The Photo That Triggered China’s Disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966)

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward. Eight years later, he announced the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Between those two events, of course, came the Great Chinese Famine, and historians now view all three as being “great” in the same pejorative sense. Though Chairman Mao may not have understood the probable consequences of policies like agricultural collectivization and ideological purification, he did understand the importance of his own image in selling those policies to the Chinese people: hence the famous 1966 photo of him swimming across the Yangtze River.

By that point, “the Chinese leader who had led a peasant army to victory in the Chinese Civil War and established the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 was getting old.” So says Coleman Lowndes in the Vox Darkroom video above. Worse, Mao’s Great Leap Forward had clearly proven calamitous. The Chairman “needed to find a way to seal his legacy as the face of Chinese communism and a new revolution to lead.” And so he repeated one of his earlier feats, the swim across the Yangtze he’d taken in 1956. Spread far and wide by state media, the shot of Mao in the river taken by his personal photographer illustrated reports that he’d swum fifteen kilometers in a bit over an hour.

This meant “the 72-year-old would have shattered world speed records,” a claim all in a day’s work for propagandists in a dictatorship. But those who saw photograph wouldn’t have forgotten what happened the last time he took such a well-publicized dip in the Yangtze. “Experts feared that Mao was on the verge of kicking off another disastrous period of turmoil in China. They were right.” The already-declared Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, now widely known as the Cultural Revolution, saw millions of Chinese youth — ostensibly radicalized by the image of their beloved leader in the flesh — organize into “the fanatical Red Guards,” a paramilitary force bent on extirpating, by any means necessary, the “four olds”: old culture, old ideology, old customs, and old traditions.

As with most attempts to usher in a Year Zero, Mao’s final revolution wasted little time becoming an engine of chaos. Only his death ended “a decade of destruction that had elevated the leader to god-like levels and resulted in over one million people dead.” The Chinese Communist’s Party has subsequently condemned the Cultural Revolution but not the Chairman himself, and indeed his swim remains an object of yearly commemoration. “Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal,” once said CCP official Chen Yun. “Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?” Perhaps that, had the aging Mao drowned in the Yangtze, Chinese history might have taken a happier turn.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Helen Keller Met Charlie Chaplin and Taught Him Sign Language (1919)

Charlie Chaplin had many high-profile fans in his day, including some of the luminaries of the early twentieth century. We could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that the writer and activist Hellen Keller was not among them, given the limitations her condition of deafness and blindness — or “deafblindness” — would naturally place on the enjoyment of film, even the silent films in which Chaplin made his name. But making that assumption would be to misunderstand the driving force of Keller’s life and career. If the movies were supposedly unavailable to her, then she’d make a point of not just watching them, but befriending their biggest star.

Keller met Chaplin in 1919 at his Hollywood studio, during the filming of Sunnyside. This, as biographers have revealed, was not one of the smoothest-going periods in the comedian-auteur’s life, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying his time with Keller, and even learning from her.

In her 1928 autobiography Midstream, she would remember that he’d been “shy, almost timid,” and that “his lovely modesty lent a touch of romance to the occasion that might otherwise have seemed quite ordinary.” The pictures that have circulated of the meeting, seen here, include one of Keller teaching Chaplin the tactile sign-language alphabet she used to communicate.

It was also the means by which, with the assistance of companion Anne Sullivan, she followed the action of Chaplin’s films A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms when they were screened for her that evening. When Keller and Chaplin met again nearly thirty years later, he sought her feedback on the script for his latest picture, Monsieur Verdoux. “There is no language for the terrifying power of your message that sears with sarcasm or rends apart coverts of social hypocrisy,” Keller later wrote to Chaplin. A politically charged black comedy about a bigamist serial killer bearing little resemblance indeed to the beloved Little Tramp, Monsieur Verdoux met with critical and commercial failure upon its release. The film has since been re-evaluated as a subversive masterwork, but it was perhaps Keller who first truly saw it.

Related content:

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Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Special Friendship: He Treated Me Not as a Freak, But as a Person Dealing with Great Difficulties

When Albert Einstein & Charlie Chaplin Met and Became Fast Famous Friends (1930)

When Mahatma Gandhi Met Charlie Chaplin (1931)

The Charlie Chaplin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Photos & Documents from the Life of the Iconic Film Star

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Brief History of Dumplings: An Animated Introduction

Dumplings are so delicious and so venerable, it’s understandable why more than one country would want to claim authorship.

As cultural food historian Miranda Brown discovers in her TED-Ed animation, dumplings are among the artifacts found in ancient tombs in western China, rock hard, but still recognizable.

Scholar Shu Xi sang their praises over 1,700 years ago in a poem detailing their ingredients and preparation. He also indicated that the dish was not native to China.

Lamb stuffed dumplings flavored with garlic, yogurt, and herbs were an Ottoman Empire treat, circa 1300 CE.

The 13th-century Mongol invasions of Korea resulted in mass casualties , but the silver lining is, they gave the world mandoo.

The Japanese Army’s brutal occupation of China during World War II gave them a taste for dumplings that led to the creation of gyoza.

Eastern European pelmenipierogi and vareniki may seem like variations on a theme to the uninitiated, but don’t expect a Ukrainian or Russian to view it that way.

Is the history of dumplings really just a series of bloody conflicts, punctuated by periods of relative harmony wherein everyone argues over the best dumplings in NYC?

Brown takes some mild potshots at cuisines whose dumplings are closer to dough balls than “plump pockets of perfection”, but she also knows her audience and wisely steers clear of any positions that might lead to playground fights.

Relax, kids, however your grandma makes dumplings, she’s doing it right.

It’s hard to imagine sushi master Naomichi Yasuda dialing his opinions down to preserve the status quo.

A purist – and favorite of Anthony Bourdain – Chef Yasuda is unwavering in his convictions that there is one right way, and many wrong ways to eat and prepare sushi.

He’s far from priggish, instructing customer Joseph George, for VICE Asia MUNCHIES in the proper handling of a simple piece of sushi after it’s been lightly dipped, fish side down, in soy sauce:

Don’t shake it. Don’t shake it! Shaking is just to be finished at the men’s room.

Other takeaways for sushi bar diners:

  • Use fingers rather than chopsticks when eating maki rolls.
  • Eating pickled ginger with sushi is “very much bad manners”
  • Roll sushi on its side before picking it up with chopsticks to facilitate dipping
  • The temperature interplay between rice and fish is so delicate that your experience of it will differ depending on whether a waiter brings it to you at a table or the chef hands it to you across the counter as soon as it’s assembled.

Explore TED-Ed’s Brief History of Dumplings lesson here.

For a deeper dumpling dive, read the Oxford Symposium’s Wrapped and Stuffed Foods: Proceedings on the Symposium: Foods and Cookery, 2012, available as a free Google Book.

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Ayun Halliday is the author of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What Americans Ate for Dessert 200 Years Ago: Watch Re-Creations of Original Recipes

Many of us avoid turning on the oven during a heatwave, but how do we feel about making cookies in a Dutch Oven heaped with glowing embers?

Justine Dorn, co-creator with other half, Ron Rayfield, of the Early American YouTube channel, strives to recreate 18th and early 19th century desserts in an authentic fashion, and if that means whisking egg whites by hand in a 100 degree room, so be it.

“Maybe hotter,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post, adding:

It’s hard work but still I love what I do. I hope that everyone can experience the feeling of being where you belong and doing what you know you were born to do. Maybe not everyone will understand your reasoning but if you are comfortable and happy doing what you do then continue.

Her historic labors have an epic quality, but the recipes from aged cookbooks are rarely complex.

The gluten free chocolate cookies from the 1800 edition of The Complete Confectioner have but three ingredients – grated chocolate, caster sugar, and the aforementioned egg whites – cooked low and slow on parchment, to create a hollow center and crispy, macaron-like exterior.

Unlike many YouTube chefs, Dorn doesn’t translate measurements for a modern audience or keep things moving with busy editing and bright commentary.

Her silent, lightly subtitled approach lays claim to a previously unexplored corner of autonomous sensory meridian response – ASMR Historical Cooking.

The sounds of crackling hearth, eggs being cracked into a bowl, hot embers being scraped up with a metal shovel turn out to be compelling stuff.

So were the cookies, referred to as “Chocolate Puffs” in the original recipe.

Dorn and Rayfield have a secondary channel, Frontier Parrot, on which they grant themselves permission to respond verbally, in 21st century vernacular, albeit while remaining dressed in 1820s Missouri garb.

“I would pay a man $20 to eat this whole plate of cookies because these are the sweetest cookies I’ve ever come across in my life,” Dorn tells Rayfield on the Frontier Parrot Chat and Chew episode, below. “They only have three ingredients, but if you eat more than one you feel like you’re going to go into a coma – a sugar coma!”

He asserts that two’s his limit and also that they “sound like hard glass” when knocked against the table.

Early Americans would have gaped at the indulgence on display above, wherein Dorn whips up not one but three cake recipes in the space of a single episode.

The plum cakes from the Housekeeper’s Instructor (1791) are frosted with an icing that Rayfield identifies on a solo Frontier Parrot as 2 cups of sugar whipped with a single egg white.

“We suffered for this icing,” Dorn revealed in an Instagram post. “SUFFERED. Ya’ll don’t know true pain until you whip icing from hand using only egg whites and sugar.”

The flat little pound cakes from 1796’s American Cookery call for butter rubbed with rosewater.

The honey cake from American Domestic Cookery, Formed on Principles of Economy, For the Use of Private Families (1871), gets a lift from pearl ash or “potash”, a German leavening agent that’s been rendered virtually obsolete by baking powder.

Those who insist on keeping their ovens off in summer should take a moment to let the title of the  below episode sink in:

Making Ice Cream in the 1820s SUCKS. “

This dish doesn’t call for blood, sweat and tears,” Dorn writes of the pre-Victorian, crank-free experience, “but we’re gonna add some anyway.”

Find a playlist of Dorn’s Early American dessert reconstructions, including an amazing cherry raspberry pie and a cheap seed cake here.

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Dessert Recipes of Iconic Thinkers: Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake, George Orwell’s Christmas Pudding, Alice B. Toklas’ Hashish Fudge & More

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Sinking of the Lusitania Animated in Real Time (1915)

If you are a graduate of a U.S. school system, the words “Remember the Lusitania” may be as vaguely familiar to you as “Remember the Alamo.” And you may be just as fuzzy about the details. We learn roughly that the sinking of the British luxury liner was an act of German aggression that moved the U.S. to enter World War I. That lesson is largely the result of a propaganda effort launched at the time to inflame anti-German sentiments and push the U.S. out of isolationism. But it would take almost two years after the attack before the country entered the war. The Lusitania did not change President Woodrow Wilson’s position. While the “sinking of the Lusitania was a crucial moment in helping to sway the American public in support of the Allied cause,” it was only kept in the public eye by those who wanted the U.S. in the war.

Mainstream U.S. coverage immediately afterward was not overly belligerent. A week after the disaster, in a May 16th, 1915 issue, the Sunday New York Times ran a two-page spread entitled “Prominent Americans Who Lost Their Lives on the S.S. Lusitania.” Two weeks later, another photo spread honored the ship’s dead, reflecting a “panorama of responses to the disaster,” the Library of Congress writes, including “sorrow, heroism, ambivalence, consolation, and anger.”

These were emotional surveys of a tragedy, not investigative journalism of an act of war. “Remarkably,” the attack had “dominated the headlines for only about a week before being overtaken by a newer story.” We might compare this to news of the Titanic disaster three years earlier, credited as “one of the first and most significant international news stories of the 20th century.” There is much about the Lusitania the public did not learn, leading to later accusations of a British Naval Intelligence cover-up.

For one thing, stories reported that the ship had been hit by two torpedoes when there was only one. Immediately after its impact, however, a secondary explosion from inside the ship caused the Lusitania to list perilously to one side (rendering most lifeboats useless) and take on water. Where the Titanic had taken 2 hours and 40 minutes to go down, the Lusitania sank in 18 minutes — as you can see in the real-time animation above — killing approximately 1,200 passengers including around 120 Americans. The second explosion lent credibility to German accusations that the passenger ship was carrying munitions from New York to Britain. (Divers in a 1993 National Geographic expedition found four million U.S.-made Remington bullets on board.) While this could not be proven at the time, the British had taken to hiding arms on passenger ships, and the Lusitania was outfitted to be commandeered for war.

Not only did British authorities put the Lusitania in harm’s way by allowing civilian passengers to sail through blockaded waters in which German submarines had been sinking merchant ships, but passengers knowingly put themselves in danger. The German High Command had warned of attacks in American newspapers in days before the ship set sail. Yet “only a couple of people actually canceled,” says Erik Larson, author of the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. No war at sea or recent memory of the Titanic could dissuade them.

They saw this ship as so fast it could outrun any submarine. They saw it as being so immense, so well built, so safe, and so well equipped with lifeboats in the wake of the Titanic disaster that even if it were hit by a torpedo, no one imagined this thing actually sinking. But no one could imagine a submarine going after the Lusitania in the first place.

Larson’s last point signals the critical difference between this attack and all of those previous: the sinking of the Lusitania was a shocking turning point in the war, even if it didn’t force Wilson’s hand as Churchill hoped. No one had expected it. “In the history of modern warfare,” the Library of Congress notes, the Lusitania signaled “the end of the ‘gentlemanly’ war practice of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a more ominous and vicious era of total warfare.” While the Germans ceased the practice after British outcry, they resumed the targeting of passenger and merchant ships in 1917, finally prompting U.S. involvement. The era that began with the Lusitania continues over a century later. Indeed, the wanton destruction of civilian life no longer seems like tragic collateral damage in current war zones, but the very point of waging modern war.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Oldest Tattoos Ever Discovered on an Egyptian Mummy Date Back 5,000 Years

Some histories tell us more about their narrators than their characters. The story of tattoos in ancient Egypt is one example. While tattoos and other forms of body modification have been part of nearly every ancient culture, Egyptologists have found many more tattooed female than male mummies at ancient burial sites. Since tattooing seemed to be an almost “exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt,” writes archeologist Joann Fletcher, “mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of ‘dubious status,’ described in some cases as ‘dancing girls.'”

There is no evidence, however, to suggest that tattoos in ancient Egypt specifically marked dancers, prostitutes, concubines, or individuals of a lower class (and thus of little interest to some early archaeologists). One mummy described as a concubine “was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions.” Early archaeologists stubbornly clung to derogatory 19th-century assumptions about tattoos (and class, dancing, sex, and religion), even when discussing tattooed Egyptian women whose burials obviously showed they were priestesses or extended members of a royal family.

Until relatively recently, “the most conclusive evidence of Egyptian tattoos,” writes Joshua Mark at the World History Encyclopedia, “dates the practice to the Middle Kingdom” — spanning the 11th through the 13th Dynasties (approximately 2040 to 1782 BC). In 2018, however, researchers at the British Museum took another look at two naturally mummified 5,000-year-old Predynastic bodies, one male one female, dating from between 3351 and 3017 BC. They looked specifically for signs of body modification that might have gone unseen by earlier Egyptologists.

Known as the Gebelein predynastic mummies, these bodies are two of six excavated at the end of the 1800s by Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge. Through the use of CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, the British Museum has found that previously unexamined marks “push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” the Museum blog notes, describing the findings in detail.

The male mummy, called “Gebelein Man A,” showed a design on his bicep:

Dark smudges on his arm, appearing as faint markings under natural light, had remained unexamined. Infrared photography recently revealed that these smudges were in fact tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. The horned animals have been tentatively identified as a wild bull (long tail, elaborate horns) and a Barbary sheep (curving horns, humped shoulder). Both animals are well known in Predynastic Egyptian art. The designs are not superficial and have been applied to the dermis layer of the skin, the pigment was carbon-based, possibly some kind of soot.

The female mummy, or “Gebelein Woman,” showed more intelligible markings:

[A] series of four small ‘S’ shaped motifs can be seen running vertically over her right shoulder. Below them on the right arm is a linear motif which is similar to objects held by figures participating in ceremonial activities on painted ceramics of the same period. It may represent a crooked stave, a symbol of power and status, or a throw-stick or baton/clappers used in ritual dance. The ‘S’ motif also appears on Predynastic pottery decoration, always in multiples.

In Middle Kingdom tattooing practices, a series of marks seemed to provide protection, especially in fertility and childbirth rites, functioning as permanent amulets or a kind of practical magic. Even if their meanings remain unclear, Marks writes, it does, “seem evident that they had an array of implications and that women of many different social classes chose to wear them.” And it does seem clear that tattooing was important to ancient, Predynastic men and women, maybe for similar reasons. Tattooing tools have also been found dating from around the same time as the Gebelein mummies, excavated at Abydos and consisting of “sharp metal points with a wooden handle.”

The dating of Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman place them as approximate contemporaries of Ötzi, a naturally mummified man covered in tattoos. Discovered in 1991 on the border of Austria and Italy, Ötzi was previously considered the oldest tattooed mummy. You can learn more about how the British Museum re-examined the Gebelein bodies in the “Curator’s Corner” video above with curator of physical anthropology Daniel Antoine. Read more about the findings at the British Museum’s blog and the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Evolution of Music: 40,000 Years of Music History Covered in 8 Minutes

“We’re drowning in music,” says Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool. “If you were born in Beethoven’s time, you’d be lucky if you heard a symphony twice in your lifetime, whereas today, it’s as accessible as running water.” We shouldn’t take music, or running water, for granted, and the comparison should give us pause: do we need music –- for example, nearly any recording of any Beethoven symphony we can think of -– to flow out of the tap on demand? What does it cost us? Might there be a middle way between hearing Beethoven whenever and hearing Beethoven almost never?

The story of how humanity arrived at its current relationship with music is the subject of the Big Think interview with Spitzer above, in which he covers 40,000 years in 8 minutes: “from bone flutes to Beyoncé.” We begin with his thesis that “we in the West” think of music history as the history of great works and great composers. This misconception “tends to reduce music into an object,” and a commodity. Furthermore, we “overvalue the role of the composer,” placing the professional over “most people who are innately musical.” Spitzer wants to recover the universality music once had, before radios, record players, and streaming media.

For nearly all of human history, until Edison invents the phonograph in 1877, we had no way of preserving sound. If people wanted music, they had to make it themselves. And before humans made instruments, we had the human voice, a unique development among primates that allowed us to vocalize our emotions. Spitzer’s book The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth tells the story of humanity through the development of music, which, as Matthew Lyons points out in a review, came before every other metric of modern human civilization:

The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some forty thousand years old. Found at Geissenklösterle in what is now southeastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – palaeolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.

If music is so critical to our social development as a species, we should learn to treat it with the respect it deserves. We should also, Spitzer argues, learn to play and sing for ourselves again, and think of music not only as a thing that other, more talented people produce for our consumption, but as our own evolutionary inheritance, passed down over tens of thousands of years.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Last Cigarette Commercial Ever Aired on American TV (1971)

The slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” still has some pop-cultural currency. But how many Americans under the age of sixty remember what it advertised? The line was first rolled out in 1968 to promote Virginia Slims, the then-new brand of cigarettes marketed explicitly to women. “Every ad in the campaign put a woman front and center, equating smoking Virginia Slims with being independent, stylish, confident and liberated,” says the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “The slogan itself spoke directly about the progress women all over America were fighting for.”

Such was the zeitgeist power of Virginia Slims that they became the very last cigarette brand ever advertised on American TV, at 11:59 p.m on January 2, 1971, during The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Richard Nixon had signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette advertisements on broadcast media, on April 1, 1970. But it didn’t take effect immediately, the tobacco industry having managed to negotiate for itself one last chance to air commercials during the college football games of New Year’s Day 1971.

“The Philip Morris company has bought all commercial time on the first half hour of all the network talk shows tonight,” says ABC’s Harry Reasoner on a newscast from that same day. “That is, the last half hour on which it is legal to sell cigarettes on radio or television in the United States. This marks, as we like to say, the end of an era.” In tribute, ABC put together an assemblage of past cigarette commercials. That some will feel oddly familiar even to those of us who wouldn’t be born for a decade or two speaks to the power of mass media in postwar America. More than half a century later, now that cigarettes are seldom glimpsed even on dramatic television, all this feels almost surrealistically distant in history.

Equally striking, certainly by contrast to the manner of news anchors in the twenty-twenties, is the poetry of Reasoner’s reflection on the just-closed chapter of television history. “It isn’t like saying goodbye to an old friend, I guess, because the doctors have convinced us they aren’t old friends,” he admits. “But we may be pardoned, I think, on dim winter nights in the future, sitting by the fire and nodding and saying, ‘Remember L.S./M.F.T.? Remember Glen Gray playing smoke rings for the Camel caravan? Remember ‘Nature in the raw is seldom mild’? Remember all those girls who who had it all together?'”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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