Ming exhibition – a few final quotes

More captions/quotes from the BM Ming exhibition:

‘When I grow sober from the wine and the tea and the incense are finished I bid farewell to the setting sun and welcome the clear moon.’ Alcohol sets the mind up for contemplation, a world I assume of pure wine and no hangovers.

Birds depicted in paintings or scrolls: they were it seems ‘symbols of the complex social interactions at court’. They might flutter but ultimately all had their own perches in the bureaucracy.

Guanshiyin, bodhisattva of compassion, appears as a statue, and we’re told the name means ‘observing the sounds of the earth’. Yes, listening is a pure art – but it seems it more literally means ‘sounds of lamentation’, the cruel and not the gentle sounds of earth.

Warrior Yang Hong is quoted as displaying ‘intestinal fortitude of iron and stone’. As will I from henceforth in adversity.

A red lacquer dish has ‘The Imperial Household Department of Sweetmeats and Delicacies’ on its base – something out of fairyland but scratch below the sugar coating it was a pretty brutal place to be.

And there’s more… visit while you can!

Ming exhibition – education

In Ming China there were four great cultural pursuits (if I have the names right) – weiqi (go), qin (music, the zither), calligraphy, painting. The BM exhibition has a zither, as early as 13th century, as I recall.

The Romans had the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), together making up the seven liberal arts.

Both exclude the practical arts – architecture, medicine and in China especially, military skills, the art of war. The Ming emperors had, I read, up to a million soldiers at their disposal.

The four cultural pursuits and the seven liberal arts are radically different and yet both focus on improving the mind. Today it’s all about English and maths, but China recognised the importance of games and music, and classical Rome the benefits of logic and rhetoric.

Reminders that there are other modes of learning. Encouraging music and writing and painting at an early age, as creative not rote exercises, would be a wonder, and a wide benefit.

Thinking games, what of computer games? The challenge is there of course, and the learning, but it’s solitaire against chess, skills against life experience, a MOOQ against a tutorial or a Q and A at the end of a lecture. We need it person-to-person, better still, to look into the whites of another’s eyes.

Ming exhibition – the bureaucracy of heaven

There is much to enjoy in the British Museum’s Ming exhibition. Not least in the captions:

‘…marriage certificate buried with Lady Wei, to confirm her identity to the bureaucrats who were believed to govern the afterlife.’

This is a level of practicality I’ve never accounted before, and it begs the question – how does god (or gods) administer the afterlife? For the Chinese it seems heaven or the afterlife was simply an extension of life on earth. It is a rather chilling vision to us, but probably was reassuring to Lady Wei.

Heaven to us Westerners is a more ethereal, less practical construct. The marvellous visions of John Martin notwithstanding, we prefer to leave it pretty woolly – and live in hope.

Germany: Memories of a Nation – review

And now, by way of a total contrast, a review, of the British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition. Why, in a zenpolitics blog? I’ve no easy answer, let’s just say this is the real world.


A people, a language, a territory, latterly a nation. Princes, electors, bishops, prince… an empire, a republic. Boundaries which shift with the tide of history. The best and very worst of religion. Cataclysmic wars, extreme suffering brought upon itself, and yet achievements which help define man’s highest and greatest capabilities. How to tell this story?

This is an exhibition built around a number of objects, as you’d expect, linked as it is to Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series, and so many of them have a meaning and a resonance and story to tell. It can’t be a history of Germany, and as it rightly explains and explores, Germany is a loose construct, only a nation from the 19th century, but there’s a sense of identity if not nationhood long before then. I loved the Dürer engravings, Melancolia supreme now as it was for Vasari, as it was for William Blake. Goethe is rightly celebrated, referencing his encyclopaedic interests alongside the famous Tischbein portrait. Nearby is one of the original Gutenberg bibles, next to which I rested awhile, in awe of an adventure in print which truly changed the world.

As a reminder of another darker side, there’s the gate to Buchenwald, with Jedem Das Seine, to each his own, above; it’s illuminated from behind, and it’s as if you could pass through, even become one of the 50,000 plus who died there, an extermination of minorities, not on the level of Auschwitz, but chilling just because any and all unwanted minorities were sacrificed there – ‘worked to death’ is one phrase.

And yet, this is also the country of Schinkel’s marvellous Gothic cathedral, an early 19th century painting, bright sky back-illuminated, calling up the medieval soul of Germany. Nearby are the four Riemenschneider evangelists, early 16th century, with a rough almost peasant depth of expression. Almost contemporaneous with Martin Luther: his original bible, in two volumes, is there for us to ponder – a translation which introduced the vernacular into a German language which Luther intended everyone should understand.

Five centuries later Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer seek out the soul of Germany in painting, not language, this time post-war, post-Holocaust. Kiefer’s Margarete, evokes a Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem. [Rilke’s words, “For /beauty/ is nothing but the beginning of /terror/, which we are still just able to endure,” are quoted by Sue Hubbard in an article – not connected with the exhibition – on Kiefer’s series of straw paintings, of which Margarete is the culmination.]

This is an exhibition that opens doors, opens up ideas, sets you planning an itinerary, to see Hans Sachs’ and Durer’s Nuremburg, the Fugger banking city of Augsburg, even Friedrichstrasse station in Berlin: there’s a model of the station, designed it seems to allow surveillance by the Stasi.

A poignant statue of an angel, Der Schwebende, emerging like a ship’s figurehead, designed by Ernst Barlach as a war memorial for Güstrow cathedral, in what became East Germany, tells its own story. First installed in 1927, destroyed by the Nazis, it was recast and re-installed in the 1980s. It seemed at the time that the two halves of Germany would be there for the foreseeable, if not forever.

And yet, I mentioned opening doors… at the very end there’s a door which flaps open, and it takes you back to the beginning, to the first room, to a film of crowds pouring through from East to West Berlin in November 1989 – you’re beneath the film, almost a part of it, you come full circle.



Content (George Herbert)

I’ve an old edition of George Herbert’s poems. It belonged to a great-aunt and she marked this poem – was it seventy or eighty years ago? So this is a mark of remembrance, as well as a poem for today….

It’s a cold and frosty morning, just one day of the old year left beyond today, when the winter has imposed its frozen quiet on the landscape, and you would wish to be at peace within as the world is without. George Herbert’s poem, Content, is one for this morning. The muttering thoughts are there, and maybe they won’t go away. For bed, read chair as we look out on a wintry land, or we may take a well-wrapped walk passing hoar-frosted hedgerows, en route to no destination. We till our own ground, follow our own path, no longer do we  ‘importune’ our friends, or ourselves.

Peace mutt’ring thoughts, and do not grudge to keep
    Within the walls of your own breast:
Who cannot on his own bed sweetly sleep,
   Can on anothers hardly rest.


Then cease discoursing soul, till thine own ground,
   Do not thy self or friends importune.
He that by seeking hath himself once found,
   Hath ever found a happie fortune.