Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Suck It, Gravity!" Part 2 - Kiteman versus Chinese Caligula

Not every story has a happy ending.

The Northern Qi province of China, circa 550 A.D. was under the rule of Emperor Wenxuan, the 2nd son of General Gao Huan. As a child, Wenxuan was mild-mannered and slow to speak, and it was generally agreed upon that the boy was developmentally disabled. Then one day, he and his siblings were brought into the royal court and each were handed a tangled ball of twine. They were instructed to pull the balls apart as quickly as they could, and that the winner would receive a prize. As his siblings worked and worried furiously at the knotted balls, Wenxuan withdrew his sword and sliced his ball in half. Dumping the pile of threads at his father's feet, he stated "This is the only possible solution."

When his father passed away in 547, Wenxuan's brother Gao Cheng took over as Regent. However, he was assassinated less than 2 years later, in 549, by spies from the Eastern Wei Province. Wenxuan moved quickly, rounding up the conspirators and putting them to death. Wenxuan then took a phalanx of 200 Imperial Guards into Le Cheng; the capitol of Wei, and basically warned Emperor Xiaojing to never, ever fuck with him.

Wenxuan proved himself a capable ruler for a while. When a former general defected to the Liang and attempted to start an insurrection, Wenxuan dealt with it swiftly, crushing the rebellion and seizing the region between the rivers Huai and Yangtze with ease. He became known not just for his prowess in military strategy, but for his absolute fearlessness. Wenxuan usually physically led most attacks himself, charging in ahead of his own soldiers and fucking shit up with nothing more than his sword and a big-ass horse. Soon after defeating the Liang, Wenxuan rolled back into Emperor Xiaojing's royal court and, well, that was pretty much it for Eastern Wei.

The problem was, once Wenxuan developed a yen (sorry) for human blood, he never could quite shake the craving for it. And, he started getting a little weird. After defeating the former Emperor, he invited the deposed Royal family to a feast, where he poisoned them. He gave them a royal burial, with full honors, only to dig up the Prince's casket afterwards and chuck it into the Zhang river.

It seemed like the only time Wenxuan could keep his head screwed on straight was in times of war. He was one of the earlier leaders to erect walls across China, his efforts to keep out the invading Khitan armies by erecting a great wall predated the more famous one by a couple of hundred years. He followed this up by once more leading the charge into the Khitan territories and kicking the living crap out of them personally.

Again though, his bravery in battle was offset by his increasing signs of utter batshit craziness while at home in the Royal Palace. He would often strip down to his birthday suit and wander the Capitol city naked as a jaybird. Sometimes he painted his face to look like a monster, and sometimes he would dress in women's clothing. When one of his concubines displeased him, he chopped her head off and carried it around for a few days. He dabbled in cannibalism.

As he got worse, one of his favorite pastimes was to tie political prisoners to large kites and drop them from the top of the Ye prison tower. Invariably, these prisoners would plummet hundreds of feet to their death, splattering across a pile of jagged rocks much to the delight of every crow within a 10 mile radius of the Ye Tower.

However, in the year 559, Wenxuan decided to give the old heave-ho to an old acquaintance of his. The man's name was Yuan Huangtou, and he was the last surviving son of Emperor Xiaojing. To this day, nobody knows what was different about this instance - whether the kite had been modified somehow, or if the winds were different or what. But, when Wenxuan chucked the former prince off the roof, something miraculous happened:

Yuan Huangtou flew.

Remember, this was 559. Horse drawn carts were still relatively new in 559. People still worshipped fucking comets in 559. And this man, who had born witness to the murder of his family and then trapped in a filthy prison for the next 7 or 8 years, he friggin' flew.

From the Archives of the Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Government, People's Republic of China: The first human to fly was Yuan Huangtou, in 559. Huangtou, son of the erstwhile emperor of the Northern Wei kingdom, launched himself on a kite from a tower in the capital Ye during a succession wrangle. Records mark that he floated across the city walls and survived the landing only to be executed shortly after.

The stories about Yuan Huangtou's flight vary wildly. The PRoC's official version is that rather than being forced to jump by a bloodthirsty madman, Huangtou launched himself. I like the idea, but the facts tend to lean more towards the version I described above.

Depending on which source you cull your information from, Yuan Huangtou either flew several hundred feet, or a couple of thousand. While the latter version is the more appealing of the two, it's not all that likely.

It doesn't matter, though. The fact is that Yuan Huangtou soared above all, for a few moments. He flew - something no human being had done before, ever. Nor would anyone be able to replicate the stunt for over the next 1,300 years, until Otto Lilienthal made his first jump halfway across the world in Steglitz, Germany.

Shortly after landing, the palace guards caught up with Yuan Huangtou. Emperor Wenxuan was beside himself. Nearly apoplectic with rage, Wenxuan sentenced the former prince to death for what he believed was an attempt at insurrection on the Royal Throne.

They're both dead, now. Wenxuan only lived for a couple of months after Yuan Huantou's flight, before dying of alcohol-related illnesses. He was quite insane by then, and lived like a prisoner within his own skin, tortured by the demons of his own making.

Everybody who witnessed the event is long dead, too. What everybody alive in the year 559 AD did in between the time of their birth and the moment their hearts stopped was their own business. One of them flew for a few moments, hopefully with both of his middle fingers raised quite high to his would-be captors, laughing his ass off.

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