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  • I love the written symbols of the Qin Dynasty, two centuries BC. Each of them seems to tell a story.

    I imagine being trapped in a room with hundreds of tablets, as in the calligraphy collection of the Confucius Temple in Xi'an, for several weeks, being unable to leave unless I manage to decipher one of them in its entirety. In that case, I might get started with one clue: the circle with the four spokes appears so often that its meaning must be very pedestrian, like "and" or "he said" or "et cetera". (Having spent little time with the tablets, I might be totally wrong.)

    In Beijing's vast Forbidden City there is museum containing a collection of round stones that were planted in regular intervals on both sides of a long road, covered with poems written in these ancient glyphs. These poems, I learned, were not about love, or the kernels of wisdom we have come to expect from the old masters. No, in these poems the Emperor was praised for building such a beautiful road.

    Imagine billbords along route I90, saying

    "We praise you, President Ike,
    for your divine foresight,
    in building this divided highway,
    separating people driving east
    from those driving west,
    preventing collisions
    detrimental to our health!
    May the President live forever"
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