In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately sauna bath decree?

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Every Chinese schoolchild is drilled in the motherland's historic "Four Inventions": gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass. But last week a somewhat unlikely item was added to the list of things for which the rest of the world should apparently be grateful to China - the sauna.

According to the China Daily, the sauna "may well have once been a popular luxury in ancient China", and "related records on steam bathing [by ancient Chinese] may be found in various historical accounts".

It seems that nothing was beyond the ancient Chinese. A couple of years ago, an article claimed that China had also invented golf, which was news to Scotland. And in the recent Peking Toilet Exhibition, photographs of archaeological remains were produced to demonstrate that China was home to the earliest known public convenience.

Finland, which has a million saunas for its population of five million, is likely to be devastated by this latest revelation. According to the China Daily, during the Warring States period (475-221BC), Shi Hu, the King of Zhao of the Jie ethnic group, used to bathe with his wives in the steam from a pool into which more than 1,000 scalding metal bars, each weighing just over 40lb, had been plunged.

As for Kubla Khan, "struck down by a disabling illness" one day after fighting, "his attendants poured water on a scorching hot stone to make steam" which helped him to expel a blood clot, explained the newspaper.

"It is possible that the Chinese style of steaming or fuming found its way to Finland and was eventually accepted by the Finns," said the China Daily, suggesting that the Chinese invention could have spread to Finland when the Hun people, who originated in China, invaded Hungary in AD376.

What is difficult to say at this stage is the damage these claims may do to normally warm Sino-Finnish relations. On putting them to the Finnish embassy in Peking, I was immediately summoned for a full and frank briefing on the provenance of the sauna. China's claim was "a good joke", said a spokesman. Diplomats explained that saunas in Finland dated back to the Stone Age, and were explicitly mentioned in the country's national epic poem, the Kalevala, which went back "thousands of years".

As for the alleged Kubla Khan incident, "we are quite convinced that the attendants of Kubla Khan would have been Finnish," the spokesman said. "Finns are known for building a sauna wherever they go."

Indeed, the Finnish ambassador's residence in Peking boasts a sauna which is "the best in China, if not in Asia", said the diplomat. Senior Chinese officials eagerly accept invitations to come for a sweat. In one of Peking's best-kept secrets, the embassy runs a "Sino-Finnish Sauna Association" open to Chinese people who have been based in Scandinavia and who have caught the sauna habit.

There was also so much more to the sauna than just a bit of steam, it was explained. The fundamentals of the sauna experience included "forests, lakes, clean air and fresh water" - which would rule out most of China.

The Finnish government will have to decide whether to make a formal protest to the Chinese over this affront to national pride and sovereignty. But there is a glimmer of hope. One diplomat triumphantly pulled out a copy of the brand-new official Modern Chinese Dictionary. "Sangnayu" - the Chinese word for sauna - is indeed defined as a "method for washing using steam". But the dictionary adds: "Originating from Finland."