Big, Beautiful Women

BuYun Chen begins Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China as any smart historian would, with the 2014 media storm over the plunging necklines in a TV show about Empress Wu. History’s best-loved bad-girl, Wu the Treacherous Fox even managed to scandalise from beyond the grave, causing modern-day Chinese censors to clutch their pearls in horror at the sight of all that medieval cleavage. More than a thousand years after the fall of the Tang dynasty, its fashions were still too hot for TV.

In an age when sumptuary laws tried to dictate an unofficial uniform for every class and profession, “the experience of dress and adornment [was] fundamentally one of meaning-making for the wearer, viewer and chronicler.” Chen details the weaves and patterns of a boggling array of beautiful medieval clothes, both extant and merely described, as well as the baubles and diadems that adorned many a princess’s head-dress and tiara. Nor does Chen limit her account to human fashions, detailing the elaborate decorations of the dancing horses of the Xuanzong Emperor, “with saddles of gold and silver, their manes and forelocks adorned with pearls and jades.”

Her materials are wonderfully diverse, spanning museum collections from Tokyo to Turfan, encompassing not only paintings, the poems of Li Bai, chroniclers’ descriptions and sculpture, but also tomb figurines from the western Chinese desert and pawn-shop receipts in the name of 7th-century dyers and “hairpin artisans”. Just as silk was regarded as a more durable and exchangeable currency on the frontier, textiles – necessary but discretionary – were one of the most common articles pawned in times of crisis.

Chen describes Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in all its medieval cosmopolitan glory, at the height of the reign of the Xuanzong Emperor, when the Serpentine Pond in the south-east of the city was surrounded by bars run by Sogdian immigrants, crammed with rowdy drinkers and dancing girls in diaphanous gowns.

An appreciation of fashion and material culture is of vital importance for the novelist or historian setting a scene, particularly in an age like the Tang, where the women adorned their faces with slashes of bright scarlet like kabuki actors, and where the most glorified female form was one that had internalised all the prosperity and wealth for which the age was famed – Tang men were chubby-chasers who liked big, beautiful women. Whenever there’s a Twitter storm about a Tang-historical TV show, invariably starring stick-thin actresses, I’m tempted to disrupt things by asking innocently: where are all the fat girls? But Chen points out that even this was a fluctuating trend – she quotes from the 9th-century art critic Zhang Yanyuan, who points to a tendency towards the voluptuous in artistic representations of Tang women along a time-line that more or less matches the rise of Empress Wu. The famously chubby Yang Guifei, contrary to the assertions of many later writers, was not a plus-size trend-setter, but a woman who fitted a new standard of beauty established a generation before she was born.

The mid-Tang dynasty saw an immense rise in the power and influence of women. Chen charts those moments where both wearers and observers of fashion used clothing choices to mark moments of rebellion or transgression, beginning with the moment when Empress Wu’s notoriously chippy daughter Princess Taiping turned up at a banquet dressed like a general. Clothing, notes Chen, was “perceived to be constitutive of the person.” We are what we wear.

Nor is this mere set-dressing. Curators at Luoyang Museum have created a massive pictorial genealogy of Tang hair fashions, exacting enough that archaeologists can often date a grave to the nearest decade from the hairstyles on the statues inside it. Fashions reflect not only material culture, but political changes, as evinced by the sudden rise of hufu (“barbarian garb”) among ladies who wanted to show off by wearing trousers and jackets with lapels. Chen runs with this idea, charting the prevalence of certain kinds of skirt or colour in tomb figurines from different decades. Her illustrations, on which many of the women’s faces have been scratched out while their clothes remain, serve to demonstrate the immense value of unexpected metadata in otherwise “spoilt” materials.

In an era where clothing was thought to be a reflection of reality and harmony, dressing decisions could be announcements of bold changes in status or grabs for power – Tang dandies literally dressed the part, even if the part was aspirational. The first Tang emperor decreed that a woman’s clothing should be selected in direct relation to the status of her father or husband. By the time of his daughter-in-law, Empress Wu, that had gone right out the window. By the time of her grandson, Xuanzong, even court ladies were going out in “barbarian clothes” – later taken as an omen that the dynasty had been corrupted.

Chen takes her account beyond the height of Tang fashions into the miserable scrabble for survival after the revolt that brought down Xuanzong. Fashion became a battle-ground for conservatives, with a backlash against women that sought to regulate their hemlines, while poets juxtaposed the image of the beautiful clothes of the aristocratic lady with the unkempt, dishevelled appearance of the weaver-girl who has made them. It’s a fascinating snapshot of changing styles and attitudes at the height of the Silk Road.

The “Serpentine Pond” pond is still there, by the way. These days, it’s part of a medieval theme park in Xi’an called Tang Paradise, where there are many parades, fire-breathers and kung fu displays: a lot of dancing girls, but lamentably little Tang-dynasty cleavage. People can’t leave well enough alone.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Empire of Style: Silk and Fashion in Tang China is out now from the University of Washington Press.

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African Samurai

Over at All the Anime, I review Lockley and Girard’s Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai, and pronounce it to be great fun, albeit not all that historical.

“Poke around Asian history for long enough, and you will find flashes of striking diversity – the Italian girl buried in a medieval grave in Yangzhou, or the Persian camel drivers celebrated in Tang dynasty porcelain. Reading the 14th-century Travels of ibn Battuta, we find him dropping in on a fellow Muslim in a Chinese harbour town, admiring his ‘fifty white slaves and as many slave-girls.’ You can bet there’s a story, there.”

The Tale of Genji

Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji appears to have been patched together over the course of a couple of decades, serialized in episodic chapters for a small circle of intimates. Its titular hero is a minor princeling, the son of one of the emperor’s lesser concubines, doomed to a life of genteel idleness and forced into several soap-opera situations involving unwelcome betrothals, doomed love affairs, and court scandals. It is likely, but impossible to prove, that some of the situations in which he finds himself were thinly disguised allusions to real goings-on in the capital.

“I have a theory,” Murasaki wrote, “about what this art of the novel is…It does not simply consist in the author’s telling a story.” Instead, she argued for writing as a true vocation—an insurmountable urge to communicate with others.

“On the contrary, it happens because the storyteller’s own experience…even [of] events he has only witnessed or been told of—has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart. Again and again, something in his own life…will seem to the writer so important that he cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion.”

Murasaki’s depiction of court life is an idealized world of courtiers dueling with witty poems, and of lovelorn princesses waiting for their Prince Charming to sneak into their bedchamber for a midnight tryst. She presents a view of an idle, timid coven of women diverting themselves with guessing games and literary competitions, largely at the mercy of a society of rapacious or dismissive men. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s worse for one of Murasaki’s women: attracting the attention of a nobleman who will force himself on her in a midnight visit, or realizing that such attentions are waning, that he has found another diversion in another palace courtyard, and that she is left literally holding the baby.

The attitudes of Murasaki’s characters make it abundantly clear that women in in her world are second-class citizens, “creatures of sin” in Genji’s words, regarded by the menfolk as idle, ditzy decorations. Such attitudes are a world away from the ancient legends of Japan, which are thickly populated with queens and warrior-women, and seem to imply that the indigenous people accepted a power structure that regarded women and men as complementary equals. In The Tale of Genji, we catch a glimpse of the damage that may have been done by several centuries of immigrants from the mainland, infusing the Japanese with another Chinese import—chauvinism.

Entire shelves of books have been written about The Tale of Genji, and the adroit, oblique way that it purports to be about its title character, the “shining prince,” while actually being about the women in his life. An early chapter features Genji and his friends idly and somewhat cluelessly discussing the types of women that exist, setting up dozens of later chapters in which he blunders into relationships with their real-world manifestations.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2019

Dare to Dream! We’re back for the game of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest hosted this year by Israel, a country which won last year with a chicken dance in a kimono. The Netherlands is inexplicably the bookies’ favourite, but audience appreciation for Malta, Switzerland and Norway are all off the charts, and North Macedonia’s entry will be popular with anyone who can’t remember Rise Like a Phoenix. We’ve already had to say goodbye to Austria’s blue-rinse with a boob tube, Romania’s zombie bondage butlers and Portugal’s… well, I don’t know what Portugal was, except it was a song about mobile phones that sounded like someone throwing a piano down some stairs.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights will be seen during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you see them first? Remember to shout it out. Party hosts will need to keep score of who gets what first, or otherwise dish out the forfeits to those that aren’t quick enough. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT!

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should look out for:

Midget drum-kit
Chinese man with a stepladder
Heart made of lasers
Pogo-dancing idiot
KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
MULLET! (a man with two haircuts, both of them bad)
MAN TABLE! (table made of men)
Crotch grabbing
Some audience nutter waving a Brazilian flag for no reason.
Girls on sticks
Mirror man
Giant chair
Hammer time! (hammer as musical instrument)
Lyrics: “I’m dancing with the fairies now.”
Black thigh boots but no knickers
Sign: IT HURTS TO BE ALIVE
Sudden gospel choir
Hand-drawn armchair
Giant reindeer effigy
Man in inadvisable shorts
HOLA OLA! First sighting of supervisor Jon-Ola Sand
Pointing
Onstage Fencers
SHOW A LEG! (single leg poking out of costume)
Robot
Misheard lyrics: “I’m shitting my body tonight.”
He’s a Cockney Czech!
El Dancing Wicker Man
Lyrics: “Na Na Na”
Big ballerina
White thigh boots
Backflip! (seriously, stop with the... stop... stop!)
Hands make a heart (on or off-stage)
Gaucho backing dancers
Lyrics: “The ruins of what has been”
FLAME ON! (every time there's pyrotechnics)
Slide and Sneer!
Lyrics: “I can be your jungle.”
WINKING
COSTUME CHANGE
Giant ball!
Giant ball thrown into the audience.
Ribbons!
Bimbling*
ORBITAL CLEAVAGE**
Buddha Jazz Hands***

HORSE HEAD! As a special bonus for all you astronomers, at some point tonight you will see Barnard 33, also known as the Horsehead Nebula.

Other optional bonus categories are:

YES, WE KNOW! (every time someone points out Israel isn’t in Europe)

The Palestinian Protest Sweepstake – pick a song in advance to see if you can predict when the stage invasion, banner or other stunt inevitably happens. My guess is when Estonia or the UK are onstage, because that’s when everybody will be in the loo.

Threatening comment from Eastern European panellist about “our neighbours”

Panellist attempts to say “L’CHAIM!”

AYOUB SERIOUS? Green-room host Lucy Ayoub switches into Arabic.

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion.).
(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup).

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)

 

“We are technicolour. Watch us go.”

Medieval Frenemies

One of our most valuable records of life in the Heian court comes from a chatty, contrary, vulnerable lady-in-waiting whose habit of writing topical lists and musings often makes her come across like a modern blogger. Common to the etiquette of the day, her true name remained unspoken in public and is hence lost, although she is usually referred to by her nickname, Sei Shōnagon (Lesser Councillor of State Kiyo’s [Woman]). Some of her diary entries even appear to be what we might now call memes—snickering about a cat treated as a royal personage, or a long-forgotten in-joke about a spindle tree, enduring today as nothing but an unintelligible punchline.

Sei Shōnagon loves getting letters; she derives a nerdy joy at finding books she hasn’t read before. Rude people piss her off. She can never find a truly good pair of tweezers. She hates that moment when you splash ink on a book you are copying out; that moment when you wait up all night for a man who doesn’t show; or when he does and then snores loud enough for your neighbors to know what’s going on.

She doesn’t like going to bed alone, and burning fine incense that makes her feel like she is a class act if there is no man to notice. When she looks in her Chinese mirror and the burnished bronze is a little cloudy, it makes her fret that she, too, is losing her looks. When an evening letter arrives from her lover, she can’t wait to find a lamp, and uses tongs to snatch a lump of red charcoal from the nearby brazier, squinting in the half-light, heedless of the fire hazard.

Sei Shōnagon gets annoyed when she hires an exorcist to deal with someone’s spirit possession, only for the guy to turn out to be a drowsy charlatan. She swells with childish pride when the empress addresses her and she accidentally says the right thing in response.

When her carriage travels down a narrow woodland lane, she reaches out to touch the trees.

Haters still hated. Murasaki Shikibu (the “Wisteria Girl of the Ministry of Ceremonies ), a fellow court lady who also kept a diary, couldn’t stand Sei Shōnagon, but had to put up with her scribblings. A thousand years later, we are immensely fortunate to have access to the writings of both these remarkable women, who not only wrote beautifully and evocatively about their lives, but did so at the same time and place. Somewhere, sitting in a bar not far from you right now, there is a pair of frenemies just like them—one bubbly, chatty, and sensual; the other shy, plainer, but smarter. Sei Shōnagon is the hot, flirty one with a ready comeback; Murasaki Shikibu is the wallflower who thinks of something cleverer, but only on the way home. Widowed at a young age, Murasaki was introverted, introspective, icily witty but faintly repulsed by human contact, particularly with Sei Shōnagon, whom she regarded as insufferably smug, airheaded, and with an inflated sense of her own literary merits.

“If we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place,” Murasaki wrote, “we find that they are full of imperfections.” By far the smarter one, Murasaki tried and largely failed to keep her intellect secret from her fellow court ladies, whom she rightly suspected would be at first curious, and then jealous. Murasaki, who dismissed Sei Shōnagon for her flighty interests and empty opinions, had the last laugh, being remembered as the world’s first novelist for writing The Tale of Genji around the turn of the eleventh century.

From A Brief History of Japan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and the US.

Shandong: Land of Confucius

This appears to be blocked in the United States, but viewers in other territories can now see my National Geographic documentary Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018) on YouTube.

“Jonathan Clements takes us on a thought-provoking journey to the land where the young Confucius formed his earliest ideas: Shandong Province. Guided by Confucius’ most influential sayings and Clements’ unique perspective on Asia we explore this coastal province and learn how even after thousands of years the great sage’s thinking is still relevant in today’s China.”

All Tomorrow’s Parties

“Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re there to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good.”

Chen Qiufan’s endlessly inventive near-future tale The Waste Tide begins with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac and Ben Elton’s Stark, pitting ecological protestors against a system that is already showing signs of terminal decline. A tense, action-packed scene of shipboard monkey-wrenching shows the high-stakes game being played out on the seas, but it’s a later, quieter scene that really establishes the ghastliness about to unfold. A lobster served at a Chinese banquet has three pincers and a carapace that has been repaired, as if diners are now gorging themselves on invalids and mutants. It doesn’t look good, no matter where you are on the food chain.

Well, unless you live on Silicon Isle. This south Chinese coastal enclave has become a world leader in e-waste recycling, a ready recipient of poisonous junk as part of a ploy to grab useful materials. There’s gold (and platinum, and copper) in them there circuit boards, as long as you don’t mind poisoning the local environment when you harvest it… as long as you don’t mind the miserable, dangerous working conditions.

Scott Brandle is a Dante-quoting rep from an American recycling company, who gawps at the pall of smoke from PVC fires, and the zombie-chic sight of an abandoned prosthetic arm, twitching on the scrap pile. But Brandle is no Old China Hand (sorry), he’s an observer, drinking in the sights of a surveillance state that has invaded the very bodies of its inhabitants, not only with environmentally unfriendly prosthetics, but with RFID chips that are the only things to ward off the guard dogs in your local district’s frequency.

It’s his guide, Kaizong, who is soon revealed as the true hero, a local boy made good, returning to his hometown to confront old ghosts and new problems, seeing Silicon Isle through the eyes of his foreign charges, reminiscing about his American college days in order to allow for moments of incisive infodump. Or is he? Because by the second part of the book, the point-of-view switches to Mimi, a lost girl from the underclass, whose memory is briefly transferred into the intelligence systems of a giant robot, and who has trouble readjusting to being back in her own body. If that sounds curiously “anime”, then it’s not the only playful echo of foreign science fiction in a story that still remains quintessentially Chinese, even as it tips its hat to Akira and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Chen’s grasp of China’s future remains as chilling and believable as in his acclaimed short stories such as The Fish of Lijiang. Internet entrepreneurs offer online banking in the afterlife, dovetailing the virtual environments of online gaming with an artful religious swindle. A canny trash-comber slices out the still-working cybernetic vagina from a Japanese sex doll; superstitious locals seek shamanic help to deal with what is clearly an envirogenic disease; a factory girl knows nothing about the opposite sex, except that which she has learned from TV dramas. Repeatedly, there are allusions to Earth as a place where the Chinese have nowhere left to run – unwelcome in Australia or the United States, they drift homewards, to the trash heap of their ancestors. Wireheads download nostalgia apps that threaten to give them brain damage, but give them a moment in which they can wallow in how things used to be.

“You are what you eat,” observes Kaizong, in a world where everyone is ingesting granules of plastic, chemical poisons and carcinogenic additives. Capitalism has advanced to the stage where a tour guide will wait for a bribe before trying to rescue a drowning child, and sustained development projects are decried as “legalised looting.”

Translator Ken Liu, any Chinese author’s dream choice, has plenty of fun not only with Chen’s Mandarin, but with the echoes within it of a greater diversity within China – Cantonese slang and Teochew regionalisms. As in the controversial film Sap Nin, voice recognition software has advanced to the stage where it can pick up Mandarin, but southern Chinese topolects with their eight tones and sandhi slides are still beyond it. He also diligently footnotes those parts of the text that he doesn’t expect foreign readers to understand – references to Martin Luther King and Tennyson pass without comment, but when Kaizong alludes to a quote from the Dao De Jing, or a plant only found in south China, Liu has a hyperlink to hand.

Chen’s text gives Liu ample opportunity for cutting observations and satirical clangers – starting with Brandle, a visitor from America who’s tried to bone up on China by reading an “idiot’s guide”, and who is sometimes addressed as Mr Scott. He picks the blandest options on the menu, in what might have been a gentle dig at foreign tourists, except in Chen’s world, this is the only way he can avoid heavy metals.

The tale is set thirty years in our future – a gap the same size as that which separates our present from the Deng Xiaoping reforms that ended Maoism. When it was written in 2013, China was the destination for much of the world’s recycling. This open-door policy was suspended some time ago, causing massive jams and backwashes in many first-world recycling policies. Reporters are finding plastics and chemicals in Ghanaian chickens and Arctic seabirds, and my social media feed is clogged today with stories of environmental catastrophe. Chen’s apocalypse is hence both prescient and familiar – evocative in places of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008), Eric Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (2011) and Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China (2011), and also of the machinations around the suppression of the SARS virus. But that is something that Chen has always excelled at: telling true stories in the cloak of fiction. When his factual, historical discursions suddenly veer off into fiction, the line was so fuzzy I had to Google it just to be sure.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the author of A Brief History of China.