British Museum blog

Ming musical moments

detail of Ming vaseA Ming imperial porcelain flask visits Glasgow, by Tom Furniss

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

In the deepest deeps of old slow time,
Five thousand miles from here,
Two continents of clay collide,
Two halves of China merge between
The Yellow and the Yangtze.

Twenty thousand years ago
Potters working in a cave
Formed and fired the southern clay,
Made pots in Jiangxi province:
Shards and bones remain.

In the Xuande reign of the Great Ming,
Six hundred years ago,
A peasant took a bamboo spade
And dug in beds of clay.

Women mixed the kaolin
With pottery stone and quartz,
Water from a mountain stream
And feldspar from the earth.

A potter took the earthen clay
And made a wonder with his hands,
A flask half a metre high,
Thin as eggshell, light as air.

Standing empty in silent halls
More than half a thousand years,
Dynasties rose and disappeared;
Civil wars and revolutions

Destroyed the world that made it;
On a slow boat from China’s shores,
Fifty years and more ago,
It came to the heart of an empire

On the point of breaking apart;
Stood empty in the echoing halls
Of cabinets and galleries;
Now it stands before us here.

Cobalt lotus leaves and tendrils
Stretch around its silent form,
Never living, never dying,
Ice-blue blossoms will not fade.

Frozen there six hundred years
By fired transparent glaze,
Never will lian1 be bare,
It cannot shed its leaves.

A beautiful porcelain flask reveals
A truth that’s not so beautiful,
That all who gaze upon chan zhi2
Will not outlive this piece of clay.

Notes
1 This lotus; Chinese, lian 蓮.
2 The decorative foliage on the flask; Chinese, chan zhi 纏枝.

For each venue of the Spotlight tour a contemporary artist is being commissioned to make an artwork to respond to the vase display. On Friday 11 April 2014 at a special event at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Tom Furniss’ poem about the Ming vase on loan from the British Museum, set to music by Eddie McGuire, was performed by the Harmony Ensemble with Fong Liu, vocal soloist. Eddie performed his own music on a porcelain flute and a xun, a kind of Chinese ocarina looking almost like a miniature Ming flask. Hooi Ling Eng played an array of Chinese percussion instruments and a zheng (a Chinese plucked zither). Laura Durrant played the cello and also the xun.

Dr Tom Furniss is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His research interests include the Enlightenment and Romantic periods and the language of poetry. As well as writing poetry – including some for songs by Eddie McGuire – he has co-authored (with Michael Bath) Reading Poetry: An Introduction (Longman, 2007).

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour was at the The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
It is now at Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, until 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , ,

Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

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