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One of the great classical forms of Chinese porcelain is the Lonquan ewer. These green-glazed wine vessels are named for the the Longquan kiln complex in (what is now the) Zhejiang province of South China. The ewers originated in the Song dynasty and the form was characteristic up until the Ming dynasty—but perhaps the heyday of Lonquan ware was during the Yuan dynasty when Mongols ruled China. I suspect most (or all) of these examples are from the Yuan dynasty. Look at the beautiful pear form of the vessels and the sinuous grace of the handles.

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Today is International Women’s Day, although, to my mind, one unofficial holiday in the doldrums of March doesn’t really capture the contributions of, oh, let’s see, more than half of humankind (and the good half, by-in-large).  Anyway, Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the event with “Princess Week”, a week of musing on gender, politics, power, and roles.   Instead of featuring some made-up princesses invented to sell toys or strange movies, today’s post tells the story of a particularly magnificent real princess, Princess Zhao of Pingyang.

Zhao was the daughter of Li Yuan the hereditary Duke of Tang during the Sui Dynasty–a politically weak and troubled dynasty which lasted from 581 to 618, when it was supplanted by the glorious, uh, Tang dynasty (I am maybe giving some things away).  Zhao was was Li’s third daughter, but, his other daughters were the children of concubines, whereas she was the only daughter of his wife Duchess Dou (who gave birth to Li’s heirs, Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin, Li Xuanba, and Li Yuanji whose fratricidal conflict is one of the great stories of Chinese history).  Zhao was fully as cunning and martial as her brothers, which is saying something since one of her brothers was Li Shimin (one of the preeminent figures of world history–arguably the most capable Chinese Emperor).

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Zhao and her husband were living in the capital Chang’an when the Duke (who had been at loggerheads with the Sui Emperor) sent secret word that he planned to rebel. Zhao’s husband slipped out of the city, but Zhao stayed behind long enough to sell her estate.  She used the money to enlist an army of rebels.  She then persuaded the famous rebel farmer He Panren to join her.  As she conquered cities adjacent to Chang-an, other great bandits and rebel leaders bent their knee to her and became captains in “The Army of the Lady” which swelled up to a force of 70,000 soldiers as the civil war entered its definitive phase.  Peasants rushed out to offer food and supplies to Zhao’s army which was famous for its discipline (and for the fact that its soldiers did not pillage the lands they took or rape their captives).

She defeated an army of the Emperor’s men and finally joined Li Shimin’s army as one of his co-generals. When li Shimin’s stratagems won the war, Zhao’s father became the first Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and she was elevated to the rank of Princess.

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Unfortunately Zhao died only two years after the dynasty was founded at the age of 23.  She did not see the Tang Dynasty grow to become the most powerful empire on Earth during the 7th century (although she also missed seeing her brothers kill each other).  When she died she was given a great general’s honors, and over the centuries her legend has taken on a life of its own in China and beyond.

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Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China.  This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions).  The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one.  I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb.  The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.

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Here is a contemporary sculpture by a modern Chinese artist.  This is Pigeon’s House, by Cui Jie, a Shanghai-born artist who now lives in Beijing.  The work is an ugly amalgam of dull architectural styles: Bauhaus, Russian Futurism (which spawned countless identical state-sponsored heaps), Retro-futurism, and “International.”  It measures 4. 5 meters in height (15 feet) and is manufactured of metal.  Despite the unwholesome mélange of second-tier architectural styles, there is an appealing dynamism to the sculpture: lively metal pigeons metamorphose out of the skyline and take to the sky.

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The most common of styles give birth to the most common of birds, yet somehow there is a suggestion of freedom and dignity to just surviving and enduring in the great supercities which are increasingly the home for humankind.  Like the 21st century art world, these cities may seem to be homogenous, tedious, and so competitive as to prevent any creativity whatsoever.  Yet if one looks more closely one realizes that they are a living habitat…and even a sort of ecosystem…if only for prosaic animals and middling aspirations.  The work’s setting–a verdant field in rural England–further emphasizes the nature of sprawling urban habitats.

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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

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Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.

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Ming week was last week, and, even though there is so much more to say about the Ming Dynasty, I need to wrap up and move on to other topics. Today’s visual post will have to serve as an epilogue.  Here is an epic panoramic painting of the Jiajing Emperor traveling to the Ming Dynasty Tombs with a huge cavalry escort and an elephant-drawn carriage.  The work was completed at some point during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) but I haven’t been able to pinpoint the date any better than that (it is such a huge painting, that maybe it took the whole forty years to make).  You should really click on the painting above.  It shows up as a little mummy-colored hyphen only because WordPress and I are so computer illiterate.  If you click on it, it is actually a 26 meter (85 ft) long epic scroll showing the enormous imperial entourage progressing towards the beautiful and spooky necropolis of the Ming Emperors.  What could be a more appropriate postscript to the pomp and dark absolutist majesty of that erstwhile time?

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

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The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

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In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms.  Plague stalked the starving masses.  Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family.  He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave.  It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.

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With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly.  As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive.  When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life.  Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.

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It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere.  Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.

These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed.  Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”.  In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.

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Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.

Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple.  At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.

One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him.  Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels.  While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune,  Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general.  Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.

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Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers.  Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.

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Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west.  Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake.  Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).

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By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368.  Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened?  As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

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According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from?  Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens.  Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.

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In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything.  Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable.  Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it.  This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity.  The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms.  P’an Ku slowly grew and grew.  He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg.  The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.

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Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where).  Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe.  Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order.  P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.

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But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered.  His creation was unfinished…and he died.  His breath became the clouds and the wind.  His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.

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It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything.  The beginning of the universe.

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Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do.  Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.

 

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