Irony of the week

The Chinese government expressing their sadness and shock at the idea that anyone would be crass enough to sully the Olympic spirit with the grimy taint of a political agenda.


Terracotta warriors at the BM

I went to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. It’s unusual for them to be on show outside China, so it’s a big event; they have about a dozen terracotta figures and lots of associated material.

It’s certainly worth going to, but the warriors themselves didn’t have the wow factor you might hope for. I may not have seen them in the flesh before, but they are so familiar that it felt like I had. I don’t know why some artworks—paintings particularly?—are so much more effective in the flesh than in photos, while others aren’t. In the particular case of the terracotta warriors, I think part of what makes them incredible is the sheer number of them: the iconic image is of them standing in massed ranks. And although the figures are beautifully made—they are modelled in great detail and famously every one is slightly individual—I don’t know that they are great works of Art. Whatever that means. They were made on a production line basis by prisoners doing forced labour; I don’t know whether that’s relevant.

banliang coin

So for me the most interesting thing was all the context: the stuff about the ‘First Emperor’, his conquest and unification of about a third of modern China and the standardisation of the coinage, weights and measures, and writing system; the architectural details of his palaces; and all the other stuff that was buried with him. It’s not just warriors; the exhibition had terracotta acrobats, civil servants and musicians. And all those things were found at sites away from the main tomb mound itself, which has never been excavated out of respect for the emperor. And there’s probably lots of good stuff in the tomb. This is Wikipedia:

According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC) [i.e. about 100 years after the event], the First Emperor was buried alongside great amounts of treasure and objects of craftsmanship, as well as a scale replica of the universe complete with gemmed ceilings representing the cosmos, and flowing mercury representing the great earthly bodies of water. Pearls were also placed on the ceilings in the tomb to represent the stars, planets, etc.

I particularly liked the writing, a form called Small Seal Script. It’s the ancestor of modern Chinese script, and they had a sample next to the modern equivalent that allowed you to see the similarities. But the seal script looks like petroglyphs: much more varied than modern hanzi, and sort of more organic, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. Partially the difference is between a script written with a pointed implement and one written with a brush, but it’s also presumably the effect of two thousand years of standardisation. There’s an interesting chart of various writing styles on this Wikipedia page.

One thing I find interesting is the terms which they chose to use to talk about the emperor. Qin Shihuangdi’s achievement in conquering the neighbouring kingdoms and unifying them was undoubtedly remarkable. But he was a megalomaniac despot. He declared himself divine emperor of the universe. His tomb complex—built, remember, by prisoners, and designed to be buried—is just him extending his megalomania into the afterlife. So when the BM refers to him as ‘one of the greatest rulers in history’, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. In some sense it’s clearly true, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to live in his empire. And I find the fact that the Chinese aren’t willing to excavate his tomb slightly creepy. It’s hardly a uniquely Chinese thing, of course: it’s easy to get caught up by the romance of someone like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but it’s hard to argue that they increased the sum of human happiness. I wonder, by the way, since the Chinese government is clearly currently running a campaign of cultural diplomacy, whether they exercise any editorial control over exhibitions like this. I imagine the BM would have been absolutely gagging for the opportunity to host the show, so they wouldn’t need to be heavy-handed about it: just a gentle hint here or there.

» There aren’t really any pictures of the warriors on the BM website, so I found a picture of a Qin dynasty banliang coin from their collection just to have something to illustrate the post.


In The Mood For Love

I watched In The Mood For Love on DVD yesterday. It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie, set in Hong Kong in the 60s. One of the cover blurbs says it’s ‘like Brief Encounter remade by Kubrick and Scorsese’; I’m not sure about the Kubrick/Scorsese thing, but the comparison to Brief Encounter is very apt. It’s a film about two people not quite having an illicit relationship, or at least not quite having a sexual relationship.

Maggie Cheung

Apart from anything else, it just looks great. it has a real period feel—not than I’m in a position to judge the accuracy of the details. It’s full of colour, but mainly a subdued palette, all greens and oranges and browns, off-whites, soft blues. And nearly all the action takes place in confined spaces, in apartment blocks, offices, alleys, noodle shops, and in artificial light. And it looks cramped: looking through it to find some screen grabs, it was striking how often objects intrude in the foreground.

Tony Cheung

Maggie Cheung drifts through the film looking exquisite and fragile in a sequence of beautiful cheongsams, and Tony Leung is is also extremely watchable, if not quite so fabulously attired. It’s moody and atmospheric and generally a pleasure to watch.

Culture Other

China, the Olympics, and antiquity diplomacy

I was just watching Question Time on the BBC, and the panel were asked what ‘we’ should do about Burma. Simon Schama was on the panel, and he suggested that, if China was stubborn about blocking any action via the UN, we should have a mass boycott of the Beijing Olympics, since Burma is a client state of China and the Olympics is one of the few pieces of leverage we have. I’m not going to offer any opinion about Schama’s analysis; I was just struck by something one of the audience members said: ‘What does sport have to do with politics?’

Because my immediate reaction was that this Olympics, the 2008 Olympics in China, is intensely political. I say that without knowing anything about the current state of Chinese politics; I don’t think you need to. The 2008 games just has a frisson around it, an aura. It’s the amount the Chinese government is spending, and the way they’re spending it. I mean, have you seen the stadiums they’re building? They are incredible: huge, dramatic, glamorous. Gesture architecture on the grand scale. It’s not enough for the Chinese to show they can put on a successful Olympics; they want to appear dynamic and, above all, modern.

Beijing National Stadium

It’s no coincidence that the British Museum has an exhibition that includes some of the warriors from the Terracotta Army. Or that last winter there was a huge show at the Royal Academy of work from the C18th Chinese court. It’s all surely part of a concerted effort of cultural diplomacy, an attempt to engage with the world and establish Brand China as sophisticated, exciting, a modern nation amongst modern nations. While, I’m guessing, fighting tooth and nail to keep a rigid grip on the levers of power.

Which isn’t to say that the people running China’s PR department are magicians. The insistence on using every opportunity to assert Tibet’s place as an integral part of China’s heritage seems like a bad idea to me; it just reminds people of the issue. Next year there will probably be literally millions of people who will experience a twinge of hostility, or guilt or whatever, at the moment in the opening ceremony when the mascot representing a Tibetan antelope appears. It would probably have been a better idea to avoid the negative vibes.

This isn’t particularly intended as an anti-China screed; trying to project the right national image is something all governments do, after all, it’s just that big totalitarian governments do it in a big, sweeping, control-freak manner that makes it more obvious. I guess it’s just a feeling that every so often you have to say these things explicitly because, after all, you’re kidding yourself if you think that propaganda doesn’t affect you. I’m planning to see the terracotta warriors; I’ll be watching the Olympics; it will all, inevitably, have some impact on my perception of China. The least I can do is remind myself from time to time that it is propaganda.

» the picture of the stadium is from Wikimedia. The terracotta horses are by molas on Flickr and are used under a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.


FSotW: Military Weaponry for Kids

Flickr set of the week is Military Weaponry for Kids, by sinosplice, who explains that these are ‘Pages from a coloring book/drawing book/character practice book for Chinese kids.’


‘China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795’ at the RA

The Royal Academy’s own website doesn’t seem to be working at the moment (Tibetan hackers?), but Goldman Sachs, the corporate sponsor of the show, have a Flash slideshow you can see here which gives an idea of what it’s like.

I found it a bit dull. The exhibition is huge and the quality of the items is obvious, but it seems a bit same-y; and (because it’s all court art?), it’s all rather formal and grand. I also found it surprisingly un-surprising, somehow. I don’t know much about C18th China (anything, really) so I would have expected it to be more interesting just out of novelty value, but somehow it all seemed rather familiar. Perhaps I just haven’t got the enough knowledge to see the subtleties, or perhaps it actually is all a bit repetitive. It might have been a good idea to get the audioguide. These very big exhibitions are always a bit off-putting anyway; if it was a quarter the size, it might have focussed my mind a bit.