Preliminary Report: Investigating in China

December 8, 2010

In October 2010 I became CFI’s designated Visiting Scholar in an alternating annual exchange program with our counterpart in Beijing, the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP). I spent three busy weeks lecturing, investigating, and appreciating China’s rich ancient and modern cultural expressions.

I lectured on “Illusions of the Paranormal” at Beijing’s Capital Normal University and again at CRISP’s headquarters, demonstrating how perceptions of some allegedly paranormal occurrences—such as hearing ghostly footsteps on a staircase or sighting a serpentine lake monster—could be illusory. (Drawing on my own investigations, I cited a case of footsteps whose sounds came from a staircase next door to the “haunted” one, and illustrated how a few otters, swimming in a line in their undulating manner, have sometimes been mistaken for a single, long-necked monster.) I discussed with CRISP members, notably my friend Hu Junping who accompanied me on several outings, how various misconceptions of science occur—an issue of joint concern of CFI and CRISP—about which I am writing a formal paper as part of my duties as Visiting Scholar.

A topic of major interest to me was the traditional concept of qi (pronounced chee) or “life energy” that is the basis of many Chinese traditions, from fung shui (the “art” of arranging the environment to allegedly stimulate healthy qi) to tai ji (a supposedly qi-enhancing form of choreographed exercise), to traditional Chinese medicine, especially acupuncture. Among other activities, I went as both an observer and a patient to a clinic where I underwent acupuncture treatment and a related technique called cupping (see photo). There I gained some insights that I hope to share in future writings. I also studied at the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine at the University of Chinese Medicine where, at length, two female doctoral students showed me their impressive collection of materia medica (herbs and other natural substances prescribed medically) as well as extensive artifacts that illustrate the long history of traditional Chinese healing techniques.

I mentioned lake monsters: the Chinese have their own examples of these, as well as other cryptozoological entities, including their version of Bigfoot which they call the Yeren or “wild man.” During my stay, an article on the man-beast appeared in China Daily which I read eagerly and followed up on. Although the creature’s main habitat is said to be in remote central China, I was able to visit a site of related interest: the caves of the mountainous region of Zhoukoudian southwest of Beijing, where the famous ape-man called Peking Man once lived. I climbed the trails to the caves and, in the museum of this UNESCO World Heritage site, gazed at copies of the fossils of Peking Man, whose loss represents one of the unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century. (In the run-up to World War II, numerous bones and teeth and five skulls were packed in crates and entrusted to the U.S. Marine Corps, but they were never seen again.)

As time permitted, I also visited such not-to-be-missed sites as The Forbidden City (vast palatial lodging place of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties), Beijing Zoo’s Great Panda House, several temples (the Buddhist Lama Temple, and the Taoist White Cloud Temple and Temple of Heaven), and many other sites—perhaps most impressive of all, that other World Heritage site, the ancient Great Wall, a truly awesome wonder snaking over the mountains north of the city.

As to more everyday things, I plied my chopsticks on varieties of cuisine that included myriad rice and vegetable and meat dishes (like Shanghai-style sweet-and-sour pork) the much-celebrated Chinese dumplings, and many soups (notably some said to be “tonic soups” such as “pigeon with ginseng” and “double-boiled pig kidney and tail with Chinese herbs”), as well as ethnic dishes. I walked through famous labyrinthine hutongs (alleyways) of old Beijing, visited Tiananmen Square, sipped ginseng and other brews in tea houses, perused the Beijing Museum of Natural History (and its own Peking Man display), and, for the price of a few of my trademark magical wooden nickels, obtained as many pearls—and learned their secrets—at a pearl emporium. I took photos, sketched, wrote poems, gathered research data, and more—leaving the great country reluctantly at the end of a fascinating stay.