“Dust” Elizabeth Bear

I bought Elizabeth Bear’s “Dust” about 3 years ago when I read it for an online book club (which has since vanished without trace so I can’t even link to it). I did write about it on my own livejournal so I can link to that first impression. This is another of the backlog of book posts that I’m catching up on (the last one! I’m nearly up to date!) so again I think this’ll be less in depth than I would’ve written had I got to it quicker.

The book at first seems to exist in the space between science fiction and fantasy. The opening scene could almost come out of a pseudo-historical medievaloid fantasy – there’s a Lady, there are knights, a housekeeper, a named sword, and our point of view character is an upstairs maid. But look at it more closely and you see the science fiction – nanotech chains, references to extruded material, beam weapons. The literal blue blood for the Family (the Exalt, the aristocracy of this world) could go in either camp at this point. Reading on it becomes more clear that this is science fiction – the story is set on a generation ship, a spaceship travelling at slower than light speed where the crew are awake and expecting their voyage to take several generations to complete. But something has gone wrong, and the ship isn’t travelling any more and hasn’t been for centuries. A lot (most?) of the crew are Means – they don’t have nanotech symbionts and their lifespans are what we would consider normal. The Exalt are effectively immortal, and so the older ones were alive before the disaster. You might naively think that would make it easier to keep society together and work on fixing the ship. But the Family are split into factions and in many cases more concerned with their internal political games than worrying about anything else. This isn’t helped by the fact that the ship’s AI is also fragmented. With a crisis looming the status quo can’t continue, so at least the AI is trying to regroup and gather itselves together. Of course, it isn’t that easy – each fragmentary personality wants to be the last one standing and will fight with whatever tools it has to achieve that goal.

The first scene also introduces us to the two primary protagonists, who are certainly intended to be tools of one (or more) of these fragments. There is Rien, through whose eyes we see the scene. She’s a teenager, an orphan, a maid, a Mean who turns out to have a rather more Exalted heritage than she imagined (pun fully intended). We also see Sir Perceval, a Knight from Engine captured by the Lady Arianne Conn of Rule who has mutilated her and will kill her. Perceval is also a young woman, but fully Exalt and aware of her heritage, and happens to be Rien’s half-sister. Their story is of a pattern that’s more from the fantasy side of the dividing line – they escape and go on a quest across the world. Both are Chosen Ones in their own way, and together they must try to save their world. No matter what the cost.

It’s another book that feels like it would reward going through with a fine tooth comb and noting all the little details. As with the Promethean Age books names are very important, although in these books knowing someone’s name doesn’t give you power over them per se – this series is after all on the science fiction side of the line. But names, their meanings and the choices behind the names reveal things about the person or object once you’re paying attention (whether that’s you-the-reader or a character in the story). Choice is again a theme. In this story there’s a lot about the horror of having your ability to choose taken away, or your choices coerced. And about how even when you’re suffering the knowledge that you freely chose to pay this price for something you consider worth it can bring a certain strength and endurance.

A good book, I definitely enjoyed it as much the second time around as the first 🙂

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities

In Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities James Fox picked three different cities each in a single year of the 20th Century, and looked at how each was the focal point of cultural developments at the time. The first episode covered Vienna in 1908, the year Sigmund Freud revealed his Oedipus Complex theories. Many of the most notable artists or musicians of the day were in the city – Klimt, Schiele, Schoenberg. It was also a turning point for world politics, being the year when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia Herzegovina. And Adolf Hitler was living in Vienna that year, he had come to study art but was rejected by the school. The politics of the day were perhaps formative for him, as Vienna’s mayor was very anti-Semitic.

Episode 2 looked at Paris in 1928, the last hurrah of a golden age between the wars before the Great Depression set in. And there was a lot going on in Paris at the time, for instance the surrealist movement (Magritte, Dali and so on) was taking shape. Gershwin was in Paris, Hemingway was in Paris, Cole Porter was in Paris. A lot of black Americans were also in the city, having come to fight in the First World War and preferring the way they were treated in Paris to back home. Many of these were musicians, bringing jazz to Paris. It was also the city where Mondrian was working on his minimalist paintings of lines and primary colours. And where Le Courbousier was planning to replace the old cluttered and chaotic buildings of the city with the architecture of The Future.

The third episode was about New York in 1951. Now when Fox opened the programme by positioning it as the place and time where much of modern culture was born we were a bit sceptical, but by the end of the episode he’d sold me on it. New York at this time was the birthplace of modern advertising, it was also where some of the enduring types of TV shows were born (live sports events, sitcoms). But it wasn’t just a city of conformist consumer culture, it was where the counterculture of the 50s was rooted. Kerouac wrote On the Road in New York in 1951, Pollack did some of his best work just outside New York that year, Thelonious Monk was playing be-bop and Modern Jazz that year. It was the city where the Actors Studio was, where actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean worked on learning Method Acting.

I really liked this series, both the concept and the way it was made. I liked the visual style of the series, appropriately for programmes that featured a lot of art it felt like care had been taken to be artistic with the filming (not in an over the top way). And each of the episodes had a slightly different feel, to go with the different flavours of the cities in them. James Fox was a good presenter – I’ve not seen any of his programmes before and thought part way through this series that I should look out for anything else he’s done. It turns out I’ve already recorded two of the other things he’s done (A History of Art in Three Colours and A Very British Renaissance) so I’m looking forward to those.

Also watched this week:

Episode 4 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Kate Adie’s Women of World War One – a one off programme about what British women did during the war, and the difficulties and prejudices they faced in doing it. And also about how that taste of freedom and demonstration of their capability did change women’s lives in the future, no matter how much the establishment tried to return to the status quo after the war.

Episode 2 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Episode 1 of Jungle Atlantis – two part series about new archaeological discoveries at Angkor Wat.

Episode 1 of The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire – two part series about the soldiers from the Empires of the European powers who fought in World War One.

Episode 5 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

In Our Time: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is one of the most well known Roman historical figures. He conquered Gaul, changed the nature of the Roman state from republic to almost empire (although it took Augustus to finish that job), and his writings are still read today in Latin classes. Discussing him on In Our Time were Christopher Pelling (University of Oxford), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Maria Wyke (University College London).

Caesar was born in 100BC and grew up in a turbulent time for the Roman Republic. He was the son of a patrician family, which meant his family could trace their lineage back to the beginning of Rome and beyond (somewhat mythologised as these things often are – apparently he could trace his ancestry to Aeneas and thence to Venus). Theoretically being a patrician didn’t give you any extra power, but in practice there was still a certain degree of political cachet attached to this status and it was the ticket to an easier entry into politics. During Caesar’s teens and early 20s the Republic was embroiled in a civil war, which the general Sulla eventually won – this was not the side that Caesar’s family were on. Sulla carried out purges of those who had been on the opposing side, so this was a time of danger for the young Caesar, he was also under pressure to divorce his wife. He began his military career as a way to keep out of the way. Although they didn’t mention it explicitly on the programme another destabilising event during these years was Spartacus’s slave revolt (post about the In Our Time episode on that).

After Sulla’s death Caesar embarked on a political career (they said on the programme that the military and politics were very closely intertwined). During this time he often promoted populist policies. These included things like ensuring people had a right to a trial rather than magistrates being able to order executions just as they saw fit. The experts said this was a deliberate political strategy on Caesar’s part, in order to have popular support during elections. Caesar was successful in his career, becoming Consul in 59BC.

After his consulship Caesar became Governor in Gaul. Generally after being a Consul you got a province to look after for a while. Gaul at the time really only consisted of the south of what is now France, plus the region spanning the Alps in modern Italy (then called Cisalpine Gaul). Under Caesar’s rule Gaul was extended to the Rhine in the north and the coast in the west. He also (as I’m sure we all know) crossed the Channel to Britain but wasn’t inclined to spend the time conquering it. Caesar established a reputation for being ruthless and fast moving as a general. He conquered large amounts of territory by the practice of marching his legions deep into the non-conquered territory then defeating one of the tribes there. He would then declare the territory behind that point conquered and work on pacifying it.

During this time Caesar wrote the work that is still taught in schools – the Commentaries on the Gallic War. I had to translate a chapter of this in my Latin GCSE nearly 25 years ago, so I suppose I don’t know more recently than that but given it’s 2000 years old plus/minus 25 years gets lost in the rounding errors 😉 Caesar wrote this is a propaganda tool and it was probably sent back to Rome piece by piece as he wrote it. He was out of Rome for 5 years during these campaigns and this was a way of keeping him in the minds of the people. He wrote it in a third person format, as if it was an objective report, but it seems clear that he picked and chose his events to suit his needs.

On his return to Rome Caesar had fallen somewhat from favour, and his alliances had broken down (despite his propaganda). He had for a while been allied with Pompey, who was married to Caesar’s daughter as a means of sealing that alliance. But Julia died in childbirth, and Pompey didn’t renew the alliance. Caesar felt that if he came back to Rome without his army (as was customary) he would be arrested and prosecuted, so he brought his army with him. This ignited a civil war between Caesar and a Senate faction led by Pompey. It is from this return to Rome that we get the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” – the Rubicon was the river that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul (where Caesar was entitled to have an army) and the territory of Rome itself (where Caesar was not).

Most of the early fighting of this civil war took place out in mainland Greece. The experts said this was what tended to happen at the time – the armies would move eastwards and actual battles didn’t happen near Rome. Although his opponents were tenacious (and good Generals) Caesar was victorious. This was probably due to the fact that his army were men he’d commanded and worked with for the last 5 years, rather than the newly raised forces of the opposition. It’s during this war that Caesar spent time in Egypt and met Cleopatra. During the war and after he had won Caesar used his now overwhelming support in the Senate to become first Dictator for a year (a customary position someone could be appointed to in a time of crisis) and subsequently Dictator for life (rather less customary).

After the war was over Caesar embarked on reforming the government of the Roman Republic – harking back to his original populist politics. The experts said it wasn’t a grand programme of cohesive reform, more that Caesar was focusing on things he saw as causing the problems he saw in his time growing up in the chaos of civil war. He also established himself as a god, and more shockingly flirted with kingship. A large part of Rome’s underlying mythos at the time was that they had Got Rid of Kings. So looking like you might want to be King – by, say, wearing the traditional ceremonial robes of a king – was a good way to unsettle and upset the Senate. This, then, was what lead to Caesar’s political opponents assassinating him – and many of that faction hoped it would bring a return to the previous political situation before Caesar had started edging towards kingship. Sadly for them instead it ignited yet another civil war, which eventually lead to the establishment of the Empire by Caesar’s grandnephew Augustus.

At the end of the programme they spent a little bit of time talking about what we know about Caesar’s personality – which is not really very much. One of the experts (Wyke or Steel) emphasised his ruthlessness and compared him to more recent figures such as Mussolini. They’d also a little earlier in the programme talked about how he was also known for his debauchery and jadedness – his fling with Cleopatra wasn’t an aberration in otherwise abstemious lifestyle!

Doctor Who: Kill the Moon

OK, that was a lot better from Doctor Who this week – in large part because the narrative appeared to agree with me about the way the Doctor is behaving. I’ve seen a certain amount of flap about the science, but really Doctor Who has always been science fantasy so I’m not that fussed about the level of physical and biological impossibility displayed here!

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

While we’re on the subject of the science – “what if the moon were an egg?” is a trope I’ve run across before in a 1930s short story, played for horror that time. I reviewed it (briefly) last year (scroll down to “Born of the Sun” in the 1934 section) and it was fun to see a Doctor Who take on it – lighter, more hopeful and with a lot less of the unpleasant 1930s subtexts. In terms of nitpicking on the science I think the big mistake the script made was to get too specific – if it hadn’t said “prokaryote” for our germ spider analogue I’d’ve not spluttered, if you need a science-y word make one up and have the Doctor make some disparaging remark about how our puny scientists haven’t heard of that yet. In terms of details of the thing in the moon-egg though, I figure that’s just so inherently implausible that we might as well just handwave through the rest – if the moon is an egg then biology and physics clearly just don’t work like we think they do 😉

I do quite seriously continue to wonder if this is going to turn out to be not reality as we know it. We’ve had an on screen Heaven where people who we have seen as on screen dead are showing up. We also now have the moon as an egg with all the attendant biological and physical implausibilities. But I also think I’m likely to be wrong about that – it would be difficult to do the reveal without making it feel cheap. It would also be difficult to square it with how much time we’re spending on the Clara/Danny relationship if it’s going to turn out to not really be real (although of course we’ve done that before, with Donna in the Library, and that was Moffat too).

Anyway. The Doctor acting as an asshole is clearly positioned here as the Doctor acting as an asshole. Which makes it rather more palatable than when I was wondering if it was supposed to be funny. He’s also not wholly wrong – I think Clara needed that reality check from the way she was acting in this episode, it’s not just a grand adventure and home in time for tea. She’s a part of what’s going on rather than just a bystander. I’m not sure how much sense that makes in terms of Clara’s character throughout the show, but the episode itself sold me on it (if that makes sense). However, the Doctor was being a dick about it, and both show and Clara were right to call him out on it.

I liked Courtney in this – I guess she wasn’t quite all mouth & no trousers. I didn’t quite buy the self-esteem crushed business at the beginning, that felt like it was more there in order to get a point across about how this Doctor differs from the last. Eleven held forth on more than one occasion about how everyone was special, Twelve is barely willing to grit his teeth and say someone isn’t an entire waste of space. And Courtney as characterised so far isn’t someone you’d think of as special if you don’t believe everyone’s special – a fairly typical teenage girl doing teenage girl things.

Overall much better than last week, I enjoyed this one again 🙂

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 12)

Having discussed the two categories of people who owned the bulk of the land in the last two chapters Prestwich now moves on to discussing landownership itself (and the law surrounding it) and land management. He does this in two separate chapters, but I’ll cover them both in the same post (in part because it’s been a while since I read them).

Landownership and the Law

Who owned the land, who could inherit it and who had what rights associated with it were obviously important to the people of the time. Disputes frequently ended up in court, so a knowledge of the law and how to use it to your advantage were useful skills to acquire.

Prestwich first considers how people acquired land. Marriage was the easiest route, and there are many examples of men who acquired wealth by marrying well (Simon de Montfort for instance). As a result marriages often involved complicated arrangements about the transfer of land from father of the bride to groom, from groom to bride (as a dower) and jointures could be set in place to ensure that the land would be inherited by the children of the couple. It was also possible to gain land via royal favour – but this might not be as secure or long lasting as you might hope! Even if you stayed in the King’s good graces you might still end up giving the land back if the previous holder (or his heirs) made a good case for why they’d been wrongly disinherited.

And finally one could purchase land, or lease land. This wasn’t always a straightforward transfer of money in exchange for land. Prestwich details one purchase mechanism which was particularly unpopular – land that had been mortgaged to a Jewish moneylender could be bought by someone (often a religious house) paying off the debt. So the Church was in effect profiting from the practice of usury (these lands would not otherwise have been available to buy), which is somewhat hypocritical. Another way to buy land was to buy a reversion – on the death of the owner you would inherit rather than the owner’s heirs.

So given that the transfer of land could be complicated, and the relationships between landlord & tenant could be tense, it’s not surprising that lawyers were important in securing one’s rights. There also arose a practice of bringing a fictitious dispute to court, which then would be ruled on and the resulting documents would provide binding proof of land ownership. And during the period covered by this book the legal system surrounding landownership got increasingly complex – in part to counter various ways in which great landlords could lose income through the ways that their (lesser landlord) tenants disposed of their land. One practice legislated against was granting land to the Church – because the Church never died and never inherited whilst underage two sources of potential income were removed from a landowner (normally there would be fees to pay your landlord in such situations).

Another part of the complex legal situation surrounding landownership & use were the mechanisms to ensure that the land was inherited in the way the original (or current) owner intended even generations after his death. For instance the way that male & female inheritance worked meant that the practice of restricting inheritance “in tail male” arose. In the general case, if a landowner died and had no male heirs his estate would be divided between all his female heirs – thus an estate could fragment to a potentially unsustainable degree. So if the land was entailed such that it must be inherited only be a male heir, then in the event of a landowner only having daughters the estate would be kept together and go to the nearest male heir. Which would be bad for the daughters who now got nothing (although they were presumably supposed to marry and be reliant on their husband’s estate) but it did mean that a smallish estate wouldn’t disintegrate to a point where no-one could live off the proceeds. You could also control inheritance by granting your lands away to someone else, who would then permit you to use the lands for the rest of your life. And you’d set up the legal framework of the initial grant to ensure that the new owner was then required to permit your designated heir use for his life and so on. These enfeoffments could be for a limited term, for instance if you were going to war and wanted to ensure your affairs were properly taken care of in the event of your death in battle, but wanted control back if you returned alive.

Prestwich finishes this chapter by considering how well this complex legal system surrounding landownership actually worked in practice. He suggests that its very complexity might’ve been a part of the purpose. If there was always some other legal approach you could try in order to resolve your disputes, then conflict would be less likely to descend into violence.

The Management of Land

The point of owning land, and why it was worth pursuing through all the legal complexity, was to make a profit from it and live off that profit. And to do that the land must be managed. Prestwich starts this chapter by defining the two main ways to do this – either rent out the manors to people (or person) who pay a fixed rent or directly manage the land and take all the proceeds. (The distinction isn’t quite as clear as that sounds because even directly managed land had tenants who paid rent.)

Rents were generally fixed over long periods, so in times of higher inflation it made more sense to directly manage your land. This was the case during the late 12th Century and may explain why there had been a countrywide movement towards direct management of estates. During the 13th Century there was a steady level of inflation across the century, with a lot of short term fluctuation, so this might explain the continued preference for direct management. However Prestwich is dubious that long term price changes would have quite such an impact. Other factors influencing this include the fact that the Church preferred direct management (in part because farming out the land to monks had proved to leave too many of them away from the regulations of monastic life). The existence of a developed market economy at which to sell the surplus you were hoping to generate would also influence landowners to go for direct management. And of course if you take the profits in directly then you don’t risk having tenants fail to pay their rent, which then would require the costs of a court case to recover.

This was a period during which the methods of estate management were both revolutionised, and systematically taught. This meant that landlords choosing to directly manage their estates could employ stewards and bailiffs who were well trained and efficient. There was an extensive literature on the subject of estate management, which was widely disseminated – Prestwich discusses several treatises covering accountancy, farming practice and so on. These treatises also gave a landowner yardsticks by which to measure the performance of their steward. Accountancy appears to’ve been fairly well standardised by this time, the surviving records are remarkably similar across different sizes of properties and different regions of the country. Farming methods, however, varied by region – understandably so, as crops and livestock suitable for one area are not necessarily suitable for a different one. In general investment in an estate was geared to maximising returns in the short term rather than improving the estate.

The above is all about the 13th Century, but these good conditions could not last. War, poor harvests, and terrible weather are all things which began to change conditions from around 1290. There is also the possibility that the expansion of agriculture during the good times had started to exhaust the land in some estates. And so there was a gradual move towards leasing the land to tenants for the security of a fixed rent. Obviously any consideration of economic conditions in the first two-thirds of the 14th Century has to consider the Black Death in 1348. Whilst the immediate effects made life more difficult for landlords it seems they were able to work around these to some degree. For instance increased labour costs lead to landlords insisting on labour service from their peasant tenants instead of commuting it to a cash payment as had become customary. So during the period that is the scope of this book (up to 1360) the effects of the Black Death on the economy were mostly masked by short term fixes.

Harlots, Housewives & Heroines

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls is a three part series about women in Restoration England, presented by Lucy Worsley. The three episodes each focus on a sort of woman – the harlots, housewives and heroines of the title; although the last of these categories is a bit forced. Worley’s thesis was that the second half of the 17th Century was actually a rather good time to be a woman (relatively speaking). The Civil War was in part responsible for this due to the high levels of mortality – the highest rate in English history before the First World War – and it was interesting watching this around the same time as Britain’s Great War (post) because some of the ideas about how mortality leads to social change were the same. This being a Worsley series there was a certain amount of dressing up through all three episodes – ostensibly to show us the different sorts of clothes worn by different sorts of women but in reality I think it’s because she finds it fun! This isn’t criticism, I’d be inclined to do the same if I had the opportunity 🙂

The first episode (the harlots) was actually about upper class women, who were labelled this way to reflect the notorious licentiousness of Charles II’s court. He had many mistresses and these women wielded great power. The second episode looked at what it was like to be a more ordinary woman in Restoration England – a housewife. Worsley also talked about how the shortage of men due to the wars meant that this era was when the concept of the spinster and the old maid arose and were labelled. The final episode took some of the notable women of the age as its jumping off point (Nell Gwyn, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Benn etc) but really it was about the women who didn’t fit into the other two categories – what was it like to be a young woman in service in London, for instance. And also a discussion of the new career of actress as women were for the first time allowed on stage.

An interesting series, worth watching.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 3 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 4 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Episode 1 of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities – 3 part series looking at three key cities each in a different key year in the 20th Century.

Episode 1 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (British Museum Exhibition)

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China is the new British Museum exhibition which is open till 5 January 2015. It covers 1400-1450 AD which is close to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty period, and is regarded as one of the Golden Ages of Chinese history. The exhibition opens with a short film which gives a brief overview of the historical events during (and immediately before this period) and puts it into context in terms of how it lines up with British history. The Ming Dynasty as a whole lasted for more than 250 years, from roughly the time of Chaucer through to the English Civil War. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, had fought against and eventually driven out the last of the Yuan Dynasty (a Mongol dynasty founded by Kublai Khan). He chose the name of the dynasty – Ming, which means “bright” or “shining”. He was succeeded by a grandson, who was then deposed by one of the Hongwu Emperor’s other sons. This son, the Yongle Emperor, is the first of the period that the exhibition covers. The next Emperor was the Hongxi Emperor, who died after only a year in power. His son, the Xuande Emperor, ruled for the next 9 years and was succeeded in turn by his own son, the Zhengtong Emperor. This Emperor ruled until 1449 when he was captured in battle against the Mongols (he was eventually released from house arrest and ruled once more). The catastrophic defeat of the Ming army in 1449 which included the Emperor’s capture and the deaths of several senior members of court brings the Golden Age of the early Ming to a close.

The first room was concerned with court and royal life of the period. A lot of this is known from some relatively recently discovered intact tombs of minor members of the royal family. Ming Dynasty tombs for royalty are constructed as palaces for the afterlife – laid out like a place to live and containing the things one would want in the afterlife either as actual objects (like clothes) or as a models (like servants or transport). The objects that caught my eye most in this room were the yellow silk robe that one of the princes was buried with, and the model carriages. The robe was interesting both because survival of cloth for that long is always impressive, and because the formal portraits of royalty in China are always wearing a yellow silk dragon robe so it was nice to see an actual example. The carriages were interesting for what they represented about changes in the royal culture over the 50 years – they were labelled as “carriages like this were used during the early part of the period for travel between courts, but in later years princes were confined to their households” (I paraphrase). The Ming Emperors generally had a lot of children – for instance, I think the Hongwu Emperor had 26 sons – and the custom started by the founder was to set up each son in a province about the size of a European country of the time and they would act as the representative of the Emperor in that province. But this allowed the princes to build up their own power bases, which the Yongle Emperor used to his advantage when deposing his nephew. As a result over time the freedom of the princes to leave their palaces was curtailed.

The dynasty was founded in war, and war remained an important part of the court culture of the time – partly out of necessity and partly because that was a part of what defined a good ruler or noble during this period. Interestingly for all that the Ming were positioning themselves as a new Chinese dynasty who had overthrown the Mongols, nonetheless there was continuity with the Yuan dynasty particularly in what sorts of warrior activities were practised. The Ming continued to emphasis horsemanship as an important skill for a ruler. One of the items in this room was a scroll that showed the Yongle Emperor practicing various sports with his eunuchs – football (not like our football, more a competition to keep a ball in the air using only the feet), golf, polo, archery and so on. All of which had a significance as practising for a particular part of being a warrior (the football was a good way to build agility and leg strength for instance). They also had a portrait of an Emperor hunting, which has continuity as a portrait type (and activity) with the Yuan dynasty. The other objects that caught my eye particularly in this room were the weapons which included gunpowder based weapons like cannons. These weren’t actually used that often, because when fighting against the Mongolian horseback archers agility and flexibility counted for more than firepower.

The Ming golden age was not all about war, and the next room focussed on the peaceful arts of court culture – calligraphy, painting, poetry – often undertaken by the same men as were practising the warlike arts (particularly the Emperor). Dominating this space were two long scrolls, each a single artwork. One was of plum blossoms by moonlight, the other a landscape piece. Apparently normally they would be kept rolled up, then the viewer would unroll a section to contemplate a scene rather than how they are displayed these days with the whole piece on view. Which I think explains why the compositions of these sometimes seem repetitive – it’s intended to be seen almost as a selection of overlapping/intertwined variations on a theme.

The next room was on the theme of religion. There were several religions co-existing in China at the time, and the same person might use rituals and observances from different religions for different parts of their life. The three major religions during this period were the state religion (which included shamanic practices and ancestor worship, and in which the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and thus divine), Buddhism (primarily the Tibetan strand) and Daoism. There were also a significant number of Muslims, and Muslim clerics were accorded the same official respect and legal status as monks or clerics of the other religions. The objects in here included statues, and other things given to temples and monasteries as gifts. And some religious texts – in particular there was a very fine copy of some Buddhist texts written and illustrated in gold on a black background.

Throughout the whole exhibition there was an emphasis on how the influence of Ming court fashions and customs spread out to the surrounding countries, and how other countries influenced Ming fashions. The last room of the exhibition was explicitly about this theme, as a sort of conclusion. Early Ming China had trade connections not just with neighbouring countries but also with places as far afield as Kenya (by sea) and Central Asia by land. The Ming court liked to display their cosmopolitan tastes, so throughout the exhibition there were objects inspired by other places – for instance porcelain candlesticks modeled after Iranian metal candlesticks. During this period the Emperor Yongle also sent out vast trading fleets under the command of Admiral Zheng He. The Chinese perception of the trade that went on was that the Ming court were receiving tribute from the countries the fleet visited, and graciously proving gifts to these leaders who acknowledge Chinese superiority. Which is presumably not how the other side were seeing it!

I really liked this exhibition and found it very interesting. I shall be going again at least once before it shuts as I rushed the last room a bit due to running out of time.