Friday, December 30, 2011
90. Jade Bi (China, AD 1790)
Now that we’re fast approaching our own self-conscious age, we look at an object that embodies the spirit of all these podcasts: the impulse to write, control, and understand history. In this case, MacGregor has found a gorgeous jade bi, almost 3000 years old, which was defaced in 1790 when a historian scribbled his podcast history all over it. The historian here was the Qianlong Emperor who ruled China for most of the eighteenth century—a period of great expansion and success for China, the envy of most contemporary western states (MacGregor details English, French, and German imitations of Chinese manifestations at the time), and presumably the model for China in our own century. MacGregor subjects the Qianlong Emperor, as historian, to what is presumably the same bar he holds up for himself and his own team; he finds what the Emperor has written on the bi inaccurate (the Emperor claims this bi, which was found in a tomb, was a holder for a bowl...it wasn’t), self-serving (the Emperor’s historical project was intended as propaganda, to show his rightful inheritance of the 3000 year-old mandate of heaven we saw so long ago with the Zhou), and incompetent (an actor reads the poem written on the bi, MacGregor has it translated, and then brings in a Chinese historian to say that it’s a crummy poem and is no better than the 20th century propaganda pieces which are so familiar, and suspect, to intelligent Chinese). Yet MacGregor still applauds his project, finding history in ancient objects and trying to tell a story which will be constructive and productive for our own time. I suppose nobody got hurt when the Qianlong Emperor scratched his poem on this old bi; that, and the calligraphy of the poem is kind of pretty.