The stories that people tell one other about where they came from say much about them. This applies even — perhaps especially — when the stories are not, strictly speaking, true. I’d therefore like to share with you two of the origin stories of the Chinese, both of which offer a wealth of insight into how they see themselves. Even better, both stories involve dragons.

Chinese dragons are very different from the lumbering, clumsy, rather dull-witted monstrosities of Western Medieval tales. They are sly tricksters, protean shapeshifters who refuse to be pinned down in any sense. Guan Zhong, a Chinese philosopher and statesman of the seventh century BC, wrote that a dragon “may shrink to the size of a silkworm or bulge to a size too large for the world to contain; it may soar above the clouds or immerse itself in the abyss of the waters.” A dictionary compiled some 700 years later noted that “the dragon is sometimes visible, sometimes obscure; it may appear slender, or grow immense; it may shorten or lengthen itself at will; and it soars into the sky on the spring equinox, and submerges into the deep on the autumnal equinox.” Dragons in China are not monsters but divinities who arrived just after the creation of the world and remain intimately bound up with its spiritual essence.

Pangu, the creator god. (Public Domain)

In the traditional Chinese telling, the world began when a hairy giant named Pangu — in most visual renderings, he tends to look rather like a swollen Genghis Khan — burst out of a cosmic egg. With a mighty swing of his axe, he split the primordial mists. The lighter, airier elements rose up to form the sky; the heavier, grosser elements sank to form the earth. These two ways of being, known as the yang and the yin, put their stamp on every aspect of the world that was coming into existence. The yang — the sky principle — was male, positive, active, reasonable, the source of warmth and dryness and light. The yin — the earth principle — was female, negative, reactive, emotional, the bringer of coldness and wetness and darkness. They existed from the beginning in an opposition to one another which paradoxically led to a divine harmony.

After separating the yang and the yin, Pangu formed the other features of the world that we know from his own substance: his breath became the wind, his blood the rivers, his muscles the fertile fields, his bones the minerals underground, his hair the stars in the sky. And then dragons — many dragons — came into the new world.

A dragon named Nüwa began shaping humans out of clay. At first she spent a lot of time on each one, making him or her well-formed and beautiful to look upon. But she eventually lost patience with the task, and started throwing people together in increasingly slapdash fashion. The finely formed ones whom she had created first became the emperors and nobles of China; the ones she made next became the peasants of China; and those she made last, the most malformed of them all, became the “barbarians” who were banished to lands other than the Middle Kingdom.

This ancient creation myth thus presents a Chinese vision of themselves that still holds enormous sway in the country today: the Chinese as the best and brightest people in the world, maintaining a strict hierarchy within their own ranks but also understanding that to be Chinese — even the lowliest of Chinese — is to be above any of the other benighted peoples of the world.

That said, we should surely take a breath before reading too much into the patina of self-satisfied arrogance that oozes from this tale. After all, Chinese culture is hardly unique in giving itself pride of place in its own creation myths. Another story the Chinese tell themselves about their origins is much more recent than this one, having its roots in international scientific inquiry rather than provincial ancient myth. Yet it has since become almost equally scientifically unsustainable, which makes the stubborn Chinese adherence to it all the more telling. And, as promised, it too involves dragons. Or rather the bones of dragons.

For many, many centuries, so-called “dragon bones” have had a special place in Chinese folklore. They turn up regularly in Northern Inner China, wherever wells are dug, fields are plowed, mines are blasted, or streams are dammed. They are worth, if not quite their weight in gold, a considerable sum by the reckoning of the typical Chinese farmer, who generally sells them to the apothecary in the nearest town. The latter then sells them on to others, who ingest or apply them in a variety of ways, out of the belief that they can cure a multitude of ills, from dysentery to gall stones, impotence to malaria, even epilepsy and madness. They were once believed to be the literal bones of the dragons that roamed the earth in great numbers when it was young, and in many parts of rural China this tradition holds sway to this day. How could such dragon bones not have special properties?

The dragon bones are actually, of course, the fully or partially fossilized remains of many of the animals that live or have lived in China over the long course of time: bears, hyenas, otters, saber-toothed tigers, beavers, mastodons, rhinoceroses, horses, hippopotami, pigs, camels, giraffes, deer, antelopes. All have been buried and then churned toward the surface once again by the endless geological chaos of the Northern Inner China loess. Paleontologists would find them very interesting indeed under any circumstances. But scientists all over the world grew especially excited by them at the turn of the twentieth century, when the German paleontologist Max Schlosser, in the midst of cataloging a collection of dragon bones purchased from Chinese apothecaries, stumbled upon what he concluded must be a hominid — but not modern human — tooth. Scientists immediately began asking themselves whether a “missing link” between apes and humans might be found among these dragon bones of China.

A few words of explanation are necessary here. “Missing link” is a value-laden and imprecise term that few credible scientists of today employ, but during the century after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 it referred to evidence — preferably fossil evidence — of a hominid that was more “advanced” than any of the known great apes but less so than present-day Homo sapiens. Such a find would, among other things, prove that humans were not the unique, bespoke creations of a divine being, as so many religious people still argued. It would rather prove that humans had evolved to their current state of being through natural selection, just like all of the other animals of the world.

The search for this missing link was necessarily connected to a raging debate in the burgeoning field of evolutionary biology: that of just where in the world modern humans had first emerged. Darwin himself proposed Sub-Saharan Africa as the cradle of humanity, but others plumped for Asia. And when a Dutch paleontologist named Egène Dubois turned up a few fossilized bones of what he called Pithecanthropus erectus — literally “upright ape-man” — on the Southeast Asian island of Java in 1891, the out-of-Asia theory surged to the forefront. Schlosser’s teeth further tipped the scales away from Africa.

By 1915, the highly respected Canadian paleontologist William Diller Matthew could write in his book Climate and Evolution that “most authorities are today agreed in placing the center of dispersal of the human race in Asia. Its more exact location may be differently interpreted, but the consensus of modern opinion would place it probably in or about the great plateau of central Asia” — i.e., the Tibetan Plateau, the land of the steppe dwellers whom the Great Wall of China was built to guard against, the place whence the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers flow down into Inner China. In addition to the fossil evidence of Dubois’s “Java Man” and Schlosser’s dragon-bone teeth, Matthew used a mixture of historical evidence and cultural prejudices to justify this growing consensus. In the realm of the former, he explained that “immediately around [the Tibetan Plateau’s] borders lie the regions of the earliest recorded civilizations — of Chaldea, Asia Minor, and Egypt to the westward, of India to the south, of China to the east.” In the realm of the latter, he noted that the “lowest and most primitive men” still lived in those places farthest from this central locus of evolutionary progress, presumably because they had taken longer to arrive in their final homes, and thus had had less time to develop the trappings of civilization. Even the relative backwardness of the people currently living on the Tibetan Plateau was accounted for: “by progressive aridity that region became desert,” which resulted in all of the best people moving away to form the early civilizations that sprang up all around its borders.

In his book Climate and Evolution, William Diller Matthew offered this sketch of his conception of the dispersal of humanity from its point of origin on the Tibetan Plateau. (Public Domain)

The prevalence of theories like these, combined with the tangible discoveries of Max Schlosser, brought quite a number of Western scientists to China by the beginning of the 1920s, to dig in those areas close to Beijing that locals told them were rife with dragon bones, looking for more hominid remnants. We need not examine the details of their work too closely here, nor try to parse credit for it too finely. Suffice to say that the Swede Johan Gunnar Andersson, the Austrian Otto Zdansky, the Canadian Davidson Black, and many assorted Chinese whose contributions have been sadly less heralded in the West were all instrumental in the uncovering of assorted fossilized fragments of “Peking Man” — actually “Peking People,” as the fragments were neither all from the same person nor necessarily all from a male of the species — between 1926 and the Japanese occupation of Beijing in 1939. The finds included distinctly hominid but non-Homo sapien teeth, jaws, and skullcaps. Even more evocatively, they included fragments of purpose-made stone tools: axes, spears, knives, scrapers, things that humans alone among the animals of our current world are capable of making and using. Some of the scientists even uncovered what they believed to be charred bones and rocks — evidence, they claimed, that Peking Man had also learned to harness fire for cooking, for warmth, and/or for protection. (This claim is somewhat in dispute today, but was widely accepted at the time.)

In marked contrast to the typical colonial practice of plundering the poorer nations of the world for their treasures, the Rockefeller Foundation and the other Western benefactors who funded the digs agreed to leave all of the fossils in China. In the end, though, their munificence did not redound to the benefit of science: all of the physical specimens of Peking Man disappeared after 1939, stolen or destroyed by the Japanese invaders. Digs have been conducted at the sites intermittently since the end of World War II, turning up more fragments here and there, but the original mother lode appears to be lost forever.

Nevertheless, for several decades Peking Man was believed by scientists and laypeople all over the world to be the most credible of all candidates for a missing link; despite the regrettable loss of the fragments, it was clear from the discoverers’ notes that they had greatly exceeded the likes of Dubois’s Java Man in both quality and quantity. The Asian hypothesis of human origins verged on becoming conventional wisdom for a while. Yet science is — or at least ought to be — a self-correcting tool for understanding our world. In time, its relentlessness about following the facts wherever they may lead wound up diminishing Peking Man’s importance in the big picture of humanity’s past.

For by the end of the 1970s, a series of landmark discoveries in Sub-Saharan Africa had led most scientists to conclude that Charles Darwin had been right all along: this continent rather than Asia had spawned the first Homo sapiens. The most common current theory of our evolutionary past features a number of early hominids that first appeared in Africa, then migrated outward from that locus to cover much of the rest of the world. Peking Man would have been among these. It was probably an offshoot of the species known as Homo erectus, which probably did evolve fairly directly into modern Homo sapiens — but the aggregate of the fossil evidence indicates that it did so on the continent of Africa rather than Asia. Peking Man, like Java Man, must have migrated to Asia from Africa during an earlier epoch, only to be replaced there, as everywhere else in the world, by Homo sapiens over the course of the last 100,000 to 200,000 years. These Homo sapiens too came up from Africa, but at a later date, and were simply better equipped to thrive — not least because they had much larger brains, and thus that much more aptitude for tools, for language, and for abstract thought, the very things that make humans different from all other animals. Not only fossil evidence but considerable genetic and even linguistic evidence now exists to support the out-of-Africa theory.

We now realize as well that William Diller Matthew’s attempt to deduce the course of human evolution in a biological sense from the course of human civilization in an historical sense is a fool’s errand. The chronological scales are just too hopelessly different: the evolutionary prehistory of humanity stretches back millions of years, the existence of Homo sapiens alone 100,000 years by the most conservative possible estimate. Meanwhile human civilization — defined in the most generous possible way, as being marked by a sedentary lifestyle based on farming rather than hunting and gathering — might be 12,000 years old at most. Given these chronological asymmetries, the one has very little to tell us about the other. Using the one to deduce much of anything about the other is as misguided as extrapolating the course of a nation’s entire history from a single day’s newspaper headlines.

But there is one fascinating exception to this modern consensus about the fairly direct and recent African ancestry of all people living in the world today. Unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese people do not see Peking Man as merely an interesting evolutionary offshoot of the hominid family tree, one that lived in China about 500,000 years ago and was later replaced by Homo sapiens coming up from Africa. No — they have canonized Peking Man as their very own “ancestor.” The textbooks read by Chinese schoolchildren refer to him almost as another Pangu or Nüwa. His cult’s central temple is a museum to him that has existed in Beijing since shortly after the Communists came to power. “Our great ancestral country is so lovely,” reads one entry in the guestbook there. “It was created for and passed down to us by our ancestors.” Chinese youths periodically dress up like Peking Man, then bear “sacred torches” from the places where his remains were discovered to the center of Beijing. A massive bronze bust of Peking Man featured prominently on the route the Olympic torch followed into Beijing during the 2008 Summer Games. A popular 2010 movie was entitled Primitive Love of Peking Man, casting the latter as the ultimate noble — and lusty; a little titillation never hurts box-office returns — savage. The tagline of the film’s publicity poster reads, “Thank you, our ancestor!”

This enormous bust stands outside the Peking Man Museum in Beijing. (xiquinhosilva)

The Chinese scientific establishment is as unmoved as the popular culture by Peking Man’s diminution in status elsewhere. In 1990, about a decade after the last Western scientists had abandoned the out-of-Asia theory of humanity’s origins, two respected Chinese paleo-anthropologists named Jia Lanpo and Huang Weiwen could still write in their book The Story of Peking Man that “we agree [with earlier scientists like William Diller Matthew] that Asia is the birthplace of humankind.”

In more recent decades, Chinese science has continued to fight a dogged rearguard action against the out-of-Africa theory of the West. With more finds in Sub-Saharan Africa making the out-of-Asia theory in its purest form ever more untenable, they have fallen back on the ideas of Franz Weidenreich, a German Jewish scientist who directed the Peking Man digs during the last five years before the arrival of the Japanese in Beijing. Weidenreich was an adherent of the theory of orthogenesis: the theory that human evolution is not driven by natural selection alone but rather by an innate guiding principle, an ineffable disposition to move toward “higher” forms. It allegedly manifested itself in our past as groups of hominids in widely disparate locations all evolving simultaneously to become what we call Homo sapiens.

Most modern Western scientists have little use for orthogenesis; its advocacy for a semi-mystical, utterly unexplained motivating force would seem to make it a better fit for religion than science. Still, a minority of evolutionary biologists do believe that there may have been more parallel evolution of prehistoric hominids, aided by periodic genetic intermingling among populations due to migration to and fro, than the out-of-Africa theory generally allows for, and some of these do credit Weidenreich as an inspiration.

Chinese scientists, however, tend to be vastly more credulous toward Weidenreich’s ideas than almost anyone in the West. They use them as partial justification of a belief that, rather than sharing a common African ancestry with the rest of humanity that dates back no more than 100,000 to 200,000 years, Chinese humans — the race scientifically classified as “Mongoloids” — are separated from other Homo sapiens by an evolutionary gulf of half a million years or more. Virtually no Western scientists — even those who find some things of value in some of Franz Weidenreich’s ideas — go as far as this. And indeed, the physical evidence cited by the Chinese scientists, such as Weidenreich’s vague assertion that the skulls of Peking Man by his reckoning looked more like those of a Mongoloid than they did his own, is almost laughably flimsy.

Why should so many educated Chinese hew to such a counter-factual belief? The answer is rooted in China’s historical conception of itself as the Middle Kingdom, uniquely ancient, advanced, contiguous, and inviolate among all the lands of the world. If the Chinese people evolved from Peking Man over the course of the last half-million years, while the other peoples of the world evolved from something else, they truly are as separate, as sui generis as they have always claimed themselves to be. But to accept the foreign scientific consensus that the differences among all of the peoples of the world are genetically minor and stem from a recent point in time in the grand scale of evolution is to lose this precious sense of exceptionalism. By a roundabout way, then, we have arrived back at the ancient myth of the creation of a hierarchical humanity by the dragon Nüwa, with the Chinese at the top. Small wonder that Peking Man has become such an important prop to the modern ethno-nationalist Chinese state, such that few Chinese scientists dare to argue the point in public even if they privately hold a different opinion, as, one has to suspect, some of them at least must.

But we need to recognize that the pride of place given to Peking Man is more than just another drearily crude propaganda prop of an authoritarian state; the average Chinese has been conditioned by traditional Chinese culture as well to believe it, and requires no coercion to do so. “According to [the out-of-Africa theory], African black people and American white people are actually our close relatives, while the fossil humans dating to 600,000 years ago within China’s borders have no genetic relationship with us,” wrote Beijing Youth News in 2002, using that plain-spoken, commonsensical, and deeply fallacious mode of argument common to populist causes all over the world. More tellingly, the newsletter took it as a given that to be closely related to a Chinese proto-human who lived 600,000 years ago is better than to be closely related to anyone non-Chinese.

China’s sanguine sense of its intrinsic superiority has been a great source of strength for it at times, but also arguably its greatest historical weakness, what with the isolationist insularity it has so often bred, sometimes to the huge detriment of the country’s economy and culture. There is an ironic parallel to be drawn between Peking Man and that most famous of all signs of the same tendency, the Great Wall of China. Both were creations of the Western psyche that were embraced eagerly by Communist China as symbols of national pride, that have become important parts of the ideology of the modern Chinese state — which, despite its couching in Marxist rhetoric, is not that far removed in many ways from that of imperial China. As we switch now from an evolutionary to an historical scale of time in our effort to understand China’s past and present, one of our overarching goals must be to find out how and why the Chinese learned to divide the world’s peoples so unquestioningly into the categories of Themselves and Others.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 2: Origin Stories"

  • Leo Vellés

    “which makes the Chinese adherence to it in its way all the more more telling”.
    Is the second “more” intended?
    “he noted that the “lowest and most primitive men” still lived in in those places farthest…” A double “in” there

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Martin

    From the way you explain it, there would be more value in the Chinese ‘loosing’ the Peking Man bones than anyone else. If they are not there for further analysis, they can claim whatever they want about them. What evidence is there that the Japanese took them during WWII (assuming that was what you meant).

    • Jimmy Maher

      The problem with such a conspiracy theory is that there was no reason to conceal anything at the time because the international scientific community was close to a consensus that Peking Man had evolved into Homo sapiens in Asia; the disagreements all arose decades later.

      The history of the finds and the Japanese occupation is quite complicated, but also fairly well documented. An attempt was made to get some of them out aboard the merchant ship President Harrison, but the ship disappeared at sea, presumably sunk by the Japanese. A train carrying some other fossils was intercepted and ransacked by the Japanese. There is a fair amount of surviving correspondence from Chinese scientists from the dig expressing concern — perhaps better said, panic — over the fate of the fossils. I recommend the very readable book Dragon Bones by Penny van Oosterzee if you’d like to read more about the story.

  • Will Moczarski

    The dragons bones
    -> dragons’

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Alexey Romanov

    > “we agree [with earlier scientists like William Diller Matthew] that Asia is the birthplace of humankind, except that not the Mongolian Plateau but the south of Asia is the more likely spot.” Thus they not only continued to promulgate the out-of-Asia theory in the broad strokes, but moved its locus to Inner China — the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world.

    Does “the south of Asia” really refer to China here and not India or SE Asia?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, I suppose the quote is a little unclear. One could argue that, while “South Asia” is the accepted proper name of a region of the world which doesn’t include China, a part of China does belong to the more abstract “south of Asia.” These things can become still more complicated by translation issues between the original Chinese and English. But for safety’s sake, I’ve excised that part of the quote and my following comment. The really important part is the continuing adherence to the out-of-Asia theory in the broader strokes. Thanks!


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