That is a map of China, but it’s also a cocktail menu at Opium, a speakeasy in London’s Chinatown that offers a set of mental drinks based on Chinese cities — the Beijing that comes with a calligraphy set and strawberry ink, the Macau that comes with pineapple chunks and a set of safety instructions, and the Urumqi, that comes with pistachio nuts and an eggshell filled with saffron joux. Barman Vincent even managed to do something to make baijiu palatable. I’m writing a history of Chinese food. This sort of counts.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Rich with history and studded with the sayings for which the sage is known. . . Clements uses his considerable story- telling skill to make “the troubled life of a teacher who lived two-and-a-half thousand years ago” come alive.’
– The Asian Reporter
‘Clements reveals the man behind the legend, as well as providing a useful introduction to Confucius’ thoughts and teachings.’
– The Good Book Guide
The teachings of Confucius have survived for twenty- five centuries and shaped over a quarter of the world’s population – his image appears not only in temples across East Asia, but also above the entrance to the US Supreme Court.
Confucius: A Biography reveals unexpected sides of the ancient philosopher – his youth, his interaction with his pupils, his feuds with his rivals and even his biting wit.
This revised edition includes three new chapters on the influence of Confucius in Chinese history, the modernist and post-modernist backlashes against Confucian thought, and its relevance in our world today.
Roxy Simons is first to publish a review of my Brief History of China, out now from Tuttle.
“A Brief History of China deftly explores the global super-power’s past, examining its shifting cultures and competing ideals to create an enthralling read from start to finish. Instead of only telling the stories of the champions, curated to their own advantage to ‘fix’ any unfavourable events, Clements takes China’s history back to its diverse human core, immersing booklovers in a vast cast of characters and a gripping narrative, effortlessly easy to enjoy.”