Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
One frosty morning last week, in a pavilion where Ch’ing emperors issued edicts across half a continent, Britain reopened its cultural dialogue with China. The icebreaker was an historical exhibition, Britain Meets the World 1714-1830, that the Chinese had requested as a model for how to build an empire. ‘They kept asking,’ explains Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ‘how an “old country” – meaning Britain – became a world country.’
If that curiosity was insufficiently articulated, the chief Chinese advisor to the exhibition spelled it out weightily in his catalogue. The British Empire ‘which used to be all mighty’, wrote Qian Chengdan, ‘has become history’; China, on the other hand, ‘is now joining the ranks of the world stage’.
With annual growth at 12 percent, personal freedoms on the rise and a showcase Olympic Games next year, China is a rampant tiger economically, politically and – not least – culturally, with a raging desire at every level that I contacted to assimilate the whole of western civilisation in less time than it takes to erase a village and knock up an eagle-wing Norman Foster airport that is larger than any in Europe.
It is not just the Communist slogans strung across every highway during the national party congress that proclaim China to be on the verge of world leadership; this is a commonly held belief. ‘The most popular topic in China at the moment,’ observes the Hong Kong-born philanthropist Robert Ho, who is sponsoring the British Museum exhibition, ‘is the rise of great powers.’
With one-fifth of the human race in its borders clamouring for knowledge of the outside world, every foreign exhibition, no matter how scholarly or esoteric, is thronged. ‘The moment the ribbon is cut, they come charging in,’ marvels a western curator. So long as admission charges are kept reasonable – about £1.60 for the BM show – curiosity is limitless. MacGregor had half an hour on main-channel breakfast television to amplify his mission and faced a battery of journalists from all over the country at his opening press conference. When pressed why Britain did not return such historic Chinese artefacts as the sixth-century Admonition Scroll, he replied mildly: ‘It’s very important that the culture of China should be seen within the context of the whole world.’
On these terms, Britain Meets the World is arguably the most significant bilateral event to take place at the former Imperial Palace since George III’s ambassador Lord Macartney came bearing gifts in 1793, only to be told that China needed nothing from abroad. The British response was an onslaught of gunboat diplomacy and rising dominance in the opium trade.
The BM show marks the beginning of a reinterpretation of that shameful past, a process in which the rhetoric of imperialism gives way to the unguents of cultural barter. ‘One of the things we want to show,’ says MacGregor, ‘is that the exchange of ideas between us is very old. There have been Chinese books at Oxford since the 16th century and the first Chinese visitors to Britain helped catalogue them 100 years later. Each country gained an enormous amount from each other.’
This is smart talk in a game of cultural diplomacy that Britain has, until lately, been losing. As soon as China opened up in the mid-1990s, the French stormed in with fine arts, fashion, haute cuisine, operas and planeloads of cultural ambassadors. The Russians and Italians staged year-long festivals of cultural highlights and even the Irish pitched in with Beckett plays and folk fiddlers. ‘Everywhere we go,’ sighs one BM official, ‘the Louvre has been there first.’ Aside from tours of Cool Britannia icons from the British Council, this country and its culture went unseen in China.
The sea-change came about 18 months ago when Tony Blair was persuaded to take two museum directors – McGregor and the Victoria and Albert’s Mark Jones – with him to Beijing. Jones signed up on the spot for a welter of design and fashion shows, the biggest of which will be China Design Now, to run at the V&A during the Beijing Olympics, and a history of trade fairs (starting with London’s Great Exhibition of 1851) to be seen in Shanghai during its 2010 Expo.
McGregor, let loose in the once-Forbidden City, was a dynamo unchained, a tripper on cultural acid. In frenetic contacts, sometimes flying out twice a week for talks, he forged agreements with the three big Beijing museums – the Palace, the Capital and the National – and with a fourth in Shanghai to present the BM’s capsular view of world cultures to the Chinese people at large. Beyond the present show, there will be an exhibition on Ancient Greece during the Olympics, followed by others on Egypt and India. Last week, a deal was struck to tour a BM History of the World around interior Chinese cities, affording an unreached mass of millions a glimpse of human evolution from a British perspective. The consequences of this interaction are economically incalculable and culturally beyond comprehension. A great wall of silence and suspicion has been breached, letting in a rip-tide of enlightenment.
China, in return, is sending the British Museum this summer the largest sampling ever seen of objects from what the Chinese describe as the Eighth Wonder of the World but which, to my eyes, proved far more astonishing than the Colossus at Rhodes or the Great Pyramid of Giza. The army of terracotta warriors and officials arrayed by the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, to accompany him in the afterlife is a project of such magnitude and madness that it dwarfs the wildest conceits of Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler or any other despot to inflict his rule on suffering humanity.
Qin (pronounced Chin) gave his name to the country he unified with a system of governance, literacy and self-worth. Some 200 years before Christ, three quarters of a million slaves were employed in the making of his funeral mound, 100 metres high. Untold numbers died in the forced creation of tens of thousands of clay, life-sized figures, whose existence became known as recently as March 1974 when a peasant, digging a well, uncovered an ancient warrior. The burial site covers 60 square kilometres near Xi-An, in central China, and less than one percent of the area has yet been excavated, providing a source of continuing revelation and excitement that will simmer for centuries.
Among recent finds shown to me was a set of dancing birds, with musicians playing their tune, and a freshly-dug suit of stone armour, each square inch of shield pierced five times by slave gimlets. Why the Emperor needed such a monument is a self-perpetuating enigma: when Confucian philosophers questioned his judgement, he had them castrated or killed. ‘Thousands of officials were killed and craftsmen buried alive in order to keep the tomb secret,’ says the Book of Han.
Whatever the motive, the spectacle at Xi-An inspires open-mouthed awe and an abiding sense of shame at how little we in the western world know of a civilisation that predates ours and outstrips it in both scope and organisational vision. Some 120 objects from Xi-An will be uncrated this September in the old Reading Room of the British Museum, where queues are expected to stretch around the clock, challenging the commercial Tutankhamen attraction that will open in tandem at the everlastingly problematic Millennium Dome.
The First Emperor exhibition may well be the biggest eye-opener London has ever seen, and it is just the tip of a momentous trip of mutual discovery that Britain and China launched together last week in Beijing. The end of that process cannot be foretold, but the beginning is nothing less than historic.
To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]