A Ming imperial porcelain flask visits Glasgow, by Tom Furniss
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.
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).
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