Beijing has a 20,000-acre secret underground city, Dìxià Chéng, that was built during the Cold War by 300,000 people digging by hand

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Deep below the bustling streets of Beijing, China, is a whole other world–one whose hidden existence is a badly kept secret. The city is home to 21.5 million people, but several thousand of them live in these underground tunnels that extend up to three stories below the ground.

There is no official disclosure of the total size of the complex, nor exactly where all of the tunnels are located, but it is believed that they cover an area of more than 20,000 acres and connect all of the city’s major governmental buildings. There may have once been as many as 900 entrances.

In Chinese, the underground city is known as Dìxià Chéng, meaning dungeon. It was created as a city-sized refuge from nuclear attack by ordinary people digging by hand, many of them equipped only with shovels and carrying everything in bamboo baskets. Work began in 1969 and the secret city continued to be expanded through to 1979.

Tension between China and Russia during the Cold War came to a head in 1969 with the Sino-Soviet border conflict, an undeclared military skirmish that tested the will of both countries. The relationship between the two countries continued in a delicate balance right up until 1991.  China was on high alert to the real possibility of full-scale war.

The response of Chairman Mao Zedong, President of the People’s Republic of China, was to instruct his citizens “Shenwadong, chengjiliang, buchengba” which pretty much translates as “dig deep tunnels, store food and prepare for war.” In Beijing, around 300,000 civilians quite literally dug in and carried out Chairman Mao’s ominous wishes. The Beijingers, under the guidance of army engineers, created a huge, complex underground network. The various tunnel systems linked up around 10,000 atomic bunkers, plus restaurants, theaters, warehouses, factories, a mushroom farm, sports facilities, everything a community might need to survive a nuclear war. Even the ventilation system could be isolated from the outside air. According to some accounts, the Chinese government boasted at the time that the underground complex was large enough to accommodate the entire population of central Beijing, around 6 million people in 1969.

Of course, Dìxià Chéng was never needed for its intended purpose. In the 1980s, several sections were handed over to neighborhood authorities, who turned these bunkers into offices and shops. However, most of Beijing’s underground world is privately owned and there are still quite a few entrances from the basements of ordinary shops and apartment blocks.

Taking advantage of the increasing number of people migrating from rural areas to find work in an already crowded Beijing, the owners of sections of tunnel system turned their bunkers into tiny residential units, offering them at around a third of the city’s skyrocketing rental prices.

Known as the Rat Tribe, some of the residents have lived here for decades, while for others, life underground is a temporary stop-gap until they can afford to move into an apartment above ground. Conditions are cramped and damp. In 2010, because of worries about safety hazards that were not fixed by notoriously neglectful landlords, Beijing authorities ruled that nuclear shelters and subterranean storage areas could no longer be used for residential purposes. However, the residents have nowhere else to go, and they were allowed to remain, but with an uncertain future.

In 2016, possibly due to increasing media exposure of the life underneath Beijing, the first group of tunnel dwellers were evicted–with no advance warning. Other residents are no doubt wondering when evacuation plans will be rolled out to include their district.

But one man has turned what is a life-changing upheaval for the Rat Tribe into an opportunity to improve his community. Zhou Zishu, in collaboration with designers, artists, local citizens, and private companies, has brought to life an initiative to turn the recently vacated tunnels into a vibrant community center, complete with library, reading rooms, social area, cafés, kid’s play space, hair salon, and much more. There are also a number of shops and a gym.

The vibrantly renovated nuclear shelter is named Digua Shequ, which is Chinese for Sweet Potato Community, a cute philosophical reference to the way this rhizome grows strong underground, seemingly with no beginning or end. But Zishu also picked the name because it reminds him of the first thing he ate when he arrived in Beijing: steaming hot sweet potato that his friend had brought along to greet him with at the airport. It is symbolic of the big difference that small gestures can make.

Through running workshops and providing a platform for local business people to collaborate, the Digua Shequ has successfully brought together residents from both above and below ground, helping to remove the distrust between these groups. Official approval has been given for 10 similar projects to begin, a move which seems to indicate that subterranean Beijing will remain inhabited for many years to come.

For now, the Rat Tribe continues to be allowed to thrive underground.

 Phoebe James


The mystery of the Octavius: An 18th-century ghost ship was discovered with the captain’s body found frozen at his desk, still holding his pen

Maritime lore abounds with stories of ghost ships, those ships that sail the world’s oceans manned by a ghostly crew and destined never to make port. The most well known of these tales is that of the Mary Celeste. But one of the eeriest stories has to be the mystery of the Octavius.

The story opens in 1761 with the Octavius docked in the port of London to take on a cargo destined for China. This majestic sailing ship left port with a full crew, the skipper, and his wife and son. They arrived safely in China and unloaded their cargo. They headed back to sea once she was loaded with goods destined for British shores, but as the weather was unusually warm, the captain decided to sail home via the Northwest Passage, a voyage that at the time had not been accomplished. This was the last that anyone heard of the vessel, her crew, or her cargo. Octavius was declared lost.

“Rising full moon.” From the series “Ghost Ship.”

On October 11, 1775, the whaling ship Herald was working the frigid waters off Greenland when it spotted a sailing ship. On nearing the ship, the crew saw that the ship was weather beaten–the sails were tattered and torn and hanging limply on the masts.

The captain of the Herald ordered a boarding party to search the vessel, which they had determined was the Octavius. The boarding party arrived on deck to find it deserted. They broke open the ship’s hatch and scrambled down the ladder into the semi-darkness below, where a terrifying sight met their eyes. They found the entire 28-man crew frozen to death in their quarters. In the captain’s cabin, they found the captain seated at his desk, pen in hand, with the ship’s logbook open on the desk in front of him. The inkwell and other everyday items were still in their place on the desk. Turning around, they saw a woman wrapped in a blanket on the bunk, frozen to death, along with the body of a young boy.

The boarding party was terrified; grabbing the ship’s log, they fled from the Octavius. In their mad flight, they lost the middle pages of the logbook that were frozen solid and came loose from the bookbinding. They arrived back on the Herald with just the first and last pages of the logbook, which were enough for the master of the Herald to determine at least a part of the story of the voyage. The captain of the Octavius had tried to navigate the Northwest Passage, but his ship had become imprisoned in the ice of the Arctic, and the entire crew had perished. The ship’s last recorded position was 75N 160W, which placed the Octavius 250 miles north of Barrow, Alaska.

As the Octavius had been found off the coast of Greenland, it must have broken loose from the ice at some stage and completed its voyage through the passage to come out on the other side, where it met the Herald.  The crew of the Herald were frightened of the Octavius and feared that it was cursed, so they simply left it adrift. To this day, it has never been sighted again.

Author: Hannes Grobe/AWI.CC by 3.0

Author David Meyer has tried to track down the story of the Octavius. In his blog, he considers the idea that the Octavius could be the same ship as the Gloriana, which was boarded in 1775 by the captain of the Try Again, John Warrens. He recorded that he found a frozen crew that had been dead for 13 years and the date of the discovery was spookily similar–November 11, 1762. Are these tales of the same vessel? In the Gloriana story, there is no mention of the Northwest Passage, which remains even today a place of mystery and magic but that adds just that little bit of spice to the tale ofOctavius.

This makes an excellent ghost story for around the campfire. Did the Octavius eventually run aground and sink, or does she still sail the high seas with a crew of skeletons at the wheel?

By Ian Harvey

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

China’s railway investment to exceed $121b in 2017

This year’s fixed investment in the railway sector might exceed 800 billion yuan ($121.04 billion), a target set by China Railway at the beginning of 2017, Economic Information Daily reported Wednesday, citing unnamed industry source.

The source attributed his prediction to current construction progress and the fact that generally the fourth quarter is a peak season for railway building.

In the first eight months, fixed investment in the railway sector nationwide reached 453.6 billion yuan, up by 4.7 percent year-on-year, according to China Railway’s data cited by the Economic Information Daily.

Currently, two major railway lines are under construction.

Construction on the Lianyungang-Xuzhou railway line, which is located in East China’s Jiangsu province, has been underway since July 13. Construction on this line, which runs for 180.39 kilometers and is expected to cost 28.17 billion yuan, is projected to be finished by December 2020.

On Aug 8, construction on the Dunhua-Baihe railway started. This line, with a length of 113.5 kilometers, when finished four years later, will cut the travel time between Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, and the Changbai Mountain, a resort in Jilin province, to four hours.

Another railway line, the Chongqing-Kunming railway, with a length of 720 kilometers and an expected investment of 117 billion yuan, is expected to start within this year, according to the Economic Information Daily. The railway spans Chongqing municipality, Sichuan province, Guizhou province and Yunnan province.

(  October 19, 2017

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.