Nightingale floors: the Japanese flooring system used for alerting castle lords to nighttime attacks by ninja assassins

Unlike the typical Western castles seen throughout Europe, the Japanese castles did not favor a citadel-like structure. They may look entirely different, but the castles of the wealthy were built for pretty much the same purposes: a lavish home that offered protection, and place from which its lords could influence the surrounding countryside.

The first Japanese castles appeared in the 15th century as the country was undergoing one of its rare periods of turmoil. In the proceeding centuries, the castles were built either as governing centers or to simply house a feudal lord. At the peak of the trend, it is considered that more than 5,000 castles dotted the landscape of the Far East island country, but today’s survivors total in the dozens.

Traditionally constructed of stone and wood, the Japanese castles contain architectural features that are striking, unlike anything else seen in the world. It is widely agreed that one of the most impressive of all is the Himeji Castle. Located in Kobe, this fortification is noted for its beautiful white towers. The entire complex is perched atop a hill and is composed of as many as 83 distinct structures, many of which are connected to each other by corridors. Its main keep is six stories tall, and it can be spotted from almost any location in the surrounding city of Himeji.

The Nightingale floors at Eikan-dō Zenrin-Ji Author: Blondinrikard Fröberg CC BY2.0

Other castles may look less spectacular than Himeji Castle, but that doesn’t mean they lack original architectural features. Which leads us to Nijō Castle, a large fortification situated in the former Japanese capital of Kyoto. This castle is known for having perhaps the best example of the Japanese Nightingale flooring system, which was specially designed to catch uninvited guests penetrating the castle’s boundaries.

The authentic flooring system functioned as an automatic intruder alarm, which was certainly a greatly welcomed invention during the Edo period in Japan, spanning from the beginning of the 17th century until somewhere in the late 1860s. This was an epoch marked by a partially feudalistic system, during which regional Lords known as Daimyo had the privilege to administrate and control lands of their own, and they also used private armies for protection.

Himeji, Japan – The main keep of Himeji Castle. Founded in 1333 and rebuilt in the early 1600’s, the castle is considered one of the best preserved in Japan.

As the Daimyo was a person of power, he naturally would have enemies. And in those times in Japan, the most efficient way to deal with your enemies was to hire a ninja assassin. Japanese ninjas were notoriously unstoppable, seeming to have the “super powers” to attack any target and get away from the scene of the crime with the flick of a finger.

Created by the best craftsmen and carpenters from around the country, Nightingale floors, or “uguisubari,” which translates as “bush warbler guard watch,” are designed in such a way as to make a sound similar to a bird’s chirping when somebody starts walking on it. With just the lightest step, the floorboards bend enough to cause the flooring nails to rub against a clamp, producing a clearly audible sound. The songbird-like creaking is not very loud but is certainly enough to shatter a night-time silence, warning any guard that danger is approaching and forcing a ninja to abandon his plots for the night.

Nightingale floors use nails to make a chirping noise under pressure Author: Chris Gladis CC BY 2.0

During the Edo period, Nijō Castle was the seat of power in Japan, visited by numerous Daimyo as well as prominent military commanders known as Shogun. To ensure that all guests are safe and sound, the nightingale floors were installed at several points inside the castle, with some rooms also integrating secretive places where personal bodyguards of prominent visitors were able to lie down and see if any attacker dared to disturb the night. The Nijō Castle nightingale floors can still produce the chirping sound, but now serve as an attraction for visitors and tourists.

As it was a good method for helping a guard pinpoint the exact location of any trespasser, Nightingale floors soon started being used not only for castles but also for treasured temples. Besides Nijō Castle, other examples of such floors still exist today in the interiors of the Shingon Buddhist temple Daikaku-Ji, in Kyoto, and the Chion-in temple in Higashiyama-Ki.

By  Scott Antony


The real Amazons: How the legendary warrior women inspired fighters and feminists

An engraving from 1599 shows Amazon women wielding bows and arrows to shoot male

An engraving from 1599 shows Amazon women wielding bows and arrows to shoot male captives. Many centuries after the early Greek legends were told, the concept of ‘Amazons’ influenced how Spanish conquistadors viewed the New World. (Topfoto)


The ancient Greeks absolutely knew that the Amazons were real – or, at least, that they had been. Heroes of old had encountered Amazons in the martial women’s kingdom, Themiscyra, on the southern shores of the Black Sea. Amazons had invaded Greece, their advance halted in a great battle. Herodotus related how they had been captured, carried away in Greek ships and escaped to the banks of the river Don, where they intermarried with Scythian tribesmen.

No one knew where the name ‘Amazon’ came from, so the Greeks made up an etymology, claiming it derived from a-mazdos – without a breast: these fearsome women cut off their right breasts to remove an obstruction to the bowstring, it was claimed. How could all this not be true?

Well, most of it – including the supposed etymology – wasn’t. It was folklore. There was no kingdom of Amazons. But there was a kernel of truth. In the grasslands of inner Asia, from the Black Sea to western China, Scythian women had the same skills as their men: wielding bows, riding and herding animals, fighting – and dying from their injuries. Their remains have been found in tomb-mounds from the Crimea to western China.

Meanwhile, the Greek myth planted itself in the European imagination, finding expression in novels, plays 
and art. It was transported to the 
New World by Spaniards who, while exploring a great river, heard vague reports of female warriors, and named the mighty waterway after them. In due course, the world’s greatest river gave its name to the world’s most dominant online sales machine.

For centuries, women warriors en masse have been dubbed ‘Amazons’. Regiments of such women existed in Dahomey (in what’s now Benin) and in the Soviet air force, and the female fighters of Kurdistan have a formidable reputation. This article introduces some of the major ‘Amazons’ in myth, art and history, along with the truth behind the legends and their impact on the real world.


1) Hippolyte: 
bested by Hercules

It all began with Hercules (or Heracles, as the Greeks called him), in the legendary dream-time before the Greeks learned to write. To expiate the crime of killing his own children, the story went, Hercules was challenged by Eurysthenes, king of Argos, to complete 12 tasks. One of his labours was to steal a golden girdle owned by Hippolyte – queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, god of war – that was coveted by the king’s daughter, Admete.

These warrior women, it was reputed, lived on the river Thermedon (today’s Terme), on the southern shores of the Black Sea. In legend they captured men whom they used as studs, rearing only female children and killing the males. Despite the prevalence of the a-mazdos etymology myth, in truth the Greeks must have known this to be nonsense – their artists always depicted the Amazons as intact.

A third-century AD Roman mosaic depicts Hercules vanquishing Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. (Bridgeman)

According to the legend, Hercules met Hippolyte, seized her girdle (with or without a fight – versions vary), perhaps or perhaps not killing her, and escaped back to Greece.

Was there any truth behind such legends? Not much. The Amazon nation was the ultimate imagined threat to Greek machismo. By conquering the Amazons (in myth, at least), Greek heroes were made to seem more heroic.

There was, though, a kernel of fact. The Greeks of the early first millennium BC had explored the shores of the Black Sea, and knew of the horse-riding Scythians; indeed, Herodotus described them in the fifth century BC. Their women shared the skills of the men: they were supreme horsewomen, mistresses of the bow, fighters and victims of conflict, as recent archaeological finds testify.

Writers gave the mythical Amazons suitable names. Hippolyte, for example, derives from the Greek for ‘releases the horses’ – a hint of a truth hidden behind the layers of legend.


2) Thalestris: the sex-hungry Scythian

Is there evidence that Greeks actually met any ‘Amazons’? One story about Alexander the Great suggests that they did.

In 330 BC, the ambitious Macedonian warrior had conquered Persia and was advancing eastward along the shores of the Caspian Sea (in present-day Iran). In 
a first-century-BC version of the story, 
an Amazonian queen named Thalestris marched out from her homeland and demanded to meet the great Alexander. Attended by 300 women, she made an extraordinary request: she wanted “to share children with the king, being worthy that he should beget from her heirs to 
his kingdom”. Alexander was – according to Plutarch’s pen-portrait – quite small, not athletic and not much interested in sex. But Thalestris persisted – and prevailed. “Thirteen days were spent in satisfying her desire. Then 
she went to her kingdom,” never 
to be heard of again.

Alexander the Great meets the Amazon queen Thalestris – who, according to legend, propositioned him – in a 17th-century French painting. (Alamy)

The early form of the story was written by one of Alexander’s aides, Onesicritus, as an eyewitness account. So could there be any truth in it? Not much. For one thing, the episode’s purported location on the Caspian is 1,500km from the Amazons’ legendary Black Sea base; to make that meeting, the Amazons would have needed to set off long before Alexander reached the Caspian. In addition, the main source, Onesicritus, was a notorious self-promoter who had good reason to tell a tale that flattered his boss.

If there is any truth to the story, it could be this: Alexander was approached by a group of Scythians who included women, one of whom was their leader. The Greeks ‘knew’ from ancient stories that Amazons were real, so naturally saw the Scythians as Amazons. There was no common language. The ‘Amazons’ were not hostile. The Greeks were hospitable. The Amazon ‘queen’ spent time in Alexander’s tent. The group then vanished back into the heart of inner Asia, leaving the way open for the creation of a dramatic tale that provided a Greek name for 
a sex-hungry Scythian queen.


3) Queen Califia: 
naming the New World

Belief in Amazons lingered into the Middle Ages, and they remained a favourite topic in medieval Europe – with consequences that extend across hemispheres to the present day.

Around 1500, a Spaniard named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote or adapted a series of novels about Amadís, a knight-errant from the fairytale country of Gaula (unconnected with Gaul or Wales). The fifth book of the Amadís de Gaula series, The Exploits of Esplandián, is about Amadís’s son. The latter became involved with a race of Amazonian warrior women and their queen Califia (or Calafia or Califre – spellings vary). Her name was possibly derived from caliph, Spain having recently been conquered by Christians after lengthy Islamic rule.

The title page of the 1533 edition of Garci Rodrigeuz de Montalvo’s ‘Amadis de Gaula’. A later book in the series inspired Spanish explorers to name California. (Alamy)


In the stories, Califia was a formidable warrior, with a menagerie of 500 griffins that were fed on human flesh. She lived in a realm called California or Califerne, an island-state near the lands newly discovered by Christopher Columbus. Since Columbus at first believed he had landed in the Indies, in the Amadís tales California is also located near Constantinople, or – in Montalvo’s totally mythical geography – “on the right hand 
of the Indies”.

The Amadís books, especially Esplandián, were bestsellers, followed by numerous sequels by other writers in Spanish, Italian, German, French and English. It was a fad that inspired Cervantes’ 
Don Quixote, a pastiche of Rodríguez de Montalvo’s vainglorious knight-errantry.

In the early 16th century these stories were carried to the Americas as intellectual baggage 
by the Spanish conquistadors, who believed the fictions to be based on ancient truth. Somewhere, just over the horizon, the Spaniards thought they would find an island of Amazons, “rich in pearls and gold”, as Hernán Cortés wrote to Charles V of Spain. So when, in 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed up the west coast of North America and charted a prominent peninsula, he believed it to be the island realm of Queen Califia and named it California – now the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.


4) The golden (wo-)man of Kazakhstan

Archaeological finds have raised intriguing questions about the status of Scythian women, likely inspiration for the Greeks’ ‘Amazons’.

In the summer of 1969, near a little lake to the east of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, a farmer noticed something glinting in newly ploughed earth near a 6-metre-high burial mound: a small piece of patterned gold. Renowned Soviet archaeologist Kemal Akishev came to investigate and, excavating the burial mound, discovered that it contained 
a small skeleton surrounded by treasures.

The burial, known as Issyk kurgan and possibly dating from the fifth century BC, was Saka – the Kazakh name for the wide-ranging Scythian culture. It included a jacket decorated with 2,400 golden plaques, a belt bearing 13 golden deer heads, a golden neck decoration, an embossed sword, earrings, beads and a towering headdress. The skull was too badly damaged for its sex to be determined, but Akishev fitted a reconstruction with leather trousers and displayed it as the ‘Golden Man’. Reproduced in posters, postcards and books, this long-dead ‘man’ became the symbol of the nation when Kazakhstan emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A replica of the armour of the fifth-century-BC Saka warrior known as the ‘Golden Man’ – but who may have been a woman. (Dreamstime)

However, Jeannine Davis-
Kimball, an American archaeologist who worked with Akishev in the early 1970s, began to doubt the presumed man’s masculinity. The headdress was similar to others from Saka-
Scythian female burials, and also to the formal headdresses worn by Mongolian women today. Many women had been found buried with weapons elsewhere. And the height of the skeleton indicated that it was female. Davis-Kimball became convinced that the remains were 
in fact those of a ‘Golden Woman’ – “a high-ranking warrior princess”, as she wrote in Archaeology magazine in 1997.

Who is right? We shall never know. It would now be possible to analyse the bones to determine the 
sex – but, mysteriously, the bones have vanished. After almost 50 years, it would 
be hard for Kazakhs to see their national symbol turn from male to female. Chances are ‘she’ will continue to be represented as 
a flat-chested, trousered youth.


5) The Ice Maiden 
of Siberia

In 1993, Russian archaeologist Natalia Polosmak was working at a burial mound on the Ukok Plateau in the semi-autonomous Altai Republic in southern Siberia, near the Chinese border, when she made another discovery that added to knowledge of Scythian women. Today this is a remote, harsh land, but 2,500 years ago it was fine pasture for semi-
nomadic Scythians of the Iron-Age Pazyryk culture.

Good finds had been made at the site over the previous two years, and in May, as spring thawed the ground, Polosmak and her team unearthed deep-
frozen harnesses, parts of saddles, six horses and, finally, a larchwood coffin. Inside was a block of ice, created when water had leaked in and frozen. After days carefully melting the ice with heated water, skin emerged, tattooed with a griffin-like design. The body slowly appeared, embalmed with a mix of herbs, grasses and wool, along with a tall headdress, revealing that the body was that of a woman.

Dressed in a fur robe and woollen skirt, “she was tall – about 5 feet 6 inches [around 170cm],” Polosmak wrote in a National Geographic article. “She had doubtless been a good rider, and the horses in her grave were her own,” the archaeologist asserted. The gorgeous tattoos – distorted and mixed-up animal images in the style typical of Scythian designs – have since been widely reproduced.

The ‘Ice Maiden’, discovered in a larchwood coffin in a chamber tomb on the Ukok Plateau in 1993, is adorned with elaborate tattoos of fantastical creatures. (Bridgeman)

The mummy became known as the ‘Ice Maiden’ or the ‘Ukok Princess’. She was taken to Novosibirsk for further study, and then on tour internationally. The tour was dogged by controversy. The Altaians were angry: she’s our ancestor, they said, and moving her 
is an offence against the land. What rubbish, replied academics: there is no connection between ancient Scythians and modern Altaians.

In the battle between science and emotion, emotion won. The Ukok Plateau was closed to archaeologists, and the ‘Ice Maiden’ rests in air-conditioned peace in a museum in the Altai Republic’s capital, Gorno-Altaysk.


6) Marina Raskova: 
Russian ‘night witch’

Though the kingdom of the Amazons was a mere legend, the name has been applied to several all-female fighting groups. Among them was a regiment of female Soviet bomber pilots who fought in the Second World War, the most famous of whom was their founder, Marina Raskova.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was recovering from years of war, revolution and famine. But for women, the 1917 revolution had brought opportunities – in aviation, for example, with the new government seeing this as an opportunity to unite and defend this vast nation. And in 1933 Marina Raskova, aged just 21, became the first female Soviet navigator. Good-looking, bright and strong-willed, she was an ideal poster child for Soviet propaganda.

Marina Raskova (far right), pictured with her crew in 1938 before setting out on their 3,700-mile non-stop flight from Moscow to the Russian Far East. Later founding a night-bomber unit in 1942, Rastova was an inspiration for other ‘Amazon’ flyers. (Shutterstock)

In September 1938, she served as navigator on 
a much-publicised world-record, non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East. At the end of the 3,700-mile journey the plane ran low on fuel and crash-landed in the Siberian forests; Rastova bailed out before the crash and, in an epic tale of endurance, survived for over a week with no water and almost no food. Finally, she found the wrecked plane and, together with her two female crew, made her way to safety, to personal acclaim from Stalin.

Three years later, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Raskova, using her high-level contacts, formed a volunteer unit of some 400 women fliers in three regiments: fighters, heavy bombers and night bombers. Based in Engels, 700km south-east of Moscow, they trained under their adored Raskova and, early in June 1942, went into action.

The fighter and heavy bomber regiments included male ground staff, but the night bombers were staffed only by women. In flimsy, open-cockpit biplanes they flew in low out of the dark, sometimes gliding in ghostly silence, to drop their bombs on German supplies. Flying up to 100 missions per night each – some 24,000 between them in their three years of operation – they proved so devastatingly effective that the Germans nicknamed them Nachthexen: ‘night witches’.

Raskova died in January 1943 when, trying to fly beneath fog, she crashed into the banks of the Volga river. She was given the first state funeral of the war, and the whole nation mourned.


7) Wonder Woman: 
feminist superhero

This year, Hollywood has remade the myth in a new film with the tagline: “Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, Princess of the Amazons.” The link between the two legends makes a convoluted story, its origins stretching back a century to the struggle for women’s rights.

In the years before the First World War, Elizabeth Holloway, a so-called ‘New Woman’ at the radical Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, began 
a relationship with William Moulton Marston – 
clever, handsome, ambitious – who was researching psychology at Harvard. They married in 1915, and their lives soon became intertwined with many others, all linked by radical interests pursued in secret: votes for women, contraception, lesbianism, experimental psychology, bondage, sexual liberation.

Sensation Comics, issue 1, published in January 1942 featured an early adventure of Wonder Woman. Her most recent outing was in the big-budget Hollywood movie, released in May 2017. (Advertising Archives)

The 1930s saw the birth of a new phenomenon: superhero comic books – the first starring Superman appeared in 1938. They sold by the million, but some educationalists deplored them. Publisher Max Gaines approached Marston for advice. Marston, inspired and influenced by Holloway, suggested that the problem lay with the superheroes’ “bloodcurdling masculinity”. The obvious solution was to create “a feminist character with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. Men, said Marston, love to submit to a woman stronger than themselves.

Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics in December 1941. Introduced with a semi-Greek backstory as the Amazonian princess of Paradise Island (later Themiscyra), numerous elements of Wonder Woman’s tale were derived from Moulton’s past – a mistress’s love of Greek, the Eden-like perfection of an all-female society, a love of secrecy, a friend’s habit of wearing protective armbands.

In the first episode, Wonder Woman finds an American pilot crashed on Paradise Island and takes him back to the United States to help in the war effort and save democracy. She became a hit as a comic-
book superhero and, more recently, as a feminist icon, in a 1970s TV series, and now on film.

John Man writes on Inner Asia. His books include Saladin: The Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire (Bantam, 2015)

Chinese elites buried in jade-plated suits threaded with gold, silver, or copper wire

Ancient civilizations put tremendous effort and resources into preparing for the afterlife, particularly those of power and wealth.  Anyone with cursory knowledge of ancient Egypt is aware that these people dedicated the greater portions of their lives to preparing for death.

The pyramids, the eternal homes of the great Egyptian pharaohs, took decades to build. The huge quantities of funerary items were often of considerable cost, from expensive coffins to jewelry, gold, and other offerings that would equip the tomb.

It was no different in other corners of the world. The Chinese, for example, made jade burial suits for the imperial family, elaborate afterlife armors created from pieces of jade that were held together by gold or silver wire thread. The ancient Chinese produced these lavish costumes because they believed that the great power held by the gem would guarantee immortality to the wearer as well as keep evil forces away.

Of course, the bodies of the deceased diminished over time, and the jade suits protected nothing but bones inside. As the production of jade suits ceased at some point during ancient Chinese history, people slowly started believing that such suits were mythological.

Jade burial suit at the Capital Museum in Beijing Author: gongfu_king CC BY-SA2.0

Historical accounts and texts from as early as 320 AD describe the existence of the jade suits, but it took centuries before any were found. Finally, in 1968, researchers discovered the first two examples, and headlines were full of it all over China. Shortly after, the find was dubbed one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century.

Jade funeral mortuary, Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Author: Rowanwindwhistler CC BY-SA3.0

It was determined that the jade suits belonged to Prince Liu Sheng and his spouse, Princess Dou Won. They had once been part of China’s most prolific dynasty, the Han family, who reigned between 206 BC and 220 AD. Their long-forgotten tomb was located in the Chinese province of Hebei, in a heavily secluded area, blocked by a wall made of iron. These two royal costumes are now exhibited at the Hebei Province museum.

Jade funeral mortuary, Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Author: Rowanwindwhistler CC BY-SA3.0

Both were composed of more than 2,000 jade plates. The suit belonging to the prince was threaded with gold, while silver was used for that of the princess. Less than 20 other such jade suits have been discovered since the 1968 groundbreaking discovery. The reason why there were so few? These suits took extensive amounts of efforts to produce.

A Chinese Eastern Han (25-220 AD) burial suit with silver thread connecting the pieces of jade covering the deceased. Author: Gary Lee Todd CC BY-SA 4.0

It is estimated that the most gifted craftsman of jade would have needed at least a decade to create a single one. Another reason: criminals knew the value of the costumes, and many ancient tombs across the globe have been broken into to plunder the valuable grave goods.

Jade burial suit of the Chu family (Western Han dynasty) – China und Ägypten exhibition in the Neues Museum – Berlin – Germany Author: Jose Luiz CC BY-SA4.0

Not all suits discovered had been threaded with gold and silver, though. It depended on the position the deceased had in society. Naturally, the golden thread in sewing a jade suit was reserved only for the great emperors of the nation. Silver was dedicated to close family members of the rulers, like their sons or daughters. Copper or silk thread was allowed for suits produced for aristocrats of lesser ranks.

The ancient Chinese craftsmen employed specific techniques to attach the precious stones by wire and produce larger shapes with a single group of gems in order to manufacture these invaluable afterlife assets.

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou. CC BY-SA 2.5

Sets of instructions and criteria of how a jade suit should be produced have been discovered in the Book of Later Han, though a thorough examination of some of the existent suit examples has shown that not all rules were obeyed. The quality of different jade suits produced varies widely.

One of the most expensive suits ever found was that of Prince Huai, made of 1,203 pieces of jade with a striking amount of gold: 2,580 grams of golden thread embedded. In another, 2498 jade plates were counted. Both these suits were found during the 1980s.

Detail of a jade burial suit with replaced copper wire in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts

No matter how sophisticated the suit was, it always made for a compelling piece. It was due to not only the way the gemstones were arranged together but also their shape–sometimes square, other times rectangular. It is fascinating, to say the least. Slightly less common were the suits that took trapezoid or rhomboid shapes of jade another story from us: Skeletons in 5,000-year-old graves are 7 inches taller than today’s average Chinese man

The jade suits were a privilege only for the wealthiest in society.  People who lacked high status were not allowed such a burial.

 Stefan A

Hip-hop takes centre stage in China for the first time

Poster for Rap of ChinaImage copyrightIQIYI

A hugely successful internet reality show has put hip-hop music into the national spotlight for the first time in China.

With more than 2.5 billion views on China’s largest online video hosting website, iQiyi, the Rap of China has seen dozens of Chinese rappers shoot to stardom.

Showcasing young and feisty contestants locked in rap battle in front of a panel of celebrity judges, the show sparked debate, memes and catchphrases across the Chinese-speaking web.

“Can you freestyle?” became a buzzword, after one of the celebrity judges, Kris Wu, used it to repeatedly grill contestants as he was questioned over his own hip hop legitimacy. Hip hop terms like “diss” – to put someone down – have crept into everyday conversation.

Tapping a gold mine

The 12-episode show, which wrapped up last weekend, was hugely successful in bringing underground rappers such as HipHopMan, Tizzy T, PG One, Jony J, or VAVA to public attention.

Media captionIs the world ready for Chinese hip hop?

“It’s like they ripped open a gap and found it full of gold,” Wang Ke, or MC Bigdog, one of the contestants featured in the show, told the BBC.

“Chinese rappers have been underestimated and neglected,” Wang said. “Our net worth has grown exponentially after the show, but it should have done so a long time ago.”

Group photo of the celebrity judgesImage copyrightIQIYI
Image captionJudge Kris Wu (centre) was challenged over his legitimacy on the panel

Rappers like MC Bigdog were around long before Rap of China.

The genre started gaining momentum in the early 2000s, influenced by American rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z.

Rappers who did well might be signed to labels, music festivals and fashion brands. Some got to perform in clubs.

The number of hip hop music venues and clubs has grown over the years, and national competitions like the China Iron Mic helped to spur on the scene in many cities.

Yet in a society that doesn’t encourage self expression, the rebel spirit of hip hop never really managed to take centre stage but stayed in its own ecosystem.

For most rappers it has remained a hobby – some would even pay out of their own pockets to record albums.

All for show?

Rap of China, therefore, was a game changer. It was said to be the most expensive reality show in history with an investment of 200 million yuan ($30m; £23.7m). Some 700 aspiring rappers auditioned.

Al Rocco mainly raps in English. He was eliminated in Rap of China in the first round because he didn’t rap in Chinese. He then wrote an expletive-laden song, The Rap of China DISS, to show his contempt for the format.

Rapper Al Rocco
Image captionAl Rocco says the show is about drama, not music

Although the show provided money for hip hop music to grow, “it’s not real hip hop that is in the show,” Al Rocco complains. He thinks the programme focuses on drama rather than the music itself so people who didn’t know about hip hop would tune in to see it.

“China is a hard market,” says Al Rocco, a Hong Kong-born rapper who lives in Shanghai. “Hip hop is so small in China even though we’ve been doing it for so many years. You need money to bring that to the world,” he says.

Adding drama was not the only criticism Rap of China faces. Many have accused it of having an unfair selection process that favoured some contestants, and others pointed out that the set-up and theme were strikingly similar to South Korean hip hop reality TV show Show Me the Money.

But the criticism that matters most to rappers and diehard underground hip hop fans in China is whether going mainstream would mean the end of what they see as “real hip hop”.

Wang Bo, or MC Webber, who many consider to be China’s hip hop authority, was one of the many underground rappers who tried to steer clear of the show.

Wang thinks even Xi Ha, the Chinese translation of “hip hop”, was created to help make a quick profit. Over-commercialising hip hop will drain the creativity of young people and reduce the songs to “fast food music”, he wrote on his microblog.

However, MC Hotdog, who now has his own hip hop business managing rappers and performances, says he’s hopeful about the new changes.

“It was hard to keep hip hop real before in China because of all the politics in China,” MC Hotdog said.

“Now that the money problem is solved, hip hop artists don’t have to worry about their livelihood. They will have more room to keep it real.”

“Real hip hop”, MC Hotdog says, is for those underdogs in society to have a voice of peace, love, independence and unity.

“We are not highly commercialised like in the US where hip hop is just about money and sex,” MC Hotdog says. “What China offers is our long history and deeply cultured literature.”

‘We will make it Chinese’

This is not the only thing that China will offer though. Rap of China also had to face China’s increasingly stringent internet censorship.

MC Sun Bayi
Image captionMC Sun Bayi says yes to hip hop – albeit in line with Socialist values

The latest restriction is for online multimedia content like mini movies, reality shows and commentary programmes to avoid producing content that is vulgar, sensational or political.

The “healthy and positive” environment the authorities require is not entirely in line with what’s considered “real hip hop”, but what we already see is hip hop living in harmony with Chinese characteristics.

“Like Chairman Mao said, borrow what’s good from the West and use it in China,” says one of the contestants MC Sun Bayi, who is known for performing in formal business attire.

“The Chinese invented gunpowder and the Westerners made firearms with it. Now they have hip hop, and we will make it Chinese.”

“I don’t like rapping about what I shouldn’t rap about anyway, especially things not in line with Socialist values,” MC Sun Bayi says, shrugging off concerns that hip hop is losing its edge.

“This is the Chinese version of hip hop,” he concludes.

Rakuten targets sleep data in tie-up with mattress maker

September 15, 2017 5:31 am JST

E-commerce giant looks to tailor products to individual health needs

Mattress maker Airweave offers a smartphone app that measures a person’s sleep quality by detecting movements.

TOKYO — Rakuten has partnered with mattress maker Airweave, with plans to use the company’s customer sleep data for products and services tailored to the health needs of individual customers.

The Japanese virtual mall operator acquired a stake of over 10% in Airweave for about 1.2 billion yen ($10.8 million) through a private placement. Rakuten will send executives to the company.

Airweave operates a smartphone app that measures sleep quality. The smartphone placed next to the user’s pillow detects movements that are used to analyze his or her sleep patterns. The app also helps the user keep track of meals and drinks as well as other activities that affect sleep.

This is the first time Airwave has accepted an outside investment. The proceeds will go toward launching new businesses that leverage its app and the data collected from it. The company also is considering an eventual initial public offering.

Rakuten aims in the next few years to have a business model in place that recommends food, furniture and other products to customers based on data accumulated by the app. The e-commerce site operator also hopes to use the business to steer more customers toward its group life insurance policies. The company may link the service to customer purchase histories to better identify consumer needs as well.

The Airweave tie-up is Rakuten’s latest partnership in the health data field. Last month the company invested about 1.4 billion yen in Tokyo-based Genesis Healthcare, which offers genetic testing using saliva to identify genes linked to traits such as obesity. In July, Rakuten took a stake in Swiss health startup Dacadoo, which calculates a health score for individuals based on lifestyle and other factors.

Efforts to incorporate health data into businesses are gaining traction among manufacturers as well. Panasonic is developing a health monitoring system for the elderly using “internet of things” technology to analyze temperature changes and sleep patterns. Fujitsu, meanwhile, partnered with bedding maker Nishikawa Sangyo to develop a coin-shaped activity tracker that attaches to a person’s hip to gather exercise and sleep data. Users receive advice on ways to improve their sleep quality based on analysis of the data.


Chinese web users make light of Golden Week travel woes

People playing frisbee along the Chengdu-Xiamen expressway in southern ChinaImage copyrightPEAR VIDEO
Image captionPear Video says that some frustrated travellers in southern China got out of their cars to play frisbee

China’s “Golden Week” national holiday is under way, and social media users are making light of travel problems that are dogging the annual getaway.

Social media are dominated by video and images of the congestion that is hampering travel to popular destinations such as Beijing.

Official newspaper China Daily estimates that some 650 million people will travel within China this week, with a further six million heading abroad.

Golden Week is one of only two extended periods in which Chinese people can take time off during the year, the other being Chinese New Year, which falls in January or February.

‘People, people, people…’

Sina Weibo hashtag landing page #ImOnTheLongRoadDuringTheLongBreakImage copyrightSINA WEIBO
Image captionOver 13,000 Weibo users have used the hashtag #ImOnTheLongRoadDuringTheLongBreak

Related hashtags have been going viral on popular microblog Sina Weibo since people began embarking on journeys a few days ago.

Tens of thousands of users are posting using #ImOnTheLongRoadDuringTheLongBreak and #OnTheRoadDuringGoldenWeek to discuss the delays and congestion. Images of extreme congestion posted via Sina Weibo have been a big draw.

And mainstream news portals including Sina News have warned travellers to take extra precautions, posting survival guides and warning of the dangers of dehydration and heatstroke.

The official China News Service agency has shared a composite of pictures and videos, attracting more than 1,000 user comments. “People people people people people people,” says one caption. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is shown thronged with selfie-stick users.

Regional newspaper Jiangnan Metropolis Daily shows birds-eye photos taken from inside a railway station in south-eastern Jiangxi, complete with a crying emoji. In some of the images it is almost impossible to see the station floor because of the crowding.


Popular media have carried humorous videos showing how embattled travellers have put on a brave face. Some of the videos have had millions of views and thousands of comments.

Cover News shows surveillance footage over Southwestern city ChengduImage copyrightCOVER NEWS
Image captionOne video has captions of users complaining about queues (L) while a user in the opposite lane (R) says “Hahaha!”

They include a video by news portal Cover News, showing gridlocked traffic heading towards the south-western city of Chengdu, and empty lanes exiting the city. Captions superimposed over images of the congested lane say things like “more queues!”, while captions over cars in the empty lane say “Hahaha!”

Video website Pear Video noted that a member of the transport police became an overnight online celebrity in northern Xi’an for entertaining queues of travellers outside a railway station.

The police officer tells them to behave as if they are Terracotta Warriors as they move forward in the queue, and tells them “go with your feelings, and don’t hold anybody’s hand”. The video has been viewed more than five million times.

Chinese tourists stuck on a delayed Caribbean flightImage copyrightGUANGZHOU DAILY
Image captionThousands of users joked about Chinese tourists stranded in the Caribbean, albeit because of Hurricane Maria

Social media users point out that Chinese travellers abroad have also been affected by travel problems. A video posted on Guangzhou Daily received seven million views after it showed a plane full of Chinese travellers passing the time by waving flags and singing the national anthem.

The newspaper says the 381 passengers had had their flight from the Caribbean back to China delayed for two days as a result of Hurricane Maria.

By Kerry Allen