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From Dragon to Phoenix

Jinzhou is not a city I’d love to see twice. So I decided no sooner than I had traveled a few blocks its downtown. In front of me was an assembly of largely untenanted high-rises tarted up with quasi-mansard roofs. Atop three of them stood characters saying Man-Ha-Dun, for Manhattan in mandarin. I was walking down a street whose pavement broken here and there to reveal the dirt underneath, as if the place was very recently bombarded. The passersby with worried expressions like war-refugees helped finish a Guernica-esque scene.

It’s a city never shaken off its war memories. This feel strengthened when I stood in the shadow of the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial, a museum built to celebrate the communists’ decisive victory over the army of China’s then Nationalist government in a gory battle in 1948. As a result, the winner claimed the Northeast, a region of major industries and natural resources, before taking over the whole country in barely a year.

As the most notable site in town, the building in front of me recalled a haunted old house. Not only was it crowded with the weapons, from rifles to tanks used by both sides in the civil war, but also the fallen soldiers that revisited the former killing field as ghostly revenants. But my sentiment decided not to last too long. The purpose of my trip was to visit some much older ghosts, geologically much older. I still had to a long way to go into the countryside of Yixian, a nearby county.

In the recent two decades, the Yixian Formation, a geological formation in the Jinzhou area which spans more than ten million years in the early cretaceous period, has become a rich mine of fossils. Shale flakes with impressions of Lycoptera, an extinct fish, or early flowering plants are sold in the adjacent towns at surprisingly modest price. Most notable are the petrified dinosaur relics which are available, too, in the black market. Once in Chaoyang, a nearby town, a guard at an ancient Pagoda accosted me with a picture of Psittacosaur, a parrot-beaked dinosaur of a poodle’s size, saying “this stuff takes you thirty grands. But back in Beijing, you can give it to your boss as a gift worth a hundred thousand yuan.”

When fossils of rarer species are involved, forgeries often find a place in the market. The most infamous case was the Archaeoraptor scandal. In 1999 National Geographic published an article declaring that the informally named specimen in question from Liaoning indicated a “missing link” between theropod dinosaurs and birds. But as experts soon proved, it was a collage pieced up with real fossils from different animals.

In Yixian, the story started in 2004 when a former discovered a 7 meter long Jinzhousaurus, a cousin of Iguanodon. The windfall find encouraged the local and provincial government to think about turning the agricultural backwater into a magnet for scientists, students and tourists from all over the world. They convinced the central government in Beijing that it was a good idea to green-light a project allowing a foreign company to own a joint venture up to 51% so that it could build a cultural center with funds raised abroad. The result is Yizhou Fossil and Geology Park whose construction completed in 2006.

The museum was located farther than an hour’s drive from the city and there was no public traffic going to my destination. When the taxi I took leapt forward along the country road, the driver told me that it was a nearby iron mine to blame for many trucks transporting ore pellets leaked badly but no one had ever bothered to clean up the messes and finally ruined the road. He gave me some information like that along the way as if providing some extra service to immune him from feeling guilty before overcharging me. He was also inquisitive about my relationship with the lao-wai (foreigner) who ran the museum.

The lao-wai in question was Damien Leloup, the museum’s manager and curator from Paris. Despite his Gallic good looks, he carried with him an air that seemed more international than French. Though a student of art history, he started his career as in Australia recovering a shipwreck and worked for WWF to help Madagascar make its last intact rain forest a national park. He later worked with Jacques Cousteau in Southeast Asia and Africa. After the demise of the legendary maritime explorer, the French government sent him to the Reunion for military training. Eventually he landed in China to help establish a museum. He was proud for professionally living a child’s dream that seemed everlasting.

The museum he showed me around was a building modest in size and geometrically sleek in form. It looked more like a recluse research center rather than a showplace intended to attract the public attention. In fact, it was built right on the fossil quarry. Once a new fossil turned up, it was immediately sent to the lab a few hundred meters away. The exhibits housed inside strayed even further from those pantheons of monsters at the heart of the natural history museums you see in some American major cities and European capitals.

The “dragon bones” later unearthed in Liaoning are much unlike the daunting terrible lizards such as the giant sauropods or super terminators led by T. rex, which have long stood for the synonym of Dinosauria in our imagination, a stereotype consolidated by popular media from Charles Knight’s museum art to the Spielberg movies. Agile, delicate creatures including Confuciusornis and Sinosauropterix, often covered with proto-feathers, they are primitive birds or avian-bound bipedal predators whose posterities would later take off to survive the mass extinction 65 million years ago when a planetoid supposedly hit what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. With the celestial impact and its nuclear winter-like aftermath came the downfall of the dinosaurian dynasty.

When we strolled in the compound behind the main building, I noticed a dozen round floors in the shape of helipad flagged with red bricks. Damien told me they were where Mongolian-styled yurts would be set up in the warmer days to come. Visiting scientists, students and Dino-nuts tourists could then spend several days here to work together with the experts in residence to dig fossils in the quarry and prepare them in the laboratory. Camping outdoors might allow them to feel like the characters in the novels of Michael Crichton during their stay. Then he said that the scientists had recently found footprints of large sauropods, which had been long thought only existing in the Jurassic formations in southern China, as well as remains of pterosaur, a winged reptile that used to soar in the Mesozoic sky. They together suggested a much richer paleo-biology of a swamp area.

The museum management cares about the ecological environment today as much as the prehistoric past of it. A protection project was conducted: with a pond dug in the park and thousands of trees planted to bring back life to a land largely dead due to industrial pollution. Batrachians were among the first that returned (frogspawns could be seen underwater), followed with a variety of birds. Soon enough hedgehogs and hares appeared and many settled down.

The foreigners’ green efforts were not always appreciated, nevertheless, especially when they planned to introduce equipments such as solar panels and a wind-driven turbine to generate electricity. The leaders of the local power plant regarded those contraptions as a threat. “But owning the Joint Venture at 51% has given us a very substantial advantage that turned out to be really useful when the time came to ‘impose’ some of our ideas. That being said, I have no doubt that if the issue was of the outmost importance for them, the local powers could find a way to impose their thoughts and need. Fortunately it has not been the case yet.” So Damien told me.

The YFGP employs most staff locally. The meagerly educated farmers are often skillful field workers with astonishing knowledge on fossils and dinosaurs, though the academic jargon is not their cup of tea. They can be as efficient as seasoned paleontologists when excavation and fossil preparation are involved, if not more so, for they started handling fossils since very early age. Some of them are trained to cast fossil replicas with natural resin imported from France, supposedly an environment-friendly material. The office assistants are local hires, too. With them, Damien once hoped to have more chance to speak Chinese. But as it soon turned out, it was him who helped them practice English.

The main exhibition hall, dimly lighted through artificial foliages of conifers and early leafy trees, sank in an idyllic atmosphere. Like most natural history museums, the YFGP arranged the exhibits in a linear order to narrate the story of evolution, especially the episodes concerning with the Cretaceous animals and the ecological contexts they confronted. When we walked past a large limestone plate hung heavily on the wall, I saw a figure loom like bas-relief on it, demonstrating an ancient crocodile whose eyes crossed to meet somewhere down the prolonged snout. “We nickname this croc Sarkozy,” said Damien. He then pointed to two clusters of eggs in a glass case. “Do you know why these eggs are perfectly spherical and those elongated? Because the former are of the herbivorous dinosaurs’ while the latter of the predators.” That was news to me.

When great paleontologists John Ostrom and Robert Bakker portrayed the prehistoric reptiles as smart, active, warm-blooded and the ancestors of birds, they were painting on a large but somewhat porous canvas. In recent years, however, Chinese scientists such as Xu Xing and Ji Qiang, among others, discovered and described a number of previously unknown species that may fill up some holes in the theoretical picture.

Ours is an age knowledge renews without much patience. In the recent decade or two, fossils from Liaoning made headlines in publications like Science and Nature, contributing to the dinosaur-to-bird metamorphosis theory ascending from heresy to accepted wisdom. Paleo-artists compete to depict the once ferociously looking theropods, especially the Velociraptor, with increasingly sophisticated plumage that gives the animals a very kawaii image. Sometimes I wonder if these antediluvian creatures that failed to board Noah’s Ark are well underway to replace the giant panda by making a new ascot of China.

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