Monthly Archives: June 2004

Greater Armenia Impearled

To add depth to the brief mentions of Armenia on this blog and elsewhere, the wonderfully informative Impearls “proceeds to reveal its own look at medieval Armenian history, drawing from a now public-domain chapter in the first edition of the renowned Cambridge Medieval History, by early twentieth century French scholar of Armenia Frédéric Macler (1869-1938), Professor of Armenian for many years at the École nationale des Langues orientales vivantes, Paris.” I’ll post just a few paragraphs from each part. Visit Impearls for the rest, plus illustrations, maps, notes, and acknowledgments.


Lying across the chief meeting-place of Europe and Asia, Armenia suffered immeasurably more from the conflict of two civilisations than it profited by their exchange of goods and ideas. If the West penetrated the East under pressure from Rome, Byzantium, or crusading Eruope, if the East moved westwards, under Persian, Arab, Mongol, or Turk, the roads used were too often the roads of Armenia.

This was not all. East and West claimed and fought for control or possession of the country. Divided bodily between Rome and Persia in pre-Christian times, an apple of discord between Persia and the Byzantine Empire during the early part of the Middle Ages, Armenia for the rest of its national history was alternately the prey of Eastern and Western peoples. When the Armenian kingdom was strong enough to choose its own friends, it turned sometimes to the East, sometimes to the West. It drew its culture from both. But, belonging wholly neither to West nor to East, it suffered consistently at the hands of each in turn and of both together….

The Arab Conquest

… In this long period of foreign rule, the Armenians invariably found a change of masters a change for the worse. The Persians ruled the country th{r}ough a succession of Marzpans, or military commanders of the frontiers, who also had to keep order and to collect revenue. With a strong guard under their own command, they did not destroy the old national militia nor take away the privileges of the nobility, and at first they allowed full liberty to the Katholikos and his bishops. As long as the Persians governed with such tolerance, they might fairly hope to fuse the Armenian nation with their own. But a change of religious policy under Yezdegerd II and Piroz roused the Armenians to defend their faith in a serious of religious wars lasting until the end of the sixth century, during which Vardan with his 1036 companions perished for the Christian faith in the terrible battle of Avaraïr (454). But, whether defeated or victorious, the Armenians never exchanged their Christianity for Zoroastrianism….

Shortly after the Arab conquest, the Armenians turned once more to their old masters, the Greeks. With the help of Leo the Isaurian, Smbat (Sempad) Bagratuni defeated the Arabs, and was commissioned to rule Armenia by the Emperor. But after a severe struggle the Muslims regained their dominion, and sent the Arab commander Qâsim to punish the Armenians (704). He carried out his task with oriental ferocity. He set fire to the church of Nakhijevan, into which he had driven the princes and nobles, and then pillaged the country and sent many of the people into captivity….

Recovery and Independence

As the long period of gloom, faintly starred by calamitous victories, passed into the ninth century, the Arab oppression slowly lightened. The Abbasid Empire was drawing to its fall. While the Arabs were facing their own troubles, the Armenian nobility were founding principalities. The Mamikonian family, it is true, died out in the middle of the ninth century without founding a kingdom. Yet, because they had no wide territories, they served Armenia disinterestedly, and though of foreign origin could claim many of the national heroes of their adopted country: Vasak, Mushegh, and Manuel, three generals of the Christian Arsacidae; Vardan, who died for the faith in the religious wars; Vahan the Wolf and Vahan Kamsarakan, who fought the Persians; David, Grigor, and Mushegh, rebels against Arab misrule…. Many other principalities were also formed, each claiming independence, the largest and most important of them all being the kingdom of the Bagratuni.

Like the Mamikonians, the Bagratuni seem to have come from abroad…. The Bagratuni were also wealthy. Unlike the Mamikonians, they owned vast territories, and founded a strong principality in the country of Ararat. Their wealth, their lands, and their history made them the most powerful of Armenian families and pointed out to them a future more memorable than their past. Midway in the ninth century, the power of the Bagratuni was inherited by Prince Ashot. The son of Smbat the Confessor, he refounded the ancient kingdom of Armenia and gave it a dynasty of two centuries’ duration. Under the rule of the Bagratuni kings Armenia passed through the most national phase of its history. It was a conquered province before they rose to power, it became more European and less Armenian after their line was extinct. Like Ashot himself, his descendants tried at first to control the whole of Armenia, but from 928 onwards they were obliged to content themselves with real dominion in their hereditary lands and moral supremacy over the other princes. This second and more peaceful period of their rule was the very summer of Armenian civilisation. [See Map of Bagratid Kingdoms in Armenia (964-1064).] …

The Arabs return, but are driven out

Under Smbat I (892-914) the lesser princes did more mischief than under his father Ashot because they made common cause with the Arabs of Azerbâ’îjân, who hated Armenia. For more than twenty years Smbat held his kingdom against the persistent attacks, now separate, now connected, of the Ostikans of Azerbâ’îjân and of the Armenian princes, and for more than a generation he and his son looked perforce to the Greeks as their only source of external help….

To thwart the new-born power of Armenia, Yûsuf [Ostikan of Azerbâ’îjân,] crowned a rival king and provoked a fierce civil war, which was finally ended through the mediation of John, the Katholikos. Many other internal revolts followed, but Ashot suppressed them all, and Yûsuf turned aside to attack the peaceful kingdom of Van. Here, too, he was unsuccessful, but he appointed a new Ostikan of Armenia. The purpose of this new Ostikan and of his successor Bêshir was to capture the Armenian king and the Katholikos. But Ashot retired to the island of Sevan, and built ten large boats. When Bêshir marched against him with a strong army, he manned each boat with seven skilled archers and sent them against the enemy. Every Armenian arrow found its mark, the Arabs took to flight, and were pursued with slaughter as far as Dwin by Prince Gêorg Marzpetuni, Ashot’s faithful supporter. After this epic resistance, Ashot left Sevan in triumph, and took the title “King of Kings of Armenia” in token of his superiority to the other Armenian princes. He died in 928.

(Mostly) Peace and prosperity

Two reigns of perpetual warfare were followed by nearly a century of comparative peace (928-1020). Ashot’s successors were content with more modest aims. At home they confined their real rule to their own patrimony and exercised only a moral sway over the other Armenian States. Abroad they sought the favour of the Arabs, rather than that of the Greeks. In this way alone was it possible to secure a measure of peace….

Armenian culture was pre-eminently ecclesiastical. Its literature did include chronicles and secular poems, but was overwhelmingly religious as a whole. Armenian manuscripts, famous alike for their antiquity, their beauty, and their importance in the history of writing, are nearly all ecclesiastical. Most interesting of all in many ways (especially for the comparison of text and variant readings) are the numerous copies of the Gospels. The Moscow manuscript (887) is the earliest Armenian manuscript actually dated, and two very beautiful Gospels of a later date are those of Queen Melkê and of Trebizond. A collection of theological and other texts executed between 971 and 981 is their earliest manuscript written on paper. Other important writings were dogmatic works, commentaries, and sharakans or sacred songs composed in honour of church festivals. Armenian art, again, was mainly ecclesiastical, and survives, on the one hand in the illuminations and miniatures which adorn the sacred texts, and, on the other, in the ruined churches and convents which still cover the face of the country. Architecture was military as well as ecclesiastical, but it is hard not to believe that the people of Ani were prouder of their galaxy of churches than they were of their fortress, their walls, and their towers….

Greeks and Turks

Two generations of misfortune (1020-1079) opened with civil war. Gagik had left two sons. His successor John-Smbat (1020-1040), timid and effeminate, was attacked and defeated by his younger and more militant brother Ashot, who was helped by Senekherim Arcruni, King of Vaspurakan (Van). Peace was concluded through the mediation of the Katholikos Petros Getadartz and Giorgi, King of the Georgians, but only by a division of territory. John-Smbat kept Ani and its dependencies, while Ashot took the part of the kingdom next to Persia and Georgia (Iberia). On the death of either brother the country was to be re-united under the survivor….

By the end of the eleventh century not a vestige remained of Byzantine dominion over Armenia. The Greeks saw too late the fatal consequences of their selfish hostility towards a country which on south and east might have served them as a rampart against their most dangerous foe.

Little Armenia and Aftermath

The national history of Greater Armenia ended with the Turkish conquest and with the extinction of the Bagratuni line. Little by little, numbers of Armenians withdrew into the Taurus mountains and the plateau below, but though their country rose again from ruin, it was only as a small principality in Cilicia. The fruits of Armenian civilisation — the architectural splendour of Ani, the military strength of Van, the intellectual life of Kars, the commercial pride of Bitlis and Ardzen — were no more….

After the Turkish victory of 1453, Mahomet II founded an Armenian colony in Constantinople and placed it under the supervision of Joakim, the Armenian Bishop of Brûsa, to whom he afterwards gave the title of “Patriarch” with jurisdiction over all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. From that time to this, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople has carrried on the work of the Katholikos and has been the national representative of the Armenian people.

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The Ngatik Massacre, July 1837

In July 1837, a ship sailed into Ngatik atoll near Pohnpei on a nefarious mission.

The ship was the trading cutter Lambton, out of Sydney, Australia, manned by the classic motley crew of runaways, villains, adventurers, and entrepreneurs–the sort who abounded in the European population of the Pacific in the early nineteenth century. Any of those words could describe the Lambton’s master, C. H. Hart. Hart had roamed the Western Pacific for years, making his way by a mix of fair trade and sly schemes. Hart traded Islanders beads and knives, guns and ammunition, tobacco, cloth, and rum, driving a hard bargain for the bêche-de-mer, pearl shell, and tortoiseshell that he loaded aboard the Lambton. Bêche-de-mer, sea cucumber, went to China for soup. The Chinese paid well for it, but it had to be boiled and cured in a foul, messy job. Collecting pearl shell, like processing bêche-de-mer, was labor intensive…. Tortoiseshell, from hawksbill turtles–that was the stuff. It was made into ladies’ combs and mirrors, decorated boxes, and knickknacks. The Victorian world, Far East and West, was wild for it, and hawksbill turtles were being decimated to fill the demand.

It took time and hard work to find the turtles, though they were easy enough to kill once you located them. But what Hart had, or thought he had, on the atoll called by its inhabitants Sapwuahfik (but by Hart “Ngatik,” and on navigational charts by a dozen other names) was a hoard of tortoiseshell without the trouble of work–except the work of taking it from the island’s people, who would, no doubt, object. They had objected when Hart’s crew first found the treasure trove of shell, more than a year earlier. Two of the Lambton’s men had gone inland and discovered a cache of turtle shell, but the Islanders would not sell and resisted theft. In fact, a group of men chased the sailors down to the beach, and the crew escaped by quick oar strokes. The Lambton returned to island trading and a trip to New South Wales, but Hart did not forget the shell, nor the close call he and his crew had experienced. Greed and revenge took root, and in Hart’s mind he marked Sapwuahfik for a return trip.

The Lambton sailed to the region again in mid-1836, arriving at Pohnpei Island in August, just after a group of whalers from the ship Falcon had been killed following an altercation with Pohnpei men. The Europeans in the area, Hart among the leaders, joined forces to take revenge, culminating in the murder of a Pohnpei nobleman. (By involving himself with these events, Hart made sure that his name went down on the list of persons to be investigated two years later by a British warship, HMS Larne, under Commander P. L. Blake. Blake was a thorough and principled investigator, cautious but relentless in his pursuit of evidence of criminal activity. Because of Blake we have a historical record of Hart’s crimes.)

After the Falcon incident, Hart went back to business, sailing between Guam, Manila, and Pohnpei. Then, on the last days of June or the first days of July 1837, he made ready for his return to Sapwuahfik–where, he said, he wished to “trade quietly” with the natives–by making cartridges and taking on extra hands from Pohnpei.

When he arrived at the atoll, Hart tried to land where he had landed before, but this time he was met with hostility. Sapwuahfik men beckoned them ashore, indicating their intentions with a display of their own weapons. The people of Sapwuahfik had known from divination when the ship would return; they had been watching, and when they saw it appear on the horizon, they prepared for war, readying clubs and slings.

Hart thought better of an immediate landing, taking the crew to spend the night on another islet of the atoll. The next day he loaded them into the ship’s boats for a straightforward assault. Despite the defenders’ preparations, the battle turned against them. In two days of fighting, every Sapwuahfik man but one was killed or fled by canoe. Though one woman was accidentally wounded, the invaders did not make targets of women and children.

Soon after the Lambton sailed from the atoll–which, now that the native voices were stilled, would be called Ngatik for more than a century–it returned to leave a group of Pohnpeians and a European in charge of what Hart saw as his conquered domain. The plan was to operate Ngatik as a business, producing tortoiseshell. They would bring in more settlers, marry the widows and girls of old Sapwuahfik, and see how much money they could make in this pretty place. So survivors and murderers began a curious interaction that would eventually produce a new population and a unique culture [and language]. Sapwuahfik’s history had come to an end. The story of Ngatik had just begun.

SOURCE: The Ngatik Massacre: History and Identity on a Micronesian Atoll, by Lin Poyer (Smithsonian, 1993), pp. 1-3


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Ngatik Men’s Creole and Its Legacy

One result of the massacre of all the men on Ngatik atoll in 1837 and their replacement by their killers from aboard the cutter Lambton was the creation of an unusual language, Ngatik Men’s Creole, described in Ethnologue as:

A creolized language from the Sapuahfik dialect of Ponapean and English whose genesis is the direct result of a massacre in 1837 of adult males on Ngatik by British traders. Spoken by adult males who are also native bilinguals of the Sapuahfik dialect of Ponapean. Adult male speakers. Women and children understand it.

Most Pacific creoles are built out of words from the colonial languages (chiefly English or French) in a grammatical framework based on local languages. Ngatik Men’s Creole is the reverse: The nouns, verbs, and adjectives are mostly of Pohnpeic origin, but the pronouns, prepositions, and such are mostly from English. It appears as if the foreign men started by speaking (some Pacific maritime variety of) English to each other, but gradually replaced the English content words as they became bilingual in the language of their wives.

Partly for linguistic reasons, the people of Ngatik later came to identify strongly with Americans. Among the nonlinguistic reasons is the relative egalitarianism of Americans compared to the more explicitly (but fluidly) hierarchical orientation of Pohnpeians.

Sapwuahfik people explicitly compare their perceived egalitarianism to American ways, and mehn Pohnpei share the recognition of American style as egalitarian….

Sapwuahfik’s sense of having special ties with Americans is founded on a number of historical incidents, beginning with uncertainty about Hart’s nationality, which for some people has become the determination that he was American (from the documents, he appears to have been a British citizen; the Lambton was registered in Sydney, Australia). (One man joked to me about filing a claim for damages against the United States on account of the massacre.) Sapwuahfik’s history of affiliation with Americans can be traced through stories about the immediate postmassacre period (when several memorable Anglophones, some American, lived there), the American missionary era, World War II (when the U.S. military visited and bestowed gifts on the atoll) and the post-1960 era of U.S. economic generosity. Anecdotes of World War II include personal encounters with flyers and soldiers that emphasize the bravery, friendliness, and generosity of the Americans. Because they alone spoke English, Sapwuahfik men on Pohnpei acted as interpreters and assistants to incoming U.S. troops.

Today it is the people of Pohnpei, and to an extent other Micronesians in the Eastern Carolines, who have greatest access to and familiarity with American ways. Yet Sapwuahfik people retain a sense of identification with Americans. In their view of the past, they moved from a state of darkness through the trial of the massacre onto a path of increasing enlightenment, which today is consonant with the general shift in Micronesia toward political democracy and decreasing emphasis on traditional rank as a source of power. The construction of history is thus strengthened by American ideals of democracy and social equality, in which mehn Sapwuahfik see themselves as more like Americans than are their Eastern Carolines neighbors.

A second symbolic elaboration of Sapwuahfik identity is as sincere Christians, in distinction from neighbors who are thought to use sorcery. Concern about possible magical harm pervades discussions about illness or misfortune, and caution about sorcery dangers accompanies Sapwuahfik visitors to Pohnpei. Throughout much of the Pacific and elsewhere, it is “others” who employ magic, and “we” who are true Christians. The Sapwuahfik claim partakes of this general phenomenon. Yet beyond this, the notion of Sapwuahfik virtue (like the assertion of egalitarian socioeconomic relations) is supported by a historical argument: atoll people rejected pagan ways as a result of the massacre and are now firmly committed to increasing “enlightenment” in both religious and political terms. God’s mercy on the island after the terrible punishment of the massacre is a reward for their faithfulness to his religion. Sapwuahfik’s claim of special divine protection rests on uniquely local indicators–people point out that Sapwuahfik does not suffer from typhoons or food scarcity, as other islands do, and that it was preserved from bombing in World War II.

Egalitarian and religious considerations are thus potent markers, affirming the forward-looking, allied-with-power, “enlightened” qualities of Sapwuahfik culture.

SOURCE: The Ngatik Massacre: History and Identity on a Micronesian Atoll, by Lin Poyer (Smithsonian I. Press, 1993), pp. 232-234

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Camel Loathing

John DeFrancis’s loathing for camels grew with every step across the desert.

The very first sight of them filled us with distaste. When they arrived at the Temple of the Larks their burdens had made them seem bigger than they actually were. After they were unloaded Martin [his Canadian traveling companion] said they seemed tiny compared to the strapping geldings he had seen at Georg’s ranch. They were made to appear even smaller by the fact that they had shed half or more of their wool, exposing big pinkish blotches of skin. Although such shedding was perfectly normal, the mangy appearance gave them an air of utter decrepitude.

This impression was heightened by the forlorn way in which their two humps lay all flopped over, like the limp watches in a Dali painting. These stand firmly erect on camels in good condition. Contrary to popular belief, the single hump of Arabian dromedaries and the two humps of our Bactrians are reservoirs of fat, not water. The limp humps of our camels showed their complete lack of any reserve of fat that they might draw on.

We might have felt pity for the beasts if they had not had about them an air of hauteur that did not at all accord with their actual appearance–ungainly bodies with spindly legs, serpentine necks with reptilian heads, misshapen faces with doubly cleft harelips and unblinking eyes, protruding mouth and jaws that chewed the cud with a silly sideways motion. They made me think of scrofulous aristocrats with frayed cuffs and dirty collars, monocle in eye and ivory-handled cane aswing. At first I felt almost guilty to have such a visceral dislike for these supercilious creatures, but then I remembered reading that camels never evoke in humans the sort of relationship that dogs and horses often do.

A camel never looks you in the eye, the way an adoring dog does. They hold their arrogant heads up high and look right past you, as if you were not there, and indeed they appear to be totally indifferent to anything in their environment. It is not that they are lost in their own thoughts, for thinking, to redirect the male conceit of Henry Higgins, is something that camels never do. It takes them several years to learn to kneel, and even then they constantly need to be reminded by a sharp downward tug at their nose-cord.

Even the basic intelligence needed for survival is lacking. Other animals learn to avoid poisonous plants, but they have given their name to a plant called “camel poison” because only they are so stupid as to eat it, with dire results that they never foresee. From time to time disaster strikes whole caravans whose camels have all succumbed to the plant.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), p. 138

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Internet Censorship in South Korea

In an incredible move, at once childish and paternalistic, the South Korean–I repeat, the “liberal” democratic South Korean–government has implemented measures similar to those of the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran to disable access to a wide range of blog servers (,,,,, among others) in an effort to prevent its citizens from viewing the beheading of one of its citizens, Kim Sôn-il. (The South Korean government would do the world a much bigger favor if it would concentrate on shutting down the multitude of spam servers in its domain.)

Of course, bloggers left, right, and center are dismayed, to put it mildly. The following letter was posted on The Marmot’s (Final) Hole. I’ll quote it without further comment.

Fellow blogger,

I am sending this message to the bloggers on my blogroll (and a few other folks) in the hopes that some of you will print this, or at least find it interesting enough for comment. I’m not usually the type to distribute such messages, but I felt this was important enough to risk disturbing you.

As some of you may already know, a wing of the South Korean government, the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC), is currently clamping down on a variety of blogging service providers and other websites. The government is attempting to control access to video of the recent Kim Sun-il beheading, ostensibly because the video will have a destabilizing influence. (I haven’t seen the video.)

Many Western expat bloggers in Korea are in an uproar; others, myself included, are largely unsurprised: South Korea has not come far out of the shadow of its military dictatorship past. My own response to this censorship is not so much anger as amusement, because the situation represents an intellectual challenge as well as a chance to fight for freedom of expression. Perhaps even to fight for freedom, period.

South Korea is a rapidly evolving country, but in many ways it remains the Hermit Kingdom. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, the people are on occasion unable to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them. This country is, for example, in massive denial about the atrocities perpetrated in North Korea, and, as with many Americans, is in denial about the realities of Islamic terrorism, whose roots extend chronologically backward far beyond the lifetime of the Bush Administration. This cultural tendency toward denial (and overreaction) at least partially explains the Korean government’s move to censor so many sites.

The fact that the current administration, led by President Noh Mu-hyon, is supposedly “liberal”-leaning makes this censorship more ironic. It also fuels propagandistic conservative arguments that liberals are, at heart, closet totalitarians. I find this to be a specious caricature of the liberal position (I consider myself neither liberal nor conservative), but to the extent that Koreans are concerned about what image they project to the world, it is legitimate for them to worry over whether they are currently playing into stereotype: South Korea is going to be associated with other violators of human rights, such as China.

Of the many hypocrisies associated with the decision to censor, the central one is that no strong governmental measures were taken to suppress the distribution of the previous beheading videos (Nick Berg et al.). This, too, fuels the suspicion that Koreans are selfish or, to use their own proverbial image, “a frog in a well”– radically blinkered in perspective, collectively unable to empathize with the sufferings of non-Koreans, but overly sensitive to their own suffering.

I am writing this letter not primarily to criticize all Koreans (I’m ethnically half-Korean, and an American citizen), nor to express a generalized condemnation of Korean culture. As is true anywhere else, this culture has its merits and demerits, and overall, I’m enjoying my time here. No, my purpose is more specific: to cause the South Korean government as much embarrassment as possible, and perhaps to motivate Korean citizens to engage in some much-needed introspection.

To this end, I need the blogosphere’s help, and this letter needs wide distribution (you may receive other letters from different bloggers, so be prepared!). I hope you’ll see fit to publish this letter on your site, and/or to distribute it to concerned parties: censorship in a supposedly democratic society simply cannot stand. The best and quickest way to persuade the South Korean government to back down from its current position is to make it lose face in the eyes of the world. This can only happen through a determined (and civilized!) campaign to expose the government’s hypocrisy and to cause Korean citizens to rethink their own narrow-mindedness.

We can debate all we want about “root causes” with regard to Islamic terrorism, Muslim rage, and all the rest, but for me, it’s much more constructive to proceed empirically and with an eye to the future. Like it or not, what we see today is that Korea is inextricably linked with Iraq issues, and with issues of Islamic fundamentalism. Koreans, however, may need some persuading that this is in fact the case–that we all need to stand together as allies against a common enemy.

If you are interested in giving the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture a piece of your mind (or if you’re a reporter who would like to contact them for further information), please email the MIC at:

Thank you,

Kevin Kim

(Blogspot is currently blocked in Korea, along with other providers; please go to and type my URL into the search window to view my blog.)

PS: To send me an email, please type “hairy chasms” in the subject line to avoid being trashed by my custom-made spam filter.

PPS: Much better blogs than mine have been covering this issue, offering news updates and heartfelt commentary. To start you off, visit:

Here as well, Unipeak is the way to go if you’re in Korea and unable to view the above blogs. People in the States should, in theory, have no problems accessing these sites, which all continue to be updated.

PPPS: This email is being cc’ed to the South Korean Ministry of Information and Culture. Please note that other bloggers are writing about the Korean government’s creation of a task force that will presumably fight internet terror. I and others have an idea that this task force will serve a different purpose. If this is what South Korea’s new “aligning with the PRC” is all about, then there’s reason to worry for the future.

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Kim Jong-il: Born in the USSR (as Yuri Kim)

Andrei Lankov’s latest column in his “Another Korea” series in the Korea Times is entitled “Born in the USSR”:

In late November 1945 a Soviet ship arrived at the Korean port of Unggi. Among those disembarking were several women dressed in Soviet military uniforms. Some of them had small children with them. The children spoke Korean and looked Korean, but this was their first encounter with the land of their ancestors. It was how the would-be Dear Leader Chairman Kim Jong-il first saw the country he was to rule half a century later …

The would-be Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was born as Yuri [Ilsungovich?] Kim in a small village of Viatskoe (or Viatsk), not far from the city of Khabarovsk in the then USSR. His birth date is less certain. The official histories allege that he was born on Feb. 15, 1942, but there has been speculation that he is actually a bit older.

The North Korean media never recognized that Kim Jong-il was born on a foreign soil. From the early 1980s official propaganda insisted that he was born in a secret guerrilla camp located on the slopes of the sacred Paektu Mountain (the first such statement appeared in February 1982). This was necessary to present the young boy as a participant in the guerrilla epic, long seen as the spiritual foundation of the North Korean state, and as a pure national leader, untarnished by any undue foreign influences.

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Nestorians and Prester John on The Argus

Speaking of palimpsests: P F has a long and informative post over at The Argus on Nestorians and the Legend of Prester John. The first few paragraphs follow. Read the rest.

Nestorius was a fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, deposed and driven into exile for having preached heretical Christology, reportedly maintaining (though Nestorius himself denied it) that the Logos lived in the person of Jesus, who would thus be the bearer of God, and not the man-God, the orthodox position, two natures in one substance. Surprisingly, the decision to anathematize Nestorius turned out to have interesting consequences in Central Asian history, and perceptions of Central Asia in medieval Europe.

The Persian church had been autonomous from 410, possessing its own Patriarch, independant of the authority of the Western churches, and in 486 made a decision to uphold Nestorius’s teachings, in part to distinguish themselves from the West and reduce the chance that Persian Christians would gravitate to Antioch and Constantinople; non-Nestorians were driven from the country (though the Armenians condemned the move). Symmetrically, Nestorians fled Western areas to Persia, just as three hundred years earlier Christians had fled the then-pagan Roman Empire to take refuge with the Persian church.

By the middle of the sixth century, Nestorians churches had sprung up all over Asia, from Sri Lanka to Mongolia and from Egypt to China, and everywhere in between, including Turkestan, India, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Like many missionaries confronted with illiterate societies, the Nestorians were led to create writing systems for the languages of peoples they wished to convert, such as Mongolian, Uighur, Sogdian, and Manchu, all based on Syriac.

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The Taste of Gobi Rations in the 1930s

Travel rations in the Gobi were somewhat less varied in the 1930s than they are now.

We started by drinking a bowl of “brick tea.” This was tea made by hammering off a chunk from a brick measuring about 6″ x 10″ x 1″ that weighed about two and a half pounds and was formed by compressing tea leaves into the least possible space in order to reduce the cost of transportation. Such bricks were widely used as a medium of exchange in the barter trade between Chinese and Mongols.

The chunk broken off from the brick is pounded, usually in a mortar, to loosen the compacted elements. Most teas are steeped in hot water according to the taste of the drinker. Brick tea is made by boiling. Mongols and Tibetans drink tea au lait, with added milk, butter, and salt. Chinese prefer it straight.

We had ours Chinese style. At first sip the tea tasted a bit like water in which a strip of rubber has been boiled. It improved only slightly with more sips.

Next we had a bowl of roasted or parched millet. Although millet is generally considered to be poor people’s fare, especially in contrast to high-status rice and wheat, it seemed to me not a whit inferior in taste to many of our cereals that are well known to be the breakfasts of champions…. Camel drivers generally eat the millet dry, washing it down with copious bowls of brick tea. Others prefer the somewhat more efficient technique of pouring handfuls of the cereal into their tea and then slurping down the combination. This was my preference, too …

We also had a small taste of two other cereals. One was a kind of oatmeal, not the flaky sort such as graces American breakfasts, but rather a finely ground flour, also roasted or parched. We ate it in a bowl of hot tea, making a sort of porridge, with the optional addition of a bit of sugar. I found it quite tasty. The other cereal, also a parched flour, tasted like bran. We sampled a few spoonfuls in our tea, again with a bit of sugar. It too seemed to me quite palatable.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 94-95

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The Feel of the Gobi Underfoot

John DeFrancis trekked across the Gobi in 1935, mostly on foot.

The term “Gobi” requires a bit of explanation. It is a Mongolian word with the literal meaning “gravel desert.” The term “Gobi Desert” is therefore redundant, but it is now firmly established in general usage, where it is applied to an area extending seven hundred miles from north to south and twelve hundred miles from east to west. This is centered along the border running east and west between Inner and Outer Mongolia.

But this huge expanse, the central portion of which is often designated “the Great Gobi,” actually consists of stretches comprising different kinds of terrain–sandy belts, barren rocky hills, patches of grassland, and gravel-covered soil. It is only the last of these, the gravel-covered stretches, that Mongols refer to as “gobi.” Foreign travelers in the area soon learn to use the term in both the restricted sense of the Mongols and the looser sense established by popular usage.

The distinction, which is sometimes expressed in writing by capitalization versus small letters, is important if we are to make sense out of a statement like “After crossing this sandy stretch we’ll have a belt of gobi before running into more sand.” When hoofing it through the desert one can hardly fail to be impressed by the differences in terrain and by the utility of the restricted Mongol usage of the term. And after slogging through a stretch of sandy soil it is a relief for one’s legs to come to a belt of good firm gobi.

We developed a refined feeling–literally a feeling–for the differences in the ground under our feet. Sight was not a completely reliable guide. Except for differences in color, one stretch of gobi often looked much like another. But our feet felt a difference.

Some stretches of gobi consisted of a thick layer of hard-packed gravel that held up well under our weight and made walking a pleasure. Others consisted of a thin covering of gravel on a friable crust that gave way to softer earth underneath. Walking over such terrain was almost as tiring as walking on sand.

There were differences between sandy areas too. Wind-blown sand that covered the ground with drifts and dunes was so tiring to walk on that we often made long detours to avoid such areas. Sand in dry riverbeds was occasionally somewhat compacted and so provided better footing.

Zhou said that there were actually five kinds of gobi–white, black, yellow, red, and blue. These colors refer to the kinds of gravel that covered the ground. The sand, soil, and rocks in their various hues added still more color to terrain that not only varied from place to place but changed shape before our eyes, sometimes because we saw the wind literally remaking the face of the land, always because in our progression we saw things from constantly changing perspectives. We found no little pleasure, or at least fascination, in the desert kaleidoscope.

SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 84-85

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Naipaul on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist Christians

Naipaul’s chapter profiling a Javanese Christian poet from Yogyakarta is entitled “Below the Lava”:

It was because of the Christian preaching against polygamy, and the suffering it had brought in their own lives, that Linus’s father and mother–as recently as 1938–had converted to Christianity. They had not been Muslims before, but Javanists, with a mixed local religion made up of survivals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. They had both attended Christian schools; they had learned about Christianity there. The Christianity they had adopted had not meant a break with the past.

“Here even when we became Christians we continued with our old customs. Taking flowers to the cemetery, praying to the spirits of our ancestors. When someone dies even today in our Christian community we have mixed rituals. The ceremonies three days after the death, seven days, forty days, a hundred days, one year, two years, a thousand days.” Because of his father these death ceremonies would have been on Linus’s mind.

Linus said, “Christianity is important because it teaches you to love somebody as you love yourself. It means teaching us to become tender persons, not wild or aggressive persons. In Javanism also we have the concept of restraint. It is easy therefore for Javanese people to embrace Christ’s teaching.”

High up on the inner concrete wall, above the central doorway, out of which Linus’s mother and sister had come from the room at the back, there was a big brown cross. It was above a grotesque leather puppet. It was the standardized puppet figure of the clown, Semar, from the shadow play, a character, Linus said, from one or the other of the two Javanized Hindu epics, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata: “a god turned into a man, always supporting the good people.”

In 1979 there had been a leather puppet there, but I didn’t remember Semar. I remembered another figure. I couldn’t say what it was, and I didn’t ask Linus about it. It was only while working on this chapter that I checked, and found that in 1979 the mascot figure on that wall, the associate divinity of the house, above the horizontal ventilation slits and below the cross, was the Black Krishna. Not the playful Krishna of India, stealing the housewife’s freshly churned butter and hiding the clothes of the milkmaids while they swam in the river; but the Black Krishna of Java, a figure of wisdom. That Krishna would have been a sufficient protector of a man starting out as a poet. Now, in a time of deeper grief and need, Semar–the man-god who helped the good–was a more appropriate divinity….

[Linus] said, “Six or seven feet below us here are many Hindu temples or Buddha temples or Hindu-Buddha temples, buried by eruptions of Merapi a thousand years ago and also two thousand and fifty years ago.” Merapi, the active volcano of the region, creator of the lava that enriched the soil, and showed as black boulders in the beds of streams. “This creates a job for people who want to study about Java culture and religion, because behind these phenomena we can catch the spirit of Javanese people today.”

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 81, 85

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