Books: Black Dragon River by Dominic Ziegler

cover image black dragon river

This is a densely-written account of one man’s journey along the River Amur, at the boundary between Russia and China, and to the north-east of Mongolia. The man in question is Dominic Ziegler, an editor at the Economist, but his focus is less on the present-day difficulties faced by this remote region, and far more on its rich and complex history. So although I was expecting a travelogue, along the lines of The River At The Centre of The World by Simon Winchester, this is at heart a history book.

The narrative contains a great deal of historical material, covering episodes such as the early life of Genghis Khan; the Mongol attack on Kiev (1240); the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I (1825); and the Boxer Rebellion and the massacre of Chinese by local Russians at Blagoveshchensk (1900).

However, the structure of the book is geographical not chronological, causing some confusion as you go back and forth in time, or find the same historical character appearing and reappearing. The geographical method works well if the episode is rooted in a specific location, and one that Ziegler is visiting. For this reason, the Blagoveshchensk episode hits the reader hard, even in a book fairly brimming with brutality. But not all the episodes had a link this specific, and then it started to feel as if the narrative was drifting.

Ziegler interweaves his history with scenes from his travels, which were less colourful than I expected. This could be down to his very neutral tone, as though at one remove from the story. There is a lack of dialogue and personalities, of the sort I enjoyed in The Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader, another travel book about remote parts of Russia.

Instead, what brought Ziegler’s story alive for me were the little factual gems strewn through the narrative: the study that showed as many as 8% of Asian men descend from Genghis Khan, for instance, or the fact that in the 18th century there was an informal Russian empire that spread down the American coast as far as Sonoma County, California.

A good resource if you have an interest in this part of the world, but not an easy read.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires
Dominic Ziegler, 2015.
Penguin, 357 pages, $27.95 (hardcover) or $17.00 (paperback).

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, narrated by Steve West and published by Brilliance Audio. I also checked the hard copy out of my local library!

Extravagant tomb treasures from China

image jade suit

Currently showing at the Asian Art Museum is Tomb Treasures, a major exhibition of archaeological finds from Chinese royal tombs. I sighed inwardly as I approached this one because, much as I love Chinese art, I was pretty sure I had seen the material before, when it travelled to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. That show had a similar title, too – The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China.

As it turned out, the Fitzwilliam show really had featured some of the same pieces from the Xuzhou Museum. These were among the objects I liked best, though, so I now count myself lucky to have set eyes on them twice – once in Cambridge and once in San Francisco.

The current show combines material from both the Xuzhou and Nanjing Museums. It includes works from four kingdoms in modern-day Jiangsu province: Jiangdu, Chu, Sishui and Guangling. Among the best preserved is the Dayun Mountain site – a 62-acre walled compound that contained the tomb of Liu Fei, king of Jiangdu, along with the tombs of two queens and other consorts and concubines. It was excavated between 2009 and 2011, to considerable fanfare. The site had been looted by grave robbers, but the collapsed floors of the outer chambers helped to conceal the objects beneath.

The exhibition is themed around different spheres of a person’s life at court, represented through items the deceased would need in the afterlife: vessels for food and drink; bells for making music; weaponry and ceramic warriors for making war; or even an advanced type of toilet for sitting on. I especially liked the more decorative items: a pair of gold belt buckles, with a tiger and bear motif; or a dragon-shaped jade pendant that was itself an antique when it was buried, reflecting the fascination of the elite with rare antique jades.

There are numerous items crafted from jade, a material believed to protect the person’s flesh from decomposition. You can see a custom-tailored jade suit for a queen, made from jade plaques sewn together with gold thread, and a large jade coffin, reconstructed from 1500 jade plaques of assorted shapes.

One quirk of this exhibition is the labelling, which has been augmented with short quotes in which a local figure from outside the art world (wine expert, food blogger, make-up artist) will say something about one of the objects. It’s too distracting and it was definitely causing some mirth among the Chinese pensioners. Aside from that, the exhibition is great.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
17 February to 28 May, 2017

Above: Jade suit. From Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: Nanjing Museum, at

Below: Kneeling female figurine. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Beldong Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

image kneeling figurine v2

Below: Set of belt buckles. From a Han dynasty tomb, Tianqi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Gold. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

image belt buckles v3

Below: Pendant in the shape of a dragon. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Zhou Dynasty, Warring States period, (approx 475-221 BCE). Nephrite. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

image pendant in shape of dragon

Below: Jade coffin. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Nephrite, lacquer, wood. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

image jade coffin v2




San Diego visit, part 1: Brush and Ink


I visited San Diego over the summer and saw two exhibitions of Asian art in the Balboa Park complex. First up was Brush and Ink at the San Diego Museum of Art, an inspiring selection of Chinese paintings chosen by contemporary artist Pan Gongkai (b. 1947), and hung with his own work.

Pan Gongkai is himself a practitioner of traditional ink painting.  The works he has chosen here represent different periods and genres, yet he conveys a strong sense of the tradition that unifies them.

Early works include a small painting on silk from the 15th century, Scholar Under a Pine, and two fan paintings by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Landscape with Lake and Three Boats and Landscape with Lake, Bridge, and Fisherman (the second on gold paper).

The art theorist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is represented with a fan painting too: Orchids, Fungus, and Rock. There is a breath-taking snow scene by Huang Shen (1687-1773), Traveling in the Snow Mountains. There are several 20th century works, including Shrimp by Qi Baishi (1863-1957) – I do enjoy pictures of crustaceans.

For me, this was an interesting complement to the 2015 show Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum, another display of Chinese paintings from across the centuries.  However, the San Diego exhibit is twice the size (40 works as opposed to 20) and the space afforded by these huge galleries is immensely helpful, giving the works more room to breathe and enhancing the journey from artistic past to present.

Brush and Ink: Chinese Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
29 April to 5 September 2016 (now closed)

Above: Scholar under a Pine, 15th century. Ink and colour on silk. 25.4 x 25.72cm. The San Diego Museum of Art. Image at

Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Asian art in the Musee du quai Branly

image musee du quai branly blossom

It is a decade since the 2006 opening of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, under the auspices of President Jacques Chirac. The collections span Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and the focus is on ethnology and art combined.

The opening generated plenty of excitement at the time, but when I visited in March the Parisians I spoke to seemed less enthused. One friend criticized it for being too dark inside; another for poor quality labeling, with not enough effort to explain or contextualize the objects.

This was my first visit and – given the negative comments – I was pleasantly surprised. The building is unusual and somewhat womb-like inside, with its organic contours and earthy colours. The galleries are not always easy to navigate and there is, deliberately, no demarcation between the four main sections, allowing a free flow from Oceania to Australia to Asia and so on. But the collections are huge and cover every area of human activity, from masks and bowls to spears and boats. The displays are spacious and easy on the eye (although it is pretty dark, especially for taking photos).

The Asia section is interesting because it focuses on the folk art and indigenous cultures that regular museum displays tend to overlook. These include the Miao and other groups from China, represented here by their textiles – jackets, headdresses, baby-slings and so on. These displays work well but in other parts the Asia section can feel a bit thin, as though a single object is being introduced as proxy for a whole culture – perhaps the Buddhist statue from 11th century Nepal, exquisite but isolated on its plinth. It makes for a visit that has great moments but doesn’t quite satisfy. Overall, though, the museum is a must-see.

Musee du quai Branly
Paris, France
Permanent collection

Above: trees in bloom at the Musee du quai Branly. Photo: JF.

Below: Buddhist temple door, Myanmar. 19th c. Teak, traces of red lacquer. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image temple door Myanmar

Below: Buddha, Myanmar. Late 19th to early 20th c. Wood with gilt and lacquer, glass inlay. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image buddha Myanmar

Below: Shakyamuni Buddha, Nepal. 11th century. Copper, mercury gilt. Height 52.5cm. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image Buddha Nepal

Hidden Gold at the Asian Art Museum

han sang-soo korean bridal robe (1)
Hidden Gold is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum. It brings together a diverse selection of pieces from the museum’s collections, each golden in some respect, but covering a wide range, both geographically and chronologically. You will find Japanese screens, Chinese fan paintings, Buddhist artefacts from Cambodia and Mongolia, and much more besides.

I enjoyed the presentation very much and found this a refreshing show to visit – not too large, but still plenty to take in. Unlike the big 2012 exhibit Bronze at the Royal Academy in London, this dwells less on the technical aspects of working with the metal, and more on its symbolic value.

This could explain the pleasing bias towards textiles, where gold is used to glorify the wearer. There are two contrasting but highly decorative robes from China: a Daoist ceremonial robe, with a design that reflects the structure of the cosmos in Daoist thought, and a Qing dynasty Emperor’s dragon robe, emblazoned with nine dragons. There is a contemporary bridal robe from Korea, produced in 2002 by renowned artisan Han Sang-soo (b. 1934), with motifs to emphasize creativity and fruitfulness, including a stylized rainbow mountain and peaches.

Definitely recommended.

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
4 March to 8 May 2016

Above: Han Sang-soo, bridal robe, 2002. Silk embroidered with silk and gold thread. Asian Art Museum. Photo: SF.

Books: The White Road by Edmund de Waal; The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

2015 seemed to mark the arrival of a new genre – the porcelain memoir. I read The White Road by Edmund de Waal and The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu within a couple of months of each other. The two writers approach their subject by quite different routes, yet both texts are essentially a blend of travel writing and autobiography, combined with judicious mini essays on the history of porcelain production.

Edmund de Waal made his literary mark with The Hare with Amber Eyes (2009), a very readable narrative of his family history set in Paris and Vienna, taking the family netsuke collection as its anchor. Having enjoyed the earlier book, I approached this one with high expectations.

However, The White Road is quite a different beast. It is incredibly diffuse, both thematically and in its prose. Without the very specific anchor of the netsuke, de Waal seems to drift from one alluring topic to the next, without offering much in the way of structure or argument. He covers Jingdezhen. Meissen. Wedgwood. Dachau. He visits everywhere that he writes about. He writes everything up in a somewhat breathless present tense, even the historical parts.

In the background, he tells the story of his own career as a potter. Again, the telling is kind of piecemeal, but I found this material fascinating – the journey from his earliest work (nobody would buy it) to his bespoke installations for museums around the world. The copy I bought in the UK was called The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, whereas the US edition has the slightly scary title The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. In fact, I think the US edition has the better title, because it acknowledges that this book is more than a porcelain travelogue, it’s very much his autobiographical journey too.

The White Road is definitely recommended, but be prepared for something long, rambling and idiosyncratic in style, more like a script for a film documentary than an art history book.

The Porcelain Thief, in contrast, has a more journalistic feel. The author is an American-born Chinese who relocates to China in a bid to find out what happened to his ancestor’s porcelain collection several decades earlier. He takes a job in Shanghai, working for his uncle’s business, and painstakingly interviews his relatives to help him reconstruct some of the family history. The sections with his redoubtable grandmother are particularly fine – she leads him a merry dance, telling him so much about some things, so little about others.

The narrative switches back and forth from his travails in present-day China to the travails of his family in the previous century, but Hsu keeps the two in equilibrium and writes with clarity about Chinese history and Chinese porcelain. His account feels disconcertingly honest at times, to the point where he doesn’t seem very likeable – his sexist comments on the dating scene in Shanghai, for instance; his ingrained hostility towards his cousin Richard (not a kindred spirit). This authenticity is the hallmark of the final section of the book, where there is definite bathos in a scene where the characters go digging up random sections of vegetable patch. Well worth reading, and full of interesting detail, but it does point up rather harshly the difficulties of pursuing this kind of quest.

The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 401 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China
Huan Hsu, 2015.
Crown, 380 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum

ni zan river pavilion mountain colors

Exquisite Nature was the first exhibition that I saw following our move to San Francisco – a display of classical Chinese painting, loosely themed around the natural world.  It occupied just one gallery, but the works drew one in for a close and contemplative viewing.

The showpiece was a painting by the master Ni Zan (1301-1374), the hanging scroll River Pavilion, Mountain Colors. The style is sparse and delicate, delineating a landscape that has been simplified and idealised, but still feels real enough that you could step inside it.

The inscription at the top of the scroll is morose, dejected:

“The sound of rain that began in the second month hasn’t let up
Even in the eleventh month.
The boats of the Three Rivers paddle towards Wujiang.
As if drunk, I cannot wake up from spring’s melancholy,
While waves and wild winds beat against my window.”

(translation taken from the exhibition)

A later work by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) offers a sort of counterpoint. His hanging scroll Traveling deep in the mountains contains a dense array of landscape elements that combine to cover the picture surface almost completely. Unlike the Ni Zan work, it embraces a variety of different colour shades. The overall impression is controlled but perhaps softer.

Landscape painting is predominant in the exhibition but other works highlight not just the grandeur of the natural landscape but human activity within it. A pair of paintings by Xie Shichen (1488-after 1567), entitled Elegant gathering at mountain streams, show some of the pursuits of scholars in their mountain retreats: activities such as fishing, drinking or playing a board game. A rural scene by Zhou Chen (active 1472-1535) is entitled Cockfight in a mountain village, although this is thought to illustrate a verse from the Book of Songs, an anthology of ancient Chinese poetry.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking show, and a fine introduction to some highlights of the collection.

Exquisite Nature: 20 Masterpieces of Chinese Painting (14th-18th c.)
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
2 March to 1 November 2015 (now closed)

Above: Ni Zan, River Pavilion, Mountain Colors, 1368. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Asian Art Museum. Image at

Wastelands: contemporary Chinese art at OVADA

cai yuan untitled
I went exploring this weekend to a warehouse in a less-than-popular part of Oxford, to see a show of contemporary Chinese art. The space is run by OVADA – the Oxfordshire Visual Arts Development Agency – and the show was Wastelands, a group exhibition around themes of consumption and waste.

I enjoyed the colourful contributions from Cai Yuan (b. 1956), who also co-curated the show. His large untitled installation uses cut sections of cardboard boxes painted in bright acrylics, suspended in the air and cascading over the floor in wasteful abandonment.

In his ISMS series, he presents single-colour panels, the paint lightly inscribed with words ending in –ism. I was expecting mainly political vocabulary, but it ranges much wider: for instance, “narcissism, sensualism, materialism, hacktivism, globalism, romanticism …”. The panels are arranged in pairs, so you can’t help but puzzle over them, wondering why A has been paired with B and so on.

Text is also foremost in Labels of Desire by Wessieling, comprised of placards with phoney fashion-industry labeling designed to prod your social conscience, such as “Made in Italy, Sewed by Chinese”. This reminded me a little of the Xu Bing installation Backbone, seen during my visit to LACMA, which used the visual cue of tobacco stencils to focus our attention on the plight of workers in the tobacco industry.

Other works include a baffling hotel-themed installation by Hua Mao First Floor Collective, and a deeply unwholesome film with zombies by Cao Fei (b. 1978). I confess I was left underwhelmed by the Ai Weiwei contribution, a film called Ordos 100 (2012) that documents architects trying (and failing) to build a new city in inner Mongolia. I didn’t have time for a full viewing, but the pace felt slow and the action stilted.

Overall, a show that I really wanted to see but then wasn’t fully convinced by.

OVADA, Oxford
17 July to 9 August 2015 (now closed)

You can view the film Ordos 100 on YouTube.

Above: Cai Yuan, Untitled, 2015. Acrylic on cardboard. Photo: SF.

Below: Cai Yuan, ISMS Series, 2015. Oil on canvas. Photo: SF.
cai yuan isms series
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (left of photo). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire
Below: Wessieling,
Labels of Desire, 2015 (detail). Laser cut and etched MDF. Photo: SF.
wessieling labels of desire detail v2
Below: Sun Yi, Untitled, 2015. Wires and nails on board. Photo: SF.
sun yi untitled

Books: Ming 50 years that changed China

cover ming 50 years

This colourful volume is the catalogue for the 2014 Ming exhibition at the British Museum. I have written before about the Ming exhibition and the 2014 Barlow Lecture by Prof Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) discussing the art in the exhibition, so I thought it was time to complete the trio by saying something about this book.

If you saw the show, this is of course an ideal way to refresh your memory, and it shares many of its strengths. Firstly, the sheer diversity of the material, from ceramics and handscrolls to furniture and lacquer. Secondly, the close examination of Ming contacts with other foreign powers, which includes all sorts of interesting material such as Korean maps, Vietnamese ceramics and illustrated manuscripts in Arabic. Thirdly, the excellent photographs, giving a more detailed view of pieces that you could not explore so closely in the actual displays – for instance, the gold filigree jewellery.

However, reading the book from cover to cover proved less enjoyable than I had hoped. As emphasised in the Clunas lecture, this was a show about history, not a show about art or artists, and the catalogue adheres firmly to this approach. For me at least, this made the reading mostly rather dry, with unexpected highlights such as the section on hunting, an activity that was crucial to the ruler’s identity and that was part of a common Eurasian court culture that the Ming shared with Timurid, Ottoman and Mughal rulers.

Sometimes material is repeated in more than one chapter, which is fine for important topics like Zhu Di taking power as the Yongle emperor, but faintly irritating for less important topics such as the gifting of giraffes and elephants. The structuring of the material feels choppy too, mainly because your reading of each essay is interrupted by clusters of catalogue entries, which are incorporated in the body of the essay, not left until after.

I don’t regret my purchase and there are some fabulous images, but this is one you do have to work at.

Ming: 50 years that changed China
Edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, 2014.
The British Museum Press, 312 pages, £25 (or £40 in hardcover).