Thursday, September 14, 2017

Bright Earth in China

This is the introduction to a forthcoming Chinese edition of my book Bright Earth.


I have seen the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Hangzhou’s wondrous West Lake, the gardens of Suzhou and the ancient waterworks of Dujiangyan in Sichuan. But somehow my travels in China have never yet brought me to Xi’an to see the tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and his Terracotta Army. It is most certainly on my list.

But I know that none of us now can ever see the ranks of clay soldiers in their full glory, because the paints that once adorned them have long since flaked off the surface. As I say in Bright Earth of the temples and statues of ancient Greece, they leave us with the impression that the ancient world was more drab than was really the case. These statues were once brightly coloured, as we know from archaeological work on the excavations at Xi’an – for a few fragments of the pigments still adhere to the terracotta.

Some of these pigments are familiar from elsewhere in the ancient world. Red cinnabar, for example – the mineral form of mercury sulfide – is found throughout Asia and the Middle East during the period of the Qin and Han dynasties. Cinnabar was plentiful in China: Sha’anxi alone contains a fifth of the country’s reserves, and it was mined for use not just in pigments but in medicines too. Chinese legend tells of one Huang An, who prolonged his life for at least 10,000 years by eating cinnabar, and Qin Shi Huangdi was said to have consumed wine and honey laden with the mineral, thinking it would prolong his life. (Some historians have speculated that it might instead have hastened his death, for it is never a good idea, of course, to ingest mercury.) According to the Han historian Sima Qian, the First Emperor’s tomb contained a scale model of his empire with rivers made of mercury – possibly from the ancient mines in Xunyang county in southern Sha’anxi.

But some of the pigments on the Terracotta Army are unique to China. This is hardly surprising, since it is widely acknowledged now that chemistry in ancient China – alchemy, as it was then – was a sophisticated craft, used to make a variety of medicines and other substances for daily life. This was true also of ancient Egypt, where chemistry produced glass, cosmetics, ointments and colours for artists. One of the most celebrated colours of the Egyptians is simply now called Egyptian blue, and as Bright Earth explains, it is probably an offshoot of glass-making. It is a blue silicate material, its tint conferred by the element copper. China in the Qin and Han periods, and earlier during the Warring States period of around 479-221 BC, did not use Egyptian blue, but had its own version, now known as Han blue or (because after all it predates the Han) simply Chinese blue. Whereas Egyptian blue has the chemical name calcium copper silicate, Chinese blue substitutes calcium for the element barium.

The ancient Chinese chemists discovered also that, during the production of this blue pigment they could create a purple version, which has the same chemical elements but combined in somewhat different ratios. That was a real innovation, because purple pigments have been hard to make throughout the history of the “invention of colour” – and in the West there was no good, stable purple pigment until the nineteenth century. Even more impressively, Chinese purple contains two copper atoms linked by a chemical bond, making it – of course, the makers had no knowledge of this – the earliest known synthetic substance with such a so-called “metal-metal bond”, a unit of great significance to modern chemists.

Although I’ve not seen the Terracotta Army, several years ago I visited Professor Heinz Berke of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who has worked on analyzing their remaining scraps of pigment. Heinz was kind enough to give me a sample of the Chinese blue pigment that he had made in his laboratory; I have it in front of me now as I write these words. “The invention of Chinese Blue and Chinese Purple”, Heinz has written, “is an admirable technical-chemical feat [and an] excellent example of the positive influence of science and technology on society.”

My sample of modern Chinese blue, made by Heinz Berke (Zurich).

You can perhaps see, then, why I am so delighted by the publication of a Chinese edition of Bright Earth – for it combines three of my passions: chemistry, colour and China. I always regretted that I was not able to say more in the book about art outside the West, but perhaps one day I shall have the resolve to attempt it. The invention of colour in China has a rather different narrative, not least because the tradition of landscape painting – shanshuihua – places less emphasis on colour and more on form, composition and the art of brushwork. Yet that tradition has captivated me since my youth, and it played a big part in inducing me to begin exploring China in 1992. This artistic tradition, of course, in no way lessened the significance of colour in Chinese culture; it was, after all, an aspect of the correspondences attached to the system of the Five Elements (wu xing). And one can hardly visit China without becoming aware of the vibrancy of colour in its traditional culture, not least in the glorious dyes used for silk. I hope and trust, therefore, that Bright Earth will find plenty of resonance among Chinese readers.

Li Gongnian (c.1120), Winter Evening Landscape, and detail.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On being patriotic

It’s interesting now to go back (such a long time ago!) and read the White Paper released by the UK government in February on exiting the EU. It beggared belief then; it still does now.

Here is Theresa May, in her barely literate foreword, on the national sentiment: “after all the division and discord, the country is coming together.” It is hard to know which is worse: that she might genuinely think this is so, or that she knows it is not. Either way, she and her supporters have been assiduous in their efforts to prevent it.

An illustration of that is Norman Lamont’s article in the latest issue of Prospect. That it is moderately and elegantly worded makes it no less contemptible.

Lamont wants to perpetuate the picture of a “cosmopolitan elite” sneering at the cheap patriotism of the masses: “my cosmopolitanism is superior to your parochialism”. “Many intellectuals”, he says, “sneer at patriotism.”

So there’s your choice (once again): get behind Brexit and be a patriot and, or oppose it and be unpatriotic. Loyalty to country (and thereby to “democracy”), or loyalty to the EU: it’s one or the other.

This is frankly repulsive. It is the choice of the Daily Mail. Lamont quotes Siegfried Sassoon: “We write our lines out of our bones and out of the soil our forefathers cultivated.” Sassoon was of course writing in another time, before the nationalistic notion of a “blood and soil” fatherland had the connotations it does today. Lamont is writing now, and that he can unproblematically invoke a quote like this gives us an idea of the kind of sensibility we’re dealing with.

What Lamont illustrates, though, is well documented human behaviour: you must prove your in-group loyalty not merely by statement of it but by active and perhaps destructive rejection of the Other. Robert Sapolsky talks about it in his excellent new book Behave. In the extreme cases, gangland members establish their fealty by executing a rival, and child soldiers are trained to show their allegiance to the movement by their willingness to kill family members. And they do.

It is Us or Them, and nothing else. The notion that feelings of kinship can be multiple and overlapping seems alien to Lamont. The European identity, he asserts, is “extremely shallow.” He can speak for himself, but he has no business intimating that he speaks for us all. I share a sense of identity with Londoners (defying the ugly political climate that washes all around us in southern England). I share it with my local community, and with Englishness (yes! – more of this below), and Britishness, and also with Europeans, and with all of humanity. These feelings of kinship have different complexions in each case, but I don’t feel conflicted by them. The customs, languages, histories of Europeans are varied, and of course there are big differences between nations, just as there are between national regions. But there is also a great deal of shared culture and history, and when I am in (say) the Czech Republic I feel I am still in some sense within a familiar “homeland” that I can’t claim to feel in Tokyo. How small and withered Lamont’s sense of belonging must be if it is invoked only in the Cotswolds and not in Paris or Prague.

It’s a peculiarity of the Brexit vote that it has deepened my love of England and Britain. Deepened, that is, those aspects of it that I value all the more for seeing them vanish: the tolerance, good humour, open-mindedness, invention. More than once my partner and I have discussed emigrating to escape the poison and political apathy that has overtaken these isles. And each time I’ve resisted the idea because there is so much here that I love.

Shortly after the referendum, I found a copy of Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain abandoned on a wall on my way home, and picked it up – and felt immense sadness that the Union, still finding its feet in Defoe’s day, might soon be shattered. If that looks a bit less likely now, it is because the people of Scotland have more sense than those of England in letting economic interests be a part of decisions about trans-national partnership. All the same, Defoe’s book sharpened the pangs of feeling that my home nation has lost something it may never recover in my lifetime.

Lamont implies that we pro-Europeans (so he’s anti-European then?) don’t accuse Scottish nationalists of being xenophobic in the way we do English nationalists. Could this be because Scotland doesn’t seem to have a problem with the rest of Europe, perhaps? There is plenty of ahistorical sentimentality in Scottish nationalism, as well as some kneejerk (as opposed to totally understandable) anti-English sentiment. But can anyone blame Scotland for resenting the fact that, having voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, it is being dragged out of it by the English?

Lamont talks about a “fusion” of national identity into the “larger whole” of the EU. This is utter nonsense. Does anyone believe that France, Germany, Spain, Italy, have lost one whit of their national identity? Nor have they ceded their sovereign power. Which brings us to that notorious line in the White Paper: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” Here’s the factual content of that sentence: “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU.” The rest is intangible and subjective sentiment. It hasn’t felt like it to whom? In what way? But “feeling”, without any tangible benefit, is all Lamont can offer for a position that looks daily more catastrophic.

His yoking of Brexit to the health of democracy is particularly shameful. “To weaken the nation state is to weaken democracy,” he says. But if “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU”, how has our nation state been weakened? Well, maybe it hasn’t. But maybe, to Lamont, it just felt like that. What does weaken a nation state is the collapse of its currency, the loss of trade deals, and the blind pursuit of an extremely divisive national policy, complete with a determination to label the half of the nation who didn’t want it traitors and “saboteurs”. What weakens democracy is to invoke ancient clauses that allow ministers to bypass parliament, and to attempt to impose on parliament decisions that the courts have, now on three occasions, ruled as incompatible with the laws of the nation, some of them put in place in the wake of the Civil War in order to ensure good and stable governance. What weakens democracy is a parliament so craven that it will not even stand up for its own rights (and obligations) on such occasions, making it necessary for a brave private citizen to do so. What weakens a nation is a government that refuses to condemn press attacks on the very legitimacy of the judiciary. What weakens a nation is to portray doubts about the wisdom of a course of action as a lack of patriotism.

If this is the best defence of Brexit that Lamont can offer, we are truly shafted.

If it is patriotic to take pride in the values that our neighbours used to praise us for, and to want to see one’s country economically healthy and presenting a confident face to the world, willing to engage in international institutions, then I am a patriot. But for Lamont, as for German nationalists in 1933, it seems that patriotism demands a rejection of internationalism: we can only “be ourselves” by rejecting Others. So if patriotism now demands that one endorses the pursuit – in the most shambolic manner imaginable – a course that is isolationist, financially and economically damaging (potentially ruinous) and, to most outside observers beyond the far-right fringes, is a barely comprehensible act of self-harm, all on the basis of sentimentality about what “feels” right, then you will have to count me out.