April 2015 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1


From Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East. Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery of photos from the then Prince of Wales’s trip to the Middle East in 1862.

Total: 1


Ashoka – In Our Time episode about Ashoka who ruled a vast empire including much of India in the 4th Century BC.

Total: 1


“Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System” Irving Finkel – the first part of the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

“The Cyrus Cylinder: Unexpected Discoveries and the Rediscovery of Meaning” Irving Finkel – the second part of the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

“From King to Ancestor: Transition to Napatan Royal Afterlife (A Glimpse of a Funerary Ritual)” Birgitte Balanda – April EEG meeting talk.

Total: 3



Art of China – Andrew Graham Dixon talking about the history of art in China.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Petrified Forest and the Desert.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Qasr el Sagha.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Karanis.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Luxor Temple.

Total: 4

“The Cyrus Cylinder: Unexpected Discoveries and the Rediscovery of Meaning” Irving Finkel (Part 2 of BSS Study Day)

For the second part of his Bloomsbury Summer School study day on cuneiform Irving Finkel talked about the Cyrus cylinder which was found in Iraq during excavation at Babylon in 1872. It is a cylinder of baked clay which is covered in cuneiform writing, and you can see it at the British Museum. The largest part actually belongs to the BM, and there’s another fragment that they have on permanent loan from Yale. (My photo below is actually of a replica, I think the real thing was on loan somewhere at the time I took the photo a couple of years ago.)

Cyrus Cylinder

It was written at the behest of King Cyrus in 539BC, shortly after he invaded Babylon. This was apparently a bloodless conquest and it was the end of native rule in Babylon: the previous king was the last Neo-Babylonian king. The text starts with a description of the chaos in Babylon before Cyrus came along (which made me think of the Egyptian 1st Intermediate Period texts where a nomarch’s tomb will announce how he brought order out of the chaos that Egypt was in). It continues by saying that the chaos was so bad that the gods had left their temples, and the god Marduk went in search of a candidate to rule Babylon instead of the current king. He found his ideal man in Cyrus – not a Babylonian but from Iran (Persia).

The text implies that Cyrus was a Marduk worshipper, but this is probably propaganda – especially as the Babylonian King whom he overthrew (Nabonidus) particularly worshipped a different one of their pantheon (which didn’t go down well with all of his people). Finkel pointed out that one would never read a modern text (newspaper article, press release, whatever) credulously so why do so for an ancient text? Propaganda and spin is nothing new. A more cynical reading of the text is that Cyrus took advantage of a schism in Babylonian society and picked a religious side that was opposite to the King whilst still popular with the public – and so rode that wave to a “welcomed” conquest.

In another act of propaganda Cyrus had Nabonidus’s name removed from any places where it was. There are a couple of pieces of evidence for this – the first is a tablet that has written on it a satirical poem about Cyrus doing so. And it’s backed up by a large stone stela which has on its front a relief of a king with a big blank space next to it where one would expect an inscription. If you look at the sides of this stela there are inscriptions naming Nabonidus. Finkel suggests that this stela perhaps once stood in an alcove & so when the men came to chisel off the inscriptions they only saw the front one and the sides got overlooked.

When it was discovered the Cyrus cylinder was a particularly big deal to Victorian London society because Cyrus is also mentioned in the Bible. He is the King who let the Jews return to Israel after the long exile in Babylon. However this interest resulted in the cylinder being built up into even more that it actually is. One myth is that it’s the actual decree permitting the Jews to go home – which is rubbish, it never mentions the Jews. Another (slightly more recent) myth is that it was the first charter of human rights … which is also rubbish. It does say that Cyrus will rule as a just king etc etc, but that’s a pretty standard thing for rulers of that time and place to say particularly after they’ve conquered somewhere. “Your old king was crap in all those ways; I will be awesome in all these ways”. But Finkel did say that even though the text itself has no relation to our concept of human rights the cylinder has taken on a sort of second life in modern Iran where it is a symbol of pride in their ancient civilisation and of human rights.

Another thing often said about the Cyrus cylinder is that it’s unique – this is also rubbish. This seemed implausible to experts from the start (it’s the sort of text you expect to be churned out by a conquering king) and there has been recent proof that it is indeed not one of a kind. Both Finkel and a colleague have discovered fragments of the Cyrus cylinder text in the British Museum’s collection of tablet fragments. These two fragments overlap with the text, but also with the missing portions of the cylinder. And they are from flat tablets rather than cylinders. So they are definitely from one or more separate copies of this text. Interestingly the fragments are also better quality than the cylinder, which is both of poor clay and lower quality writing. Finkel said this was probably because the Cyrus cylinder was intended to be buried – so people wouldn’t see it particularly often. He thinks there were probably thousands of copies of the text buried and distributed amongst the land that Cyrus ruled over (and beyond).

One of the (several) tangents that Finkel went on during this talk was about some fossilised horse shanks from China which were discovered with cuneiform on them that turned out to be the Cyrus cylinder text. The text had many omissions and was overall poorly copied, leading to thoughts that they were a fake. But equally the signs used for the text weren’t the same as those the cylinder – they were a different style and from a different period. So legitimate signs, and clearly not (poorly) copied straight off the Cyrus cylinder, which might incline one to think they were real. Finkel said he nearly published something saying they were real for these reasons, but shortly before the book was sent to the publisher he discovered where they’d been copied from! Wallis Budge (he of several Egyptology books of slight dubiousness by modern scholarship standards) had published an article about the Cyrus cylinder text. In it he’d presented the cuneiform using these different forms of the signs, and had presented the exact bits of text the horse shanks had (pooly) copied. So that was the origin of these fakes!

The two take home messages from this particular talk were first that one shouldn’t take anything at face value. And that there are no unique things in history, if we think there’s only one that just means we haven’t found another. And Finkel finished up with an anecdote of a surprising example of this – the Ishtar Gate from Babylon seems a prime candidate for uniqueness. However! A life size replica has been discovered in Persepolis built during Cyrus’s reign, outside his palace. Clearly he was pretty impressed by it when he conquered Babylon.

In Our Time: Ashoka

Ashoka was the ruler of a vast empire in the 4th Century BC which included nearly all of India. He is known today from both archaeological evidence (a series of pillars & rocks inscribed with his edicts) and textual evidence (later Buddhist histories). The three experts who discussed him on In Our Time were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies), Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Gombrich (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and University of Oxford).

Shortly before Ashoka’s time northern India in the Ganges valley was populated by a set of smallish but relatively sophisticated states. The experts made a comparison with pre-Socratic Greece or with the state of affairs in China at the time. The dynasty of which Ashoka is the third ruler changed this – they started to conquer the other nearby states and Ashoka himself greatly expanded the empire.

Not much is known for sure about Ashoka’s life. Both sorts of available evidence have obvious flaws & biases. The Buddhist histories are written significantly after Ashoka’s death, and follow a clear conversion narrative – so the early years are portrayed as Very Bad so that he can then convert and live the rest of his life as a Very Good Buddhist. Both bits of that narrative are obviously suspect and were likely exaggerated for effect. Gombrich was particularly keen to dismiss any evidence arising from this (he came across as somewhat of an Ashoka fanboy to be honest). Frazier and Appleton were more open to using these texts whilst being aware of their pitfalls as sources. The other evidence is the pillars and rocks with his edicts carved on them, and Gombrich was very keen to hold these up as Ashoka’s own words which were therefore innately trustworthy – I thought it more likely they were also biased as they were intended at the time as a propaganda tool.

His early life was probably quite violent – it seems that although he was of the ruling dynasty he wasn’t the designated heir, and he may have committed murder in order to take the throne. He then embarks on a series of military campaigns to consolidate the empire he has “inherited” and to expand it. By the time this phase of his career finishes he rules from Afghanistan to nearly the southern tip of India, an incredibly vast empire. And then he has some sort of epiphany, a road to Damascus moment. The edicts say that this was a response to the slaughter at one of his last battles at Kalinga where many many civilians were killed. The Buddhist histories say that he met a Buddhist monk and this monk taught him a better way to live. Regardless of what it was (the cynic in me wonders if he’d just run out of expansion room), after this he stopped fighting wars and concentrated on ruling his empire both peacefully and justly.

Having become a Buddhist and renounced violence he ruled for another 40 years. The edicts set out a moral code and say how Ashoka is going to rule. The very fact of their existence is testimony to one of the things that Ashoka did for India – he introduced writing to the region. This means that although these were set up throughout his empire the ordinary people and even the higher status people wouldn’t be able to read them. So there were also literate officials posted to the same place so that they could read them out and explain them to people. They set out the ways that people should behave, based in large part on Buddhist ethics & morality (although he didn’t follow any of the contemporary Buddhist texts exactly). There was an emphasis on the welfare of the people, and they promoted the idea that everyone should do good deeds now in order to benefit themselves in both this world and the next. Interestingly although he preached respect for all religions the edicts were also fairly anti-Brahmin (the forerunners of Hinduism) and against the caste system.

In the wrapping up stage of the programme the three experts discussed whether the edicts were a sincere representation of Ashoka’s plans, beliefs etc or whether they were a cynical piece of propaganda. All three thought it was sincere, but pointed out that this is a very modern Western way of framing the discussion. We tend to set those two things as a pair of opposed opposites, sincere vs. pragmatic, but at the time there would be no paradox in both sincerely believing in Buddhist ethics and also erecting the edicts as a pragmatic political act.

They finished by discussing Ashoka’s legacy. He was instrumental in making Buddhism a worldwide religion, spreading it outside its Indian birthplace throughout his empire and beyond. And in places like Sri Lanka he is remembered for this, and for bringing writing to these areas. However in India his legacy is slight, and is primarily through being rediscovered in the modern era when the edicts were translated. Gombrich discussed how as Hinduism rose to prominence in India Ashoka’s reign and empire were minimised & forgotten in histories of the country – due to his being Buddhist and to his anti-Brahmin, anti-caste stance. His legacy is most clearly seen as being the source of the ideas against which Hindu ideas about kingship and society were reacting.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 16)

Crime and Punishment

The last couple of chapters of this book before the conclusion feel like they don’t quite fit in the flow of the book, but Prestwich felt the subjects were important to cover. The first of these subjects is crime and punishment, and he begins by discussing how it’s difficult to be sure what the crime rates actually were in the 13th & 14th Centuries. There are several factors that complicate the ability of the historian to draw out statistics from the records that survive. One major one is that the population numbers aren’t known, for examples estimates of the population in “medieval London” vary from 37,500 through to 176,000 so expressing homicides as “% of population” is obviously problematic. Another issue is that we have no idea how much crime that was committed was actually reported to the authorities. And for those that are reported and go to court – do you count accusations of crime, or convictions? During this period there’s an 80% acquittal rate so that makes quite a large difference.

But even if accurate numbers are difficult to come by you can look at trends over the period. Civil war led to increases in crime, in part due to people taking advantage of the partial breakdown of government. Political disagreements could turn into outright criminal behaviour – in the 1310s the Earl of Lancaster was involved in what were effectively a couple of private wars both against another Earl and due to rebellion by one of his tenants. This resulted in killings and destruction of property, and a general increase in lawlessness. War in general also increased lawlessness because the administration was focussed on running the war rather than running the country. And wars also lead to an increase in lawlessness in another fashion – the army was often bulked up by releasing men from the county gaols to serve as soldiers. If the war was a foreign one then initially they would be overseas, but on their return crime would increase. Another factor affecting crime rates was the harvest – poor harvests led to increased crime. Almost certainly this was largely due to poor people needing to steal to survive, but contemporary chroniclers also blamed it on men turned out of noble households when money was too tight to pay them who didn’t know how to earn an honest living.

However, criminals during this era weren’t just thugs and desperate poor men. There were several notable gangs lead by members of the gentry – although Prestwich doesn’t mention it this section of the chapter brought the Robin Hood legend to mind. Members of the clergy were also involved in criminal activity. Although sometimes this isn’t so much that somebody actually was a cleric, instead it’s someone who has successfully claimed to be clergy so he’s tried in the church courts rather than the lay ones (punishments were less severe, see below). The senior clergy were also involved in the same sorts of crimes as the nobility – both the gentry gangs and the sorts of fraud and violence indulged in by the aristocracy. Women also committed crimes, but statistically speaking they were different sorts of crime – less violence and more things like receiving stolen goods. They were less often accused of crime in the first place – only about 10% of accusations recorded were of women. Prestwich doesn’t say, but I wonder if this is because women weren’t (entirely?) legally separate from their husbands or fathers.

Maintenance of public order was an important function of medieval government, and there were a variety of mechanisms to achieve this. I got a bit bogged down in the details when this section of the chapter and I’m not quite sure I’ve got a grasp on the big picture. I think Prestwich discusses country wide courts first. At the start of the period are courts called “eyres” which aren’t popular (I’m not sure why) and their use decreases over time – this was a regular visitation by royal justices to the whole country, which theoretically happened every 7 years. It appears you could pay a fine (collectively) to avoid having one sit in your town, and later kings were more interested in getting the fines than actually holding the courts. As they faded out of use other alternatives arose. One of these was that litigants could take civil cases to Westminster to the court of the Common Bench. The assizes circuits, which start from 1273, were another alternative for civil cases. Criminal case were passed to the justices of gaol delivery, or to specially commissioned oyer and terminer courts (“to hear and determine”). During this period there was also increasing use of Keepers of the Peace, a role that eventually developed into Justice of the Peace. These were local men, normally magnates or knights, who were employed to hold courts when the assizes justices weren’t able to complete their circuits (during times of war for instance when money would be diverted from domestic matters).

The courts were more effective in theory than in practice. Convictions did not often happen, wrongdoers might misuse the legal system to accuse their victims (frequently successfully to at least some extent). Although there is no widespread evidence for bribing or intimidating juries they often failed to convict people even when there appears to be much evidence for their crimes. Prestwich speculates that maybe in some cases they were put off by the harsh penalties that would be applied to a convicted criminal. Men could also escape severe punishment if they successfully claimed to be clerics, sometimes they had to take a reading test but more often they just had to have the bishop’s official agree with them. Which is obviously open to corruption! Clerics were tried in the episcopal courts which didn’t hand out as severe penalties as the secular ones. Some of the accused never appear in court, having fled before the case was heard – there’s generally a higher conviction rate in those cases.

Punishments varied. Hanging was the usual punishment for a felony. At the beginning of the period even minor thefts could end up with a hanging, but in 1279 a statute was passed setting a minimum value for imposing this felony. Pillorying was a common punishment for those sorts of minor crimes. If you refused to plead you could be punished by peine forte et dure, ie crushed by heavy rocks – which meant your family could inherit your property (unlike if you’d been convicted and hung). Imprisonment was also often used for minor crimes, or for when a fine could not be paid.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by noting that although the problem of crime & punishment during the period was great there was nonetheless no complete breakdown of law & order. He also relates an anecdote that hints at the romanticisation of crime that would lead to later legends like that of Robin Hood, or the concept of dashing highwaymen.

“Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System” Irving Finkel (Part 1 of BSS Study Day)

At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called “The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia’s Most Important Ancient Records”. Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I’m learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He’s a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I’ve decided to split it into four separate posts.

Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System

The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS’s study days are Egypt related). It worked too – I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform 😉

Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin – the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn’t terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn’t very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it’s not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.

The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must’ve been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).

The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to’ve been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I’m learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.

The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for “beer” is “kash”, so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for “its”, for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.

The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once – the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn’t necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I’m discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system – long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you’re reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).

development of the sign for head in cuneiform
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann

Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for “head” could be turned into one representing “mouth” by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for “bowl”, and you represent “ration”. The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn – at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what “cuneiform” as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you’ll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).

Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways – first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there’s going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.

Art of China

Andrew Graham-Dixon has done several series for the BBC about the art of various places – one of the more recent was about China and we watched it earlier this year. He covered the art of this vast and long-lived culture in chronological order, so the series also provided an overview of the history of China. Even though it was chronological the three programmes also covered different themes – starting with the art of & for death (and religion), then art concerned with the natural world and finally art influenced by the world outside China.

The first programme started with prehistoric art – even pre-China art. The first objects Graham-Dixon looked at were a collection of bronze masks (of varying sizes) which had large staring eyes as their most prominent feature. These objects were buried in a way that suggests they were once used for ritual purposes but then were no longer necessary – as if the culture/religion/tradition that they were associated with had been superseded but they were still given respect for their previous significance. There doesn’t seem to be any continuity between this culture and what later became China as we know it.

The next objects were more bronzes, but these were associated with the cultures that lead up to China proper – the Shang and Zhou bronzes. These are mostly ritual vessels for food and drink that would be buried with people – perhaps also used in the burial rituals themselves. These vessels are highly decorated, with a distinctive style. Concurrent with the vessels is the development of the Chinese writing system, which is an influence on a lot of later Chinese art. Graham-Dixon showed us some of the actual oracle bones which have the first writing on them – annotations as to the question asked of the oracle, the answer given and the eventual outcome. This last makes them a critical historical resource for this period as the questions the kings asked tended to involve matters of state. I’ve read about these more than once, but never seen one so this was pretty cool to see 🙂

The programme then moved on to China proper with the First Emperor, who is the emperor who was buried with the terracotta army. This is a particularly extreme example of taking everything with you when you go, and Graham-Dixon also pointed out that this was the First Emperor planning to conquer the afterlife as he’d conquered the known world in this life! The following dynasty (the Han) also provisioned their tombs with all the items they needed for the next life, and this has lasted through to the modern day to some extent. Graham-Dixon visited a place that makes paper models of everyday objects for funerals, like computers and cars and so on – these are then burnt to transfer them to the afterlife for the deceased to use. The last section of the first programme looked at Buddhist art of the afterlife. This depicts a completely different class of thing. Instead of physical items and provisions the art is concerned with transcendence and joy, or with damnation.

The second programme looked at the period of history from the Song Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, which is in many ways a golden age of Chinese art. The two primary media of art in this era were ceramics and painting. Chinese painting is made using the same techniques as Chinese writing and the same tools. A scholar of the time was both writer and painter. Nature features heavily in the paintings, although the scholars rarely painted whilst in front of the thing they were painting. The natural scenes (whether real or imaginary) were intended to summon up a mood – often melancholy or isolation. The most iconic pieces often come from scholars who had retreated from court or official life – who felt disaffected or displaced by a change in regime for instance after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty conquered China. The Yuan to Ming transition also displaced many court officials who were loyal to the preceding dynasty.

The art style of this era was heavy on symbolism and meaning. To illustrate this theme Graham-Dixon talked about the last Yuan Emperor, who came to the throne unexpectedly after several preceding heirs had died. He’d been brought up as an aesthete not a ruler and as his empire began to crumble around him (due to his lack of administrative skill) he tried to reverse the situation by commissioning and painting pictures of good omens and good fortune. Unsurprisingly this didn’t work out so well, and more time spent on administration might’ve been a better bet 😉

The third and final programme covered the last dynasty of Chinese Emperors (the Qing) and modern China. The theme of this programme was that the art of the period was influenced by the outside world, primarily the West. In some ways this was a manifestation of the early Qing dynasty resting on their laurels – they “knew” they were the most sophisticated culture in the world, so looked to the outside world for trinkets and art. Forward momentum in the sciences was lost at just the time that the West was beginning to go through the Industrial Revolution. There were still obvious ways in which the Qing art was continuous with the previous traditions & Graham-Dixon spent a bit of time talking about the Forbidden Palace (first built in the Ming Dynasty) and also the way the ceramic art traditions continued & changed in the Qing era. For the latter he particularly pointed out how the elegant simplicity of Ming ceramics gave way to brightly coloured and decorated Qing ceramics which were often rather garish in comparison.

As the Qing dynasty continued their relationship with the European nations changed in character – from cultural exchange as equals to occupied nation. Graham-Dixon covered the history of the 19th Century with the Opium Wars, and the destruction of Chinese sites by British colonising armies. This rather shameful period of British empire building did lead to developments in Chinese art and not just destruction. In particular Shanghai was one of the towns where the British forcibly established a trading base, and the art produced in the town became a hybrid style between Chinese & Western. Instead of painting on scrolls or long wall hangings as was traditional artists began to paint pieces designed to be framed and hung on walls. The traditional pallet of blacks & greys (and perhaps red) began to be replaced by bright colours. The subject and the style, however, remained traditional.

By the end of the imperial period in the late 19th Century & early 20th Century some Chinese artists were training in Paris and using western techniques and styles in their paintings – but still painting Chinese subjects. Some of these artists embraced the “old-fashioned” traditional techniques of Western art and painted large representational oil paintings – for instance Graham-Dixon showed us one that depicts a key scene from a Chinese hero’s story, yet it wouldn’t look particularly out of place in a gallery of early 19th Century art. Other artists embraced the new modern art movements that were coming to life in 20th Century Paris.

The rise of Communism in China put an abrupt stop to this flirtation with Western styles and techniques. Mao’s suppression of intellectuals in general also had a particular focus on rejecting Western influences. Artists who had produced un-Chinese art were persecuted and sent to labour camps, their paintings and sculptures destroyed. Since the change from Maoist communism to the current pseudo-capitalist communism there has been a bit of a relaxation of that attitude. Graham-Dixon finished the programme by talking to current artists and looking at their work – most are consciously looking both to their roots as inheritors of a long artistic tradition, and to the modern globalised world.

I enjoyed this series – good to see both the sweep of Chinese history from another angle, and to learn more about the themes & purposes of the art of the country.