell of each and speculate about what diseases each would treat best. These accounts read like scenes from the comedic plays that mocked the pretensions of intellectuals; you can readily imagine an actor dramatically sniffing a retort and saying, "I detect sulfur with undertones of lime, so this should be superb for treating gout or calming shrewish wives," while the audience hoots. 

From our perspective much of it is ridiculous. They were trying, but they were starting from such a small and error-ridden base of knowledge that their efforts were mostly vain. One of the many excellent little notices of intellectual life in Scurr's book is this one:

I visited Sir Christopher Wren again with Mr. Hook and Mr. Hill. We talked about petrifications of bodies, about plaisters, about framing glass, staining marble, filligreen sodering with bran, about printing stuffs and gilding stuffs, and about ghosts and spirits. (258)

The most important thing that happened in science before around 1850 was not any particular scientific discovery, but the discovery of what science is.

Ruth Scurr's book takes the form of a largely imaginary diary. I was not impressed by this experiment, which was tedious to read, although maybe in the end it did help immerse me in the 17th century. But John Aubrey was a very interesting citizen of a time I find fascinating, so I enjoyed My Life even while thinking a more standard biography would have worked better.

Science Used to Progress Very Slowly

Dr. Harvey tells me that after his book on the circulation of the blood, De Motu Cordis, came out in 1628, his medical practice declined mightily, since the vulgar thought him crack-brained and all the physicians were against him and envied him. Many wrote against him, but after about twenty or thirty years his doctrine was received in all the universities of the world. In his book De Corpore, Mr. Hobbes says that Dr. Harvey is perhaps the only man 'that ever lived to see his own doctrine established in his lifetime.'

–Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (2015, p. 106)

Links 31 December 2021

Gold goblet from a burial mound in Georgia, c. 1800 BC

Drawing bought for $30 at an estate sale might be by Albrecht Durer and therefore worth millions.

The folks behind The Missing Princes Project say that one of Richard III's nephews survived and lived under an assumed name in Devon. I think they've seen too many Dan Brown movies.

Fatal police shootings of unarmed suspects plummeted in 2021, from 60 to 25. Especially impressive since other homicides went up.

Poeple are pinning a lot of hopes on the James Webb Space Telescope, which I think is a sign of how frustrated astrophysicists are with their inability to understand or agree about dark matter, dark energy, cosmic inflation, etc. Given its complexity, if the telescope works at all that will be quite an engineering achievement (article, 31-minute video)

Certain very diffuse galaxies seem to contain no dark matter, and new observations confirm this result. But this isn't really evidence against the theory of dark matter, because the observations don't fit any of the major alternatives to General Relativity, either. 

More musings on Thomas Mann's "Reflections of a Non-Political Man," arguing that art is supposed to show us the great cost of always being moral, and the oppression of always doing the proper thing for a citizen.

List of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of 2021.

Wakusha and the ambiguous sexuality of adolescent males in old Japan. Interesting but I don't find it useful to consider youth as a third gender.

Green banks use money from philanthropists and governments to seed energy projects. (Washington Post)

Vox says the popular culture of the Obama years (Harry Potter, Hamilton, Parks and Recreation) celebrated earnest attempts to make the world better, and that is now totally cringe.

Interviewer Tyler Cowen's tips on how to ask good questions.

Kevin Drum reports that school bullying has decreased a lot over the past 20 years.

Russian archaeologists find a birchbark letter in Novgorod dated 1144, another piece of ordinary business from the 12th century.

In Baltic Russia, archaeologists explore the graves of Iron Age "amber elites."

How to build trust across political divides: the key is not to seek uniformity but to accept real viewpoint difference. This won one of David Brooks' Sidney Awards for 2021.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Democracy is Getting Harder

Richard Pildes in the NY Times:

The European democracies are experiencing the unraveling of the traditionally dominant center-left and center-right major parties and coalitions that have governed since World War II. Support for these parties has splintered into new parties of the right and left, along with others with less-easily defined ideological elements. From 2015 to 2017, over 30 new political parties entered European parliaments. Across European democracies, the percentage of people who identify strongly with a political party or are members of one has declined precipitously.

The effects on the ability to govern have been dramatic. In Germany, the stable anchor of Europe since the 1950s, the two major parties regularly used to receive over 90 percent of the vote combined; in this fall’s elections, that plummeted to less than 50 percent. Support has hemorrhaged to green, anti-immigrant, free-market and other parties. After its 2017 elections, with support fragmented among many parties, it took Germany six months to cobble together a governing coalition, the longest time in the country’s history. The Netherlands, after its 2017 elections, needed a record 225 days to form a government.

The coalitional governments assembled amid this cacophony of parties are also more fragile. Spain, for example, was forced to hold four national elections between 2015 and 2019 to find a stable governing coalition. Spain had effectively been a two-party democracy until 2015, but mass protest movements spawned a proliferation of new parties that made forging stable governments difficult. In Sweden, the prime minister lost a vote of no confidence this summer — a first in the country’s modern political history. Digital pop-up parties, including anti-party parties, arise out of nowhere and radically disrupt politics, as the Brexit Party did in Britain and the Five Star Movement did in Italy.

All of this is driven by dissatisfaction; by a sense that older parties are corrupt, stodgy, and not delivering on their promises. Immigration is an intensely polarizing issue; the urgency many Europeans feel about climate change is another factor. But I have the sense that people just find contemporary life intensely frustrating and are looking for someone to do something about it. Since nobody has any clue how the misery might be eased, or what is causing it, things are only going to get worse.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Joan Didion's America, and Mine

Like a lot of Americans, I read Joan Didion as a teenager and was captivated. I devoured her essays, felt I had encountered a writer of extraordinary gifts, her keen insights conveyed in brilliant prose. She showed to me a side of America I had never seen but knew existed out there somewhere. Her famous essay "Slouching towards Bethlehem" begins like this:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

For me at 17, this was revelatory. All I knew (outside of books) was middle class suburban and small town life among what I saw as thoughtless people leading meaningless lives. Didion set up for me another pole of America: on the one hand was the tedium of a highly structured and tightly constrained bourgeois existence, on the other the collapsing fringe where life dissolved into drugs, promiscuity, and despair. 

So when I rebelled against the tedious miasma of high school, I also seethed with disgust against those who sought to escape it with drugs, free love, Maoist nonsense, and tie-dye. 

At 17, my answer was to get beyond all this mediocrity and soar on wings of intellect. My joys were science, history, and ethnography, and my greatest love was for the long ago and far away. My idols were the thinkers who penetrated the veil of existence; but I also had another class of heroes, the skeptics who doubted everything, both the common wisdom and the uncommon nonsense found in the social fringe. I believed myself better than all of this: I thought I understood what others did not, and recognized the folly of senseless, self-destructive rebellion.

It worked, for a while anyway.

But back to our subject. 

For many people, including Didion, revulsion against the doings of hippies and outcasts was a conservative impulse. At the time she was a Goldwater Republican and behind her reaction to drugs, casual sex, and social breakdown, one could sense a longing for some sort of structured normality. But Didion always had admirers all over the political spectrum; to some leftists she was describing the inevitable collapse of capitalism, and the blame for all of this lay with the Man. She never suggested solutions to the problems she documented, nor did she get very deeply into causes. She simply described what she saw, and connected it to her own personal sense that everything was bad and wrong.

If anything defined Didion's career, it was a sense that everything is going to hell. A reviewer once asked, "Can no one cheer this woman up?" No, was the answer. After exhausting national collapse as a theme, in old age she turned her attention to personal losses, chronicling at length the deaths of her husband and daughter and her reactions to them. I've never read those books but many people admire their cold-eyed clarity; after all Didion lived her whole life expecting the worst, so she was ready when it came. I don't mean to dismiss that; there is a value to having death and loss described for us in the clearest words and most powerful sentences. Yet something about Didion always rubbed me wrong.

Look closely at Didion's writing and you see an intense devotion to fragmentation. If she receives good advice, she frames it as "Someone said to me that. . . ." The identity of this wise person, and her relationship with that person, are hidden, leaving Didion as lonely and adrift as possible. It was just something she heard, another voice in the chaos. The narrative leaps around in time and space with no transitions or explanations, and the quotations are carefully chosen to make the speakers seem confused and out of place. Wandering around San Francisco talking to hippies she meets one man determined to get rich as a music promoter. He lectures her about the disposable income of the young, tells her things he read in business magazines. But in Didion's telling he pops up in between one strung-out hippie and the next, so different from them that he seems, not a representative from a saner, more self-sustaining America, but another jagged fragment of a reality that makes no sense. I wanted to ask, ok, if you despise hippies, why do you also despise people trying to keep their heads clear and make a living? But in Didion's America businessmen were always sharks out for a fast buck, just another part of the chaos and cruelty. Wherever sanity, order, and moral strength were to be found, it was not among either capitalists or would-be revolutionaries. 

As the sixties settled down, Didion turned her attention to other crises. Her politics drifted left, and she devoted attention to racism. She opposed the "tough on crime" movement of the 1980s, penned a stirring defense of the Central Park Five. She came to believe that the drifters she chronicled had not just dropped out of civilization, but had been driven out by a callous system. She despised the idealized American past she had been raised on, believed it was a lie and a fraud, and also that it was silly to imagine the 1890s had meaningful lessons for how we should live now. 

But she never fit in on the left either, never found a movement she could join. She once described herself as 

a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.

There is a view of contemporary life, to which I partially subscribe, that goes like this: You can walk the narrow path of bourgeois rectitude, carefully placing one foot in front of another, getting up every morning to brush your teeth, go to work, and do all the other required acts, or you can fall off into who knows what. You can believe that this is wrong and evil, or that it is just how life has to be, but that doesn't matter to you. All you face is the choice. Didion shot to fame as the chronicler of the who knows what, the cleverest answerer of the question, "what if we really threw it all over and just walked away?" Her characters are either trapped and desperate to escape, or on the road fleeing from everything, free because they have nothing left to lose.

When I read that Joan Didion had died, I almost immediately had two thoughts. One, she got famous because she believed American life is awful and wrote about it with style and cleverness; two, she got famous because she was at least partly right.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Links 24 December 2021

The Annunciation to the Shepherds from a French manuscript of c. 1420

Mentalfloss page linking to 12 great museums you can tour online.

British metal detectorist finds hoard of 332 fake coins buried in 1801 by notorious forger George Fearns.

The water crisis in Iran. Population growth, industrialization and oil extraction have stretched the country's water sources to the limit, adding another serious problem for a country that already has too many.

More on the Galloway Hoard, including a remarkable little gold and rock crustal jar.

The pandemic has accelerated a trend that has been under way for decades, the shift of children from physical sports to e-sports. You may not know that there are local leagues for e-sports with the same sort of coaching by dads infrastructure that has long supported football, baseball, soccer, and so on. (NY Times)

The savage war waged by monkeys against the dogs of an Indian village.

According to this study, words related to thinking rose vs. words related to feeling and belief in English and Spanish texts from 1850 to 1977, then began to decline.

538's Best Charts of 2021.

In Colchis at the east end of the Black Sea, gold vessels and ornaments were very much in fashion from 2500 to 1500 BC, and then again after 800 BC, but so far as archaeologists can tell very much out of fashion between 1500 and 800 BC; the society looks as rich as it had been except for very little gold.

An anonymous donor sent a box containing $180,000 in cash to the physics department at CCNY, asking that it be used to help impoverished physics students. (NY Times)

Searching for 520-million-year reefs, built by archaeocyaths, in the Nevada desert.

In its early decades the SPCA worried a lot about the conditions of urban working horses, pulling carts on pavements all day, confined to tiny stables at night. So they held Christmas parties for them, partly to give the horses treats and partly to raise awareness about the bad conditions some faced.

A 2019 document from Uber reported 6,000 cases of sexual assault by its drivers in 2017-2018. Perhaps they are applying a very broad definition of "assault," but this is from a company with a record of minimizing its problems, so it looks bad to me. (NY Times)

US population projected to have grown only 0.1% in 2021, the slowest growth since the nation was founded. Births are down, deaths are up, and immigration is down a lot.

Just when it looked like Ethiopia's government might be defeated and overthrown by Tigrayan rebels, a fleet of drones supplied by Arab states turned the tide and send the rebels fleeing back toward their bases. (NY Times; al Jazeera)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Family Tree 5,700 Years old

Paleogeneticists have applied their methods to 35 skeletons from the Hazleton North long cairn in Gloucester, England, which dates to around 3,700 BC. The reconstructed tree shows that 27 of these people were descended from one man and four women; the general assumption is that the women were the man's wives. The people of the next generation were all sons, which implies exogamy, with the daughters being married off elsewhere. In fact most of the people in the tomb were men, and all the relationships seem patrilineal. The descendants of two of the wives were all buried on the same side of the tomb, so I guess they formed sub-families of a sort. 

This paints a very hierarchal and patriarchal picture of society in Neolithic Britain.

Livescience, original article.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

British Paleogenetics: More Migrations

Here is what paleogenetics seems to tell us about ancient Britain:

Neolithic farmers reached the island around 4000 BC and dominated the Mesolithic inhabitants; in 3000 BC the genes of Britain's people were around 80% from migrant farmers, 20% from the Mesolithic inhabitants.

Then around 2500 BC people with the Bell Beaker culture and a lot of Steppes genes reached the island, replacing about 90% of the natives. As we have discussed, they probably brought the Plague with them, which accounts for their population dominance.

New data, published this week, says that in 1400 to 1000 BC a new wave of invaders arrived. This cultural influx is clearly visible in the archaeological record in the form of artifacts and stylistic influence from the continent. These new invaders seem to have made up at least 24% and maybe 50% of the population. As a guess, these may be the speakers of Celtic languages. They also seem to have brought genes for lactose tolerance, which greatly increased in the 1200-800 BC period.

And of course we have data showing that the Anglo-Saxon invaders contributed around 30-40% of the genes in medieval Britain.

The more data we have, the more movement of people we see in the past.

Which means that the old Irish stories recording repeated invasion of the island, and repeated replacements of the population, seem remarkably accurate despite their magical weirdness.

BBC Story; article.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Kiyoshi Yamashita

Kiyoshi Yamashita (1922-1971) was born in Tokyo. According to wikipedia,

At the age of three, he suffered an acute abdominal disorder which, although not life-threatening, left him with a mild speech impediment and some neurological damage.

At elementary school, Yamashita was the victim of bullying and on one occasion wounded a classmate with a knife. Because of this, his parents decided to move him to the Yahata institution for the mentally handicapped in Ichikawa, Chiba. His IQ was measured at 68. It was here he started to experiment using torn pieces of paper to create pictures. His talent was recognized by mental health expert Ryuzaburo Shikiba, who organized an exhibition of Yamashita's work in Osaka which received wide praise.

Tiring of life at the institution, and in order to avoid the mandatory physical examination for recruitment into the Imperial Japanese Army, Yamashita ran away in 1940 to start his wandering around Japan, which would last until 1954.

At the age of 21, staff from the institution found him helping in a restaurant and forced him to take the recruitment exam. Eventually he was considered exempt from service. The events from this time were recorded in his “Wandering Diary” of 1956, and the most popular image of Yamashita travelling alone through the country with his rucksack comes from this period. 

Picture of Yamashita in his rucksack days. That he got somewhat famous for his wandering life as an escaped mental patient confirms something I figured out after reading a lot of Haruki Murakami. While most Japanese live in careful conformity with social expectations, many of them are fascinated by people who throw it all over and become vagabonds or hermits.



Yamashita used a technique called in Japan chigiri-e, which is gluing together pieces of colored paper together. The examples I have seen are mostly landscapes and fireworks displays. The only large image I found was the one I reproduce above, with details to show the method.

You're not a real Japanese artist without at least one rendering of Mt. Fuji. Or at least that used to be true, and the point when it ceased to be so probably marks some kind of major turning point.


I think these are nice, and I find both Yamashita and his status within Japanese culture interesting, so I happily share here the work of this true outsider artist.

Pushing the Panic Button

At Vox, Anna North writes a magnificently unhinged cry of pain titled "The world as we know it is ending. Why are we still at work?" Some samples:

For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism. A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.

Now it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic — a time that has also encompassed an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans — and we’ve been expected to show up to work through all of it. . . .

What do people like North think would happen if we stopped going to work?  Well, for starters, nobody would grow food, or ship food, or sell food, so we would soon all be going hungry. With nobody working in the waterworks and the sewage treatment plants and the power plants, our basic infrastructure would quickly crumble. Without people working, we simply can't survive.

The thing is, I get the impression that people like Anna North want something like that to happen. They want the world to be a s bad as they feel it is. They feel that we are, as North writes, "in the end times," and they want apocalypse in the streets. 

I don't, so I keep working.

People like Anna North also make the strange error of thinking that we have to go to work because of capitalism, and a "break from capitalism" would mean we don't have to work any more. But it isn't capitalism that forces us to work; we have to work because it is fundamental to animal life in this universe. We tried socialism and one thing we learned from that experiment is that people still had to go to their jobs every day.

Between the pandemic, the attempted coup, and the climate crisis, misery abounds:

Making these kinds of calculations all the time is exhausting and takes a toll on mental health. The “constant, low-level stress” of slow-moving disasters like the melting polar ice caps can make everything more difficult, including work, Remes said. “It makes it harder for people to be productive, because they’re worrying about their basement flooding.”

If these things are problems, doesn't that mean that we should be working all the harder to solve them? My readers know that I think greenhouse gases are a solvable problem, but we certainly won't make much progress if we all stay home and cocoon because we're too anxious to work. Plenty of people on the left justified the George Floyd protests with the argument that political change can't wait for the pandemic to end. Pulling your blankets over your head will not help anybody, not even you.

This kind of rant would be incomplete without the (usually white) authors tossing in the assertion that things are even worse for minorities:

Seventy percent of respondents in one September survey said they were anxious or stressed about work, and 81 percent said they were more burnt out than at the start of the pandemic. Among Americans of color, who have experienced many of the pandemic’s interlocking crises most acutely, “depression and anxiety and stress are spiking in ways that are disproportionate to their peers,” Anderson said.

But mental health is one part of American life where people of color do not have it worse; despite numerous attempts to show otherwise by people convinced that the root of our misery is oppression, white Americans suffer more from all the major forms of mental illness than other groups.

The world has serious problems. It always has. But it is not ending. As Freddie de Boer put it, in a response to North's essay,

The person who wrote this wrote it on a functioning computer, passed it off to her superiors as part of a more-or-less unaltered business operation, and it was uploaded to the internet, where it can be accessed by billions of people through the use of technologies that require an exquisite amount of collaboration across vast distances of geography and circumstance. In other words, the world as we know it is apparently ending in such a gentle way that the most basic economic, technological, and communicative infrastructures of our civilization are puttering along nicely.

I find apocalypticism mysterious and fascinating. I think it is often born from a personal sense that life day-to-day is so unendurably bad that anything would be better, even the collapse of civilization, mass starvation, and civil war.

Anna North is clearly on the left, but we could easily find equally unhinged screeds from people on the right. For reasons that I find mysterious, this era when human life is by most numerical measures better than ever before has spawned a very widespread sense that everything is going to hell. I don't really understand why, but I think all this doom-mongering has become a problem of its own as big those it is supposed to be based on.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Tomb of Emperor Wen of Han

Much later (Sung Dynasty) painting of Emperor Wen, shown as a Taoist sage

Chinese archaeologists have announced the discovery of the tomb of Emperor Wen of Han, who reigned from 180 to 157 BC. Emperor Wen was credited with restoring stability to the empire after the quasi-rule of the Empress Dowager Lu, but then dowager empresses always got bad press from Chinese historians, so who knows? The sources are far from perfect. Anyway Wen's reign was remembered as a comparatively peaceful and prosperous time, when the annual property tax was usually 1/60 and never rose above 1/30. (In both Chinese and European lore, low taxes = a good reign.)

His tomb was only recently discovered because people believed for 2,000 years that it was somewhere else, under a hill known as the Phoenix's Mouth just outside Xian City. Archaeologists exploring that area found ten stone tablets honoring Emperor's Wen burial place, all installed in much later periods. Eventually, though, archaeologists figured out that the Phoenix's Mouth is a natural hill, not a tomb at all:

What would prove to be Emperor’s Wen’s actual tomb was discovered a mile or so away from the mountain in 2017 during an emergency excavation to counter looting activity. It may have originally been a pyramid as was typical of imperial tombs of the era, but if so, the mound was flattened over the millennia. It’s also possible the Emperor ordered a less prominent tomb, as he was famed and respected for his frugal approach to leadership. It wasn’t recognized as an imperial tomb until excavations revealed its shape and monumental size (230 feet long, 100 feet wide).

The central tomb has not yet been excavated; all that you see here comes from eight of the estimated 110 subsidiary graves and offering pits that surround it. These gold ornaments come from the tomb of Empress Dowager Lu. So I guess however bad she was a ruler, she still merited a tomb next to the emperor's.


Ceramic figures of servants and attendants, also from the tomb of the Empress Dowager.

A horse burial. The emperor's favorite mount? The empress's?

Figures of prisoners, from a pit full of them. The History Blog has many huge images of the tomb.

The astonishing imperial tombs of classical China represent, I think, the convergence of two trends: first, the use of the deceased emperor's burial as a means of proving the legitimacy of his heir. You see this around the world, the funeral rites of the deceased ruler doubling as the real proof that the successor is firmly in control. This is most common when the transfer of power was not yet regularized; for example the spectacular royal tombs of Anglo-Saxon England all date to the first two or three generations of the royal dynasties. In the Chin and early Han periods imperial rule in China was still fairly new, and the successor's claim to rule the whole empire was disputed from many quarters.

Second, the Taoist obsession with immortality, which convinced some people that the correct rites could guarantee a glorious afterlife. 

(Note that many people who practiced grand funerals with rooms full of grave goods did not think this would help the deceased; it is na├»ve and often  incorrect to assume that people put weapons or pots full of food into graves because they thought the dead could use them. Funerals have always been for the living. But there were some cases, notably classical China and ancient Egypt, where people do seem to have believed that the rites helped the dead, and that more gifts might lead to a better afterlife.)

Anyway how astonishing that these tombs exist, and how wonderful that we can see these old and haunted things.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Walk in Rome

The walk I regularly take in the woods by my house covers about a mile and a half, or 2.4 km. It's a pleasant walk and I regularly see woodpeckers and deer. But I wonder, how much could I see if I took a walk of the same length in Rome? 

Our walk will start at the Colosseum Metro Station. We're just going to skirt the exterior of this famous monument, since I'm not in the mood to have a tour guide tell me questionable stories about gladiators.

Instead we will walk past the Arch of Constantine

And into the Roman Forum.

Now it has to be said that the Forum is now a mess of ruins and Christian churches, overrun with tourists. And yet. This is the place where so much happened. Going back nearly 2500 years, we can name men who spoke here, and reargue their debates. If you went here with me you would have to listen to me recite all of Cicero's Pro Milone that I can remember. Not that I have any special love for Cicero, and Milo was a thug, but I learned those words, from a man who spoke here a hundred times, more than 2,000 years ago. It chills me so much to be where so much happened so long ago that I am probably going to get choked up, and you're going to have to bear with me for a while.

At the far end of the Forum is the Capitoline Museum, one of the world's great collections of broken Roman things. And also plenty of more or less intact ones.

And here's the thing about Rome: the density of famous monuments of so great that you can hardly tell where one ends and the next begins. Because the plaza in front of the Capitoline Museum was designed by Michelangelo. 

This is actually the farthest point we reach from our base; now we turn and make our way back by a different route.

We're going to pass one of Rome's least beloved monuments, the Fascist Altar of the Fatherland,

One our way to the Market of Trajan, a standing commercial building 1900 years old, often called the world's oldest shopping mall.

From there it's just two short blocks to a delightful little sixteenth-century church, Santa Maria ai Monti. This foundation stone of this church was laid in 1580. It seems there had been a medieval nunnery here, but it had been abandoned and had fallen into ruins. Then one day some workers removing stone came across a painting of the Virgin that had miraculously remained intact and bright despite centuries of neglect. People came from all over Rome to see the miracle, and the Pope ordered that a new church be built to house it. This fascinates me because there must be a hundred churches in Europe with this exact same foundation story, about a miraculous image found in a ruin, a field, a cave, or really just about anywhere. Which makes me wonder: who believed this? Did the Pope believe it?

That miraculous painting is still in the church, behind the altar; art historians says it looks like it dates to around 1580. If you're in a generous mood you can say there was a painting but it was faded so they painted it over. I think the whole thing is a nice story, but if you disagree I won't argue.

From there we're going to walk a few hundred more feet and visit a much more famous church, the Basilica of St. Peter in Vincula, or St. Peter's Chains. A church here was consecrated in 440 AD to house the chains that (so they said) bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Rome. The chain installed in the church was given to Pope Leo I by Empress Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Valentinian III. Most of what you can see dates to the 1400s and 1500s, but elements of the original church are still present, including most of the foundation. In medieval England (at least) they celebrated the feast day of St. Peter ad Vincula by pardoning some prisoners and taking cakes to the rest, something that always fascinated me, which is why I am drawn to this church. 

Not much to look like on the outside, but the inside is a bit more spectacular.


These days the church is most famous for the tomb Michelangelo designed for Pope Julius II, which includes his statue of Moses.

From there we'll make our way about 300 feet (100m) to the Domus Aurea, the remains of Nero's famous palace. The site has recently re-opened after a major restoration, so let's go inside and explore. 

The palace and its gardens once covered hundreds of acres. Quite a lot remains, and the new exhibits use projections to bring more of it back to life.

And from there it's just 300 feet back to the Metro station where we began, having walked almost exactly a mile and a half.