Until I asked her about Possession Point, I never knew that my mother had lived near this area of the island when she was small, and would walk along Hollywood Road on her way to school when she was five or so, playing hop skip jump on the many concrete flights of stairs that wind off the main drag.
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She remembered the antique shops, some of whose windows now display prancing terracotta horses and rare carved jades excavated from mainland tombs, with a price tag only for tycoons. My mum also remembered the various coffinmakers who still have workshops there today. I had never seen a Chinese coffin before I peered in under the garage-like metal shutters, where the light-wood coffins, clover-shaped at each end, would park while the craftsmen were still carving or lacquering them.
On the pavement outside the buildings, people had set up blackened metal tins or little braziers, orange flames licking up from inside. The currency of the Underworld usually strikes foreigners as resembling the notes from a monopoly set. In the narrow backstreets of Sheung Wan, I came across several shops selling paper votives. Their wares ranged from basic necessities socks, polo shirts, baskets of dim sum to modern luxuries iphones, speed boats, Ferraris , and even a four-storey mansion resembling a paper Barbie house. All were constructed in three dimensions from printed and folded card or tissue.
Perhaps the afterlife has its copyright enforcers too.
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Dim sum paper votives hanging in a shop in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. I have never fed a wad of banknotes into a can of fire, or left a saucer of apples in front of a joss-sticked shrine. She told me once how, when she was very small, her adoptive mother had sublet for them a room in a flat rented out by another family.
In a world where your ancestors deserve worship like gods, what happens to people who have none? At the turn of the twentieth century,. Stretching away on either side of the pass are distant, marooned fragments of the Han Dynasty BC Great Wall, now just a few feet high. Built from tamped earth and reeds in the absence of a resilient local stone, they are a thousand years older than the crenellated bulwarks of the Ming Dynasty wall tourists saunter along near Beijing. But when the wind does blow in that corridor of the Gobi, it blows from the West.
The Yumen Pass, near Dunhuang. We had originally planned to track further back along this stretch of the Silk Road, from Gansu on to Xinjiang province. Despite a recent and growing influx of Han Chinese, its inhabitants are mostly members of the Uighur ethnic minority, whose Turkic descent and Islamic faith mean they have more in common with the peoples of Central Asia than the Chinese heartland. In an effort to quell the ethnic unrest, the central government cut off communications and the internet in an effort to stay the flow of information in and out. As July wore on, we scoured the internet back in England, noting the trickle of photos showing tanks and troop-bearing vehicles lining the roads, which had made it out via twitter and a few news outlets, pondering whether it might still be possible to go to Xinjiang.
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That is, until our domestic flight into Turpan was cancelled a few days before we were due to travel, barred along with all other routes in to the region. That decided that. They all adopted wafty poses and smiled no teeth while a besuited tourist-trade delegation padded past them into the carpark.
By the time we passed between their ranks a few minutes later, they had already gone slack, looking rather bored. The main reason for making the trek to Dunhuang which really is in the middle of nowhere is to see the Mogao Caves. The Mogao Grottoes are not the only such painted caves in the region: various sites survive where monks and merchants, adopting the practice from Indian Buddhism, sponsored as an act of piety a cave to be cut out of the cliff face and painted with scenes brought to life from the written sutras. But in fact it was a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu — he had arrived at the caves while wandering through a famine and appointed himself their caretaker, sweeping out the in-blown sand each night — who helped pull down the patch of wall another monk had noticed rung hollowly under his tapping pipe.
Amongst the batch of manuscripts wending their slow way to London was a volume called The Diamond Sutra , which would later be identified as the oldest printed book ever found.
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Stein conducted the negotiations in broken Chinese and could not, in fact, read the scrolls he was acquiring. Klaces might be known to American readers because of his role as curator of Like Starlings , an online space for collaboration between US and British poets, whose conversations often have a transatlantic flavour.
Bottled Air is a book of poems whose brilliance and variousness makes me regret the need to pick out here just one small tile from their mosaic. Describing the origins of these poems in an interview, Klaces stressed that he has never been to China. The same thought occurred to me as I processed along the Mogao cliff-face, filing behind the other tourists to pass in and out of one cave after another, eyes dazzling in the desert sun after the accustomed gloom — Bottled Air in my rucksack all the way.
It is entirely characteristic of the book, whose tone is at once laconic, flat, and intriguingly multilayered. Whose words are these? Aurel Stein, who purchases the trove for a mere four horseshoes of silver? Wang Yuanlu, who allows the treasures to leave China for a song? Or could it be the monks who sealed the cave a millennium before? So preciously vulnerable are the Mogao Caves that tourists cannot be trusted to wander them alone.
You must join a tour, so that your guide can unlock the climate-controlling metal shutter doors donated in the seventies, our guide said, by a rich Hong Kong businessman and check the carbon dioxide detector dial just inside the lintel to see if excessive touristic breathing is today at risk of mouldering the frescoes to oblivion.
Only then will she gesture for you to shuffle through the threshold. My husband Marc and I were part of the only English-language tour group that day, and found ourselves tagging along behind a modest busload of twenty or so middle-aged Israelis. Even though his Hebrew no longer stretches much further than his Bar mitzvah portion, Marc takes a certain professional pleasure in identifying Israeli tourists when we happen upon them abroad. Our guide spoke rapid English straight into our earpieces, which startled because of its frequent invocation of a highly specialised theological and art historical vocabulary Asparas, Bodhisattvas, lapis lazuli, oxidization , which sat strangely with her lack of basic fluency elsewhere.
So there would follow a period of susurration in which the more fluent English speakers would try to translate for their companions what was going on. This pleasant Babel lingered especially long after the guide explained why so many of the seated Buddhas and other painted figures appear to have black skin: the lead white pigment, ground by the original craftsmen so many centuries ago, had oxidised on prolonged exposure to the air and gradually darkened to black. I thought I knew what was coming when one lady finally asked the guide whether part of the Buddhist community of Mogao had come from Africa.
In many ways it was a fair question, given the trans-continentally cosmopolitan variety of peoples who passed through Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Among the manuscripts in the Library Cave were discovered not only Buddhist scriptures, but writings in many different languages and from several different religions — Daoism, Manichaeism, even Nestorian Christianity. Several leaves of prayers written in Hebrew found in the Library Cave have allowed scholars to conclude that Jews were among the many groups who traded along the much-trodden road via Dunhuang.
In fact, Marc and I had gone to seek out the still-surviving descendants of these Silk Road Jewish traders the summer before, when we took a detour from following the route through China of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Missionary, Matteo Ricci, to stop at the city of Kaifeng. Kaifeng lies right across the other side of the country from Dunhuang, at the Eastern end of the Silk Road — and was even the capital of China for a time.
Ricci never visited Kaifeng himself, but in received an emissary from the head Rabbi of their small community — previously unknown to Europeans — who wanted to negotiate with him towards their conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, he feared the dying out of their non-Chinese traditions.
After many generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews looked Chinese in appearance, but still practised many customs sometimes without quite remembering why , such as the avoidance of pork, which marked them out from the rest of the Chinese population. We bought a leaflet from her for a few pounds. In , European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a Hebrew Torah scroll, one of the fifteen thought to have originated in the city — the remaining Jewish descendents were happy to sell it to the foreigners as no one could read it anymore.
It now resides in London, in the British Library. One of the most extraordinary things about the Mogao frescoes, oxidization aside, is the continuing brightness of their pigments — the intactness that came from being so long forgotten by the outside world. And so the examples of their deliberate defacement, when you come upon them, are all the more striking. In the Dunhuang local authorities were confronted with a flood of incoming Russian soldiers, fleeing the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution.
They decided to house them temporarily in the Mogao Caves:. In one of the caves we entered, decorated with thousands and thousands of two-inch high Buddhas, crosslegged in their painted niches the pattern reminded me of English wallpaper , the Russian refugees had used their nails, or perhaps knives, to scratch out the faces of all of the tiny figures they could reach.
Our guide explained that they were after the gold leaf that once shimmered over those thumbprint-sized visages. A host of little churches in Norfolk contain painted rood screens of Christian saints sporting exactly the same type of damage as the Buddhas in Dunhuang: whole faces, or sometimes just eyes, scratched out with a neatness of outline like a kind of reverse colouring-in that seems to belie the passion involved in such a destructive act. The paradox is, of course, that the iconoclasts seem to believe that the pattern of pigment on the panel before them holds forth an eye, a face, which could suffer hurt, even as they seek to demonstrate the image has no hold over them.
The cave behind the water. Journey to the West ultimately tells, of course, the legend of how the Buddhist Scriptures were brought eastward from India into China. In The White Diamond , Herzog puts his camera behind the sacred falls and watches the footage himself, but does not show it to the viewer:. When the Jesuits arrived in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they considered paintings of the Virgin and child to be among their most powerful tools in the quest for converts.
The Crucifixion — the execution of a lowly slave — seemed to go down less well with the Chinese audience.