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The custom of burying infant children in the foundations of new buildings – a sacrifice to “ground” the building and assuage the gods of earthquakes, floods, and other misfortunes – was well established in ancient and even medieval times. However, nowadays we run into this extraordinary legend about the nineteenth-century Chinese and Russian railway.

According to the legend, as the Siberian Railway approached the northern boundaries of the Chinese Empire, a great amount of excitement was produced in Pekin by the rumor that the Russian minister had applied to the Empress of China for two thousand children to be buried in the roadbed under the rails in order to strengthen it.

The “rumor” can probably be brushed gently to one side, though it says a lot about nineteenth-century China that such a rumor could grow to maturity. Or is this just Russians barbarizing the Chinese with tall tales?

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