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In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring. The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer? Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen. The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.
Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists). In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”
Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth. They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.
In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance. The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family. When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree. The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon. This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.
Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks! This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed). Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year. If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.
The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle. Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).
Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources. In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.
Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish. According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor. The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own. As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.
People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits. Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.
Gung hay fat choy!
To celebrate the winter solstice, Ferrebeekeeper presented a gallery of winter monarchs—icy kings, queens, and princesses who symbolically represent the frozen majesty of winter. However European history contains a real “winter king” Frederick V (1596 – 1632), a Calvinist intellectual and mystic who was famous for building the Hortus Palatinus, one of the most renowned of Baroque gardens. Frederick V was not called “the winter king” because he personified the savage nature of winter. He received the nickname from enemies who derisively predicted that he would only be king of Bohemia for a single winter–and his enemies were entirely right. The short life of Frederick V was a series of missteps, blunders, catastrophes, and regrets. Today he is principally remembered for starting the Thirty Years War—Europe’s most destructive conflict until the age of Napoleon (or maybe until World War I).
Frederick V was born as heir to the Electoral Palatinate, a powerful feudal territory whose lord was one of the hereditary electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor. His father, Count Palatinate Frederick IV, died young from “extravagant living” (Frederick IV was an alcoholic who left control of his lands to a regent while he sat in the palace and drank). Thus, when Frederick V was 14 he became one of Germany’s most powerful lords—although shadows were already gathering around him. The Golden Bull of 1356 which determined important constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman Empire stipulated that “Frederick’s closest male relative would serve as his guardian and as regent of Electoral Palatinate until Frederick reached the age of majority.” The tangled ancestry of German nobility is evident in Frederick’s crest–so chaotically garish that it would even make Nascar proud—but it was determined that (Catholic) Count Palatine of Neuburg was his closest relative. Frederick V’s family was traditionally Calvinist and so this solution was not acceptable. The ensuing dispute eventually resulted in an early majority for young Ferdinand V (who became his own master at the age of 17) but it ensured a toxic legacy among the religiously divided Electors.
Frederick V also was married at the age of 16 to Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James I) at the royal chapel at the Palace of Whitehall. In 1614, when he was 18, Frederick attended a meeting of the Protestant Union (a group of powerful German Lords who championed the Protestant cause). During the meeting, Frederick became ill with a fever. Although he had displayed some initial promise as a ruler, after the illness Frederick’s character changed. He became depressed and listless and left many critical decisions to his chancellor, Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (the same minister who had ruled on behalf of Frederick IV). It was against such a background that the crown of Bohemia was thrust upon him.
Bohemia was an elective monarchy which chose its own king, but, despite this high title, said king answered to the Holy Roman Emperor. In fact since 1555 the Holy Roman Emperor had always also been the King of Bohemia, but thanks to religious controversy and schism sweeping Europe, Bohemia’s Protestant electors were in no mood to elect and affirm the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. Frederick V, callow, melancholic, and sick, was elected as king of Bohemia in 1619 amidst the turmoil of the Bohemian revolt. Frederick was crowned with the (magical cursed) Crown of Saint Wenceslas in St. Vitus Cathedral on 4 November 1619. At the time Bohemia was not exactly a proper kingdom (having been held for so long by the Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick V soon found he had only very limited ability to raise funds. This became important when Emperor Ferdinand II decided to take the field to contest Bohemia. The Emperor’s army was ably led by Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, who seized Frederick V’s ancestral lands in the Central Palatinate before marching on Prague. On 8 November 1620, Frederick V’s army was destroyed in the Battle of White Mountain. Bohemia was lost, its people were cruelly ground beneath the popish & authoritarian foot of Ferdinand II, and Frederick V was forced into exile–first to Silesia and ultimately to the Hague in Holland.
Since he maintained the pageantry and splendor of a royal court while in the Hague, Frederick V quickly lavished away the huge sums of money which foreign potentates had granted him to pursue his cause. He was unlucky too. On a trip to view the captured Spanish treasure fleet, his boat capsized, which caused his eldest son, Frederick Henry of the Palatinate to drown (which also drowned hopes for a marriage between Frederick Henry and a Spanish princess). Frederick V alienated and refused Gustavus Adolphus, the one sovereign who could have regained his throne and lands for him (although Gustavus would also have demanded that Frederick V become a subject). Frederick died in1632, of a “pestilential fever”. His internal organs were buried in Oppenheim, but his preserved body was slated for final burial elsewhere. Unfortunately, while in transit Frederick V’s dead body somehow got caught up in the Spanish assault on Frankenthal and vanished. His final resting place is unknown (although we do know where his internal organs are interred).
Frederick’s life was ruined by reaching for a crown which should never have been his (and which, at the time, actually conferred little royal dignity or authority anyway). Yet this troubling legacy of ruination resulted in an end he would probably never have foreseen. Frederick V had married the daughter of James I of England. England had its own religious sectarian problems which were ended by Parliament when it signed the Act of Settlement in 1701. The document settled the English secession for once and all on an obscure Protestant heir—Frederick’s youngest daughter Sophia, Electress of Hanover. Sophia, a patroness of art, philosophy, music, and culture, died in 1714, just before Queen Anne of England passed away, but her son George inherited the crown that would have been hers. All subsequent monarchs of Great Britain were (and are) direct descendants of the unlucky Winter King.
In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC. However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait. This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac. One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD. The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.
Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade. The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C. The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).
Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo. It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed. The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).
Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate. Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot. This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.
A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color. The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.
I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna. But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color? A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog. According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph. While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.
Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct. Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family. Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.
Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite. To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment. Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.
Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used. In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators. By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.
The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century. The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.