SCIENCE -- SPECIAL FROM CHINA"
Dams and Dolphins
Food for Thought
Driven to the Wall
Wisdom of Li Shizhen
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We'll meet the man who worked in secret to
feed China's millions... We'll explore ancient mysteries --
mummies from the desert, and medical cures from the forest...
We'll head straight for a brick wall
ALAN ALDA We're going kind of fast, right?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) -- not the wall the tourists visit...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And we'll cruise the troubled waters of the
ALAN ALDA I'm Alan Alda. Join me now for our special China edition
of Scientific American Frontiers.
ALAN ALDA Behind me is the entrance to the Forbidden City, where
China's emperors ruled until a hundred years ago. Just down
the street is the compound where today's rulers live. And
in front of me is Tiananmen Square, with Mao Zedong's tomb
and the Great Hall of the People. We're at the focus of China,
ancient and modern. We're also at the center of what is the
largest nation on earth. One in four human beings is Chinese.
China is also the world's largest developing country, which
means that many Chinese scientists are concerned with getting
basic things done, like producing more food or generating
electricity. And then other Chinese scientists are worried
that with rapid development things get lost, like wildlife
or traditional medical knowledge. We'll have stories on all
these subjects, but first back to basics.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This shrine marks the entrance to the Three
Gorges on the Yangtze River. Chinese and foreign tourists
come here by the bus and boatload. It must be thousands of
years since the first sightseer marveled at the Three Gorges
with their plunging cliffs and secret canyons. The hundred-mile-long
Three Gorges form the most spectacular part of the Yangtze,
as it flows three and a half thousand miles from the Tibet
border to Shanghai. And right now in the Three Gorges, the
Chinese are hard at work. They're building the world's largest
dam. But they're also caught up in maybe the world's most
intense controversy. Begun in 1992, the dam is going to take
seventeen years and about forty billion dollars to complete.
Electric power generation and flood control are the objectives.
The man-made lake behind the Three Gorges dam will eventually
run upstream from here for three hundred miles. From the Three
Gorges down to Shanghai, the Yangtze Valley is the heart of
China, and the grimy, industrial city of Wuhan is at its center.
Everybody wants their share of the river -- for fishing, waste
disposal, shipping. The Three Gorges dam is going to have
an enormous impact on a piece of nature that the Chinese have
loved and feared for thousands of years. Is the dam worth
the cost? Will it control floods? Is the fishing going to
get better or worse? And what about the original Yangtze inhabitants,
the ones who've been around a few million years longer than
ALAN ALDA Chi Chi is the only dolphin, river dolphin in captivity
anywhere in the world?
DING Chi Chi is the only baiji in the world.
ALAN ALDA The only baiji, I see. O.K.
DING Yes, that's true.
ALAN ALDA O.K., wait a minute. Wait a minute, don't go away. Wait,
I got it here, here, here.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Chi Chi is a Yangtze River dolphin, one of
the world's three freshwater dolphin species.
ALAN ALDA Hello Chi Chi. Nihao. I forgot I have to talk Chinese
to him. He doesn't know English, right?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A few years ago they tried to match up Chi
Chi with a young female.
DING Chi Chi was just kind of afraid of that female.
ALAN ALDA Really?
DING He didn't let the female to get close to him.
ALAN ALDA Well, maybe it was a personality problem, maybe they
just had a little personality clash there, you know.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The Hydrobiology Institute, in Wuhan, was
set up by the Chinese government to try and save the baiji,
the river dolphin. Biologist
DING and his colleagues are about to give Chi Chi his monthly
check up. But first they have to drain the pool and then catch
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Chi Chi is used to this kind of treatment.
He's been here for 15 years, since a fisherman accidentally
snagged him on a hook. But in that time, the total number
of baiji in the river has fallen from about five hundred to
less than one hundred. So now he's precious -- rarer than
ALAN ALDA These are the big marks from when he was caught by the
DING By the fisherman's hook. Yes, that's right.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Studying Chi Chi has taught the Chinese biologists
how to look after these rare animals.
DING The heart, it's a little too fast, heart rate is a little
too fast. That's normal because it's... it's you know, it's
not in water.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As the biologists expected, there are many
lighter skin patches. They're skin infections and they'll
be treated with an antibiotic. It's one of the biggest problems
the Chinese have encountered in keeping freshwater dolphins.
ALAN ALDA What's that brown greasy stuff that goes on top of him?
XIANFENG It's kind of oil. It's a kind of Chinese traditional
ALAN ALDA That's traditional medicine.
ALAN ALDA So first you put the western medicine on, and then on
top of that you use some traditional medicine?
XIANFENG Yeah. Yeah.
ALAN ALDA What is...
XIANFENG And also the oil keep the western medicine for long...
a little bit longer time.
ALAN ALDA I see. So sort of like a bandage?
XIANFENG Yeah. Yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The check-up is quickly completed and the
pool refilled, so that Chi Chi's temperature stays as even
as possible. You could almost feel his relief as he made it
back into his own element.
ALAN ALDA He looks happy now.
XIANFENG He is happy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Chi Chi would be happier with a mate, but
the female they had here died of pneumonia before maturity.
That was before they had worked out all the routine precautions
that need to be taken. This is Chi Chi's food. It's locked
up, not only to keep out poachers, but also to prevent accidental
contamination. Strict hygiene is essential with fresh water
dolphins. A chlorinating system for Chi Chi's tank would help
-- in fact it might have saved his young female companion,
but that's something the program cannot afford. Using a combination
of medication in the food and monthly check-ups, they've managed
so far to keep Chi Chi healthy. The Chinese are now trying
to catch all the remaining dolphins, either for captive breeding,
or to confine them in an isolated natural area away from the
ALAN ALDA Was it difficult in the beginning to get interest and
funding in saving the dolphin? Did people understand the problem
XIANFENG At the very beginning, it's very, very... it was
very difficult to get support. If we started the work for
saving the dolphin ten year earlier, the situation would be
much better than today.
ALAN ALDA Do you think you'll be able to save them? Do you think
it will be possible to save the dolphins?
XIANFENG It's hard to say for myself. Ah, but I think we...
we still should do... still... should try our best to save
the dolphin. We have chance, but probably the last chance.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The mile long dam taking shape on the Yangtze
nearly didn't get built. It sparked an unprecedented debate,
which some people say fueled the student democracy movement
ALAN ALDA This is a pretty big model.
ALAN ALDA How does it compare to the dam itself? What's the scale?
GUOWEI Oh, it's the model scale is one to one hundred fifty.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Across town from the dolphin institute, I
visited engineers who are working out how to keep the dam
running. The critics claim that the slow-moving reservoir,
behind the dam, will in time just fill up with sediment. And
the Yangtze carries tons of sediment.
GUOWEI The water carries so much sediment every year...
ALAN ALDA Oh, the water carries five hundred million tons of sediment
a year. Now, but it you don't let it carry it through the
dam, that will get deposited or some of that will get deposited.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The answer, they say, is to open special
gates, low down in the dam, during flood season -- when most
of the sediment comes down river. The extra flow should flush
most of the accumulated sediment out of the reservoir. Technicians
constantly run water mixed with coal dust -- to represent
sediment -- through the model. They measure the depth of sediment
as it settles behind the dam. A day and a half on the model
simulates a year in real life. Even though nobody has ever
controlled sediment on this scale before, the engineers are
convinced they know their stuff.
ALAN ALDA So people are working around the clock here?
GUOWEI Yeah. Twenty four hours every day.
ALAN ALDA The poor women are pushing this thing back and forth.
It's hard work.
GUOWEI If we want to do some research work we have to do that.
ALAN ALDA This is what you mean a little bit by experience. I mean
you start to get a sense of the river, and how your apparatus
makes the river respond.
GUOWEI Yes, and a very famous professor, American professor
says that if you want to know your result is right or not,
most important thing is, you should know the river itself.
ALAN ALDA Mark Twain said, you've got to know the river.
GUOWEI Really? Oh, so I should learn from Mark Twain.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For the engineers, knowing the river is a
matter of life and death. Five times this century the Yangtze
has flooded, with three hundred thousand deaths, and millions
homeless. More and more people live in the Yangtze flood plain,
protected right now by embankments, which are desperately
strengthened in times of flood. It remains to be seen whether
the engineers can keep the reservoir free of sediment, so
that there will be room to store future floodwaters. The greatest
outcry came on behalf of the people living behind the dam,
in the reservoir area. In China every inch of usable land
is occupied, so when water levels in the gorges rise a hundred
and fifty feet, thousands of villages and towns clinging to
the sides will disappear. This is the first of the so-called
relocation villages, built for 10,000 people. Eventually a
million will have to move, and for them to be absorbed the
government is counting on an expanding economy stimulated
by the output of the dam's electricity, equal to twenty-six
power-stations. There will be new jobs -- on the spectacular
road up to the dam site, for example. Much of it is being
built by hand, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load. The dam
is a gigantic gamble on the future, and that's why so many
people objected, and were even willing to go to jail over
it. But that's a level of opposition my charming host shrugged
off as normal.
ALAN ALDA If it is believed by most of the authorities that the
dam is a good idea, are other scientists willing then to contradict
GUOWEI I think that most of them understand what the importance
of the Three Gorges construction. But for any, I mean for
any good idea, there are some people say no. This is very
common sense. We cannot get one hundred percent to agree with
the project construction. It's the same everywhere in the
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We won't know who's right about damming the
Three Gorges for several decades to come.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We're in a small village in central China.
Most Chinese -- seven hundred million of them-- live in villages.
Mrs. Zhao is threshing her crop of canola seed, used for cooking
oil. Her two sons help run this typical farm, which is very
small -- just under an acre. Yet the six-member family is
self-sufficient in most things. They raise fish in their pond.
There are chickens and ducks... And behind the house there's
a comfortable pigsty. The Zhaos grow vegetables, potatoes,
peanuts, and oranges. They produce all their own meat, oil,
and eggs. There's only one concern... Rice. A third of their
land is rice field. Twenty percent of the crop has to be sold
to the government. What's left will feed half the family --
they'll have to buy the rest. Yet overall, China right now
is feeding itself. In the late fifties, things were very different.
It was the time of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. Cooking
pots and tools were melted down in backyard furnaces. Everybody
had to pitch in to achieve rapid industrial development. The
result was not just bad quality iron, but also widespread
neglect of essential work in the fields. Agricultural production
collapsed. It's said that the three-year famine took thirty
million lives. Today, China's rice fields are full, not only
because those disastrous policies have gone, but also thanks
to one extraordinary man,Yuan Longping.
LONGPING They are flowering, you can see. Here, the anthers
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We're in southern China for the crucial few
days when the rice plants flower. Rice is normally a self-fertilizing
plant, which means each flower makes its own pollen, carried
on these thick yellow anthers. But there's a second, different
kind of rice in this field, planted in alternate rows. It's
a little shorter than the first. When you compare the two,
just during flowering, you can see the secret of Yuan
LONGPING You can compare. Here, you can... the anther is much
smaller than the other one. You can... the color is pale...
ALAN ALDA Very pale white color.
LONGPING And there's no pollen inside.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The second flower, on the left, is male sterile
-- it has no pollen of its own. This means it can receive
pollen from the first plant-- and that's the big prize. Here's
what they do. The workers wait for midday when the rice flowers
open. Then they spring into action. Pollen, shaken loose from
the normal flowers, settles on the male sterile ones, pollinating
them. Now the rice that will form will be a hybrid--that's
a cross of two different plants. When that hybrid is planted
next year, it will grow extra large, as all hybrids do. Result
-- more rice.
LONGPING Please follow me, follow my step.
ALAN ALDA O.K.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) While pollination went ahead, we decided
to find someplace to get out of the sun.
ALAN ALDA Oh, oh, oh... oh God. I've got it, I'm fine. This rice
is dangerous stuff.
ALAN ALDA Thank you. I've got some kind of cactus in my finger.
What kind of cactus do you have here?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Every grain of rice is still important in
China. As usual, the ducks here are cleaning up in an already
harvested field. But with hybrid seeds, the harvest has been
transformed. Yields are over a third higher. Since 1976, when
the first few seeds became available, it's as if China has
had an entire extra year's crop. The crucial breakthrough
in developing hybrid rice came in 1970, in a streambed on
Hainan Island, off China's south coast. During the terrible
famines a decade earlier, Yuan
Longping had decided he would devote his life to developing
better rice. A hybrid would be ideal, but at the time plant
breeders couldn't figure out how to cross-breed two kinds
of rice if each made its own pollen. Then on a routine collecting
Longping's assistant found the answer -- wild rice with a
natural male-sterile flower, containing no pollen. Yuan
Longping instantly realized what he had. He could now breed
hybrid rice, by adding pollen from another plant.
LONGPING Lucky. We were very lucky. There is a famous saying,
that chance favors the prepared the mind only. Yeah, this
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Yuan
Longping's mind was very nearly not prepared. In the fifties,
China followed Russia's lead, in culture, technology -- and
science, including the faulty theories of Russian geneticist
Lysenko, which were based more on ideology than nature.
LONGPING Lysenko, ah. Now, I hate him, because he wasted my...
my useful time. When I was young and strong, I believed his
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) During the Russian period, only Lysenkoism
was permitted. But Yuan
Longping had a rare courage.
ALAN ALDA How did you free yourself from those ideas?
LONGPING Oh, at the time, I just secretly read some western
magazine. But in secret.
ALAN ALDA In secret.
LONGPING We cannot... in the public.
ALAN ALDA So during the day you would go to school and work with
Lysenko's ideas, and at night, at night you would read the
LONGPING Yes. Yes. I bring Lysenko's book, outside... but
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Back on Hainan Island, where that original
wild rice was found, development has now arrived. On the pristine
beaches, resorts are sprouting up for China's new middle class.
LONGPING's prepared mind got here just in time, because the
road to the new airport has almost wiped out the lucky streambed.
LONGPING Twenty-five years ago, many, many wild rice over
here. Now only a few places, and a few plants here.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Mrs. Zhao is preparing the evening meal,
while her mother-in-law stokes the fire. The bacon is their
own... So are the vegetables, the oil and the peppers. But
the rice they bought, with some of the family's four-thousand
dollar-a-year cash income -- money that comes mainly from
the sons' jobs at the new metal pipe factory nearby. All over
China now, people are leaving the land. They will be needing
to buy rice, and at least for now they can get it -- thanks
in part to
ALAN ALDA How does it feel to know that your work is actually feeding
hundreds of millions of people?
LONGPING Yes. You... you mean my feeling?
ALAN ALDA You. How do you feel?
LONGPING My feeling. I feel very happy to do that. If people,
they live very comfortable... this is my goal, my goal of
my life, to make more people happy.
DRIVEN TO THE WALL
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A lot of things are different about China,
but not the traffic. There's only one car per four hundred
people -- America has one for two -- but that's changing rapidly,
with the number of cars doubling every five years. So China's
roads are going to get more crowded and more dangerous. I'm
at North China University of Technology in Beijing. My guide
Xu, a computer expert. We're here to see a high-tech anti-collision
device. But first -- Mr. Tuo is from the Foreign Affairs Office.
Every organization has one, to keep an eye on foreigners.
Then I'm introduced to the professor who developed the device.
Then there's a meeting. There are always large meetings. It's
partly politeness but also, possibly, to share responsibility
-- individualism is often frowned on in China.
ALAN ALDA So this... this is the sensor?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The device uses a laser range-finder. The
car is made in China, by the way.
ALAN ALDA Is the idea that this will stop you sooner than you would
be able to on your own?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) With Wei
Xu translating, the professor explained that the system automatically
applies the right braking for different conditions. Gentle
for slow or distant obstacles, or rapid in an emergency.
ALAN ALDA So what are we doing, basically? We're going to go out
and look for walls we can smash into or what?
XU Yes, we want to try... there's an object like a wall in
front of us, we want to try to -
ALAN ALDA See if we stop?
XU Yes. Going to see if car can make stop or not.
ALAN ALDA Does this car have an airbag?
XU No, they have a safety belt.
ALAN ALDA I think I'll use that. O.K. Zouba. Does he have like
a favorite wall he heads for, or are we just going to look...
Is this the wall here? We're going kind of fast, right? What
the... Excuse me, that was pretty fast. Yeah. Did you put
the brakes on at all? Or was that all the system?
XU All the system.
ALAN ALDA How fast were we going? How fast was that?
XU Like 40 kilometers or 40 kilometers an hour. Like 30 miles...
ALAN ALDA 30 miles an hour.
ALAN ALDA Do you ever worry that that's not going to work when
you do this?
XU Yes, at the beginning, he's pretty worried.
ALAN ALDA Yeah, well I... Well, you know how before I said it would
be nice if I could drive and do this?
ALAN ALDA I don't want to.
XU I do.
ALAN ALDA You do? You do, you want to do it?
XU You want to try it?
ALAN ALDA You're a daredevil from Beijing. What do you -- all right.
No, wait a minute. No, I don't want to do it with you. You
don't know how to do it. You never did it before. This guy's
been doing it over and over. He was afraid the first time
he did it. Yeah, good job. Hun hao, hun hao.
Yi... er... san... Cheese.
ALAN ALDA Say qiezi.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) End of visit pictures are common too -- maybe
because meeting foreigners is still quite rare.
Yi... er... san...
(SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Eggplant!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Next stop in our search for Chinese high-tech
was this experimental train. China has thousands of miles
of railroad track, all strung with overhead electric wires.
Right now, workers have to check the alignment of the wires
by walking the track once a week. But here the idea is to
check automatically from the moving train. The system has
to pick out the right wire from a complicated TV picture.
ALAN ALDA This shows you where the wire is horizontally...
XU On the crossbar.
ALAN ALDA On the crossbar. Right now it's moving over to the side,
ALAN ALDA It's jumping over to the side. Staying there. Now...
now it's moving back toward the center...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The little white arrow shows that the system
is successfully tracking the position of the overhead electric
wire. The system also measures the height, or looseness of
that essential power wire, and counts the poles, so it knows
where any fault is located.
ALAN ALDA What's this? What's happening there?
XU This is a message to tell you there's a problem. You see
this here is too loose.
ALAN ALDA It's too loose down here?
ALAN ALDA And that's how loose it is? That's a number telling you
how loose it is.
XU Yes. Yes.
ALAN ALDA And this tells you what pole, where the problem was,
at what pole.
XU That's right.
ALAN ALDA So that... that information is sent...
XU To the computer.
ALAN ALDA To the computer.
XU Here's another problem.
ALAN ALDA Another problem. You got a lot of problems along this
ALAN ALDA In Asia, did fuzzy logic...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Both the car and train systems use a kind
of computer programming, called fuzzy logic, that's rapidly
caught on in China. Here at Beijing Normal University, there's
a national lab devoted to it.
ALAN ALDA How does this work?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) With fuzzy logic, instead of working out
mathematical equations, the computer uses a series of simple
rules. So it can decide what are poles in this picture, if
it's told that poles always move at a particular speed. Things
that look slower, or faster, must be something else -- like
buildings or tunnel structures.
ALAN ALDA Does this in some way mimic the way the human brain works?
XU Yes, and fuzzy logic is mainly based on the human experience.
You can... you also have this kind of experience. For example,
the way you balance the stick in your palm. And for example,
the basic rule is, if the stick fall on this side, what are
you going to do? Your hand will move to this side. This is
rule. This stick moves to this side, I move my hand on this
ALAN ALDA Let me get the feel of it here. O.K., so, yeah, yeah.
O.K. I see, I'm automatically going -- I'm not only going
in the direction it's going in, but I'm changing the speed.
If it really starts to tilt and go fast I notice that I'm
going much faster in that direction.
XU Your experience is the rule.
ALAN ALDA That's the rule. That's the rule, I'm following.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Chinese scientists are heavily involved these
days in high tech and it does show where the country is headed.
China is clearly going to be a technical giant in years to
come. There'll be no stopping it.
WISDOM OF LI SHIZHEN
JUN You see, he has very thick and greasy coating.
ALAN ALDA And that's related to the heart?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Weng Weiliang is a professor of Chinese medicine.
He's going through the traditional diagnosis -- tongue, then
pulse. Not just one pulse, but six per wrist.
JUN In Chinese medicine when we feel the pulse, we call it
xin, gan and shen. It's reference to different organs. So
this one, this finger is the heart, and this is the liver,
and this is the kidney.
ALAN ALDA And you feel different things in each finger?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Dr.
Weng now questions the patient.
WENG (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) What discomfort do you feel?
PATIENT (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) A little bit of heartache...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It seems that his yin and yang are badly
out of balance, and his qi is seriously affected.
(SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Sometimes when I am anxious or angry
the heartache comes more often.
JUN These emotional causes can cause the disorder of the movement
of the qi inside the body.
ALAN ALDA The qi?
JUN Yeah, the qi. If they get angry, then the qi is blocked.
ALAN ALDA The qi is what? [CHINESE]
WENG (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) It's very abstract. It's a kind
of energy... A kind of dynamics.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The forest provides Chinese medicine's remedies
to treat those disease concepts that we in the west find so
hard to grasp. It's a unique, complete system.
XIA QUAN This
is a traditional herbal tea, used for the... to treat internal
heat, you know, caused by a bad metabolism.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This expedition is systematically collecting
useful plants, based on local traditions. Chinese medicine
is a classic empirical science -- if it works, use it. There's
a cure for everything.
XIA QUAN In Chinese medicine it's called
purple speel. So it's function is to stop bleeding.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This tree treats skin infections. Herbal
remedies tackle simple problems and complex, even immune or
nervous system disorders.
XIA QUAN In Chinese medicine this
have interesting name called, go for brain.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For thousands of years, most herbal remedies
have been drawn from the tropical forests and mountains of
southern China. And now these remote areas are being developed.
The reservoir of plants and knowledge is disappearing, to
the alarm of scientists.
XIA QUAN We have just one world.
So everybody should have an idea about the environment and
the traditional knowledge for the... for us and for the future
of all of us. So let us cross the finger.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This is the pharmacy of
Weng's hospital. It contains the five hundred most commonly
used herbs. Li Shizhen's classic herbal encyclopedia, written
in the sixteenth century and still the key reference, lists
about two thousand herbs. Dr.
Weng's patient has four problems -- deficient qi, blood stagnation,
low appetite, and weak kidney. The kidney is one of the five
critical yin organs that cool body heat.
ALAN ALDA What's in this that she's putting in the dish?
WENG Huang qi.
ALAN ALDA Is there an English word for that that you know?
Er, no. It's for nutrition the qi.
ALAN ALDA It's for the qi?
ALAN ALDA What is this?
WENG Dan shen.
ALAN ALDA Dan shen?
DOCTOR It's for stimulate blood circulation
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Altogether 12 different herbs are in the
prescription that comes into the extraction room. Here it
will be made into tea, alongside hundreds of other individualized
prescriptions for the rest of the patients in the hospital.
It's a system in use in thousands of hospitals and pharmacies
across the country. And it's something that most Chinese have
faith in. So does it work?
PATIENT (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) It's very hot.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's hard to say. Because little, if any
analysis has been done using western style scientific methods.
PROF. XIAO Here is the herbarium...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But it's a question which Professor Xiao
hopes to answer. He runs the main institute that collects
medicinal herbs, and he's seeing an explosion of interest.
Recently he concluded an agreement to send three thousand
different samples to a big European pharmaceutical company
for testing. They'll share royalties from any new drugs. Several
other companies are exploring this ancient treasure house
of folk medicine. There's some optimism that major problems
like cancer, AIDS, and heart disease can be affected. The
Chinese are just as interested in exploiting their medical
heritage themselves . One new drug they're testing is extracted
from a plant traditionally prescribed for dizziness. So one
test to apply is this. A few weeks ago these mice learned
to swim a maze. Here they're being re-tested and timed over
the same course. It's a standard test of memory, used widely
in the west. This subject isn't doing so well. Eventually
it runs over the two-minute time limit. But mice fed an extract
of the traditional dizziness plant performed significantly
better. There is hope that the plant could form the basis
for an anti-aging drug. This kind of process, developing drugs
for use within China, has been going on for some time now.
PROF. XIAO From 1980 until now, three hundred new drugs...
ALAN ALDA Three hundred new drugs, yeah...
PROF. XIAO Were originated
from natural products.
ALAN ALDA Now, of those three hundred, how many came from traditional
medicine plants, and how many came from plants that you just
went out and found randomly?
PROF. XIAO So I dare to say,
almost ninety percent, and that means most of these are originated
from our traditional Chinese medicine.
ALAN ALDA Traditional medicine.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A western-style computer system is being
used by Dr.
Weng to standardize traditional tongue color measurements.
It seems there's something of a two-way street developing
here between eastern and western medicine.
ALAN ALDA How are you feeling now?
JUN Oh he feels much better.
ALAN ALDA When do you think you'll be finished with the treatment?
JUN He hopes in another ten days.
ALAN ALDA Ten days? Is that what the doctor thinks too? Does the
doctor think that?
JUN The doctor doesn't agree.
ALAN ALDA He doesn't agree?
JUN No, he doesn't agree.
ALAN ALDA He thinks it will be longer?
JUN He said I should listen to the doctor.
ALAN ALDA Does the doctor want him to stay longer?
JUN Why the doctor wants him to stay longer because the doctor
wants him to stop smoking.
ALAN ALDA Ah... Now does the doctor feel that there's any connection
between the smoking and the heart problem?
ALAN ALDA Do you think if he doesn't stop smoking that he'll be
back here with the same problem?
JUN (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) So you'll have to give up.
(SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Yes.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Finally it was my turn.
JUN Do you eat a lot?
ALAN ALDA Do I eat a lot? Yeah.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Dr. Zeng's questions were uncomfortably perceptive.
ALAN ALDA How can he tell that I eat a lot by feeling my wrist?
That's what I don't get. I mean it's not an especially fat
wrist, you know.
ALAN ALDA Headaches? Sometimes I get headaches.
JUN Do you feel dizziness?
ALAN ALDA Hmmm?
JUN Do you feel dizziness sometimes?
ALAN ALDA I felt dizzy this morning in the other room.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And he soon told me that my body had too
much heat. I told him I eat a lot of spicy food, and he agreed
that can cause heat. But my heat and cold were significantly
out of balance.
WENG (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Look -- there's the sign of heat
on the back of the tongue.
JUN You can see you got yellowish coating of the tongue, especially
of the root of the tongue.
ALAN ALDA What's that? That's bad or good?
JUN That's heat.
ALAN ALDA Heat. Heat. [CHINESE]
JUN If you don't treat it, it can cause like headache or dizziness,
and maybe hypertension.
ALAN ALDA Really? You say a thing like this to a person?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Ginseng and chicken soup were prescribed.
Well, they didn't have the soup, but Professor Xiao did have
some American ginseng.
XIAO We prefer to use...
ALAN ALDA You prefer the American ginseng.
XIAO ... American ginseng, because by our traditional, the
theory of our traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng,
the property is mild.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) American ginseng is supposed to be cooling,
to balance my excessive internal heat.
ALAN ALDA Here's to your health.
XIAO On the other hand, if Korean ginseng...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) I wasn't used to the taste, and I wasn't
sure what it would do to me.
ALAN ALDA Very refreshing.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And now I had this new problem of internal
ALAN ALDA Mmmm...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) I'm heading into the back streets of old
Beijing in search of a little history.
ALAN ALDA This is Lin Xuan Qin, an artist who makes chops. These
are stones with your name carved in them, that are used for
stamping your signature on documents. Chops are giving way
to western style signatures now, but they have a very long
history in China. They're the forerunner of printing using
moveable type, which was invented in China nearly a thousand
years ago, five hundred years before Gutenberg invented moveable
type in Europe. [CHINESE]
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Lin Xuan Qin was carving my own personal
ALAN ALDA (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Is it ready?
XUAN QIN (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Ready.
ALAN ALDA (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Is this my name?
XUAN QIN (SUBTITLE TRANSLATION) Yes. Ao-de.
ALAN ALDA No, no, that's toward me, like this. O.K.
ALAN ALDA Ah, O.K.
ALAN ALDA The list of firsts in Chinese inventions is staggering.
They invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper, the
wheelbarrow, the decimal system, porcelain, relief maps and
on and on and on. So you probably think I'm going to say these
stamps were invented in China too. Actually, they weren't.
They came to China from the Middle East, three thousand or
so years ago. So were most important things invented in China
or in the west? Well, history is never that simple.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We're in the far west of China. This arid
land has been yielding up some extraordinary finds. They are
the mummies of Xinjiang. Xinjiang Province is the overland
bridge between China and Europe. In the early part of this
century, Europeans exploring Xinjiang began uncovering mummies,
in shallow desert graves. More recently, Chinese archaeologists
have made discoveries. The mummies were brought to Urumqi,
the provincial capital. Xinjiang is largely Moslem, its people
drawn from many parts of central Asia. An archaeology institute
has some of the mummies. And the rest are at the local museum.
Ours were the first TV cameras allowed to film the mummies.
This is the oldest, dating from about four thousand years
ago. Once a year the mummies are cleaned and examined for
insect damage. Blocks of insecticide are replaced. The hat
with the eagle feather is felt, and the woven robe is wool.
They're all vulnerable to insects. As are the cowhide boots.
The child is from the same period as the first mummy. It was
carefully wrapped in a large woven, woolen cloth, held together
with wooden pegs. This child, from about three thousand years
ago, is wrapped in a fine wool blanket, tied with braided
cord. The reasons for the stones and wool nose plugs are unknown.
It lies on a bed of felt, with a cow horn drinking cup. This
man is one of the museum's finest examples. He has a sunburst
decoration, again of unknown significance. The state of preservation
is extraordinary, a result of the dry, salty desert soil,
and also it seems, some kind of glue-like coating that the
bodies were treated with. One striking fact about the mummies
stands out. They don't seem to be Chinese. Their full beards
and prominent noses are clear Caucasian features. So where
did they come from? Close analysis of the skull types suggests
that they came from what's now Kazakhstan in the northwest,
and from Pakistan in the southwest. In that period, Chinese
skull types from the east are only found at the edge of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang's spectacular mountain ranges once fed streams and
rivers which rushed down into the desert. The ancient settlers
clustered around those desert oases. It's drier here now,
but the local Kazak people still follow the herding lifestyle,
along the riverbanks closer to the mountains. The wonderfully
preserved objects found with the mummies, show how they lived.
These are three thousand-year-old lamb ribs, complete with
barbecue spit. The Kazaks live in houses called yerts, covered
entirely with felt they've made from matted wool fibers --
just like the child's felt bed in the museum. Inside, the
yerts are decorated with woven strips, finished with braided
cords. The men ride horses, as they did in ancient Xinjiang.
This saddle was also found with the mummies. If it weren't
for this man, the mummies would probably have remained an
obscure curiosity. Victor Mair, a China scholar from the University
of Pennsylvania, visited the museum soon after we'd filmed.
For several years he's brought various western specialists
to examine the mummies. This time he wanted two textile experts
to be given access.
MAIR Now we're going up to see the mummy room...
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But Victor Mair is a terrible thorn in the
side of official China. He's working on a theory that the
mummies represent people who originated far to the west in
Europe, bringing with them new technologies that the Chinese
did not have. Of course, we were interested in recording the
visitors' first reactions. But even though we'd already filmed
the mummies earlier and paid the required fee, the museum
authorities wouldn't allow it. We were asked to leave. The
experts were fascinated by what they saw, particularly this
piece, which they identified as probably a practice weaving
BARBER In a way that... That almost touched me the most.
MAIR Yeah, because it really brings --
GOOD Because I have one too that looks just about as bad.
MAIR Ones that you've tried to make?
BARBER Yeah, the first piece you weave looks really crummy.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Most interesting was the fact that it's too
big to have been made on the type of loom that the Chinese
had at the time.
GOOD I'm very interested in that sampler because I'm starting
to wonder if some of my ideas about the loom...
BARBER The loom that was used.
GOOD May be confirmed by that particular piece.
MAIR The width of it for example.
GOOD The width and also there were some other garments that
had a very wide swath to them.
BARBER Yes, it's not being done on the narrow body tension
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Today Xinjiang's desert highways are busy
with trucks. Seven hundred years ago it was Marco Polo's camels.
This is the ancient Silk Road, between Europe and Asia. If
the mummies were the trailblazers along this great world trade
route, four thousand years ago, it could mean that China acquired
important new ideas from the west. And that's what irritates
the government. It's possible that the wheel entered China
this way. They've been unearthed in the desert, although the
dates aren't yet clear. It does now seem that bronze came
to China from the west, a fact which Victor Mair's Chinese
colleagues are beginning to accept.
MAIR When I first started this project I was getting in hot
water for saying that hey, why do we have bronze out here
now, and you get it earlier, and it ends up in China later,
and I got in trouble for that. But I'm very relieved now,
because empirical evidence eventually wins. And Chinese archaeologists
have no problem with empirical evidence.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But a problem for the government concerns
these Uyghur people. They're the dominant group in the province,
and they have a growing Uyghur nationalist movement. Victor
Mair's ideas could encourage them.
MAIR We know that the Uyghurs themselves didn't get here until
the eighth century of our era, so...
BARBER And we're talking about the second millennium, BC
MAIR The second millennium, so that's really a specious argument.
And so the Chinese shouldn't worry.
BARBER It really has nothing to do with it.
MAIR No. It has nothing to do with Uyghur nationalism. So
we can omit that one and I don't really think I should get
in trouble with that ever.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But Victor Mair continues to get in trouble.
Soon after his visit, the government newspaper published a
long attack on his ideas. In China, even technical archaeological
arguments can't be conducted freely. Will freedom of expression
eventually come to China? Well, times are changing.
ALAN ALDA I think the most striking thing about this trip to China
for me has been the tremendous sense of change I've seen here.
I made my first trip to China about 15 years ago, and it was
nothing like this. There are rich people here now. There's
neon. People dress differently. In those days it was hard
to find somebody who didn't wear a Mao suit. Now it's almost
impossible to find somebody who does. And they dress stylishly
too. And they move stylishly. In those days, getting across
the street involved a kind of a utilitarian walk. Now they
stride across the street. There's a sense of self-presentation.
And there's karaoke now. You almost can't go into a Chinese
restaurant without hearing karaoke. A few years ago I tried
to get them to sing for me, and they wouldn't do it. I said,
teach me a Chinese song. They said, no, there's a saying --
The bird that sticks its neck up above the flock gets its
head cut off. Well, as surprising as these changes have been,
there seem to be even more profound changes under the surface.
I hope I'll be back before too long to see those changes.
This has been our special China edition of Scientific American
Frontiers. Until next time, zaijian.
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