Dunhuang, China, is probably the most important city you’ve never heard of.
Tucked into a corner of Northwest China, Dunhuang [pronounced DONE-hwong] was a major outpost on the famous Silk Road trading route and has become a symbol of the current government’s attempt to rebuild the image and the use of the international connection.
Marco Polo traveled through Dunhuang in the 13th century and spent 17 years as an aide to Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader of the Yuan Dynasty in China and conquered an area from Asia to Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.
But Dunhuang played a major role in building China’s role in the world long before that.
Buddhist monks arrived in China from India by the first century AD, and a sizable Buddhist community eventually developed in Dunhuang.
The caves carved out by the monks, originally used for meditation, developed into a place of worship and pilgrimage called the Mogao Caves.
During a recent trip to Dunhuang, I had the opportunity to see the caves. I actually went back for a second look because they are simply incredible! You only get to see eight to 10 of the more than 700 caves, but they are a breath-taking example of Buddhist art from 400 to 1200 A.D. The caves also kept a secret of thousands of hidden documents about culture and religion through the world—only discovered in the early 1900s when a monk found them hidden behind a wall. A number of Christian and Jewish artifacts have been discovered in the caves, including a Bible from Syria.For more information, see http://en.people.cn/english/200006/20/eng20000620_43468.html
From Dunhuang, you also get a sense of the extraordinary effort and will of the people, like Marco Polo, who traveled through the deserts of the world. The nearby Gobi Desert is the third largest in the world behind the Sahara and Arabian deserts. The Taklamakan Desert, which also sits nearby Dunhuang, is the 16th-largest in the world and is almost the size of Germany and exists almost entirely of sand dunes.
Today, the central government of China is trying to make Dunhuang a major tourist attraction, particularly the Mogao Caves. I hope the leadership succeeds in the effort because the caves are one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes you just have to chill out from the problems of the world.
That’s why I decided to travel on a whim to Chengdu, China. It’s the capital of Sichuan Province, known for panda protection and procreation, the world’s tallest Buddha sculpture and seriously hot food.
There’s good news on the panda front, although the Chinese still consider the furry guys endangered. The artificial insemination project in Chengdu resulted in 20 live births last year, raising the number of living pandas to more than 2,000.
I went to one of three panda sites near Chengdu, where two-year-old pandas are getting ready to be set free back into the wild. I got to sit with one, who thought I was either interesting or pretty weird.
The following day I traveled to Leshan, the site of the tallest Buddha in the world. It took nearly 80 years to carve out of the stone until it was done in 803. It stands more than 200 feet tall–an impressive accomplishment for an era long ago. Think of it as the Mount Rushmore of China.
Finally, I tried true Sichuan hotpot, the favorite of the Chinese, who, when they eat at a restaurant, order this dish almost one-quarter of the time.
The hotpot, which is a boiling mixture of water, peppers and other ingredients, provides the stew for whatever you want to eat: beef, chicken, duck, mushrooms, potatoes and much much more.
No one believed me that I wanted tripe–aka pig intestines–because I was the first Westerner known to want to eat the stuff. I know many of you find that disgusting, but I found it delicious.
It was a wonderful trip–one that made me forget for a few days about the turmoil swirling around us.
And who couldn’t love the photo below from the center of Chengdu?
China also celebrated a three-day holiday over the past weekend—a festival commemorating the story of a famous poet.
People in Guangzhou, where I am teaching, packed the route along the tributaries of the Pearl River as more than 100 dragon boats cruised through the city.
The festival is a memorial of the death of the poet and politician Qu Yuan (340–278 B.C.) of the ancient state of Chu during the Zhou dynasty.
When the Zhou king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, the creators of the Terra Cotta warriors in Xi’an, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason.
In exile, Qu became China’s first great poet.
Years later, the Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.
The story goes that local people raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body. Thus, the story of the dragon boats began. When his body could not be found, the locals dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu’s body. Thus began the legacy of zongzi, or sticky rice. Hint: if you have never eaten sticky rice, you take off the leaf and the ribbon.
Smithsonian Magazine provides some great background:
“One of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, the dragon is the controller of the rain, the river, the sea, and all other kinds of water; symbol of divine power and energy…. In the imperial era it was identified as the symbol of imperial power,” writes Deming An, a professor of folklore at the Institute of Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “In people’s imaginations, dragons usually live in water and are the controllers of rain.
“Dragon boat racing is ascribed to organized celebrations of beginning in the 5th or 6th century A.D. But scholars say the boats were first used hundreds of years earlier, perhaps for varied reasons. On the lunar calendar, May is the summer solstice period, the crucial time when rice seedlings were transplanted…. To ensure a good harvest, southern Chinese would have asked the dragons to watch over their crops, says Jessica Anderson Turner, a Handbook of Chinese Mythology contributor. They would have decorated their boats with ornate dragon carvings, “and the rowing was symbolic of the planting of the rice back in the water,” Anderson Turner explains.
The People’s Republic of China did not officially recognize the celebration as a public holiday. But the dragon boat races spread throughout the world. Since 2008, “Duanwu Jie” as it’s known in China, has been celebrated not only as a festival but also as a public holiday. It’s a whole lotta fun!
One of the most important events of the year happened last weekend in Beijing, but few U.S. news organizations gave much notice.
President Xi Jinping and representatives of more than 100 other countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, got together to hash out how to spend nearly $1 trillion—that’s TRILLION—of China’s money. The United States’ delegation got an upgrade in the growing bromance between President Trump and Xi.
The project, now called “Belt and Road,” is arguably the most extensive and expensive rebuilding program since the Marshall Plan after World War II.
Following the old trading routes of the infamous Silk Road, the projects stretch across 65 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe via land and sea in a mixture of financial investments and foreign policy. Here is just a taste of some of the plans:
–China is financing more than a third of the $23.7 billion cost of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant on the Somerset coast of southwest England. The project, in a major western economy, was added to the Belt and Road plan to give added prestige.
–China financed most of the $4 billion cost of Africa’s first transnational electric railway, which opened this year and runs for 466 miles from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
–A deepwater port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea will be linked by new roads and rail to western China’s Xinjiang region, creating a shortcut for trade with Europe. The port is part of $46 billion China says it is spending on infrastructure and power plants in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
–China is leading a $6 billion investment to build a 260-mile rail line from northern Laos to the capital, Vientiane. Mountainous terrain means bridges and tunnels will account for more than 60 percent of the line, and construction is further complicated by the need to clear unexploded land mines left from American bombing of the country during the Vietnam War.
Although most of the work will be done by Chinese companies, U.S. businesses like GE and Caterpillar are vying for some of the action.
The plan is not without its critics. India, for example, failed to show up for the weekend meeting because its leaders are not happy about a project that goes through Kashmir, land claimed by both India and Pakistan.
Whatever the case, the initiative will be the signature dish of President Xi—one that is likely to gain more than a few friends throughout the world.
Xi’an, the former capital of mainland China, may be the best example of the country’s heart, power, history and future of the country.
Emperor Qin [pronounced chin] Shi Huang unified China in the Third Century B.C, making Xi’an [pronounced she-ON], the country’s most important city for roughly 1,500 years.
During his reign, his generals greatly expanded the size of the Chinese state. He enacted major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of such things as roads and currency. He is said to have banned and burned many books and executed scholars, but experts dispute these claims.
His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into the Great Wall of China and a national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terra Cotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 B.C.
Today China looks back at the history and the ties to its national roots.
Nearby lies the tomb of Wu Zetian, the only woman to ever rule China and a key component of the Tang Dynasty’s role in building the Silk Road that made the region rich. She’s well known and revered in China, but I was the only visitor to her massive tomb on a brilliant Sunday morning.
Wu (624-705) and the Tang Dynasty devised The Silk Road or Silk Route, an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West. Think Marco Polo.
While the term is modern, the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk (and horses) carried out along its length.
Trade on the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, Korea, Japan, Iran, the Horn of Africa and the Arab Peninsula, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item exported from China, many other goods were traded, as well as religions, philosophies and various technologies.
Today, President Xi has revived the Silk Road philosophy through his “One Belt, One Road” strategy to improve economic and political relations with a variety of countries.
Essentially, the plan includes countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The initiative calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges and broadening trade. Apart from this zone, which is largely analogous to the historical Silk Road, another area to be included in the extension of this ‘belt’ is South Asia and Southeast Asia.
A report from Fitch Ratings suggests that China’s plan to build ports, roads and railways in under-developed Eurasia and Africa is out of political motivation rather than real demand for infrastructure. Fitch also doubts Chinese banks’ ability to control risks, as they do not have a good record of allocating resources efficiently at home, which may lead to new asset-quality problems for Chinese banks that most of funding is likely to come from.
Simply put, the plan is believed to be a way to extend Chinese influence at the expense of the United States, in order to fight for regional leadership in Asia. The estimated $1 trillion for the projects can be considered a masterstroke by China to establish itself as a world-leading economy and to spread its power, particularly in the South Asian region. China has already invested billions of dollars in several South Asian countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to improve their basic infrastructure, with important implications for both China’s trade regime as well as its military influence.
One final note: Put Xi’an on your bucket list. It’s easy to get to and easy to get around. But make sure you see more than the Terra Cotta Army!
For the third straight year, I am headed to China, where I will teach students at the International School at Jinan University in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton in South China.
The trip allows me an opportunity to travel throughout China, Thailand and Myanmar, where I continue my own “Asia pivot” after years of reporting on terrorism and the Middle East.
I will keep you up to date, with my travels and travails. I start in Xi’an, the one-time capital of China, where the Terra Cotta warriors were found in the 1970s. I visited Xi’an two years ago, but I wanted to travel to a nearby locale, where the only empress of China, Wu Zetian (624-705), is buried.
Wu was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. After his death, she married his successor—his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong, in 655. After Gaozong’s debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian became administrator of the court, a position equal to an emperor, until 705.
She is buried in the Qianlong Mausoleum, which is something I’ve always wanted to see.
Hangzhou, the Venice of China, is my next stop. That’s where the G20 met last year. The city is known for its key role in the early canal system of the country.
After that, I head out of China as it celebrates May Day, and millions of people throughout the Communist world launch some sort of remembrance for International Workers’ Day.
In Thailand, which has no May Day parties, I will head to the north, where I will stop in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the locale for the famed Golden Triangle.
After a few days, I head for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is being ruled rather poorly by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who ousted the longtime dictatorship.
But I’m not there for the politics; I am visiting for the famed Buddhist shrines in Bagan and Yangon.
Then it’s back to southern China, where I will teach Journalism Research and In-Depth Reporting for sophomore students. Here is what my class produced last year: www.writingforjournalism.com. The stories include some about abortion, the elderly, urban policy and more.
The Chinese students are among the best and the brightest, and it’s an opportunity for me to see what the next generation from the Middle Kingdom will be like. For the most part, they resemble my students from the United States, but the work ethic is much stronger.
I’ll keep my head down as North Korea, the South China Sea and other issues swirl around me.
I met Reggie very briefly a couple of years ago, when we were speakers at a pro-life convention in New Hampshire. My job was to talk about effective use of social media. Reggie’s job was to talk about China’s coercive abortion policy. She got better billing – and deserved it. Her stories were compelling and persuasive.
She became interested in Chinese policy when as an attorney she represented a Chinese woman seeking political asylum in the United States. It was Reggie’s first exposure to the wretched effects of the One-Child Policy: forced abortion, forced sterilization, and gender imbalance as boys are more valued culturally than girls. The revelations changed her life. She later established Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an international coalition dedicated to fighting forced abortion in China.
Wherever she speaks, she points out the support China’s policies have received from UNFPA. She has called repeatedly for U.S. de-funding of the organization. She released a statement the other day when de-funding was finally announced.
“We are thrilled that the U.S. is no longer funding forced abortion and involuntary sterilization in China. The blood of Chinese women and babies will no longer be on our hands. My very first press release, in 2009, was entitled ‘You Are Funding Forced Abortions in China.‘ I have consistently advocated for the defunding of UNFPA over the years…
“The UNFPA clearly supports China’s population control program, which they know is coercive. Under China’s One (now Two) Child Policy, women have been forcibly aborted up to the ninth month of pregnancy. Some of these forced abortions have been so violent that the women themselves have died, along with their full term babies. There have been brutal forced sterilizations as well, butchering women and leaving them disabled. Where was the outcry from the UNFPA? In my opinion, silence in the face of such atrocities is complicity. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ The UNFPA’s silence in the face of decades of forced abortion has been a sword in the wombs of millions of women and babies of China. I rejoice with them that the foot of the UNFPA is finally off of their necks.”
Well done, Mr. President.
I remember listening to Reggie speak around the time China shifted to a Two-Child Policy. She was unimpressed by the change. “What matters is they’re telling people how many kids to have and they’re enforcing it with forced abortions.” She elaborated on that in a 2015 press statement about the policy shift.
“Characterizing this latest modification as ‘abandoning’ the One-Child Policy is misleading. A two-child policy will not end any of the human rights abuses caused by the One Child Policy, including forced abortion, involuntary sterilization or the sex-selective abortion of baby girls….Noticeably absent from the Chinese Communist party’s announcement is any mention of human rights. The Chinese Communist Party has not suddenly developed a conscience or grown a heart. Even though it will now allow all couples to have a second child, China has not promised to end forced abortion, forced sterilization, or forced contraception.
“…In a world laden with compassion fatigue, people are relieved to cross China’s one-child policy off of their list of things to worry about. But we cannot do that. Let us not abandon the women of China, who continue to face forced abortion, and the baby girls of China, who continue to face sex-selective abortion and abandonment. The one-child policy does not need to be modified. It needs to be abolished.”
Let’s hear UNFPA speak up for Chinese women that way. Until then, the agency can get along without U.S. taxpayer support.
China’s bid to influence the 1996 election for Bill Clinton stands as one of the most damning examples of foreign interference in the U.S. political process.
Unfortunately, the Chinese connection has largely been forgotten, including its continuation in Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign received millions of dollars in illegal contributions from Chinese donor that were channeled through the Democratic National Committee, according to a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform.
Johnny Chung, a businessman born in Taiwan, had a partner, Liu Chaoying, a high-ranking military leader and intelligence officer in China. Liu wired hundreds of thousands of dollars, which illegally went to the DNC. The duo also sent campaign funds to U.S. Sen. John Kerry for his reelection bid to the Senate. Liu’s father was one of Mao’s fellow travelers.
Chung visited the White House nearly 50 times—most of them authorized by Hillary Clinton. In one visit, Hillary met with Chung and his visiting delegation of Chinese businessmen from state-run companies. After another visit, Chung paid the DNC $50,000. In exchange, Chung was allowed to bring some of his investors to see the president deliver one of his radio addresses.
Another operative for the Clintons was John Huang, who raised millions of dollars for Dollar Bill in the Asian-American community. In 1996, Huang bundled $3.4 million for the DNC—much of which was returned after a Senate investigation found that the contributions were illegal.
Charlie Trie owned a restaurant in Little Rock that was frequented by his friend then-Governor Clinton. After Clinton won the presidency, Trie went to Washington to cash in on their friendship. He thought his association could help him develop more business contacts in Asia. One of them was Hong Kong businessman Ng Lap Seng. Seng would wire a million dollars to Trie. From 1994 to 1996, Trie directly sent $200,000 to the DNC. Trie provided the rest of the money to other people who later sent that money to the DNC. Trie also helped raised another $640,000 for Bill Clinton’s Legal Defense Fund.
According to the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 94 people were called to testify about the illegal campaign contributions to the 1996 Clinton campaign and the DNC. Of nearly 100 people called before the committee, 57 invoked the Fifth Amendment, 18 fled the country and 19 foreign witnesses refused to testify.
But the China connection to the Clintons didn’t end there. A Chinese billionaire gave the Clinton Foundation $2 million in 2013. The Justice Department investigated the payment from Wang Wenliang, a former delegate to the Chinese parliament. No charges were filed.
Fast forward to Hillary’s 2016 campaign and the Wikileaks emails from the DNC.
The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, requested a meeting with Hillary Clinton’s top aides in January 2016, according to an internal email circulated among the former Secretary of State’s senior presidential campaign officials.
“Chinese Ambassador Cui invited me over to the residence Tuesday for a coffee and to make a request. He wants to have an informal, private, off the record get together with a few of us to discuss the next year and the current state of US-China affairs,” wrote Clinton campaign aide Kurt Campbell in the Jan. 7, 2016, email to campaign head John Podesta.
“He asked me to host a social meal at my house in the next month. He was fairly insistent and indicated that he wanted to pass along some perspectives. I told him I’d reach out to you all to see about your judgement [sic] on this and possible availability. I’m happy to make some chili and cornbread by the fire but let’s first decide whether this makes sense. Please let me know your thinking,” Campbell wrote.
Somehow these deep connections between the Clintons and the Chinese have gone mostly unnoticed in the current kerfuffle about foreign involvement in presidential elections.
Last week I checking my traffic which has been very good for March, and for the fun of it looked at the countries where the traffic has been from this year.
So far in North American Cuba and Iceland have had no interest (although perhaps by this time my WBC post might change that. In South America French Guiana, Suriname and the Falkland Islands are out. In Europe only Albania hasn’t stopped by while in both Asia and Africa a dozen or more countries have not found the site worth their time.
Then for the fun of it I checked my all time stats and the Numbers changed dramatically
Only eight countries in the world have thus far decided that DaTechGuy blog isn’t worth their time.
One of them North Korea I’m figuring is a lost cause, given the amount of electric use the only way I’m going to get any traffic from there is if the Un family decides to take an interest which might be dangerous.
As for the others, I think there’s a shot so, in the interest of getting the rest of the map filled here is the oddest clickbait post you’ve ever seen.
Initially, Boko Haram’s presence on the Chadian side of the lake was limited. But violence rapidly escalated in 2015, partly in reaction to the intervention by Chadian forces in neighbouring states. Two suicide bombings in the capital N’Djamena and multiple attacks on villages and army posts followed. Attacks diminished at the start of 2016, having never reached the levels seen in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. This was accompanied by a wave of surrenders of Boko Haram members in the second half of the year, but which seemingly included few if any of the hard core.
Submerged within the bowels of rock and frozen earth on an island between Norway and the North Pole lies a new state-of-the-art agricultural marvel: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here, millions of food crop seeds from nearly every country in the world have been meticulously packaged, cataloged and tucked away.
The vault is kept at a low moisture level and minus 18 degrees C, optimal conditions to keep seeds viable for decades, centuries or indefinitely. And even if the electricity should fail, the surrounding rock and permafrost will keep the seeds frozen. Although the vault has not yet received its full capacity of 4.5 million varieties, it already houses the most diverse stockpile of food crop seeds anywhere.
I wonder who thought of doing this in the northern most inhabited island in the world?
Morocco left the Organization of African Unity (OAU), precursor to the AU, in 1984 after the OAU recognised the right to self-determination and independence for the people of the Western Sahara, who have been occupied by Morocco since the 1970s.
The OAU granted membership to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed in 1976 by the Sahrawi people’s Polisario Front in a declaration of independence rejected by Morocco. The decision was in keeping with the OAU principle not to recognise the occupation of any part of the continent. While the SADR claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, Morocco saw it as an integral part of its own territory.
Rather than accept the SADR’s independence, Morocco left the OAU. Since then Morocco has refused to join the AU unless the group withdraws the SADR’s membership.
But Morocco’s King Mohammad has the money and when it came to rejoining the Organization of African Unity their money talked.
Guterres pledged the UN will appoint a human rights expert, tasked with advocating for victim’s rights, to serve in his office and report to him. His new plan also asks UN peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and South Sudan – all countries where peacekeepers have been accused of raping women under their protection – to appoint victims’ rights advocates on the ground. These local advocates, together with the high-level attention of an expert in Guterres’ office, could finally prompt accountability for abusers and support for victims.
Human Rights Watch research in the Central African Republic shows the lack of support or access to justice victims of sexual exploitation have when peacekeepers are the victimizers. This was echoed in the UN’s own assessment: “very few victims have been assisted due to lack of dedicated funding and the slow enforcement process.”
Under the new plan, the UN will bolster a Trust Fund for Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. This fund was set up last year but has only collected US$436,000 from five member countries: Bhutan, Cyprus, India, Japan, and Norway. It needs more support. Guterres has suggested boosting the trust fund by withholding funds for troop-contributing countries that don’t investigate allegations of abuse by their troops, then transferring that money to victims.
This is another story of abuse of women that for some reason doesn’t draw a lot of attention from western feminists as that would involve critique of the UN rather than the US or the west in general.
The military base that China is building in Djibouti will be completed “later this summer”, General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of the US military’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March.
Noting the proximity of the Chinese base to the US military’s Camp Lemonnier, Gen Waldhauser said he was concerned about operational security. “I’ve talked to their [Djibouti’s] president and expressed our concerns about some of the things that are important to us about what the Chinese should not do at that location.”
This is a story of international importance, that it has gotten so little attention is pretty odd.
Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, inked an agreement on economic cooperation in 2018-2020 and a memorandum of understanding on the need to develop railway infrastructure, among other documents.
Turning from word to deed, the two leaders traveled to the northeastern Lebap province on March 7 to attend the ceremonial inauguration of the 1.75 kilometer Turkmenabat-Farap railway and road bridge, which straddles the Amu-Dary River and could conceivably enable greater cross-border traffic. Until now, trains crossing the river coursing along Turkmenistan’s side of the border did so using a bridge built in 1901.
It was his first state visit as leader so it’s a bit of a big deal that Turkmenistan was the destination
and finally things are heating up between the Falkland Islands and Argentina again:
The letter added: “We take this opportunity to remind you of our fundamental right to self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter, and of the 35 years of attempts by the Government of Argentina to ignore our rights as a people and undermine our way of life.
“In recognising the universal rights of all people, we welcome you in visiting our home, to see for yourselves our community and our heritage born of nine generations.
“During your visit here, the Falkland Islands Government would like to invite you to a briefing on our modern, independent, well-governed, sustainable and thriving country, so that you can further your understanding of our citizens and way of life.”
The letter added comes as an Argentinian delegation comes to visit on a fact-finding mission related to the war.
I doubt that this post will draw thousands or even hundreds of hits, but if I manage seven, one from each of the countries listed that will do.
“So you’ll be paying yourself to build a railroad with government subsidies.” Sen. Jordan Crane to Thomas “Doc” Durant.
“These are exciting times. You and I are opening the way for the greatest nation the world has ever seen.” Major Augustus Bendix to Cullen Bohannon.
“See him driving those golden nails
that hold together the silver bars
That one day’s gonna take us to the stars
cos he’s the man who built America.”
Horslips, from their song, The Man Who Built America.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit.” President Donald J. Trump to Congress last week.
Last week I completed my latest binge-watching endeavor, Hell on Wheels, an AMC show that ran from 2011-2016 that is available on Netflix and on Amazon.
The building of the American transcontinental is the driving force of the plot of this series–the Union Pacific heading west from Omaha and the Central Pacific heading east from Sacramento.
The transcontinental railroad exemplified America at its best–getting the job done 16 years before Canada and 36 years before Russia. It also exemplified America at its worst. Racism and corruption–the Crédit Mobilier outrage was one of our nation’s worst political scandals and it forever tainted this monumental achievement.
The Civil War purged America of slavery, the nation was no longer “a house divided against itself,” but in 1865 the United States was in a way like an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle, the east and west coasts, the easy part, were settled but much of the middle–the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, still needed to be filled in.
Hell on Wheel’s main character is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former slaveholder and Confederate cavalry officer who travels to Nebraska Territory to hunt down Union soldiers who murdered his wife and son in Mississippi. Despite that ruthlessness–make that because of that ruthlessness–Union Pacific president Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing, although their relationship is mostly turbulent throughout the run of the series.
Bohannon isn’t the only character scarred by the turmoil of mid-19th century America. Elam Ferguson (Common) and Psalms Jackson (Dohn Norwood) are freedmen who quickly learn that freedom from slavery doesn’t mean equality. The Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and his daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), suffer from pangs of guilt remaining from Bleeding Kansas. The Rev. Cole’s most prominent convert to Christianity, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), is estranged from his father, a Cheyenne chief. The most compelling character on the show, Thor “The Swede” Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl), is a Norwegian immigrant and former Union army quartermaster–a man who says he is good with numbers, but after his barbaric incarceration at the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp, he ascertained that “I had to control people like I control numbers and I learned to practice a sort of immoral mathematics.”
The Swede is Hell On Wheels’ principal villain and if there is ever a Villains Hall Of Fame built, then he belongs as a charter member.
Another intriguing HoW character is Irish immigrant Mickey McGuinnes (Phil Burke), who like Durant, finds a way to make himself a success after starting with nothing. One of his workers is a tattooed former prostitute and a Jack Mormon, Eva (Robin McLeavy). She was captured by Indians after her family’s wagon train was waylaid.
The final season of Hell on Wheels brings in the storyline of the Central Pacific. Movie posters for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly boasted, “For three men the Civil War wasn’t hell. It was practice!” The Chinese laborers on the Central Pacific can be forgiven for having a similar dismissive view of our Civil War, which killed 600,000 Americans. Emotional scars from the Taiping Rebellion plague many of the Chinese characters. That conflict, which was actually a civil war between Imperial China and a man claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ, probably killed 20-30 million people–after the famine deaths are added in. Some estimates bring the death total as high as 100 million. If that last figure is correct, then the Taiping Rebellion was the deadliest war ever.
Life is cheap in both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific camps–both are served by brothels, although opium is offered at the latter instead of whiskey.
Durant was a real person, although his portrayal in Hell on Wheels is largely fictional. Other historical figures appearing include Wyoming’s territorial governor John Campbell (Jack Weber), President Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak), and Brigham Young (Gregg Henry). Eva’s character was based on an actual woman, as was the man in the show who survived a scalping. He carries his scalp in a bottle of alcohol–and offers paid listeners a recounting of his ordeal. The phrase “Hell on Wheels” is a real one in this context, it’s what the tent cities that followed the construction of the Union Pacific were called.
In the penultimate HoW episode, there is a prescient moment as black and Chinese workers rush to finish the road in 1869. Above them you see the moon. One hundred years later, yes, in 1969, “the greatest nation the world has ever seen” reached the moon. No country has repeated that feat or even attempted it.
Yes, American exceptionalism is real.
If you enjoy westerns, you’ll find Hell on Wheels worth your while. But if you are looking for romance–then look elsewhere. Mount is a fine actor but love encounters are not his long suit. And what was the point of his sex scene on top of a table with fused nitroglycerine on it?
As with most westerns, the cinematography is first-rate–with Alberta filling in capably for Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and California. It would be better if movies about America would be filmed here, but that’s another subject for another time.