Last year, when I translated the Akhbār al-zamān, I was introduced to one of the weirded legends I have come across over the years, that of the plant-people known as the Wak-Wak: “One of the races that is most similar to man is that of the Wāḳwāḳ. These individuals hang from branches by their hair; they have breasts and sexual organs similar to those of women, and they have a ruddy complexion; they constantly shout “Wak Wak!”, and if one of these females is captured, it goes silent and falls dead.” This version of the legend is an abridgment of stories told by the Arab geographers going back to the eighth century CE, and probably derived from earlier oral tales the east.
I was delighted to read a French language article in Histoire Medievale by Roberto Del Monte (translated from an Italian original) suggesting that this odd story might have been inspired by some different species of odd flowers I had never seen before but which resemble birds in flight, monkey heads, human beings, and even decaying skulls. Del Monte compares this to the claim by Othenio Abel that the Greeks imagined Cyclopes from observation of elephant skulls. While there is no way to prove that Wak-Wak legends arose from flowers like these, even if you can’t read French, the pictures are worth a look.
Meanwhile, a reader of my blog directed me to a fascinating but disturbing article that ran this week in the distinguished magazine Foreign Policy. The piece describes a fringe history movement in China to attribute the origins of Chinese civilization to ancient Egypt. This is an odd claim, but not an unprecedented one. The eighteenth century French scholar Joseph de Guignes, for example, considered Egypt the font of civilization and therefore concluded that Chinese civilization derived from Egypt since Chinese writing resembled to him Egyptian hieroglyphics. A similar claim emerged in the late 1800s from Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, who argued that Chinese writing was a derivative of Mesopotamian cuneiform, and therefore China’s legendary early rulers were Babylonian exiles.
The new version of the claim comes from Sun Weidong (who also publishes as Wei-dong Sun), a professor of geochemistry (not to be confused with the ambassador of the same name). He argues that passages in the Records of the Grand Historian, one of oldest Chinese historical texts, show that Chinese civilization originated in the Nile Valley. Specifically, he refers to this passage:
You trace the Blackwater to Sanwei, where it enters the southern sea; you trace the Yellow river from 'Stone-pile' to 'Dragongate,' southward to the north of Mount Hua, eastward to Tich‘u, again eastward to the ford Mêng, eastward you pass the junction of the Lo river to Tapei, northward past the Chiang water to Talu, northward the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers, reunited it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea. (Sima Qian, Records, ch. 2, trans. Herbert J. Allen)
Sun, however, claims that the Chinese references in this passage must be ignored. “There is only one major river in the world which flows northwards,” he said. This river is the Nile, which he says (currently) has nine branches at its mouth. So, even though the text explicitly identifies the river as the Yellow River, Sun discounts every part of the passage except for the words “northward” and “nine rivers,” and dismisses the further note that the nine rivers reunite before reaching the sea.
Sun wrote in a 2016 paper published in the journal Scientific Reports (from the publishers of Nature) that he has determined that ancient Chinese bronzes were made out of Egyptian metals rather than native Chinese ore because African and Chinese bronzes both contain unusual levels of a radioactive lead isotope. In comments on the article, Sun defended his article against charges from one of the scientists he cited that he “catastrophically” misunderstood African archaeology, though Sun conceded that he failed to consider India as a possible source for the Chinese bronze. This is rather an odd oversight since, by Sun’s own admission, he had conducted this research twenty years ago as part of his doctoral research and had been building his case ever since. His advisor at the time forbade him from publishing the results, for reasons that are not clearly explained.
Sun concluded in his lectures to the Chinese public (but not in Scientific Reports) that the bearers of civilization to China were the Hyksos, Manetho’s name for the motley crew of Western Asians who took over Egypt in the sixteenth century BCE:
And Salatis died after a reign of nineteen years; after him reigned Beon forty-four years; and he was succeeded by Apachnas, who reigned thirty-six years and seven months; after him reigned Apophis sixty-one years, and Ianias fifty years and one month. After all these reigned Assis forty-nine years and two months. These six were the first rulers amongst them, and, during all the period of their dynasty, they made war upon the Egyptians, in hope of exterminating the whole race. All this nation was styled Hyk-shos, that is, the Shepherd-Kings; for the first syllable, Hyk, according to the sacred dialect, denotes king, and sos signifies a shepherd; but this according to the vulgar tongue; and, of these two words is compounded the term Hyk-shos, whom some say were Arabians. This people, thus denominated Shepherd-Kings, and their descendants retained possession of Egypt for the space of 511 years. (Josephus, Against Apion 1.14, trans. I. P. Cory)
Sun claims that the Hyksos possessed “technologies” that the Chinese had not yet developed—metallurgy, chariots, agriculture, literacy—and therefore must have brought them to China following their expulsion from Egypt in the 1500s BCE, sailing from Egypt to China. It’s true that the Hyksos introduced new metallurgical techniques and chariots into Egypt, but they didn’t come ex nihilo, and they were already in use in the Near East and Central Asia. Sun also seems to ignore the implication of his own hypothesis, specifically that it would make Chinese civilization more “Canaanite” than “Egyptian.”
The more interesting discussion in Foreign Policy surrounds the Chinese reaction to the claim. It has touched off a nationalist discussion in China that echoes earlier Chinese attempts to revise Chinese history for political or social purposes beyond scholarship, sometimes to link China to the West, sometimes to promote China’s greater antiquity than the West. The author of the Foreign Policy article, Ricardo Lewis, dryly notes that the success or failure of Sun’s theory has less to do with the truth, whatever that might be, than with the geopolitical needs of the Chinese government in the coming years.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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