Toronto Gosh

I am in Toronto Chinatown, investigating restaurants Shanghainese, Yunnanese, Cantonese, a smattering of Sichuanese, one Manchurian, two Xinjiang halal and some half-hearted Peking. So obviously I started with a Mongolian hotpot. Services in the church are two parts Mandarin to one part Cantonese. Signage, as is common in Canada and around the world, tells one story to Chinese readers and another to Anglos. Yesterday was the Chinese collection at the Royal Ontario Museum; today I’m off to see the monument to the Chinese workers on the Pacific railroad. Me the north, as they almost say here.

I’ll leave you with a Ming-dynasty figurine of one of Hell’s Torturers. No, really.

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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.

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.

Elegantly Wasted

Had he been born in our era, Li Bai (701–762) would have surely been a rock star, wrecking hotel rooms and bedding groupies he met on a drug-fuelled stage-dive. In Tang dynasty China, he still enjoyed a reputation as a wild-child poet, lionised for his quick couplets and witty juxtapositions, summoned even to the Xuanzong Emperor’s entourage.

That was when he blew it. After dithering for days among a crowd of hangers-on, he got his moment to shine, called in as a script doctor on a court performance that needed punching up. Instead, he drunkenly tried flattering a prickly consort. With all the self-destructive tendencies of a heavy-metal frontman, Li Bai dissed the chief eunuch and back-handedly complimented the famously plump Yang Guifei for being as gracile as a legendary stick-thin kingdom-wrecker. It took a while for courtiers to unpick his cheeky insults, but his career at court was essentially over before it had begun.

In his new book, The Banished Immortal, poet and novelist Ha Jin offers a slick and readable biography of China’s most famous poet – his wives and concubines, his dissolute life, and his flirtations with power and politics. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal that both evokes Li Bai’s talent and his ghastly, narcissistic disregard for others. “So long as the host can get me drunk,” he slurs in one epigram, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.” We’ve all got a friend like Li Bai… we just wish he’d warn us before he rings the doorbell and asks if we’ve got any booze.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away – one gets a strong sense with Jin’s text of the sheer, daunting size of China. A man of privilege who never seems to have to really work, Li Bai’s travels separate him from his wife for years on end, and he only writes to her on a couple of occasions. Her own letters never find him, defeated by the sheer length of lines of communication. In one amusing incident fit to fill an entire episode of Star Trek, a communiqué arrives from a people so remote that nobody at court understands it. Only Li Bai, who grew up in western China and may even have been born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, can decipher it, and reveals that it is a declaration of war.

Jin is at his best when dealing with Li Bai as a fellow creative – he makes no boast to be his equal, but has an informed insider’s grasp of the perils of poetry. He is not afraid to point out those places where his subject is just phoning it in, and is ready to suggest when certain “off-the-cuff” couplets have been composed in advance. This poet’s-eye view of another poet is Jin’s greatest contribution, cutting through the hagiographies and unmitigated praise of other authors to the heart of Li Bai’s true talent. The author, an exile who has spent much of his adult life in America, clearly identifies with the peripatetic Li Bai, excluded from high office and ever unsure of his situation, “a fish trapped in a roadside puddle, dreaming of returning to the ocean.”

Jin makes a strong case for Li Bai as a man of letters ousted from what might have been a more productive calling, an alcoholic genius who inevitably puts a foot wrong in the Tang court, and a late-life careerist who disastrously backs the wrong horse. We share in Li Bai’s elation when he hears that the new emperor, Suzong, has pardoned him, and in his disappointment when he tardily realises this was not a recognition of his eloquence, but a blanket amnesty. Jin digs down into the hidden messages of love poems, and the subtle asides contained in what first appear to be fawning songs of praise.

There are, nevertheless, some odd missteps in the prose. Jin writes at one point of the “Nan dynasty”, which never existed – any Chinese speaker can see that he is referring to the “Southern Dynasties”, but this error has been allowed to stand. The Xianbei tribe is archaically referred to as the Sien-pi. Jin bafflingly recounts the death of the concubine Yang Guifei as suicide, when most accounts agree that she was strangled. In what I can only assume is a sop to the American market, Jin praises the work of Ezra Pound, who spoke no Chinese and left scraps of Japanese gibberish in his “translations” from where he copied out a crib sheet. He guardedly acknowledges the earlier work of Arthur Waley, conceding that while dated, it still has weight – I would suggest that many of Waley’s translations retain a majesty and harmony that is often lacking here. But this is not Ha Jin’s fault – all but truly bilingual translators usually work into their native language, not out of it.

For the reader unfamiliar with Chinese, Jin’s explanations can open whole new worlds between the lines, although sometimes only patchily. He notes, for example, the allusion in the last line of the poem “Zhan Chengnan” to an epigram from the Dao De Jing, but omits to mention that the opening lines are obviously a nod to “We Fought South of the City Wall”, a famous protest song from the Han dynasty. When examining “A Lament of the Leaving Woman,” Jin interprets it as a poem that reaches out to Li Bai’s disenchanted live-in lover. But considering the hostility with which other poems rail against “that stupid woman,” it is surely more likely that this poem is a toxic masterpiece of passive-aggression, taunting her for losing her looks and having nowhere else to go, a “cheap concubine.” Jin flinches at pointing out just how good his subject was at being bad.

However, these are discussions to be had, rather than outright statements of incontrovertible fact. Jin has consulted a number of Chinese-language books on Li Bai, and his text valuably distils much of their arguments for an Anglophone audience. While he often quotes trenchant third-party observations, beyond his intuitions as a jobbing poet, he rarely gives evidence of a source-critical reading of these other authors – he is insightful on Li Bai’s poetry, but hands-off regarding his historicity. Repeatedly, he refers to these other works as if they are a unanimous chorus of approval, whereas a more historically minded author might have tried a little forensics to make sure these other sources weren’t largely citing each other.

Regardless, the field of popular biographies of medieval Chinese figures is shockingly small. Li Bai’s life spanned a rich, transformative period in the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road and the brief florescence of a truly diverse China. Ha Jin’s biography will introduce this poet to a whole new generation, suffused with examples of his philosophy and verse.

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

Wrapped at Christmas

After six weeks of shooting and over 1,500 miles of driving, I’m on my way home having wrapped on season five of Route Awakening for National Geographic, taking in two lost kingdoms, a forgotten emperor, several sets of grave robbers, and your correspondent trying to learn the steps to the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. Yes, I was working on Christmas Day. That’s the way I like it. Look out for more details on the topics of season five coming in spring 2019. Also coming in the New Year, my latest book: A Brief History of China from Tuttle Publishing, which begins with cavemen and ends with reality television.

Terracottas in Liverpool

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Back from the Liverpool World Museum, where I spoke this week about Chinese Bronze Age burial customs, the oddities of the Qin state in ancient China (including its most famous song), and the enduring mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors. The exhibition itself has lots of interesting and quirky pieces, including a cauldron like the one that Duke Wu dropped on his foot, a barbarian brooch from Qin’s contacts with the western nomads, and a statue of a goose from the First Emperor’s bronze menagerie.

I asked the crowd if they could remember what they were doing back in July 2005, when “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt was number one, because that’s the timespan, just thirteen years, that separates the coronation of the First Emperor from the fall of his dynasty. The museum at the Terracotta Army site near Xi’an has already stood for twice as long as the dynasty it celebrates.

Drawing on the materials in my book on the First Emperor (which was doing a roaring trade in the museum shop, I am pleased to say), it’s only when you set the archaeology in context with the textual evidence from Qin documents (themselves often as recent a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors themselves), that the reason for every soldier having an individual face becomes clear.