And so we come to the next Amazing Discovery that will only make the most gullible and credulous question everything. This one – the “Hidden Character Stone” – is so bizarre that I frankly don’t understand how anyone could believe the claims made for it. So, here we go with a continuation of Spirit Science’s silly list.
3: The Hidden Character Stone
“This stone is located in a scenic area in Zhangbu village, China. This incredible carving is thought to be a staggering 270 million years old?! There are different versions of the writing that essentially translates to “Communist Party of China”.”
Zhangbu (掌布乡) is a village in a tourist area in Pingtang County (平塘县), Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (黔南布依族苗族自治州) in Guizhou Province (貴州), south-west China. It was the subject of a promotional Exposition in June 2002, aimed at encouraging amateur photographers to visit the area. Encouraging people in a rapidly urbanising country like China to get out into rural areas and appreciate the natural beauty of the countryside, its food and its traditions is obviously a good thing. However, in the aftermath of the Exposition, a carving was found on a rockface that is the source of this story.
The story was first reported in The People’s Daily under the byline of Liang Heng (born 1946), Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. It subsequently appeared online at Xinhuanet on 2 December 2003, which credits a former Party Secretary for Zhangbu, Wang Guo-Fu (王国富), with the discovery, made while cleaning straw from a crack in a fallen boulder. The headline, 2.7亿年“中国共产党”字样地质奇观惊现贵州 (“Geological wonders 270 million years old, with words ‘the Chinese Communist Party’, discovered in Guizhou”) makes the claim repeated by sources in the west about the date of the inscription and is presumably its source. The Xinhua News Agency is the official press agency for the People’s Republic of China. As such, its public pronouncements are geared towards upholding the public views of the Chinese Communist Party, for which it is often seen as a mouthpiece. It also produces newspapers for circulation only among Party officials. These news sources contain high quality investigative journalism and include stories translated from foreign sources, demonstrating that the Xinhua agency is capable of excellent reportage. We should note, though, that the story about the “Hidden Character Stone” was circulated for public consumption. This is not to say that it is unreliable, of course: it simply means that the story was seen to be in line with officialdom’s world view.
Allegedly, what Wang Guo-Fu discovered was a group of six letters that had not previously been seen on a rockface that appears to be one side of a cleft in the rock. It is unclear why the text had not been seen before. The accounts of how it was first recognised are slightly contradictory. An (unnamed) geologist who visited the site in August 2003 is supposed to have determined that the letters formed before the rock split. He (or she!) is said to have been invited by authorities in Pingtang County and to have written a detailed report about their investigation. The geologist is claimed to have established that the spilt boulder (which many sources wrongly call a “megalith”) had fallen from a cliff above the Zhangbu river valley; the source of the rock is supposedly visible as an indentation in the hillside. The fall split the rock in two, revealing the words. The characters are said to be composed of fossilised sponges, crinoid stems, brachiopods and other fossils. No artificial carving could be detected and the fossils are said not to have been stuck artificially to the rock, which is relatively fossil rich.
Not all accounts mention this study in August 2003. Instead, most focus on a team of geologists, including Li Ting-Dong (李廷栋), Liu Bao-Jun (刘宝君), Li Feng-Lin (李鳳麟) and Gu Jing-Yi (賈精一), that is said to have examined the inscription between 5 and 8 December 2003. They found the rock to be a Qixia Formation of middle Permian date (298,900,000 ± 150,000 to 252,170,00 ± 60,000 years ago); this is presumably the reason that the letters are claimed to be 270,000,000 years old. This is illogical, of course. One cannot use the age of a rock to date an inscription on its surface!
There are numerous problems with the accounts of the discovery. Firstly, the original geologist is unnamed in any source. Although science does not work from authority, we nevertheless need to know whether or not this individual was a professional geologist with palaeontological experience. It would be good to know if they had expertise in examining inscriptions. What are their qualifications? Do they have a professional reputation for reliability? In other words, can we be sure they are not a crank? Not providing a name raises the possibility that there never was an investigation by a geologist in August 2003, although I am inclined to accept that there was.
Secondly, where is the report? Without the technical details contained in it, we cannot know if the anonymous geologist’s pronouncement is backed up by data. What are the grounds for asserting that the letters had formed by the distribution of fossilised creatures inside the rock? What tests were conducted to show that the fossils were not added the one side of the crack? Is there evidence from the opposite rock face that the fossils formerly occupied hollows on that side? Does the unlettered part of the rock face show any evidence for tooling to remove fossils?
Thirdly, accounts vary about the date at which the boulder fell from the cliff. Some accounts suggest that it happened recently (in 2001), others that it was 500 years ago (both dates are given in the same article!), yet others do not give a date. This is not to suggest that the rock has not fallen: it merely suggests confusion about when it happened.
Finally, if the geologist who visited the site in August 2003 had undertaken a study as comprehensive as claimed, why was it necessary to send in a team of fifteen geologists just five months later? If this initial report were reliable, would it really take a whole team to carry out a second investigation? I have the impression that the larger team was sent in precisely because the initial report – which does not appear to be publicly available – could not be verified or made outlandish claims.
There is a less well circulated photograph showing the text in its broader context. This makes it clear that elements of the description given through Chinese media are inaccurate. The cleft in the rock is clearly weathered: there are lichens growing on it that are unlikely to have formed since 2001 (if we accept that as the date at which the boulder fell and cracked) or the “discovery” of the text in 2003. Being able to see both sides of the rock enables us to deduce that the “letters” are in a fossiliferous stratum within the rock. The fossils on the opposite face from the inscription do not form letter-like patterns and are distributed at random. More damningly, the rock face around the six characters is smoother than elsewhere within the cleft. In other words, it looks to have been cut back, leaving the characters standing proud from the rock.
What about the content of the text? It consists of six characters, each said to be about a foot (0.3 m square): 中國共產党亡. According to Google Translate, they read simply “Chinese Communist death”. The translation given on most websites is “Communist Party of China perish”. However, the news reports from Xinhua and other mainland Chinese sources give only the first five characters (中國共產党) and translate them as “Communist Party of China”, which is clearly a more congenial message for the Party to convey. What I find especially hard to understand is that these same news outlets show photographs depicting all six characters. The present day Communist Party of China seems a lot less effective at photographic manipulation than it did under Mao Ze-Dong. Perhaps the greater availability of cameras (especially on mobile ’phones) makes it less easy to remove uncomfortable scenes.
Several features point to this not being of any antiquity: mention of the Communist Party of China (founded 1921) is obviously no earlier than the twentieth century. Equally, the left-to-right direction of the text is a feature that we would not expect before the twentieth century. One commentator has suggested that the text was created in the 1930s by early revolutionaries who painted the slogan on a rock face, the dye in the paint reducing erosion that reduced the surrounding limestone surface. One objection to this view is that at least one (and possibly two) of the characters are in Simplified Chinese Characters (简化字), first promoted in the 1950s during a drive to increase literacy rates. However, at least one of the symbols in the text, 党 (“Party”), is in the Simplified system, the traditional symbol being 黨. However, there is evidence for the Simplified version being in use in the 1930s. The suggestion, which was made anonymously on an internet forum, seems plausible enough.
Looked at dispassionately, this little bit of text is quite clearly a silly hoax, presumably created either by someone who dislikes the current régime in China or by an early counter-revolutionary. Its discoverer, Wang Guo-Fu, is most unlikely to be the hoaxer. As a former Village Secretary, to have created it and then brought it to the attention of the state media would have spelled trouble for him. No, he seems genuinely to have discovered something that presumably amazed him. Perhaps he did not see the last character, which, it has to be said, is less convincingly the shape of the relevant glyph than the others. It is also an object lesson in the state manipulation of physical remains: the site is widely promoted as a tourist venue, supposedly because the text demonstrates that the Communist Party of China exists through divine providence or ineluctable historical dialectics, preordained 270 million years ago. Yet the text itself seems to have originated as an expression of anti-Communist sentiment. Only by ignoring the last symbol is it possible to view it as supportive of the Chinese government!