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Emperor Kōmei was the 121st Emperor of Japan. He reigned (or perhaps, more accurately he “served as a titular figurehead”) from 1846 through 1867, when he died from smallpox at the age of 35. Western powers forcibly pried open Japan during the reign of Kōmei: Commodore Perry’s fleet of black ships made their famous trade visit in 1853. The shock of this transformation allowed Kōmei to begin to wrest political power back from the shogun (a hereditary military dictator, who was the true ruler of Japan). Kōmei’s reign thus directly paved the way for the Meiji restoration and the rapid industrialization of Japan.
The Crown of Emperor Kōmei (photo by
I mention all of this as an introduction to his amazing hat. Kōmei’s crown has survived. It is an exquisite beaded square surmounted by a glorious sun–an unsubtle reminder that the emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu. The regal headdress has been sitting on a fancy shelf somewhere gathering fancy dust since 1867.
It should be noted that, in Japanese imperial tradition, crowns are not invested with the same importance as they are in European monarchies. Ironically, the real crown jewels of the Crysanthemum throne are not crowns at all. In fact they seemingly don’t exist at all. The imperial regalia consist of a sword, a mirror, and a jewel which have been handed down since the time of Amaterasu, who used these items in the struggles which formed the world. Yet the sword, mirror, and jewel are themselves shrouded in mystery. Not only are they reputedly of ancient supernatural construction, they have also been thrown into the sea and lost. Most fortunately they were recovered by natural and unnatural means, however, ordinary mortals are forbidden to look at them, so nobody has seen them except some sinister aristocrat priests, who assert that they really truly almost certainly probably exist in secret locations.
So, if you are keeping score, the emperor was not really an emperor (but instead a golden mask for a squalid strongman); his ancient supernatural treasures likewise do not really exist. This digital picture of a wacky beaded hat is just about the most real thing about the world’s most ancient monarchy.
Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”). Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty. Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.” I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).
This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials. These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches). The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.
There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.” Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:
Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague. At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.
Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake. He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).
In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back. With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep. Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.
Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor. Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh). It is one of the best lead-ins ever. A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.
The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong, Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong. Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances. There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…
Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book. In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad. Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).
I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death). I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.
I hope you enjoyed the thrilling rise of the Hongwu Emperor as related in yesterday’s post. In accordance with the wishes of the editors who commissioned it, I left out the truly important parts—namely, how the Hongwu Emperor organized the Ming dynasty around Confucianist precepts, cunning agrarian reform, and above all—naked absolutism. I also left out the terrible end of Zhu Yuanzhe’s story arc: for the skills and guile which allowed the Hongwu Emperor to seize absolute power had a terrible shadow side. As an old man, he was seized by dreadful paranoia and employed vast armies of secret police, informers, and torturers to root out the imaginary plots which flowered on all sides of him. Hongwu killed hundreds of thousands of people by means of the most inventive and horrible tortures. Despite his astonishing feats, and despite the prosperity he brought to China, his name is permanently blackened by the depths of his cruelty (although Mao admired him).
It almost makes you wonder if leaders aren’t inherently flawed somehow: as though there is some fundamental problem with putting self-interested individuals in charge of our collective destiny.
But today’s post is not about leadership; it is about beautiful & delicate Chinese porcelain! It would be unthinkable to have a Ming Week which didn’t feature a fine Ming vase. Here is a Ming dynasty vessel from the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). The Jiajing emperor was a weakling and a fool who devoutly believed in all sorts of portent, rituals, astrology, and mystical claptrap. His courtiers and eunuchs used this to control him while they robbed the Empire to the brink of disaster. Infrastructure was neglected. Crooked courtiers ground the peasants down into crippling destitution. The social fabric unwound.
But what did the rich and powerful care when they lived in an era of such luxury? Porcelain of the Jiajing reign is particularly whimsical and otherworldly. This vase shows the “three friends” pine, bamboo, and plum growing together as emblems of wealth, happiness, and longevity. Each plant is twisted into an otherworldly logogram–a “shou” symbol. Here the plum blossoms forth out of a splendid stylized rock covered in lichen.
Look at the decorative elements! The waves, the scrolls, and the mystical vegetation which surround the three central plants all began as naturalistic forms—but by the time of the Jiajing era they have been transmuted into ethereal blue beauty. And yet the original forms are still there as well. It is hard to describe what gives this little ovoid vase its winsome charm, but the aesthetic effect is undeniable.
“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)
The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD. This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud). Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors). However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.
I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible. Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors. However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people). It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.
Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)
All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras. This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time. Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things. This week is going to be great!
Apparently May is “Ride Your Bike to Work” month, but it has been so gray and wet and cold every day so far that today was the first day I peddled from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It was still gray and cold…but there was a delightful treat on the ride! Here is Brooklyn the flowering dogwoods are in full bloom and they were so beautiful…particularly the pink ones.
I have always thought that I was allergic to flowering dogwood (Cornus floridus) but there is one in my backyard, and it doesn’t seem to be doing me particular harm. Maybe I need to speak out more enthusiastically about these magnificent trees.
I was hoping to tell a myth of the dogwood in the underworld or a stirring anecdote about its taxonomic relationship to an unexpected plant, but there is less to go on than I might have hoped. When I was growing up, there was a myth that it was the tree Christ was crucified on and that is why it has white cross shaped flowers with red dots on the end, but this seems to be an American myth from the early 20th century. Wikipedia helpfully notes that “The hard, dense wood [of the dogwood] has been used for products such as golf club heads, mallets, wooden rake teeth, tool handles, jeweler’s boxes and butcher’s blocks.” I guess golf clubs are ok but they are hardly a new race of human beings.
Maybe we need to work on some myths which are as beautiful as the lovely dogwood. I am not allergic to it. It didn’t kill Christ and, in our debased mass-market world nobody cares about what mallets and rake teeth are made of. Does anybody out there have anything better for this beautiful tree? I guess we could always make something up.
Chartreuse Cloud Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, cardboard and paint)
Hypothetically, sometimes, at one’s day job one has a pushy colleague who loudly demands things and stridently lobbies for oh say…all new office furniture. It is a conundrum whether to simply bow to the wishes of the assertive colleague who demands a credenza from the internet, or whether one should go to one’s superiors and assess whether this is the right use for the office credit card. One could potentially be caught between bickering superiors fighting over a cheap credenza. Hypothetically.
In unrelated news, office credenzas come packed in extremely heavy cardboard boxes. This cardboard seemed perfect for building something, so instead of throwing it into a landfill, I cut it out and brought it home to build into strange new life (thereby erasing any unpleasant office politics which may or may not have been involved in its acquisition).
Tawny Elder Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, cardboard and paint)
Last year I crafted a three-dimensional anglerfish/horse type monster in bright fluorescent colors to go with the blooming cherry tree. This year I decided to build three ambiguously shaped blossom monsters out of the heavy cardboard from some, uh, office furniture. The first monster (chartreuse, at the top), was meant to represent the life giving power of spring clouds. He is a cloud creature squirming with tadpoles–or maybe Yin/Yang spirit energy…however the guests at my party thought he was a three eyed camel with sperm on him (which I guess is also true, from a certain point of view). I wonder if Henry Moore had to deal with this sort of rough-and-ready interpretation of his abstract sculptures.
The second statue, which may be the best, is an orange figurine somewhere between a wise bird and a tribal warrior. It has the cleanest lines and the best paint job and it is only marred by a slight tendency to curl up (there is always something! Especially if one is dealing with cardboard sculpture).
Pink Sphinx Figure(s?) (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, cardboard and paint)
Finally I made a sort of pink octopus/sphinx with a glowing pink interior. Again one friend looked at it and said “It’s a Pierson’s puppeteer!” (this being a meddlesome three-footed, two-headed extraterrestrial super-being from Larry Niven science fiction novels).
Another friend looked at it and said “Why is it so explicit? I can’t believe you would show such violent erotic ravishment at your cherry festival!”
So, I guess my blossom monsters are more evocative and more ambiguous than I meant for them to be (I was sort of thinking of them as a cross between Dr. Seuss and African carvings). Please let me know what you think! Oh and here is a colored pencil drawing of the orange one cavorting beneath the cherry tree!
Blooming Cherry Tree (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
Crystal Owls (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
Here are some more images of beauty, depravity, whimsy , and the mundane from my little sketchbook. The first picture above shows crystal owls flying through a jeweled night.
Flounder and Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
This is an artificial tribal world of doughnuts, flounders, and jittery totems. It is a dual world of dark teal and apricot.
Friend’s Backyard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
This is a sketch of my friend Reis’ backyard in Park Slope at dusk. I particularly like the Serbian spruce in the center.
Backyard in Spring (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
This is a whimsical interpretation of my backyard in early spring as seen by Max Fleischer in a bad dream. Look at my chiminea walking around talking to the plants!
Tropical Dancer (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
This was a lot prettier in the real world. It is a beautiful tropical dance recital with people checking their programs.
Untitled (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
Whim-etery (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)
I love paisleys and I have been trying to incorporate them into little landscapes with animals and scenery. Thanks for looking. As always, your comments are greatly appreciated!
It’s April 12th, “Yuri’s Night” when humankind comes together to celebrate our achievements in space…and to brainstorm about where we will go next. Of course at this precise moment we are having some temporary setbacks in space—but we’ll post about NASA’s space telescope trouble tomorrow. Today is about the glory and magnificence of space exploration. And there are plenty of news stories about that too. SpaceX has finally “stuck the landing” on one of its reusable rockets (and the past year’s drama of watching them nearly land on a raft and then blow up was pretty thrilling in its own right). A private firm is building an inflatable module for the International Space Station. NASA is moving forwards with its plans to build a space probe to touch the sun! And that is not to mention the many man robot probes running around the Solar System.
Solar Probe Plus (NASA)
However, today is also a day when we whisper our heart’s dearest wishes to the stars. The Economist has abandoned its fusty articles about central banking to lovingly describe a feasible interstellar space craft! Visionary engineers keep grinding ahead with plans for a space elevator (the brainchild of a different Yuri— Yuri Artsutanov). Tech billionaires are working on their asteroid mining project (at least on paper)… and NASA continues to talk of a Mars mission.
Yet all of this pales beside my near-future space vision—a plan which is as simple as it is breathtaking and incomprehensible. I want us to come together and hang a new society in the distant skies over Venus. At first it will be a crude plastic bouncy city, but, as we drop energy transfer cables down into the atmosphere and skyhooks down to harvest raw materials from the surface things should start to get more elaborate fast. We can make floating farms, forests, and oceans. All we need to do is get a plastics factory over to Venus and uh, solve the pesky problem of shielding our new society from deadly solar winds (a real problem on Venus, since it has no magnetosphere to speak of).
(Artwork by Don Dixon)
With this in mind, it is time to take a much closer look at Venus. So this is my Yuri’s Night resolution. We will be revisiting our sister planet at this site and reviewing everything we know about it. Since the first humans looked up in the morning sky and saw it as the brightest star up until now Venus has always been in our hearts—but these days we know some real and meaningful things about the morning star (wisdom which did not come easily). It’s time to review that information and find out more about our closest planetary neighbor. So hang on to your (heat resistant) helmets and get ready to visit this beautiful hellish sister world!
OK, Last week was egg week here at Ferrebeekeeper where we looked at home-made egg-art and astonishing primordial mythology. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and temporal vicissitudes, egg week only had 4 posts—yet we also need to keep moving on. Today’s post is therefore somewhat egg-themed….even if the real theme is more about the changing nature of language. It is a bridge from past to future—but a humorous one which has eggs at its center.
Here is a story from the late 15th century, when English was changing from Middle English to Modern English. The author, William Caxton, was a merchant, diplomat, and writer…and probably England’s first printer. He wrote this story in 1490 to marvel at how quickly the language was changing (indeed he relates how he can’t understand truly old English which seems like a completely foreign tongue). I have transcribed the story, as best I could, from the Gothic black letter manuscript (try reading some of the beautiful—but incomprehensible–Gothic calligraphy and I think you will appreciate my effort).
The story is a vignette about how language changes, seemingly on its own. This point is particularly poignant to modern readers who don’t speak with quite the same idiom and usage as the upstanding William Caxton! The story is about some merchants from the north who say eggs in the Norse fashion “eggys” as opposed to the South English way of saying it “eyren.” Misunderstanding ensues. It is interesting to note that contemporary English speakers talk about “eggs.” If I went to the C-town and asked for “eyren” they would probably look at me funny (or tell me where to get an iron or Irish whiskey). The Norse word for “eggs” clearly won out over the old Anglo-Saxon word when English went global. Anyway, here is my transcription of the story. Kindly help me out if you can figure it out better and enjoy the eyreny…err…the irony of Caxton’s words:
Fayn wolde I satysfye every man, and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I could not wele understande it.
And altho my lord abbot of Westmynster ded do shewe to me late certain evydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now usid.
And certainly it was wrton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe.
I could not reduce ne brynge it to be understonden.
And certaynly our language now used Uaryeth ferre from that. Which was used and spoken whan I was borne.
For we englysshe men ken borne under the domynacyon of the mone.
Which is neuer stedfaste, but ever waverynge wexynge one season and waneth & dycreaseth another season
And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one Shyre varyeth from a nother.
In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in tamyse for to have sayled over the see into zeland
and for lacke of wynde they taryed atte Forrlonth, and wente to lanthe for to refreshe them
And one of them named Sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hous and axed(!!) for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys.
And the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no frenche.
And the marchant was angry for he also could speak no Frenche but wolde have egges and she understode hym not.
And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel
Loo (?) What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren, Certaynly it is harde to playse every man that is in any
reputacyon in his contre. Wyll utter his comynycacyon and maters in suche maners & terms that fewe men shall understonde theym…