Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The genius of China

I have a booklet which I acquired 40 years ago this week- 3rd December 1973.  I was 18 and a member of Stoke Archaeological Society. We were visiting the “Genius of China” exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was a ground breaking show as, for the first time; Westerners were able to see artefacts excavated during the Communist rule of China. It demonstrated a thaw in relationships between the People’s Republic and the West. It had only been a few years since the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but the arrival of order and the need for China to build alliances required, in this case, diplomacy through archaeology. The “Genius of China” exhibition was a manifestation of a better relationship with Britain.

The program illustrates what a magnificent exhibition it was with pottery, bronzes, and silks dating back thousands of years. The centre piece of the exhibition was the Jade Funeral suit of Princess Tou Wan dating from the Han dynasty (about the same age as the Romans). It was built by Taoist craftsmen who believed that Jade had magical qualities which arrested decay.

This began a life long interest in China. At University I studied Chinese History. I got to understand something of the philosophy of the country through terms such as “Mandate of Heaven” the legitimacy conferred on the Emperor, the sophistication of the country compared to Europe, the voyages of Admiral Zheng who may have made it to America years before Columbus. Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.  Then there was the decline beginning in the 18th century when Europeans over took the Chinese whose leaders were contemptuous of Western “Barbarians”. Later European powers would endeavour to weaken China to satisfy their craving for Empire. Hong Kong was acquired as booty following the British victory in the disgraceful 1840 Opium war.

 China  also exerted an influence on the artistic imagination of the West and examples exist close to hand from the ersatz Chinese sculptures at Biddulph Grange, the silk industry of Leek and the porcelain of Wedgwood.

Since 1973 China has been transformed. The leader of the Chinese Revolution Chairman Mao died in 1976. Demand for political and economic liberalisation led to the Tiananmen Square disturbances in 1989 and since then China has been the work shop of the world with growth, even in a bad year, of over 8%. The country surpassed Japan as the second most powerful economy  in March 2011. It is likely that China will become the leading power of the 21st century.

What does it mean for the Staffordshire Moorlands? Certainly the need for understanding of the history and culture of a country with 1.3 billion people. Will local schools be eventually teaching Mandarin, if only to assist the two Chinese tourists seen in Derby Street recently?