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The 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and they have the potential to be all too interesting. The Brazilian government has been mired in a serious executive political crisis. The Brazilian economy is melting down. There is a crimewave in Rio AND the beautiful tropical city is at the epicenter of the Zika crisis. Pundits are predicting disaster, but I am still hopeful that Brazil can pull it off. My cautious optimism stems partly from love of international sports; partly from the desire to see tropical dance spectaculars featuring samba dancers & bizarre floats; and partly from morbid curiosity.
But before we get to the 2016 Summer Olympics there is business to discuss concerning the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferrebeekeeper tries to stay abreast of mascots because there is larger symbolic meaning in these cartoonish corporate figureheads. Behold “Soohorang,” the white tiger mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Real tigers are magnificent, stately, adorable, and terrifying–so they make good mascots. The last Korean Olympics, the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 had an orange and black Amur tiger mascot “Hodori” (below) who was pretty endearing. Unfortunately Soohorang is a bit too digitally rendered to look like anything other than the output of a committee and a graphics design team.
According to the June 2nd press statement at Olympics.org,“In mythology, the white tiger was viewed as a guardian that helped protect the country and its people. The mascot’s colour also evokes its connection to the snow and ice of winter sports.” I guess white tigers are special in Korean and Indian mythology, but in Chinese mythology the white tiger is a monster which symbolically represents the west and death.
Now that a mascot has been chosen, we can start looking forward to the 2018 winter Olympics in the north of South Korea (somehow the Olympic committee found the one place that is the focus of even more socio-political tension than the Black Sea). In the mean time the Summer Olympics is fast approaching. Why not sit back and pour yourself a Cachaça, read about the Brazilian mascot “Vinicius” (pictured at the top of this article, playing on and around a cable car in an unsafe manner) and start preparing for the games.
Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)
It’s National Doughnut Day! To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series. Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros. Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture. Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology. Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life. For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs. There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).
Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)
This second painting is less easily explained. A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace. Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy. Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle? The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation. Now I’m off to paint some more. Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).
In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans. Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage. They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large. They can even be transparent. However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives. One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo. The memory comes with a dark post-script. I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams. They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.
But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds. We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island. Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth. The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans. It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats). The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending. So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.
Unexpected life forms are flourishing. The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time. Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers. However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems. Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite. A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.
Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards. Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you). I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined. Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?
It is possible. The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.
A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy. The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft. But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth. The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.
“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol. It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together. Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.
Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct. There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens. There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando. There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike. There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.
The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it). We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals. The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity. The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.
Remember back when it was February and the world was a tattered veil of gray misery? Well now it is glorious May, and it is hard to recall those dark times. The birds are singing. The flowers are blooming. Shepherdesses float through Wall Street dressed in summer frocks. Fortunately we have poetry to keep us ever mindful of the darkness & perfidy of the world.
Below is the May installment of Shepheardes Calender: the poem starts out gloriously with exquisite descriptions of Arcadian revels. There could hardly be a more sumptuous evocation of spring in the country. If you cannot smell the blooming flowers and hear the songs of the happy youths, then your heart is devoid of pastoral poetry.
But then Spenser starts in with the animal metaphors and we sense that even in May we are not in a Disney movie. First we have the ape which loves her baby so much that she throttles it by hugging it. Then there is the parable of the young kid who ignores his nanny goat’s stern warnings and opens up his door to the crafty fox..who has come dressed as a pathetic salesman. This story has all sorts of double meanings, but right now there are so many foxes at the door it is hard to know what to make of it. Spenser lived in England, where commerce rules…and he died penniless, so perhaps there is a lesson about business and businesspeople from the sly merchant fox.
Yet, even if this segment ends with a dark fable, there are many delights to be had herein. Besides all of this sorry business about barely disguised tricksters lying and manipulating a gullible audience in order to make a meal of them couldn’t be valid in contemporary America…could it?
Anyway, here is
Shepheardes Calender V: Maye
Is not this the merry Month of May,
When Love-Lads masken in fresh Array?
How falls it then, we no merrier been,
Ylike as others, girt in gawdy Green?
Our blonket Liveries been all too sad
For thilk same Season, when all is yclad
With Pleasance; the Ground with Grass, the Woods
With green Leaves, the Bushes with blossoming Buds.
Youth’s Folk now flocken in every where,
To gather May-Buskets, and smelling Breere:
And home they hasten the Posts to dight,
And all the Kirk-Pillers e’er Day-light,
With Hawthorn Buds, and sweet Eglantine,
And Girlonds of Roses, and Sops in Wine.
Such Merry-make holy Saints doth queam:
But we here sitten as drown’d in a Dream.
For Yonkers, Palinode, such Follies fit,
But we tway been Men of elder Wit.
Siker this morrow, no longer ago,
I saw a Shole of Shepherds out-go,
With singing and shouting, and jolly Cheer:
Before them yode a lusty Tabrere,
That to the Many a Horn-pipe plaid,
Whereto they dauncen each one with his Maid.
To see these Folks make such Jouisaunce,
Made my Heart after the Pipe to daunce.
Tho to the green Wood they speeden them all,
To fetchen home May with their Musical;
And home they bringen in a Royal Throne,
Crowned as King: and his Queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fair Flock of Fairies, and a fresh Bend
Of lovely Nymphs. (O that I were there
To helpen the Ladies their May-Bush bear!)
Ah! Piers, been not thy Teeth on edge, to think
How great Sport they gainen with little Swink?
Perdy, so far an I from Envy,
That their Fondness inly I pity:
Those Faitours little regarden their Charge,
While they, letting their Sheep run at large,
Passen their time, that should be sparely spent,
In Lustihed, and wanton Merriment.
Thilk same been Shepherds for the Divel’s sted,
That playen while their Flocks be unfed.
Well it is seen their Sheep be not their own,
That letten them run at random alone.
But they been hired for little Pay,
Of other, that caren as little as they,
What fallen the Flock, so they han the Fleece,
And get all the Gain, paying but a Piece.
I muse, what Account both these will make,
The on for the Hire, which he doth take,
And th’ other for leaving his Lord’s Task,
When great Pan Account of Shepherds shall ask.
Siker now I see thou speakest of Spight,
All for thou lackest some dele their Delight.
I (as I am) had rather be envied,
All were it of my Foe, that fonly pitied:
And yet, if need were, pitied would be,
Rather than other should scorn at me;
For pitied is Mishap that nas Remedy,
But scorned been Deeds of fond Foolery.
What shoulden Shepherds other things tend,
Than sith their God his Good does them send,
Reapen the Fruit thereof, that is pleasure,
The while they here liven at ease and leisure?
For when they been dead, their Good is ygo,
They sleepen in Rest, well as other moe;
Tho with them wends, what they spent in Cost,
But what they left behind them, is lost.
Good is no Good, but if it be spend;
God giveth Good for none other end.
Ah! Palinode, thou art a World’s Child:
Who touches Pitch, mote needs be defil’d.
But Shepherds (as Algrind used to say)
Mought not live ylike, as Men of the Lay.
With them it fits to care for their Heir,
Enaunter their Heritage do impair:
They must provide for means of Maintenance,
And to continue their wont Countenance.
But Shepherd must walk another way,
Sike worldly Sovenance he must fore-say.
The Son of his Loins, why should he regard
To leave enriched with that he hath spar’d?
Should not thilk God, that gave him that Good,
Eke cherish his Child, if in his ways he stood?
For if he mislive, in Lewdness and Lust,
Little boots all the Wealth and the Trust,
That his Father left by Inheritance,
All will be soon wasted with Misgovernance.
But through this, and other their Miscreance,
They maken many a wrong Chevisance,
Heaping up Waves of Wealth and Woe,
The Floods whereof shall them overflow.
Sike Mens Folly I cannot compare
Better than to the Ape’s foolish Care,
That is so enamoured of her young one,
(And yet God wote, such Cause hath she none)
That with her hard Hold, and straight embracing,
She stoppeth the Breath of her Youngling.
So oftentimes, whenas Good is ment,
Evil ensueth of wrong Intent.
The time was once, and may again retorn,
(For ought may happen that hath been beforn)
When Shepherds had none Inheritance,
Ne of Land, nor Fee in Sufferance;
But what might arise of the bare Sheep,
(Were it more or less) which they did keep.
Well I wis was it with Shepherds tho;
Nought having nought feared they to forgo,
For Pan himself was their Inheritance,
And little them served for their Maintenance.
The Shepherd’s God so well them guided,
That of nought they were unprovided:
Butter enough, Honey, Milk, and Whey,
And their Flocks Fleeces them to array.
But Tract of Time, and long Prosperity,
(That Nource of Vice, this of Insolency)
Lulled the Shepherds in such Security,
That not content with loyal Obeysance,
Some ‘gan to gape for greedy Governance,
And match themselves with mighty Potentates,
Lovers of Lordships, and Troublers of States.
Tho ‘gan Shepherds Swains to look aloft,
And leave to live hard, and learn to lig soft.
Tho under colour of Shepherds, some-while,
There crept in Wolves, full of Fraud and Guile,
That often devoured their own Sheep,
And often the Shepherd that did hem keep.
This was the first Sourse of Shepherds Sorrow,
That now nill be quit with bale, nor borrow.
Three things to bear, been very burdenous,
But the fourth to forbear, is outrageous.
Women that of Love’s Longing once lust,
Hardly forbearen, but have it they must:
So when Choler is enflamed with Rage,
Wanting Revenge, is hard to assuage:
And who can counsel a thirsty Soul,
With Patience to forbear the offer’d Boul?
But of all Burdens, that a Man can bear,
Most is, a Fool’s Talk to bear and to hear.
I ween the Giant has not such a Weight,
That bears on his Shoulders the Heaven’s Height.
Thou findest fault, where nys to be found,
And buildest strong Wark upon a weak Ground:
Thou railest on Right, without Reason,
And blamest hem much, for small Encheason.
How woulden Shepherds live, if not so?
What, should they pinen in Pain and Woe?
Nay, say I thereto, by my dear Borrow,
If I may rest, I nill live in Sorrow.
Sorrow ne need to be hastened on:
For he will come without calling anon.
While Times enduren of Tranquillity,
Usen we freely our Felicity:
For when approachen the stormy Stowers,
We mought with our Shoulders bear off the sharp Showres.
And sooth to sain, nought seemeth sike Strife
That Shepherds so twiten each others Life,
And layen their Faults the Worlds before,
The while their Foes done each of hem scorn.
Let none mislike of that may not be amended:
So Conteck soon by Concord mought be ended.
Shepherd, I list no Accordance make
With Shepherd, that does the right way forsake:
And of the twain, if Choice were to me,
Had lever my Foe, than my Friend he be.
For what Concord hen light and dark sam?
Or what Peace has the Lion with the Lamb?
Such Faitours, when their false Hearts been hid,
Will do, as did the Fox by the Kid.
Now Piers, of fellowship, tell us that Saying:
For the Lad can keep both our Flocks from straying.
Thilk same Kid (as I can well devise)
Was too very foolish and unwise.
For on a time, in Sommer Season,
The Goat her Dam, that had good Reason,
Yode forth abroad unto the green Wood,
To brouze, or play, or what she thought good:
But, for she had a motherly Care
Of her young Son, and Wit to beware,
She set her Youngling before her Knee,
That was both fresh and lovely to see,
And full of Favour, as Kid mought be.
His velvet Head began to shoot out,
And his wreathed Horns ‘gan newly sprout:
The Blossoms of Lust to bud did begin,
And sprung forth rankly under his Chin.
My Son (quoth she) and with that ‘gan weep:
(For careful Thoughts in her Heart did creep)
God bless thee, poor Orphan, as he mought me,
And send thee Joy of thy Jollity.
Thy Father (that Word she spake with Pain,
For a Sigh had nigh rent her Heart in twain)
Thy Father, had he lived this Day,
To see the Branches of his Body display,
How would he have joyed at this sweet Sight?
But ah! false fortune such Joy did him spight,
And cut off his Days with untimely Woe,
Betraying him unto the Trains of his Foe.
Now I a wailful Widow behight,
Of my old Age have this one Delight,
To see thee succeed in thy Father’s stead,
And flourish in Flowers of Lustihead.
For even so thy Father his Head upheld,
And so his haughty Horns did he weld.
Tho marking him with melting Eyes,
A thrilling Throb from her Heart did arise,
And interrupted all her other Speech,
With some old Sorrow that made a new Breach:
Seemed she saw in her Youngling’s Face
The old Lineaments of his Father’s Grace.
At last, her sullen Silence she broke,
And ‘gan his new-budded Beard to stroke.
Kiddy (quoth she) thou kenst the great Care
I have of thy Health and thy Welfare,
Which many wild Beasts liggen in wait,
For to entrap in thy tender State:
But most the Fox, Maister of Collusion:
For he has vowed thy last Confusion.
For-thy, my Kiddy, be ruled by me,
And never give trust to his Treacheree:
And if he chance come when I am abroad,
Spar the Yate fast, for fear of Fraud.
Ne for all his worst, nor for his best,
Open the Door at his Request.
So schooled the Goat her wanton Son,
That answered his Mother, All should be done.
Tho went the pensive Dame out of door,
And chaunc’d to stumble at the Threshold-Floor:
Her stumbling Step somewhat her amazed,
(For such as Signs of ill luck been dispraised)
Yet forth she yode, thereat half aghast,
And Kiddy the Door sparred after her fast.
It was not long after she was gone,
But the false Fox came to the Door anone.
Not as a Fox, for then he had be kend,
But all as a poor Pedlar he did wend:
Bearing a Truss of Trifles at his Back,
As Bells, and Babies, and Glasses in his Pack,
A Biggen he had got about his Brain,
For in his Head-piece he felt a sore Pain.
His hinder Heel was wrapt in a Clout,
For with great Cold he had got the Gout.
There at the Door he cast me down his Pack,
And laid him down, and groaned, alack! alack!
Ah! dear Lord, and sweet Saint Charity,
That some good body would once pity me.
Well heard Kiddy all this sore Constraint,
And leng’d to know the Cause of his Complaint:
Tho creeping close, behind the Wicket’s Clink,
Privily he peeped out through a Chink:
Yet not so privily but the Fox him spied,
For deceitful Meaning is double-eyed.
Ah! good young Maister (then ‘gan he cry)
Jesus bless that sweet Face I espy,
And keep your Corps from the careful Stounds,
That in my Carrion Carcass abounds.
The Kid, pitying his Heaviness,
Asked the Cause of his great Distress,
And also who, and whence that he were.
Tho he, that had well ycond his Lear,
Thus medled his Talk with many a Tear:
Sick, sick, alas! a little lack of dead,
But I be relieved by your beastly-head.
I am a poor Sheep; albe my Colour dun:
For with longer Travel I am brent in the Sun.
And if that my Grandsire me said, be true,
Siker I am very sybbe to you:
So be your Goodlihead do not disdain
The base Kinred of so simple Swain.
Of Mercy and Favour then I you pray,
With your Aid to forestall my near Decay.
Tho out of his Pack a Glass he took;
Wherein while Kiddy unwares did look,
He was so enamoured with the Newel,
That nought he deemed dear for the Jewel.
Tho opened he the Door, and in came
The false Fox, as he were stark lame.
His Tail he clapt betwixt his Legs twain,
Lest he should be descryed by his Train.
Being within, the Kid made him good Glee,
All for the Love of the Glass he did see.
After his Chear, the Pedlar ‘gan chat,
And tell many Leasings of this and that:
And how he could shew many a fine knack.
Tho shewed his Ware, and opened his Pack,
All save a Bell, which he left behind
In the Basket, for the Kid to find.
Which when he stooped down to catch,
He popt him in, and his Basket did latch:
Ne stayed he once, the Door to make fast,
But ran away with him in all haste.
Home when the doubtful Dame had her hide,
She mought see the Door stand open wide.
All aghast, loudly she ‘gan to call
Her Kid: but he nould answer at all.
Tho on the Floor she saw the Merchandise,
Of which her Son had set too dear a Price.
What Help? her Kid she knew well is gone:
She weeped and wailed, and made great moan.
Such end had the Kid, for he nould warned be
Of Craft coloured with Simplicity:
And such end perdy does all hem remain,
That of such Falsers Friendship been fain.
Truly Piers, thou art beside thy Wit,
Furthest fro the Mark, weening it to hit.
Now I pray thee, let me thy Tale borrow
For our Sir John, to say to-morrow,
At the Kirk, when it is Holiday:
For well he means, but little can say.
But and if Foxes been so crafty, as so,
Much needeth all Shepherds hem to know.
Of their Falshood more could I recount,
But now the bright Sun ‘ginneth to dismount:
And for the dewy Night now draw’th night,
I hold it best for us home to hie.
Pas men apistos apistei.
Tis d’ ara pistis apisto.
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!