Chinese Antiquities

lovejoyAs an antique-dealer’s son, I have long been used to the world where loveable rogues wheel and deal over flintlock pistols and meerschaum pipes, and occasionally solve crimes and/or bed baronesses. Everything you see in Lovejoy is true; just ask my Dad, but stand well back when you do. My Dad, meanwhile, as the father of an oriental linguist, has gained a new-found second-hand ability to make sense of Chinese in later life, and whenever I drop by his stall at Portobello Road, I am beset with exhortations to date Kangxi pottery or read the inscriptions on opium scales.

Audrey Wang takes such larks to new levels in Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market, published by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s, in which she outlines the state, scandals and securities of the modern trade in Chinese artifacts. The assistant director of Sotheby’s course on the Art Business, Wang is predictably good on the antiques market as a form of bank, where investors seek to stash their money by crystallising it in bronzes and watercolours. Although, of course, the value of investments can go up as well as down, as the British Rail pension fund discovered when it backed Ming vases just before their value slumped.

She has lots to say about the spats in the art world over the right of modern owners to sell pieces pilfered from China. There is some space, for example, devoted to the infamous 12 bronze animal heads from a baroque fountain at the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan), which are about as “Chinese” as Beyoncé, and were in fact once ordered removed by a Manchu princess who thought that they were ghastly. It is, Wang notes, ironic that pieces so untypical of Chinese culture should have come to become so symbolic of it. As noted elsewhere, not the least in a knockabout action movie starring Jackie Chan, the loss and recovery of these bronzes has become emblematic of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” and its long marathon back to international primacy.

I’ve long been aware of the army of Chinese agents who scour the world in search of antiquities to repatriate. But as an auction-house insider, Wang has a particular antipathy for the rarely mentioned gazumpers, who place winning bids on big-name artefacts, and then refuse to pay out of some sense of national revenge. Such actions consign antiquities to an unsold limbo, with auction houses pursuing their seller’s fee on a sum now redefined as £0, and sellers unable to off-load their property because its ownership is now a multi-faceted legal tangle.

Wang is not afraid to point out the elephant in the room, which is that some of the most prolific thieves and fences of Chinese antiques have always been other Chinese people. She observes, for example, that in 1913 “the imperial family offered to sell the imperial collection in its entirety to the American industrialist JP Morgan for $4 million,” but the trade was halted by his death. Had it gone through, presumably the Forbidden City would have been left entirely empty, and would have been turned into a Mao-era car park. In 1924, after the imperial family was pushed out of the Forbidden City, a suspicious number of antique dealerships opened up in Qianmen, “flooding the market with imperial artworks that had been secretly appropriated over the years.” There is, in fact, an entire 1926 volume, used as a sort of I-Spy book by Chinese collectors, called The Catalogue of Books, Calligraphy, and Paintings Lost from the Palace Collection, which continues to remind us how much has been removed. One of my favourite books of recent years, Who Collects the Yuanmingyuan?, attempts in a beautifully post-modern way to reassemble the Garden of Perfect Brightness by tracking down its extant fragments, built into other buildings, adorning swimming pools in Los Angeles, or gracing a French hotel lobby. Wang’s book deals with such issues deftly and dispassionately, while opening a window on the hard-nosed business world where ancient bronzes are used as storage devices for modern capital.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

An Unhappy New Year

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On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.

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Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.

Arcade Fire

Unsurprisingly, gaming arcades have been on the wane in Japan since their peak in 1986 of 26,000 sites. Thereafter, consoles took arcade games into the home, and miniaturisation took gaming onto your phone. Feeding dozens of 100-yen pieces into a Starblade machine, essentially buying one’s way through difficult levels, as your correspondent once did in Osaka for much of 1992, started to look like a silly option when you could own the thing outright and play it in your lounge.

These days, there are only 4,000 registered arcades in Japan, along with another 9,000 sites too small to count, having less than fifty machines. But with the closure of Anata no Warehouse, a five-storey grunge palace in Kawasaki, modelled on the Walled City of Kowloon, it seems that something has dealt a killing blow to the old gaming palaces.

The culprit is a simple 2% increase in consumption tax (Japan’s VAT). That puts up the cost of the average manga magazine by 0.0006p, hardly anything to write home about, you might think. But Japan’s arcade sector has been struggling for years to maintain its “one-coin” slot machine charges. Whereas the average slot machine in the UK takes pound coins, the nearest equivalent in Japan is the 100-yen piece, which is only worth 71p. Under the old 8% tax, 8 yen of that was already going to the tax man; since 1st October, that now goes up to 10 yen. Or in British terms, Japanese arcade games are only bringing home 63p per play. The next coin up is the 500-yen piece, which would mean each play would cost £3.58.

Put it another way: the arcade sites in Japan have declined not only because of new technologies and habits, but because the games are still charging 1986 prices! The consumption tax is liable to wipe out what little profits were left for suppliers, and is sure to lead to many more giving up the ghost. Anata no Warehouse is probably only the first to shut down.

I wonder, though, whether this will affect pachinko quite so much. Japan’s frightfully dull ball-bearing games are in a class of their own, often seem to be a cover for money-laundering anyway, and feature under-the-counter prizes that can be downgraded at will by site owners. So I expect that pachinko will continue to endure, as it bafflingly has for decades, even as the nature of the 100-yen coin leads to a shake-out in more everyday arcade games.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #195, 2019.

The Bachelor Patron (1938)

Katariina (Helena Kara), “call me Kati”, is an orphan teenager sent away from Oulu to Helsinki to be raised by Mauri (Tauno Majuri) a friend of her late father’s, appointed as her guardian. I think you can probably imagine what’s going to happen, as do all of Mauri’s friends, who tut in disapproval when he announces that he’s going to get a barely-legal ward. The housekeeper Mrs Simola (Aino Lohikoski) does her best to put a brave face on the arrival of a vivacious young girl in the house of a confirmed bachelor.

Directed by Orvo Saarikivi for Suomi-Filmi, Poikamiesten holhokki was based on a novel, originally set in England, by one “Denys Aston”, which turned out to be a pen-name for the Finnish author Anni Inkeri Relander. In other words, the original was a comedy of manners that turned upon a very British set-up. Etiquette in Finland is a somewhat bipolar issue – much like Mauri and Kati, there is an unspoken stand-off between “Swedish” self-declared urban sophistication, and a homespun, folksy charm born of the Finnish countryside.

In the lead role, Helena Kara is a luminous presence a generation ahead of her time, whose mannerisms and carriage could easily mark out her out as a time traveller from the 1950s. She had, legendarily, been spotted by director Risto Orko when working as an usherette in a Turku cinema in 1937, and appears here, just a year later, with palpable star quality.

“Wotcher, Mauri!” says Kati, blundering into his all-boys salon and heartily shaking everybody’s hand. In a subtle audio touch, she speaks at all times at a volume a couple of notches above everybody else, even supporting characters to whom she is supposedly deferent. She puts her feet up on the furniture and invites Mauri’s doctor friend to have a look at her feet, eagerly accepting a cigarette from a cavalryman. Neither of them are getting what they bargained for, and it’s unclear on their first encounter who has the upper hand – is Kati a breath of fresh air, or a wayward wild-child in need of some discipline? One is reminded, immediately, of the strong woman of Juurakon Hulda, but the emphasis with Kati is more that she is a free spirit. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the first country in Europe to give women the right to vote, Kati is by no means the first female lead in Finnish cinema to represent everything that is modern and progressive.

She bounces on the bed, she sings in the shower… it’s hardly smoking crack on the stairs, is it? Mauri tuts and frets about her dangerous ways, but without any real understanding of why he is so morose and snappy, it is difficult to know if he wrestling with problems of his own or just a git. He stuffily suggests that she should take up embroidery or singing, and she giggles that girls her age are more into smoking fags and riding horses. Their encounters become increasingly wearing, as the script demands that Kati repeatedly behave like a pouty ingénue, and Mauri frowns at her like she’s just farted. One is tempted to suggest that Helena Kara’s naturalist verve becomes increasingly trammelled and hesitant the more she is pushed upon to actually act. Meanwhile, the film itself seems unsure how to fill its middle section, bogging down in a long soirée in which Kati (and the audience) must sit fidgeting through two musical numbers, and then packing her off on a bus to get a job in shoe shop, as if even the script writer has grown bored with the previous set-up.

The shoe shop is initially a fascinating glimpse of 1930s Finnish life, lined with anonymous boxes as if the notion of customer choice is still a distant dream. Visitors creep in and speak in hushed tones as if they are in the Church of Footwear.

“I would like some brown shoes,” intones the first customer, as if he is participating in some arcane ritual.

“What size are you?”

“Forty-four.”

Such inadvertent entertainments, however, soon turn just as dreary as Mauri’s distant lounge. Comedy is supposed to derive from the fact that five boxes are hard for a small woman to carry.

With only twenty minutes to go, the film reluctantly gets around to its central romance, with all the insouciance of a surly teen getting out of bed. Jaska (Ossi Elstelä) the chauffeur has bonded with Kati over horse-care, but has been forgotten for half the film. Kullervo Kalske, one of the most impossibly handsome men in Finland, fresh from charming the ladies in the same year’s For the Money, parachutes into the story to wow Kati’s fellow shop-girls as Baron Klaus von Bartel, a wealthy man of the world. He asks Mauri for Kati’s hand, and Mauri is suddenly reluctant to divest himself of the tearaway teen.

With all the enthusiasm of a man ticking the No Junk Mail box on an email subscription, Mauri suddenly confesses that Kati has brought magic into his life and he doesn’t want her to go. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, as someone once snarked.

Damning it with the faintest of praise in Aamulehti, journalist Orvo Kärkinen noted that it “met its most significant requirements.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

The End of Saturday Morning

“Certain non-Japanese producers, post-Pokémon, were indeed actively reverse-engineering its success, asking what it was that made anime special and attempting to implement that – I know this because I was paid a lot of money to tell them… [O’Melia] focusses on some interesting areas within reception studies, particularly regarding the hybridity of global broadcasting. She notes that, like British television in days past, Japanese television has exerted a recognisable impact on American broadcasting, contrary to many scare-mongering claims that American media are being hurled at the world on one-way tickets.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Gina O’Melia’s account of the time that American children’s television began turning Japanese.

Netflix Nations

“Lobato details in depth with the panoply of widgets, laws and infrastructures required to put an episode of, say, Evangelion on your television, and the degree to which such provisions tie up local bandwidth in different countries. He details Netflix’s cunningly low-tech Open Connect service, which puts an actual, physical box into the server farms of 1,000 Internet Service Providers around the world, so that Netflix users can go direct to a particular machine for their content. In other words, it is ‘a private network built on top of the public internet.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Ramon Lobato’s Netflix Nations.

Mulan and the Unicorn

There are cunning forces at work before you even open Chen Sanping’s book on Chinese history. The squiggles on the cover give a romantic title, Mulan and the Unicorn, which is way more evocative than the bluntly descriptive English: Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages. But that’s just the first of Chen’s points – that our sense of China is compromised by linguistic and historical assumptions, deeply embedded in the very words we use.

Chen’s interest is in the centuries preceding the founding of the glorious Tang dynasty, when China was split into northern and southern regions. Amid Dark-Age climatic upheavals that saw similar catastrophes in Europe, the Han people, or at least, those that had the means, fled south of the Yangtze, abandoning the north to nomad invaders who swiftly rebranded themselves as the new aristocracy. History books are alive with the odd customs and internal conflicts of the likes of the Xianbei – towering slavers whose womenfolk were expected to forge statues from gold to prove their suitability as queens, and to commit ritual suicide on the accession of their princely sons. Strangers in a strange land, they embraced Buddhism (a foreign import like them), and co-opted legions of local collaborators to make them seem more… Chinese.

This foreshadows the Mongols, Khitans and Manchus of later periods, all of whom similarly swept in and set themselves up as the new overlords. Chen suspects that it might also echo earlier dynasties, too, particularly the ancient Zhou, although the historical record may have deliberately garbled much of their foreign-ness.  He quotes here a spine-tingling observation from Allen Chun, that the Bronze-Age Zhou people, founders of much of historical Chinese tradition, once cryptically observed that “the gods do not accept sacrifices from persons who are not of their own race,” as if they, the priestly aristocracy, were from Somewhere Else. Suggestions of “barbaric” traits enduring among the Xianbei, and their Sui and Tang cousins who reunited China in the 6th century AD, were noted by the eminent scholar (and occasional prankster) Paul Pelliot over a hundred years ago, but Chen really runs with this idea in all sorts of exciting new directions.

With a healthy suspicion of the official record, Chen argues that the dynastic chronicles are riddled with outrageous incidents of spin and fake news, as Chinese authors try to excuse nomadic behaviour in a narrative determined to pretend that everybody is Chinese. He reframes the seizure of power by the Tang Emperor Taizong, a bloody coup fought against his own brothers at Chang-an’s Gate of the Dark Warrior (Xuanwu) in 626, as an entirely everyday incident of blood tanistry – among “Turco-Xianbei” peoples, brothers were expected to fight each other for the succession. In passing, Chen also observes that the gate in question was the barracks for the imperial guard – anyone who controlled the Gate of the Dark Warrior would presumably also have the support of the praetorians of medieval China.

Chen is wonderfully adept at reading between the lines of Chinese history, as chroniclers try to make a “Turkish-leaning” prince sound like a madman, rather than a chip off the old block, and kvetch about women like Empress Wu in positions of power, even though it was the queens who called many of the shots on the steppes. Chen recasts Empress Wu in the context of her Sui and Xianbei predecessors, as a woman for whom ordering the death of her own children would not be all that extraordinary – he’s ready to believe that she did indeed murder her own new-born daughter, which rather undoes all my attempts to make her sound more humane. For Chen, the influence of Turco-Xianbei heritage on the Tang imperial family would stretch all the way to Wu’s grandchild, the Emperor Xuanzong, who had three of his own sons killed on a single day in 737.

In other chapters, Chen gets deeply into historical linguistics, snaffling around for the origins of some remarkably common words, such as ge (elder brother), which he regards as a Turkish import, and nucai (“slave talent”) a later Chinese insult that he believes to have originated in a term for collaborators with invader regimes. Buried in the Chinese language, Chen finds clues to the existence of forgotten Iranian refugees and assimilated Huns, and legions of settlers from Central Asia who swiftly went native if they knew what was good for them.

In one of my favourite passages, he analyses a nonsensical comment in the chronicles, when a Chinese Emperor seemingly started babbling incoherently. But Chen does not see this as a copying error or a corrupted text, but a moment when an angry despot briefly allowed his mask to slip, shouting at his underlings in the language that still functioned as a secret cant among the elite –Chen has a stab at translating what the Emperor was actually saying.

And of course, there is a whole chapter on The Ballad of Mulan, a cross-dressing warrior-woman who loyally served a ruler addressed as “the Khan”, and whose world was so far removed from traditional China, that she is depicted riding on a camel. So, no, not like the cartoon, nor indeed like the forthcoming film. Chen sees Mulan, with its code-switching between Chinese and nomad traditions, its confusions of gender roles and geography as a core text in evoking the clash of alien cultures that defined China’s long medieval period, so carefully air-brushed and redacted by centuries of later authors.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.