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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Judge Dee Fights The Power

From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and the US. Recommended reading if you want to get the most out of Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee movie, in which Empress Wu launches a vendetta against her former ally.

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Judge Dee was rounded up with a number of other officials, and escorted to the investigators’ head office by the Gate of Beautiful Scenery. Lai Chunchen informed his captives that they had one shot at mercy – under plea-bargaining terms that Empress Wu had recently approved, anyone who immediately pleaded guilty could have their sentences commuted from execution to banishment. With that in mind, Lai Chunchen asked Judge Dee if there was a conspiracy. Dee’s reply was blunt and sarcastic:

[Wu’s] Great Zhou revolution has occurred, and ten thousand things are changing. Old officials of the Tang dynasty like myself are soon to be executed. You bet there’s a conspiracy!

Lai Chunchen would have preferred a straight yes or no, but took Judge Dee’s response to be in the affirmative. Dee was locked up for processing, although his stance managed to impress some of his captors. One investigator, doubting very much that Dee would be detained long in exile, asked him if the judge would put a good word in for him on his return, to which the judge responded by literally banging his head against a wooden pillar while calling the investigator a series of rude names.

The Judge, however, was not going to go without a fight. Waiting for a moment when he was left alone, he wrote a letter to his son on the inner lining of his jacket, and then prevailed upon his captors to take the jacket back to his home, so that his family could take out the winter padding.

On finding the secret message, Dee’s son immediately applied for an audience with Wu herself, and showed the empress the accusing letter. Lai Chunchen was called to explain himself, but argued that the letter was a forgery, since he had no record of the judge’s clothes being sent back to his house. There, Dee’s case might have foundered before it could have truly begun, but for a slave who approached Wu himself. The ten-year-old boy was one of many palace servants who owed their position to the alleged misdeeds of their elder family members. Uncaring that his words could lead to his own torture or death, the boy announced that his family was innocent, and that he lived his life as a slave solely because of the persecutions and lies of the ‘cruel clerks.’

This dramatic turn of events forced Wu to summon Dee to the palace to explain himself. She asked the judge why he had pleaded guilty in the first place, to which Dee replied that it was the only way he could avoid torture and death”

China’s Cleopatra

24999580The Indonesian edition of my biography of Empress Wu has just been published, with a racy new title and an even racier new cover.

“Dalam kisah nyata yang sensasional ini, Jonathan Clements menuturkan kisah kelam dan dramatis satu-satunya kaisar perempuan dalam sejarah China, Wu Zetian: selir, manipulator, politikus, pembunuh, dan titisan dewi. Inilah kisah Cleopatra dari China; kisah tentang pembunuhan, seks, cinta, kekuasaan, dan pembalasan dendam…” or “In this sensational true story, Jonathan Clements tells the dramatic tale of the dark and only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian: concubine, manipulator, politician, murderer, and incarnation of a goddess. This is the story of China’s Cleopatra — a tale of murder, sex, love, power, and revenge…” In your face, Game of Thrones. For the English original, recently reissued on paperback and the Kindle by Albert Bridge Books, see here in the UK or here in the US.

The Demonisation of Empress Wu

A lovely article has just been posted on the Smithsonian blog, outlining the odd life and hateful rumours about Empress Wu. There are a couple of quotes in there about shagging slave girls and barbecuing sheep, lifted from that book about her by one Jonathan Clements.

I think the article gives a remarkably good account of why she is such a fascinating subject, even so many centuries after her death.

Dreaming of Parhae

When I was working on my book about Empress Wu, I found myself clambering around the dark, musty interior of a grave close to her tomb. On the wall, a mural depicted ambassadors from afar, come to praise the glory of the Tang dynasty. One of them, famously, is a hirsute, hook-nosed man from Syria. But standing behind him in the queue is an even odder dignitary – an alien, glowering figure with a satanic beard and an odd, horned head-dress. He was a diplomat from the land that the Chinese called Bohai, which still lends its name to the gulf between modern Korea and the Chinese coast, which between 698 and 926 AD, dominated north-east Asia before falling to barbarians… or as the Chinese would have it, other barbarians.

Parhae (or Balhae, or Bohai) was described by Chinese chroniclers as the “Rising Land of the East”, now a forgotten, ruined state in one of the least studied corners of Asia, which once had several “capitals”, fought a war against Tang China, and extant fragments of whose architecture and grave goods indicate was a powerful, civilised culture. And yet, by the middle of the tenth century, it all fell apart. The last king of Parhae walked weeping from his city gates, leading a flock of sheep in a symbolic gesture of surrender. I have long been fascinated by the story, and forced to rely on Japanese sources, so I am immensely pleased that Global Oriental have broken such new ground with this wonderful book.

A “New” History of Parhae is something of a misnomer – the subject has rarely been even mentioned in English before. Parhae is a political minefield. It covers much of that liminal area better known to regular readers of this blog as Manchuria, which means that at various points in the last hundred years, the Koreans, Japanese and Russians have all tried to lay claim to it. For the Russians, Parhae was the first mainland East Asian state to establish itself independent of China, and hence, by an oddly Soviet process of logic, the defining line of the border between China and Siberia. For the Chinese, Parhae was a vassal state, and hence “proof” of Chinese authority extending far to the north. For the Japanese it was neither Chinese nor Russian, and hence an ideal historical idea to push in order to establish that the area was up for grabs during Japan’s colonial push into Manchuria.

For the Koreans, Parhae could be a “Greater” Korea – a notional, largely theoretical expansion of ethnic identity to the north-west of current borders. It establishes “Korean-ness” as an element to be found far beyond the current peninsula, and hence pushes Korean ethnicity as a far larger contributor to East Asia. As “the lost land” of modern mythology, it even became the subject of a K-pop song, “Dreaming of Parhae”. Discovering this is not unlike discovering that Zou Bisou Bisou contains coded messages to the Vietcong. It certainly adds a degree of historical context to The Legend of the Shadowless Sword, a film about the last prince of Parhae, universally reviewed as if it were a “Korean” subject, whereas as seen above, there is far more to it than that.

Yes, it’s all very political, and the weapons are largely academic. A New History of Parhae began life as a publication by the Northeast Asian History Foundation, an academic body deliberately set up by the Koreans to counter the influence of a similar institution cobbled together by the Chinese. Translator John Duncan acknowledges all of the above in introducing a superb collection of fifteen essays that piece together the foundation, flourishing and decline of historical Parhae, using archaeological evidence and extant documents. Parhae never got a dynastic history like other Asian states, so we have to construct details of its existence from asides in the records of the Tang dynasty or Japanese annals. Chapters include tantalising glimpse of later attempts to resurrect the lost kingdom, as well as a study of Parhae’s forgotten maritime power. Closing essays offer literature reviews of work in other languages.

John Duncan’s translation is seamless and invisible, devoid of the pomposities or solecisms so often found when Asian academia is rendered into English. He also negotiates the choppy waters of conflicting romanisations, and produces a fantastic book. So it’s a shame that he has been let down by the illustrations, which are amateurish and often pointless, and presumably repeated from the original. There are seemingly random photographs of non-descript hills, repeated images of vaguely-related forts, and unexplained overhead shots of somewhere presumed relevant. Worst of all, two of the maps are printed in Korean (if I could read Korean, I wouldn’t have had to wait seven years to buy this in translation) and two others in which all the text was duplicated as random ASCII characters (let’s all go to the town of “%&^”%$&$). I don’t know about you, but if I spend £69 on a book, I rather hope that it’s got decent maps. Reading between the lines of the captions, the publishers knew all this before they went to print, but did so anyway with a shrug and crossed fingers.

I do feel for them. On several occasions, books of my own have escaped similar unpleasantness only by dint of sheer luck or editorial brinkmanship. I would have very happily paid for A New History of Parhae if it didn’t have any pictures in it at all, but the ones included seem strangely contemptuous, as if the publishers want to be able to trill on their press releases that it is “illustrated”, but don’t much care what the aforesaid illustrations actually show. There is similar derisory graphical treatment elsewhere in the book, such as where the “Lineage Chart of Parhae Kings” turns out to be just a list of names and dates. So, not a chart at all, then. As the price suggests, this is a book for a community of high-level academics and experienced historians. Do the publishers really expect none of them to notice?

Then again, beggars can’t be choosers. I have been dreaming of Parhae for many years, and this book only makes the dreams more real.

A New History of Parhae is out now from Global Oriental.