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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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August 2, 2008 12:39 PM

What would Peking Man think of the 2008 Olympics?

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Since I began Blogging Beijing nine months ago, I've asked all sorts of Beijingers about the 2008 Olympic Games - teachers, students, peddlers, conductors, soldiers, beggars, doctors, rappers, athletes, farmers.

From recent arrivals - migrant workers, to Lao Beijing - tenured hutong dwellers, everyone has had something interesting to say.

I've particularly enjoyed engaging the city's elderly in Olympic conversations. Twenty years ago, even five years ago, Beijing was a different place. Their home has changed so much, so fast.

With the Games just days away, I decided to pay Beijing's oldest resident a visit. A trip to Zhoukoudian, I figured, would help put the Games in perspective.

Zhoukoudian is an archeological site turned museum/park 40 kilometers southwest of central Beijing, once home to Homo erectus Pekinesis - a prehistoric human nicknamed 'Peking Man.'

Peking Man in fact refers to a series of homo erectus communities based at Zhoukoudian, a cave-riddled limestone hill. Heavy-browed men and women hunted, fashioned stone tools and kindled fires near Beijing 500,000 years ago.

Accompanied by an American friend, I boarded a long-distance bus near the Temple of Heaven. We passed fields of newly planted trees, hundreds of nut-and-bolt shops, suburban villas and a compound marked 'Earthquake Command Center.'

Tickets to see what's left of Peking Man cost 30 yuan - around US$4. On this Monday morning, the museum's sprawling grounds were nearly empty. Huge busts of Peking Man, however, greeted us at every turn.

I approached an older man on his way out of the park. If he were still alive, what would Peking Man think of the 2008 Olympics? I wondered aloud.

"Oh ho!" our fellow tourist cried. "Peking Man! The Olympic Games! I'm certain he could've never imagined it. The Olympics don't belong to ancient Beijing. The Olympics belong to ancient Greece. And these 2008 Games...are for modern men."

A bust of Peking Man, Beijing Yuanren ('Beijing Ape-man') in Chinese.

Chinese archaeologists explore Zhoukoudian.

A pleasant scene near Zhoukoudian's 'Locality One.'

I collared an aged museum staffer and posed the same question.

"Of course, Peking Man would be happy for China," he answered. "Why? Because, years ago, foreigners called our country dongya bingfu - the 'Sick Man of East Asia.' Now China is hosting the Olympics. Now China is strong."

"He'd not only support Beijing's Games, he'd participate," asserted a Beijing Institute of Technology student and Olympic volunteer, stationed through August at Zhoukoudian.

The park/museum at Zhoukoudian consists of three parts: museum, excavation sites and gift shop.

The museum features oil paintings of a sociable, thriving Peking Man and a small collection of fossilized skullcaps. His contemporaries included woolly rhinos, saber tooth tigers and broad-jawed deer.

Leafy paths run between Zhoukoudian's various excavation sites. Local quarry men led Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and American paleontologist Walter W. Granger to the hill in 1921. Andersson recognized quartz deposits not native to the area and famously exclaimed 'Here is primitive man, now all we have to do is find him!'

Andersson and an Austrian paleontologist turned up molars at Zhoukoudian. A Canadian anatomist discovered skull fragments in 1928. Chinese archaeologists found more later on.

"I don't understand your question," a puzzled museum staffer told me. "Peking Man lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. He's got nothing to do with the Olympics."

We stood in the shade of a broad persimmon tree, admiring a life-sized plastic wooly rhino. Cicadas hummed furiously in the breeze.

"I brought my son here today," a middle aged man explained. "I want him to know Beijing's history."

So that's a woolly rhino? Peking Man shared Zhoukoudian with sabertooth tigers too.

Olympic volunteers from the Beijing Institute of Technology sleep off the smog at Zhoukoudian.

Treasure in the gift shop: yours for only 380 yuan (US$42).

From Peking Man to modern man inside Zhoukoudian's museum.

Chinese excavations at Zhoukoudian halted in 1937, as the Japanese marched near Beijing. Fossils from the site were placed in a safe at the Peking Union Medical College for wartime safekeeping.

Bound for the U.S. in 1941, the fossils vanished. Countless authors and dreamers have speculated as to their fate. In 2005, Beijing established a committee to recover the bones - 60 years after the Second World War.

Zhoukoudian's gift shop boasts Peking Man t-shirts, Peking Man playing cards and ballpoint Peking Man pens.

Beijing's come a long way since the cenozoic.

I searched for Zhoukoudian - Olympics cross-marketing. The gift shop hasn't stocked Peking Man ping-pong paddles...yet.

(Note: After visiting Zhoukoudian, my friend and I proceeded to Yinhudong ('Silver Fox Cave'), another Fangshan District attraction. On our way back to Beijing, we encountered a police checkpoint. Not having brought our passports along, we waited two hours for a foreign affairs policeman to arrive. She had us sign a slip of paper admitting we'd broken Chinese law. Our taxi driver wasn't surprised. "Why such strict security measures? For the Olympics!")

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



'China Beijing Olympics: China casts off a century of shame'

'Beijing to hold 2nd rehearsal for Olympics opening ceremony'

'Beijing readies for influx of foreign visitors'

'For Beijing, Etiquette Isn't a Game'

'Over 2,500 athletes check into Beijing Olympic Village'

'IOC, Beijing discusses unblocking more websites'

'Beijing Olympics: The Icons'

'US says China has 'nothing to fear' from Internet'

'South Korean TV station spoils opening ceremony

'The Beijing Olympic stadiums that could have been'

'China will censor journalists' web access

'Beijing commences cloud seeding'

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