In Our Time: Matteo Ricci and the Ming Dynasty

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who went to China in the 16th Century with the aim of converting the Chinese to Christianity. He wasn’t particularly successful in that goal, but he was influential on European attitudes to China & vice versa. Discussing him and his mission on In Our Time were Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Anne Gerritsen (University of Warwick).

Ricci was born in the Papal States and educated by the Jesuits up to university age. He then went to Rome to study to become a lawyer, but soon decided to become Jesuit priest instead. The Jesuits were a fairly new order at the time, part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The central difference between them and the other orders was that they were directly obedient to the Pope. They vowed to travel wherever they were sent, making them more mobile than the monastic orders. Their raison d’être was to convert the world to Catholicism – as part of showing the superiority of their branch of the faith over the Protestant variant.

The Jesuits saw China as a chance to replicate the success of the conversion of South America, with a hope that perhaps they might even replicate the Spanish conquest of South America. Europeans at the time were aware of China, but it wasn’t a particularly well known country nor was it understood. Before the Ming Dynasty came to power (in 1368AD) there had started to be some trade and contact between Yuan China and Europe (c.f. Marco Polo, who I’m sure we listened to an In Our Time about but I can’t find a post writing about it). However when the Hongzhu Emperor came to power & founded the Ming Dynasty trade with the outside world was forbidden. In practice this didn’t stop contact between China and Europe, but it did reduce it significantly.

Ricci’s over-arching strategy was a tried and tested one for the Catholic Church, although he took some of it to further extremes that his superiors were happy with. His aim was to integrate himself into Chinese society and to make contact with the elite – the idea was that if you can convert the top (the Emperor in this case) then you will convert the whole country. Another part of the strategy was to make accommodations for the current beliefs of the people when explaining Christianity to them, to make it sound not so far from their pagan religion. The theological rationale for this was God had left “hints” in the pagan faiths so that the Catholics would be able to convert the pagans. And then presumably after converting the country the idea would be to tighten up the theology, but Ricci didn’t get anywhere near that far in the process.

When Ricci first entered the country the Buddhist faith seemed like a good point of entry to hook in his audience – so he dressed like a Buddhist monk, and his teaching made analogies to Buddhism. However as he slowly progressed through the country to Beijing he came to realise that Confucianism was more important in Chinese culture, and so began to dress like a Confucian scholar. He learnt Chinese, and invented a romanisation system so that he could write the words down for other Europeans to learn from.

His role as an analogue of a Confucian scholar dovetailed nicely with his purpose as a missionary – he met with Confucian mandarins to discuss philosophy and other learned subjects. One point of entry into scholarly society was his creation of a world map – he tactfully put China in the centre, flanked by Europe and the Americas. This was interesting to the Chinese as they didn’t know much about either Europe or the Americas, and let Ricci start talking about the Pope and Christianity too. He also translated books between Latin and Chinese so that knowledge flowed both ways between the cultures.

Ricci was successful in working his way across the country and in meeting the elite of Chinese society. He eventually was able to enter the Forbidden Palace and “meet” the Emperor – this wasn’t an actual meeting, the Emperor didn’t do such things, but Ricci was able to meet senior officials and courtiers (and eunuchs) several times. From the Emperor’s perspective this was part of the normal diplomatic business – a foreigner arriving to pay his respects to the Emperor and tell him how wonderful he was. There was not the chance that Ricci had hoped for to interest the Emperor in Christianity.

Ricci used the accommodations strategy that the Church endorsed, but took it much further than his superiors would’ve preferred. He wrote a book in Chinese comparing Christianity and Confucianism in order to point out how similar they were. And in this book the life, death and resurrection of Christ were relegated to a sort of footnote – covered in a single paragraph near the end. When the Pope eventually found out about this demotion of such a crucial part of the Christian faith he was not pleased with Ricci.

The biggest stumbling block for the conversion of the Chinese was the Christian insistence on exclusivity – the Chinese culture was very tolerant of multiple religions and generally people would use appropriate rituals from more than one religion during the course of their lives. The Christian idea that you should just worship one God was alien to them. While Ricci did have some small success in converting people (not that many tho) they didn’t always give up their other rituals and observances. Long after Ricci’s death this was to cause tension between the Pope and the Chinese Emperor. The Pope had discovered that Chinese Catholics were still honouring their ancestors in the Confucian fashion, and forbade this. And the Chinese Emperor unsurprisingly saw this as foreign interference in the governance of China.

Ricci remained in China until he died, and was honoured after death by the Emperor granting permission for his burial in Beijing (rather than in the designated foreigners’ graveyard). Whilst he wasn’t the only member of the Catholic mission to China he was the person who had the most influence. His grave has been a tourist attraction in Beijing from the time of his burial through to the present day.

In Our Time: The Eunuch

Modern Western culture is unusual in having no role for eunuchs in the machinery of bureaucracy – throughout history in a variety of different cultures castrated men have played an important part in governance (and in some cases in the arts). The In Our Time episode about eunuchs took a compare and contrast approach to three cultures in which eunuchs were particularly important. The three experts each had a different speciality: Karen Radner (University College London) talked about Assyria, Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University) discussed Rome and Michael Hoeckelmann (King’s College London) was an expert on China. The aim was to draw out the parallels between the three situations but it didn’t quite gel into a cohesive picture for me – particularly the Rome section as it always seemed to be different to the other two. So although all three threads were interwoven in the programme I’m separating out the Roman bit in this write up.

In Assyria and China the origins of using eunuchs in the bureaucracy came from the idea that they were safe to have around the royal women. They were trusted palace servants whose lack of family ties were an important part of that trustworthiness. In addition the future ruler was often brought up with & by his eunuchs, so the bond formed between them was particularly strong. In both these societies being a eunuch was seen as a way to get ahead if you were from a poor family.

Whilst a lack of family ties was part of the rationale for creating eunuch servants it seems that the level to which this was true varied over time in Assyrian and particularly Chinese culture. Eunuchs might seek favours for their birth families, using their closeness to the ruler to their family’s advantage. The position of eunuchs in Chinese culture was cyclical and later in each cycle eunuchs would start adopting children and posts might become “hereditary” – which rather defeats the original purpose of using eunuchs in these roles. This cycle was tied to the history of the dynasties of Chinese rulers: as a dynasty began to decline the eunuchs would gain more power. Then when a new dynasty conquered/overthrew the previous one they’d stamp their authority more firmly on their servants.

Radner, talking about the Assyrians, was keen to point out that as a farming society they would’ve been castrating their livestock and so knew the effects (on size & strength) before they started to do this to people. A noteworthy feature of eunuchs in Assyrian society was that they were also the ruler’s bodyguards as well as his bureaucrats. Not quite the effete image that we have of eunuchs (mostly based on Italian castrato singers, I think).

In Assyria the eunuch was created by cutting between testicles & penis – the minimum necessary operation. However in China the entire apparatus was removed, and kept in a jar to show the Emperor on demand. Chinese eunuchs were an interesting exception to the normal Confucian idea where family was more important than anything – and this is a part of why they were restricted to serving the Emperor. He was the only person important enough (as semi-divine Son of Heaven) to be able to over-ride the proper order of things. And there’s a paradox as well: eunuchs had status and power, yet castration was also used as a punishment. The two things co-existed but were entirely separate (you didn’t become a eunuch after punishment by castration).

In contrast to these two cultures, in Rome having eunuch servants was a status symbol. They are a part of the Roman obsession with Greek culture, and the Greeks had got the idea from Persia (via Alexander the Great’s conquest). So a eunuch servant was a luxury, and having one showed that you were sophisticated and rich. It wasn’t restricted to the ruler (or ruling class), even though later (in Byzantine times) the eunuchs became important in the bureaucratic machinery of the Empire. They also became prized for their singing voices – and in Europe this lasted into the 20th Century.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the programme felt a little disjointed – perhaps they needed to pick a different third culture (if there is one). Tho I can see why Rome would feel the obvious choice.

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.

In Our Time: The Battle of Talas

In 751AD Arabian and Chinese forces met in battle at a river called Talas in Central Asia. This was to mark the end of the eastward expansion of the Islamic Empire, and the westward expansion of the Chinese Empire. Discussing it on In Our Time were Hilde de Weerdt (Leiden University), Michael Höckelmann (King’s College London) and Hugh Kennedy (SOAS, University of London).

Kennedy started the discussion by setting the scene for what was happening in the Arab Empire at this time. Since the Prophet’s death in 632AD his followers had conquered incredible amounts of territory very quickly, and by 751AD the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain & Morocco in the west to what is now Iran in the east. Until shortly before the time of the Battle of Talas the Umayyad Caliphate was in power, with their capital in Damascus. In 750AD the Ummayyad were replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate who ruled from Baghdad. The Abbasids’ power base was further east than the Ummayyads’, with particularly strong support in what is now north-east Iran. The push to expand the Empire east in both cases was not just ideological, it was also economic and born out of a desire to control the lucrative trade routes to the east.

China at this time was ruled over by the Tang dynasty. Under their rulership the Chinese Empire reached its largest extent (before the Qing era), extending up to Central Asia. The Chinese were looking to protect their lucrative land trade routes – the Silk Road. So they not only had troops on their western borders, but also formed alliances with key leaders of regions along the Silk Road. What I’m refering to as Central Asia is the region that includes modern Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. During the time period in question this was not really an area with nations or any sort of cohesive state – instead there were several princes & chiefs who ruled over particular areas or tribes. The Chinese had alliances with the ones through which the traderoutes generally ran. The experts characterised these are not quite conquest, not quite alliance – in that the Chinese pretty much left the princes to rule as they pleased but had troops stationed nearby to make sure it was suitable.

So that’s the set up for this battle – the area was a volatile one with several leaders vying for power and influence. Some of these were allied with the Chinese, some of these looked more to the Arabs. Neither the Chinese nor the Arabs really wanted to extend centralised control over the region, but did want to continue to influence it. They are drawn into conflict, because one of the Chinese allies has some sort of falling out with another chief. Said chief appeals to his Arab allies for protection, and now the Chinese and the Islamic Empires are in a situation where they need to fight each other in order to hold up their own ends of their alliances.

The battle itself took place on the river Talas in July 751, I think they said it lasted five days. The Chinese forces suffered a humiliating defeat, with much of their army captured or killed. Sources on both sides give what the experts think are likely to be highly inflated casualty rates for the Chinese. The Arab sources make their own army sound small, against a larger Chinese force of around 100,000. And the Chinese sources reverse that, saying they had 30,000 (10,000 Chinese, 20,000 mercenaries) and the Arabs had 200,000. Both would be exaggerating to suit their own propaganda needs, the experts said a few tens of thousands on each side sounds plausible. The Chinese were actually defeated in large part through treachery. The actual Chinese forces were about a third of their army, the rest was made up of mercenaries from one of the Turkic peoples. During the battle these mercenaries betrayed the Chinese who were then surrounded with the Arab army on one side and the mercenary army on the other. Arab sources imply this wasn’t pre-planned.

In the aftermath of this battle many many Chinese prisoners were brought to Baghdad and other parts of the Islamic Empire. One of the Chinese sources for this battle is a man who was captured and later made his way back to China, and wrote a book about his time in Baghdad. This event is sometimes credited with bringing paper-making technology to the Islamic Empire because of these prisoners. Two of the experts (Höckelmann and de Weerdt, I think) weren’t convinced by this, Kennedy (I think) was more keen on it.

The battle can be held up as a big clash between East & West, and at first glance might seem to cause the halt in expansion of both these Empires. However that doesn’t appear to be the case. More important is the political situation in China. Four years after the Battle of Talas was the An Lushan rebellion, which nearly deposed the Tang dynasty – so troops were called back from the frontiers and politics in China became more inward facing for a while. The land trade routes were also less lucrative because the sea ones were becoming more important. The Islamic Empire’s interest in the region lessened because it was no long as economically important. So a battle that at first seems a key moment in global politics is really just a footnote.

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.

In Our Time: Sources of Early Chinese History

Over the last century or so several caches of documents from early Chinese history have been found (often during the building of roads or modern buildings). These have provided scholars with a lot more information to reinterpret the tradition historical sources for early Chinese history. In this episode of In Our Time Roel Sterckx (University of Cambridge), Tim Barrett (SOAS, University of London) and Hilde de Weerdt (Leiden University) talked about what the traditional sources are, what they contain and a bit about what the new sources add to the picture.

The earliest written records in China are from the Shang dynasty, around 1200BC. These are the oracle bones (and I believe this is thought to be what writing was invented for in China although they didn’t talk about that on the programme). Each of the bones is a record of a divination – the king would ask a question which was written on the bone. The bone was then cracked with a hot poker and the pattern of the cracks interpreted by the priest in order to answer the question. The answer was written on the bone, and subsequently the actual outcome was also recorded on the bone. An example they gave on the programme was: the King wishes to know if he will fall ill this year; the answer is that if he doesn’t go to battle, then he will not fall ill; and it was so. These were not written with the intention of providing historical data, but a certain amount of information about the courts and politics of the time can be gleaned from these. When the Shang dynasty were replaced by the Zhou dynasty these oracles were no longer performed in the same way. But later scholars can get similar information about the courts of the time from the inscribed bronze vessels that became common during this dynasty. These inscriptions tend to commemorate significant events – like someone’s appointment to an important office, or a victory and so on.

The first written texts (that survive) that are intended to be history also date back to the Shang or Zhou dynasties. This the “Book of Documents”, and the exact date of it is complicated – firstly because it only survives in later editions so the date of the first physical copies of it are always going to be conjecture. But also because it is a collection of disparate documents, some of which certainly post-date the Shang (they are about the Zhou dynasty) and some of which may well have been written earlier. These documents are records of speeches which may or may not be mythological in many cases – but they still tell later historians about the concerns and so on of the people of this era. Some are similar to the inscriptions on the Zhou bronze vessels – a speech from the king appointing someone to a position etc. Others are from Kings to their advisers (or vice versa) concerning good government, and the reasons for particular decisions.

The next major source is a book called “Springs and Autumns” which is a very dry and terse record of the major events each year for a period covering a couple of centuries in the mid-first millenium BC. It is traditionally believed to’ve been written by Confucius however there is no evidence to actually support this. These annals provide a lot of factual data (this person was born, this one died, this battle was fought), but little nuance and no interpretation. This gave rise to other texts written a few centuries later during the 2nd Century BC which are commentaries on the “Springs and Autumns” and explain the significance of events.

After this the programme moved on to discuss the historian who occupies the same sort of place in Chinese history writing as Herodotus does in the Western historical tradition – a sort of Father of History. This was Sima Qian who was one of the two authors of a history of China, writing in the early Han dynasty (in the 2nd Century BC). The book (the Records of the Grand Historian) was begun by his father, but often Sima Qian is listed as the only author. This book set the pattern for all subsequent official dynastic histories in China – even to the modern day, as the Qing dynasty history in this format is still being compiled. The book is divided into sections which each contain a different sort of look at the history, so events are often seen in different ways in the different sections. One of these is an annal of a similar type to “Springs and Autumns” – dry and factual, recording the events of each year in order. Another is a set of tables of things like chronologies of the kings & emperors. A large part of the text is taken up with biographies of significant figures – kings, courtiers, generals, but also jesters and other less high ranked persons. Sima Qian was putting forth the idea that history is made by people, and so to understand what happened you need to understand the people who were involved. Another section of the book is taken up with treatises on subjects like the economy, or music, or the rivers.

As I said, this was the pattern of official histories from then on. There were families of historians who took on the task of keeping Sima Qian’s history up to date during the Han dynasty. In later dynasties detailed records were kept during each ruler’s reign, and each official’s tenure and then biographies were compiled after their deaths from these records to go with the annals. These were then all gathered together and later compiled into a history of the dynasty, along with treatises and so on (presumably after the next dynasty took power – I’m not entirely clear on that tho). They talked a bit on the programme about what the general purpose was of these historical records. Bragg asked if it was partly about setting out what sort of people the Chinese were – a sort of statement of cultural values. But the experts were clear that this wasn’t really the point, and particularly not at first (in the Han dynasty and immediately after). In part because this was seen to have been done the Book of Documents, but also because as the only literate culture in the vicinity there wasn’t an audience they needed to convince. Instead the histories were often used to find precedents – things like when nomads started raiding the administration of the day could look back to see how this had been dealt with previously and how well it had worked out then. And they were often written with an eye to justifying decisions taken based on precedent or outcome.

Obviously these sources are pretty centrally oriented – they are written by and for the seat of power. Women, and lower class people in general, are not often mentioned. And that is one of the things that makes the new discoveries of documents so exciting. They are often concerned with more everyday life, or the outskirts of the empire. They are the general written communication and recrods of the era they are from, rather than the curated selection that a historian (or a group of historians) thought were important enough to record for posterity. Some are caches of the documents that the historians used to compile the official histories and then discarded. These documents are not just a valuable historical resource in their own right, but they are also a good way to look at the official histories and see what the biases were.

I thought this was a particularly interesting programme – it’s a shame tho that the section about the new discoveries felt a bit rushed.

In Our Time: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese novel written around 1400 AD which is one of the great works of Chinese literature. It is a part historical, part fantastical story of the events of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, which was in the 3rd Century AD. It’s still very popular and an important part of general culture in China today, and many films and video games are based on the book. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Frances Wood (British Library), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Margaret Hillenbrand (University of Oxford).

As usual the programme started off by setting the topic in context – in this case there were multiple historical contexts we needed. The first of these was a very brief overview of the Three Kingdoms period. This is the name given to the period in the imediate aftermath of the Han Empire. The time when the Han ruled China (from ~220BC to ~200AD) is still regarded as a high point of Chinese history, and as the source of many of the bureaucratic systems that persist throughout Chinese history. Han rule of China began to fall to pieces in the late 2nd Century AD, partly driven by weakening power in the centre & their devolving of greater power to military leaders on the peripheries of the empire (so that they could put down rebellions more effectively). Eventually the state fractured, and three kingdoms emerged from the chaos. This was a time of conflict, but it was also a time of artistic and cultural vibrancy. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not the only artistic work to be inspired by this period in later generations.

The novel is normally said to be written by Luo Guanzhong, who was active in the late 14th Century AD (the first copy still in existence dates back to 1522, so the dates and attribution are a little vague). So the time of writing is thought to be at the end of the Yuan dynasty – which is the second of our historical contexts. The Yuan were the descendants of Genghis Khan and had ruled China for around a century. Around the time that Guanzhong was active the Chinese state was beginning to disintegrate into civil wars, and so the parallels with the end of the Han are obvious.

And the third of our historical contexts is the later Ming dynasty when the novel really becomes popular and enters the canon of Chinese literature. There’s a couple of different things that drive this. One is that it’s during this part of Chinese history that printing technology really takes off – whilst there’s nothing technically new the scale of operations changes. More books are published in larger numbers, and the growing merchant classes are increasing the literacy percentage of the population. The other thing that changes is that novels become more respectable – prior to this period novels were something for women or lower class people, members of the literati elite wouldn’t admit to reading them. They were concerned with higher art forms like poetry. But in the early 16th Century this is changing and novels are being taken more seriously.

Having put us into context the experts moved on to discuss the novel itself. One of them (Hillenbrand, I think) described it as being 70% history, 30% fiction. Clunas pointed out that when we say 70% of it is historical what’s actually meant is that it’s clearly based on a historical text (Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms) written shortly after the period ended by an official in the court of one of the Kingdoms in question. So we don’t know that the historically “accurate” parts of the novel matched the actual events, but they do match a probably quite biased contemporary text. But as well as the historical parts where different dukes lead troops into battles etc, there’s also place where the text takes off into a flight of fancy – someone gets deified or something like that.

There is a large cast of characters (men, mostly) and the primary protagonists are the rulers of two of the Kingdoms. One is somewhat of a villain, the other is a man who was loyal to the Han Dynasty and is doing his best for China. Among other important characters are the loyal man’s sworn blood brothers. And there is also an advisor/strategist whose talents are thinking outside the box – one of the experts said this was her favourite character. The stories about him are often part of the fantastical side of the story – like an occassion where he’s short of arrows for his army, so he devises a scheme to “borrow” some. He sends a boat padded with straw bales to sail up and down the river baiting the enemy into firing at it – when it returns it has all the arrows he needs stuck in its straw bales!

There are several themes to the novel, but the one that they spent some time talking about was that of loyalty. As it’s a novel about the disintegration and reintegration of a vast empire who is loyal to whom obviously drives a lot of the plot. The three sworn brothers and their loyalty to each other (and the Han) are particularly noteworthy. Chinese culture places a lot of importance on kinship, and loyalty to one’s family and ancestors. So swearing loyalty to the state and to other non-kin who are loyal to the state is notable. They suggested that one reason for the growing popularity of the novel in the later Ming dynasty was that this theme spoke to the new middle classes. These people didn’t come from the lineages that the upper classes did, and they had often moved from their ancestral homes to cities to become merchants and tradespeople. So this novel spoke of how to navigate the world when your kinship ties weren’t the answer.

They also discussed the prose of the novel. Previous literature was written in classical Chinese, and tended to be very elliptical and allusive. But Luo Guanzhong used a lot of vernacular expressions in his writing, and this made it more direct and visceral. Another note here about authorship – they compared the novel’s status in China to Homer’s cultural legacy in the West but there’s another point of comparison. There are indications in the style of different bits of the novel that imply that Luo Guanzhong might’ve been collecting together already existing oral traditions.

There was also some discussion of the impact of the novel outside China, which has been relatively small. The first English translation of it doesn’t come until the early 20th Century (worked on by a customs officer in his spare time). However there were some copies that made it out of China to European libraries – one in the Spanish royal library, and one split into sections and sold seperately to a variety of collectors across Europe (before anyone could read Chinese to know it was one book).

“Figurines in Ancient China: From Prehistory to the First Emperor” Sascha Priewe

Last Thursday we went to the British Museum to go to a talk about Chinese figurines (and we’d hoped to go to another talk later the same day but it was sold out). In this talk Sascha Priewe (a curator at the British Museum) was talking about traditions of figurine making in ancient China and how this did (or didn’t) lead to the First Emperor’s terracotta army. He started by talking briefly about the Ice Age Art exhibition that had been in the British Museum last year (post). This had several examples of small figurines made in Europe more than 10,000 years ago, and you can trace the development and traditions of these figures (again in Europe and also in the Middle East) through the intervening time. This tradition eventually leads to things like Greek statues. However in China it seems (at least from a Western perspective) that the terracotta army buried with the First Emperor appears almost from nowhere in the 200s BC. So his talk was exploring whether or not this was actually the case, and what evidence there is for figurines before these notable (and large and numerous) examples.

The bulk of his talk was an overview of Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in China, looking at sites where 3D figures have been found. There is a tradition of female figurines found in the northern part of the country during the Neolithic – that may be reminiscent of the earlier European female figurines. But he stressed that this could be an artifact of it being the same people discussing them rather than inherent to the figures. Also during the Neolithic there is a tradition of making phallus models, this is in a different geographical area – the Yellow River valley, if I remember correctly. There’s no indication that these are parts of whole body representations – instead they appear to’ve been created as just a phallus. A little later in (I think) the same area of the country you also find what look like pot lids with a modelled human head on them. Again there isn’t any indication that these are broken off a bigger statue – they appear to be complete as they are. Priewe then talked a bit about the Bronze Age artifacts. There are some developments of art in the round – like the bronze funerary vessels – but in many ways these seem to be 2D art wrapped around a 3D object rather than inherently 3D. While there are some representations of animals during this period (in some places) there are still not large numbers of human figurines.

So the First Emperor’s terracotta army does actually appear to’ve been the start of this tradition in Chinese art. Priewe next turned his attention to where it might’ve come from if not growing out of previous traditions. One suggestion, although he didn’t seem to think it was terribly plausible for the sole reason, was that the First Emperor and/or his immediate predecessors in the Qin culture had learnt of Greek statuary via trade routes across to the area of modern Afghanistan (which would put them in contact with Alexander the Great’s Hellenic empire). His preferred explanation is that the terracotta figures were reflecting a growing shift in funerary beliefs. In the Qin culture immediately before the First Emperor there are indications of human sacrifices buried with leaders. Priewe said that he thinks the terracotta army are a shift from burying your servants to take them with you (which was a recentish development), to burying symbolic figures of your army and your servants. A more cost effective way of ensuring you had the proper entourage in the afterlife than killing a whole lot of trained soldiers etc.

Priewe finished the talk by moving forward in time from the First Emperor showing how this tradition of providing for the afterlife via symbolic figurines and models continued and even extends to the modern day. So he showed us some of the Han dynasty tomb goods (that were on display in Cambridge a while ago (post)) including the toilet for the use of the deceased … He also talked about the Tang Dynasty figurines a bit. And he finished up by noting that in modern Chinese funerals people will burn model houses and money, and even viagra, so that the deceased can take these things with them into the afterlife.

At the beginning of the talk I was a bit worried that it was either going to be too academic or too disorganised to follow easily. But once he got going it was an interesting talk 🙂

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 4)

These three sections are the final quarter of the catalogue for the Royal Academy’s exhibition about the art of the early Qing Dynasty era. The first essay is the last of a set of three about the various emperors – in this case the Qianlong Emperor. The next is about the painting & calligraphy of the Chinese elite, which was often subversive in nature. And finally the meaning behind the floral & natural themes of the art of this period.

“The Qianlong Emperor: Virtue and the Possession of Antiquity” Jessica Rawson

Collection and appreciation of art and artefacts from China’s past were an essential part of the legitimacy of a ruler. As the Qing Dynasty were Manchu and not Chinese this was even more important for them than their Chinese predecessors. The Qianlong Emperor had a personal interest in art as well, but this was much less important than its role in symbolising the virtuous & righteous nature of his rule. He didn’t just collect art, he also annotated it – often directly on the object itself. Despite modern complaints about this as spoiling the works of art it was another way in which the Qianlong Emperor demonstrated his place in the long line of Chinese rulers. The bronzes of the Shang & Zhou Dynasties (c.1500BC to 221BC, post) were often inscribed with descriptions of the events that caused the bronze to be made, or something else intended to extol the virtues of the owner. The Qianlong Emperor saw his own inscriptions as being a part of this long tradition. As well as collecting ancient artefacts the Qianlong Emperor commissioned catalogues of those that he & his predecessors had collected. Again this has a long heritage, in this case dating back at least to the Song Dynasty (960AD to 1279AD, post). And finally he practiced the appropriate arts for an Emperor – he was a calligrapher (and published collections of his calligraphy so that people would know this).

The items in this section include ancient bronzes, and Qianlong period items inspired by them (I was particularly struck by an enamelled flask made to look like a Warring States period bronze flask). There were also paintings of the Qianlong Emperor, and some by him too. As well as some of his seals as used on paintings from his collection.

“Silent Satisfactions: Painting and Calligraphy of the Chinese Elite” Alfreda Murck

This section was about the paintings and calligraphy that was made & displayed outside the official court. Some was made by people who also participated in court art, some was entirely separate. In general the painting style is different to that of court paintings, it is more like calligraphy and was regarded by the elite as a natural extension of writing poetry (and like poetry if you were a part of the intellectual elite then this was part of your skillset). Because of the shared culture and education of the people who would see these artworks it was possible for the scholars to use them to criticise the regime in a subtle & subversive fashion. One of the examples Murck gives is the painter Gong Xian who painted landscapes focused on mountains & rivers that pointedly omitted the sky – i.e. no heaven, no symbol of imperial authority. Other people chose their calligraphy styles to reflect a political opinion, for instance picking the style of a Tang Dynasty loyalist & martyr to emphasise loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.

This section of the catalogue was, obviously, the paintings and calligraphy of these elite scholars. It was organised in chronological order to show the connections between the people, in effect the conversations they were having via their art. Unfortunately lacking the necessary in depth knowledge of the art of the period or of the previous art and symbolism they were referring to meant that I could just look at them as pieces of art rather than messages. I was particularly taken with Luo Ping’s Insects, Birds and Beasts – a set of 10 album leaves with pictures & poems.

“The Auspicious Universe” Jessica Rawson

This essay was about the symbolism behind the natural motifs used to decorate the palaces of the three Emperors. Rawson says this forms a pair with her earlier essay about the Qianlong Emperor – the two themes used to decorate the palaces were antiquity (discussed earlier) and auspiciousness (discussed here). The flowers, fruits, animals & birds found in paintings and other artworks are generally part of a complex scheme of allegorical symbolism. It grew out of poems starting from c.600BC, and gradually transferred to painting and other visual arts. Some symbolism depended on what things looked like, some on homophones. For instance the word for bat (fu) is a homophone for the word for happiness & good fortune (also fu, but a different Chinese character) – so an object decorated with bats is a wish for good fortune & happiness. All of the natural motifs of the art of this period could be read as auspicious messages.

The objects in this section are paintings, sculptures & ceramics decorated with natural motifs. I particularly liked a painting by Shen Quan called “Pine, Plum and Cranes”. There were also several ruyi sceptres which had belonged to the Qianlong Emperor – they are talismans of good fortune and were presented to him by courtiers on his birthday.

So that’s the end of the book. Well, there’s also a section of notes about each object in the catalogue, but I’m not going to try & summarise that. Anyway I’ve only looked up the ones I was particularly interested in. A good book 🙂 Some of the essays were better than others, but all of them were interesting. I should add symbolism in Chinese art to the list of things I’d like to know more about.

Next non-fiction book will be a change of scene, it’s about the Plantagent rulers of England. I might write up some more general thoughts about what I’ve learnt from these last two books before I get to it though.

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 3)

These are the next four sections of the catalogue – the first two cover international relations (with those they conquered and those they didn’t). If I had planned it out a little better I would’ve split this up differently because the next three essays are about each Emperor in turn – and better planning would’ve kept them together in a post, however I didn’t think of that till too late! 🙂

“Territories of The Qing” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the other places the Qing conquered as well as China and some of the politics that drove their conquest. First they unified the northeast Asian tribes under Manchu rule (this is in the 1620s & 1630s) and their first conquest was China. Rawski says that this started as a campaign to “defend the Ming” when a rebellion had captured Beijing & the Emperor had committed suicide but soon turned into outright conquest (as detailed in the first essay in this book (post)). After this was successfully completed the Ming moved to consolidate their northern borders, with Inner Asia and with Mongolia. Some of this involved some sabre-rattling with Russia resulting in a fixed border being negotiated (in 1689 & 1727).

The incorporation of Mongolia & Tibet into the Qing Empire involved taking advantage of the internal politics of those regions. In Mongolia they took advantage of a war between two different Mongol tribes – the one that was losing submitted to the Qing so that they’d come to their aid. The Qing interventions in Tibet also started with that conflict. The relationship between political leaders of the northern Asian tribes and Tibetan Buddhism goes back to the Mongol Yuan dynasty (about 300 years earlier, post) who established the lama-patron relationship. So the Qing backed other lamas than the Zunghar Mongols did. They also took advantage of a succession dispute over who was the true sixth Dalai Lama to not only get their prefered lama in charge, but also to reorganise the political leadership of Tibet as the first step towards true conquest.

The objects in this section of the exhibition catalogue are to do with war and conquest. They include ceremonial armour, weapons and paintings of the Emperor as a warrior. There are also paintings of processions and banquets, presumably to do with the conquest of various regions.

“Diplomats, Jesuits and Foreign Curiosities” Joanna Waley-Cohen

One reason the Qing Emperors collected foreign curiosities was as a means of legitimising their rule and proving themselves civilised. They had to know everything and possess everything for they were the universal rulers. This interacted poorly with the European colonial efforts which were reaching China at this time. The Qing Emperors tried to fit the European diplomats into the sort of tributary relationships they had with nearby non-Chinese states, such as Japan, Vietnam etc. They were also cautious in their dealings with Europeans because they could see evidence of what happened when you weren’t – they were aware of other colonial European adventures such as the British in India or the Spanish in Manila.

Missionaries were treated differently – the Qing apparently didn’t think they were connected to international politics. This strikes me as odd, because the Qing were busy using Buddhism as a means of taking over Tibet at the time. But perhaps that’s down to the Jesuits strategy of integrating themselves into the existing court structure and providing secular knowledge & gifts to the Emperors – including becoming court painters, like Giuseppe Castaglione who worked for all three of these Emperors. Christianity was tolerated to some degree, so long as Christians still acknowledged the Emperor as their pre-eminent ruler but emphasis on the Pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church caused friction & a loss of tolerance.

Waley-Cohen also points out that the fashion for “western” curiosities & objects mirrors the European chinoiserie fashions of the time – both in the fascination with the exotic and in the way it’s not really authentic. The objects in this section of the exhibition include several paintings by Castiglione and other European court painters, as well as paintings of the court receiving foreign dignitaries & scientific instruments. There was also three pages of beautifully decorated snuff bottles – snuff was imported from Europe during this period.

“The Kangxi Emperor: Horseman, Man of Letters, Man of Science” Regina Krahl

Krahl’s thesis is that the Kangxi Emperor deliberately set out to make himself the quintessential Chinese Emperor, better than all that had gone before. As only the second Emperor of a conquest he didn’t have an obvious role model (his father, the Shunzhi Emperor was neither the conqueror of China (being a child at the time) nor an effective independent ruler, so doesn’t quite count), he also had non-Chinese ancestry which was important and needed acknowledged. The Kangxi Emperor took the throne at the age of 7 and took control at the age of 15, he reigned for 60 years in total. He honoured his Manchu heritage by participating in the various practical skills that were valued by Manchu cultures – archery, horseback riding etc. He was open to new ideas, and interested in the Western science (and art techniques such as perspective) that the Jesuits taught him.

As the Emperor of China with a Mandate from Heaven he had expectations to fulfil & a role to fill. Krahl argues that he set out to become educated in all aspects of this role – he learnt from leading scholars about Confucian philosophy, and about precedents in Chinese history for the imperial decisions he would be making. He learnt calligraphy, and became familiar with Chinese literature in order to phrase and write his decisions properly. He also demonstrated his learning to document his legitimacy as a true Chinese Emperor by publishing many writings on a wide variety of appropriate subjects including morals, agriculture, poetry. He also commissioned collections of writing by others – for instance an anthology of 50,000 Tang dynasty poems.

As well as this he patronised the arts, like a Chinese Emperor should. In fact he moved the various artists & craftsmen further into the Forbidden City than before and so they were in closer contact with the Emperor than before. Thus the material produced during his reign & his immediate successors reflected the personal tastes of the Emperor in question.

This section has a lot of examples of calligraphy done by the Kangxi Emperor, and beautifully decorated writing instruments and accessories. There are also many objets d’art that he had made for him during his life time – I was particularly struck by the peach-bloom porcelain, which is simple & elegant porcelain vases etc with a particular copper-red glaze.

“The Yongzheng Emperor: Art Collector and Patron” Regina Krahl

The Yongzheng Emperor gets overshadowed by his father and his son – he ruled for a much shorter time (13 years instead of 60 years) and Krahl says there is little positive proganda available from his reign. There were questions about the legitimacy of his inheritance of the throne and he had to take measures to prevent instability such as eliminating his enemies. His official persona was secretive, distant and ruthless – which did lead him to make the government more efficient and China was prosperous under his rule.

Less official sources indicate he was more interesting than that sounds – he had a sense of humour & whimsy, and apparently sometimes expressed himself in “colloquialisms that he must have learned […] from soldiers”. Informal portraits of him in Manchu dress show him ill at ease, but portraits in Chinese dress show him looking at ease. He didn’t go hunting or travel as much as either his father or son, another indication that he was more a product of his Chinese role than his Manchu heritage. Unlike his father his art collection was down to interest rather than because that was what an Emperor did. He commissioned many stands and display boxes for pieces of art from his collections, and inspected his collection frequently. During his reign he also commissioned many new works of art, and encouraged his artisans to rediscover & further develop old techniques. Krahl ends by discussing how the Qianlong Emperor gets credit for some of the Yongzheng Emperor’s works of art – because he was better at cultivating his image than his father and because he stamped them with his seals etc. Also styles that first show up in the Yongzheng period are often known from more examples in the Qianlong period and so again the son’s reign gets credit for the art.

This section of the catalogue contains paintings of the Yongzheng Emperor in a variety of costumes, and many beautiful objets d’art (including some porcelain vases with bluey-purpley glazes that I particularly liked). It also has a couple of sections from a scroll called “Pictures of Ancient Playthings” – which is paintings of his favourite antiques.