2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.


We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:


The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.


Squatting men: http://mattchalmighty.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beijing-wangfujing-men-squatting-large.jpg
Squatting woman: http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/China/Beijing/BeijingWoman.jpg
Assyrian throne: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/images/essentials/kings/sh5-til-barsip-large.jpg
Abu Simbel: http://famouswonders.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abu-simbel.jpg
King Tut throne: http://comeseeegypt.com/images/tutthrone.jpg
Qing Emperor Kangxi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/12/China,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor: http://www.mitchellteachers.org/WorldHistory/AncientChinaCurriculum/Images/legendaryemperors/ImperialRobesOfficialsPayingRespect_large.jpg
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor: http://images.printsplace.co.uk/Content/Images/Products/92648/89219/Reception_of_the_Diplomatique_and_his_Suite_at_the_Court_of_Pekin__c_1793__1.jpg
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne: http://filelibrary.myaasite.com/Content/26/26343/29921747.jpg
King Edward’s Chair: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Visitors+Look+Coronation+Chair+Westminster+Wk0GK7SFdXnl.jpg
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair: http://v020o.popscreen.com/eGhxd3hrMTI=_o_st-edwards-chair.jpg
Spaghetti chair with sled base: http://img.archiexpo.com/images_ae/photo-g/commercial-contemporary-sled-base-stacking-chair-50648-3267845.jpg
Shaker chair: http://www.jkrantiques.com/_images//ShakerCounterChairWeb.jpg
Danish harp chair: http://shard1.1stdibs.us.com//archives/upload/1stdibsA/071607_sb/arensojoldHD/19/xHudJuly07_398.jpg
Mondrian chair: http://www.dorotheum.com/fileadmin/user_upload/bilder/Presse/Gallery_of_Highlights/Rietveldstuhl.jpg
Mackintosh chair: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_ZjHHv_Nzls/UOP0yApjC4I/AAAAAAAAAI0/yTahn5EI7q0/s1600/1.Charles_Rennie_Mackintosh_Hillhouse_Chair_rfd.jpg
Ming chair: http://www.easterncurio.com/easten%20curio/Afurniture/ItemForOn-Selling/A1S152101.jpg


Beijing, 12 March 2013

My wife and I often lament the homogenizing effect globalization is having on our world. One of our common comments here in Beijing is: “Look at those young people. They dress just like our children!” [or children from the UK, or Italy, or the US, depending on the context]. We have an Ikea just up the road, which is thronged with young – and not so young – Chinese families buying the exact same things we were buying from our local Ikea in Vienna. And of course we can dine, if we wish to (which we sometimes do, I will admit), in that icon of globalization MacDonalds, which serves the same burger absolutely everywhere – it is so uniform that the Economist has created the Big Mac Index, which uses the cost of the Big Mac worldwide to check if currencies are at their right exchange level. And we can wash down our burger with a cappuccino in a Starbucks which looks and tastes exactly like a cappuccino in the Starbucks round the corner from our daughter’s place.

But for me the strangest aspect of globalization is … store mannequins. Often, when we are walking around in Beijing or anywhere else in China, I will come nose-to-nose with a store mannequin which is obviously European.


Why on earth would Chinese women (I presume they are the ones who are targeted) be more inclined to buy clothes they see on a European mannequin than on a Chinese mannequin? (By the way, I have never seen a Chinese mannequin). I have to assume that the globalization of US movies, of TV shows, of magazines and so on give European women a greater glamour. Either that, or a Chinese company bought (or perhaps “borrowed”) the rights to a mannequin designed in the West somewhere and is turning them out by the millions.

I’m not the only one who has been struck by these European mannequins in China. Here are some photos taken by others which I found after a trawl through the internet.





And it’s not just in China that you find these European mannequins. Here’s one I stumbled across in Laos, rather worse for wear and covered in pseudo-ethnic bling.

laos 068

The internet threw up these photos from other Asian countries.

The Philippines:






Even Iran!:


This presence is so strange that a quilt maker, Robin Schwalb, made this quilt about it (and got a prize for it, too!)


Here’s what Mr. Schwalb has to say about his creation:

“That suit, that hair, that mole; you immediately recognize Chairman Mao. But who – or what – are those pouty women, with their Western features, retro hairdos, and dead-eyed stares? They’re store mannequins, manufactured in China for the Chinese market, never appearing solo, but always arrayed in chorus lines. Perhaps the discordantly comical images have a darker point – if you have that system of government, you get this kind of dehumanized citizen.” [1]

I will pass over the political comment, which is disputable. Let me tell you the strangest thing about all this. This “pouty woman” looks exactly like a colleague of mine in Vienna. It is so odd to suddenly see her staring at me out of a shop window in some corner of China. I have never dared tell her. I don’t think she would appreciate being compared to a store mannequin.


[1] http://www.dairybarn.org/quilt/index.php?section=226&page=280

Mannequin-china-1: my photo
Mannequin-china-2: http://dianepernet.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c76e453ef0153927b5e38970b-550wi
Mannequin-china-3: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4024/4448484644_653a40a274_z.jpg?zz=1
Mannequin-china-4: http://www.dvafoto.com/wp-content/0011.jpg
Mannequin-china-5: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2243/2129603065_45eaf9420e_z.jpg?zz=1
Mannequin-laos: my photo
Mannequin-philippines: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-IqILwlOYkz4/TqYJjLcRMkI/AAAAAAAAERw/kdYvkh71BvM/s1600/retro_mannequin.jpg
Mannequin-malaysia: http://www.lemonicks.com/photos/Kuala%20Lumpur/P1000852.2.jpg
Mannequin-india: http://www.bminusc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Store-Mannequins1.png
Mannequin-iran: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a59ffcee970b-pi
Mannequin-china-quilt: http://www.dairybarn.org/upload_files/images/QN07-Schwalb.jpg


New York, 1 January 2013

My last post has brought back a memory from when I was a teenager. I went to a boarding school that was located some twenty miles from the nearest major train station, so at the beginning and end of each term buses would bring us to and from the station. The bus ride back to school at the beginning of the term was a staid affair, everyone quietly talking or just meditating. The bus ride back home at the end of term was an altogether more riotous event. Bawdy rugby songs were sung at high volume, starting from the back of the bus where the bad boys sat, and what in a different era were called “off-colour” jokes were retold loudly and with relish. This album cover conveys the general idea, although we did keep our clothes on.

rugby songs

One element of the journey home was that we would all wear the loudest possible ties. I should explain that while we did not wear uniforms as such at our school, sports jackets were de rigeur along with a tie. Not just any old tie; a black tie. All of us, all term, wore a black tie.


The only exceptions were school and house monitors as well as the sporty types who won their cricket, rugby or other colours for exceptional gamesmanship.  We had many theories about why we all had to wear ties of such a lugubrious colour; the one I remember has to do with commemorating the deaths of several boys in a fire decades ago in one of the school houses (no girls; this was a boys’ school).

Whatever the reason, on the last day of term we threw off that horrible black tie and marched onto the bus each with a tie louder and – given the times – more psychedelic than the last. These photos give an idea of the sudden blast of colour we offered each other:



Getting onto the bus was to take part in a fashion cat walk, with comments about each tie and loud cheers for the brightest. We all came back to school with a secret hoard of bright ties, from which we selected one to parade that last morning in front of our peers. And then off we went, singing our bawdy rugby songs.

What happened to my psychedelic ties? Gone, I think, with other mementos of my youth when my sister, tired of seeing me not collect that suitcase which I had asked her to store in her attic, threw it and its contents out.

suitcase in trash

So goes life.

Rugby songs album: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3126/3086393712_13bffb7baa.jpg
Black-tie: http://100days100ties.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/black-tie.jpg
Sixties-ties-1: http://img.ehowcdn.com/article-new/ehow/images/a06/q3/of/men_s-fashion-60s-1.1-800×800.jpg
Sixties-ties-2: http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSLL3ymfg76pRMQkN79f7YMTuTYx8Ftz4I_Srr46O7eIhIHs48IAxr5HDgs
Suitcase in a trash can: http://hilariousnyc.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Suitcase-Trash-Can.jpg


New York, 31 December 2012

A few weeks ago, I was watching a French TV show in Beijing called Nicolas Le Floch. This is a detective series set in France in the late 1700’s. It’s really quite amusing to see the detective genre unfolding in such an incongruous setting. But actually I mention the show for an altogether different reason: as I followed the tortuous plot, I was struck en route by how colourful the men’s clothes were in that period, as this still from one of the shows attests

floch-colourful clothes

Just to make the point, I throw in a few photos of portrait paintings from the period:





And to top it all, in France at least the men wore make-up! This still is of Le Floch’s boss, the chief of police:


Quite a change from Inspector Japp of the Poirot series …

inspector japp

This blaze of bright men’s clothing made me reflect on the dullness of my own wardrobe. All my official clothes – those I wear for work – are of subdued colouration: grey or discrete browns, greens and dark blues. The vast majority of my shirts are white, with one or two blue ones. The only way I can exhibit my love of colour in an official setting is through my ties, of which I have collected a large assortment over my career. Even the clothes I wear in my private life are modest in their colouration; I can boast of a few brightly coloured T-shirts and that’s it.

I merely reflect the sartorial conventions of our times. Today’s serious men do not wear colours, as these pictures of the powerful bear out.

The new Chinese leadership (although note the discrete dash of colour in the ties):


A lineup of the G8:


A lineup of the EU heads of state:


Why this greyness, this dullness, this soberness? I am no historian of fashion, but I am sure that the answer lies in this: serious men, the thinking goes, do not wear colours. Brightly coloured clothes denote ditziness, frivolity and general silliness. A man in brightly coloured clothes cannot possibly balance a budget or write a piece of legislation or do any of those other serious things required of him. I mean, can you imagine these men running a company or a government? Please!

red suit

light blue suit

indian colourful jacket

coloured clothes

The only time I can think of in my lifetime when men went around in clothes vaguely resembling those of the eighteenth century was the 1960s when flower power burst upon the scene:

carnaby street-1

carnaby street-2

These two suits come from the Victoria and Albert’s collections:



But the people who wore these clothes were completely unserious people, people who were into drugs, sex, and rock and roll, as the album covers of the time amply demonstrate:

beatles-sgt pepper album cover

beatles-yellow submarine

rolling stones

Jimi Hendrix


So I suppose in my lifetime, if I want to be taken seriously, which I do, I will be condemned to wearing dull coloured clothes, with only a dash of colour in my ties. I will, paraphrasing Cyril Connolly’s famous phrase, be a colourful man imprisoned in a grey man, wildly signalling to be let out.

Floch colourful clothes: http://images.allocine.fr/r_640_600/b_1_d6d6d6/medias/nmedia/18/81/96/02/19955662.JPG
18thC-1: http://i47.tinypic.com/2j4tvl0.jpg
18thC-2: http://i47.tinypic.com/mwz14n.jpg
18thC-3: http://i48.tinypic.com/atp6l2.jpg
18thC-4: http://i50.tinypic.com/e6q1d1.jpg
Floch made-up face: http://cdn.static.ovimg.com/episode/3270971.jpg
Inspector Japp: http://ic.pics.livejournal.com/phantomphan1990/11963571/118817/118817_original.gif
Politburo: http://l2.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/afKIpJHhH4TpWmLewt8S6A–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9aW5zZXQ7aD0xMDI0O3E9Nzk7dz0xNjYw/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/Reuters/2012-11-15T044703Z_283609896_GM1E8BF0ZB101_RTRMADP_3_CHINA-CONGRESS.JPG
G8: http://www.google.com/imgres?q=G8+photo&hl=en&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=683&tbm=isch&tbnid=SPoOXwx3iorBWM:&imgrefurl=http://www.g8italia2009.it/G8/Home/Media/Foto/G8-G8_Layout_locale-1199882116809_1246708086733.htm&docid=_9F5adpgS1UWjM&imgurl=http://www.g8italia2009.it/static/G8_Foto/_MB24968.jpg&w=3000&h=1870&ei=z1rgUM6-LNO40AHFtIC4Ag&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=161&vpy=295&dur=8059&hovh=177&hovw=284&tx=173&ty=111&sig=109352013111727269517&page=1&tbnh=141&tbnw=215&start=0&ndsp=24&ved=1t:429,r:7,s:0,i:108
EU: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/05/24/article-2149193-13413A49000005DC-413_634x252.jpg
Red suit: http://kontraplan.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Lanvin-Mens-SS12-Collection-kontraPLAN-magazine-6.jpg
Light blue suit: http://www.thestyleking.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Coloured-Suits.jpg
Indian colourful jacket: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/photo/10019988.cms
Coloured clothes: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-QuyZgxyFQ70/T-xNoZ-tloI/AAAAAAABK3M/5orvLpQt_0o/s1600/Milan+Mens+Fashion+Week+Salvatore+Ferragamo+Spring:Summer+2013+Runway+Show_0143.JPG
Carnaby street-1: http://media.vam.ac.uk/media/website/uploads/images/2006BE8980_carnaby_street.jpg
Carnaby street-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2082/2128638387_ae4fb5b36a_z.jpg?zz=1
Sixties suit VA-2: http://media.vam.ac.uk/media/thira/collection_images/2006AW/2006AW4489_jpg_ds.jpg
Sixties suit VA-4: http://media.vam.ac.uk/media/thira/collection_images/2006AB/2006AB6007_jpg_ds.jpg
Sgt Pepper album cover: http://greatalbumcovers.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/album-covers-bealtes-1.jpg
Yellow submarine album cover: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-YgGhq-2XQ8E/T9kztOsJPwI/AAAAAAAAC4k/VeHN6M72Tqg/s1600/The+Beatles+-+Yellow+Submarine.jpg
Rolling stones: http://pokingsmot.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/The-Rolling-Stones-Their-Satanic-Majesties-Request-Album-Art-468×411.jpg
Jimi Hendrix: http://www.rockstargallery.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Hendrix-AYE-Front-Cover.jpg
Pink Floyd: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3c/PinkFloyd-album-piperatthegatesofdawn_300.jpg


New York, 28 December 2012

My daughter has recently bought herself a pair of Vibram FiveFinger running shoes. For those of you who might not be familiar with this latest cool product, I add here a picture of my daughter’s pair.

giusti shoes

I was not aware of the existence of these shoes until my daughter announced their purchase to me and my wife. In our university days, back in the 1970s, we had come across the-then cool new product, socks with toes, when the sister of one our roommates came to visit and turned up at breakfast time sporting them. For those of my readers who are in the Stone Age of coolness and have never even seen this product, I append a picture.

socks with toes

Intrigued by these strange-looking – but utterly cool – shoes, I visited the web site of the company which designed them, which as an Italophile I am proud to say is Italian. Only Italians could possibly have designed such a shoe. The company in question is Vibram, and I quote here part of the blurb on the shoe from the web site:

“Industrial Designer, Robert Fliri, first proposed the idea of FiveFingers footwear to Marco Bramani, grandson of Vibram founder Vitale Bramani, who immediately embraced the concept. Bramani and Fliri developed the first barefoot shoes, then showed the concept to Vibram USA president & CEO, Tony Post. As a former collegiate runner, Post quickly became a firm believer in the benefits of natural running* and fitness training. He discovered that Vibram FiveFingers were the unique solution to the knee pain and soreness he was experiencing when running.

Soon, they collaborated with the full Vibram team to position Vibram FiveFingers® as a performance product for running, fitness and outdoor sports. FiveFingers not only encouraged a more natural forefoot strike during running, but also allowed the foot to move and work in a completely natural way, while providing grip and protection over a variety of surfaces.

*Running in Vibram FiveFingers requires a significant increase in lower leg and foot strength. A gradual transition is critical to avoid overuse injuries. For more information on making a safe transition please refer to our Barefoot Running page.” (1)

The site has this picture, which shows the ample delights awaiting the purchaser of these shoes when running in them:

woman running in vibram shoes

Yet, in all this wash of coolness and delight, I have to tell you that I find these shoes rather creepy, because they remind me of Saint Bartholomew. For those of my readers who are not well versed in Catholic martyrology, Saint Bartholomew, mentioned as one of the Twelve Apostles in the three Synoptic gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, is reputed to have been martyred in Armenia by being flayed alive and crucified upside down. Since flaying is not a common practice any more, I should further elucidate that flaying is the act of stripping the skin off a person, preferably when still alive so as to make the experience of dying all that much more excruciatingly painful.

As anyone who has ever walked through the European medieval section of a good art museum will know, Medieval painters – no doubt responding to popular demand – took a morbid delight in showing in clinical detail the varied torments to which the Christian martyrs were subjected; given Saint Bartholomew’s particularly grisly end, he was a popular subject of such paintings. I show here such an example.


Please note the stoicism with which Saint Bartholomew is taking it all. Personally, I would have been screaming and begging and pleading and blubbering and generally carrying on. But then I am not a Christian martyr.

Usually, representations of Saint Bartholomew will show the poor man, stoic to the last, carrying his flayed skin as well as one of the knives used to flay him.


This particular representation I find quite realistic since the – hopefully – corpse at the end of a flaying presumably must be a bloody mess, although in this particular painting the bloodiness looks more like a body stocking. Indeed, as time passed the gory details tended to be dropped in favour of a more romantic representation, such as this one in St. John Lateran in Rome.

saint-bartholomew statue-5-Rome

I am particularly mystified by the fact that the Saint has recovered his skin in this representation, but presumably when one goes to heaven one becomes whole again.

This trend towards the sucrose was spectacularly bucked by one Marco d’Agrate, who in 1562 created a gruesomely realistic statue of Saint Bartholomew which now resides in the Duomo of Milan. I happen to know the Duomo well since my wife is Milanese and as a patriotic duty we always visit the Duomo every time we go back. As this photo shows, Signor d’Agrate has benefited from the vivisections of human bodies that Renaissance scientists had managed to carry out in the face of the Church’s disapproval and he has created a good representation of the muscles and sinews of a human body after the skin has been stripped off. He has of course maintained the tradition of having the Saint hold his flayed skin but has made more of a fashion statement of it, draping it artistically around the Saint’s shoulders.

saint-bartholomew statue-1

And it is now that we come to the connection with the Vibram FiveFingers shoe. This photo, taken from another angle, shows very clearly the feet of the flayed skin. I see an uncanny resemblance in these with the Vibram shoe. Hence my feeling of creepiness.

saint-bartholomew statue-3b

Happy holidays!

1. http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/about_vibram_fivefingers/

socks with toes: http://screaminglywonderful.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/26-270d242b-4a17-46e5-af00-642d212561ac1.jpg
St. Bartholomew being flayed-painting: http://tomperna.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/martyrdom-of-st-bartholomew.jpg
St. Bartholomew standing-painting: http://medievalmilanetc.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/1330-0824the-apostle-st-bartholomew-matteo-di-giovanni-about-1480-tempera-on-wood-budapest4.jpg
St. Bartholomew statue Duomo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-e4KglOQz_YY/TpSZV147dJI/AAAAAAAAFww/NlApP8L0T-I/s1600/Flayed%2Bsaint.jpg
St. Bartholomew statue-the feet: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-DgRk_bNF1uQ/TgTtgrB10RI/AAAAAAAADMI/QxIB4yOl-Dc/s1600/00%2B1520978-The-statue-of-a-flayed-St-Bartholomew-wearing-his-skin-0.jpg


Beijing, 23 August 2012

There is a book by a certain Edwin J. Dingle, entitled “Across China on Foot”. It was first published in 1911 and it records a trek which the author undertook in 1909-1910. The title is a little bit of a cheat. Dingle didn’t walk across the whole of China, only 1,600 miles of it, from Chongqing to China’s western border with Myanmar, tracking along Sichuan’s southern border and then across the middle of Yunnan. Before that, he traveled another 1,500 miles, but by boat up the Yangtze River, from Shanghai. He did all of the walking companionless, with only a servant and ever-changing coolies to accompany him. It’s a pretty amazing book, and I highly recommend it to you should you ever come across it.

The book is fascinating on many levels. Most of the regions Dingle walked through were very backward, even by Chinese standards, and he witnessed a China that was almost feudal; some of his descriptions of the practices he saw are eye-opening. The regions he was crossing were really remote, very rugged – in a single day Dingle could climb and descend thousands of feet – but with beautiful, untouched landscapes. His lyrical descriptions of what he was seeing around him make me despair as I look out of my window at the smoggy air of Beijing. He was walking through areas where very few white people had ever been, so he was a phenomenon wherever he went. His descriptions of how the locals reacted to him can be hilarious. And his casual racism – a sort of jokey, imperialistic view of the Chinese – can make you squirm and understand why the Chinese of today have a deep, deep resentment of how they were treated in this period of their history (but it’s not as bad as the blatant racism which Hergé recorded in Tintin’s Le Lotus Bleusee my previous post on this album).

But actually I’m writing about this book because the regions through which Dingle walked were, and still are, home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Many of his anthropological descriptions, if I may call them that, are about the variegated ethnic groupings he came across, and they constitute a truly colourful background to Dingle’s walk, in every sense of the word: not only do the customs he describes make for a fascinating read, but the peoples he met often wore colourful costumes.

It is the colour of ethnic costumes that is my topic for today. Last weekend, my wife and I went to the National Art Museum of China to see an exhibition of ceramics. We found no such exhibition; what we stumbled into instead was ten times better. Sometimes serendipity works your way.

It was an exhibition of swaddling clothes (and some dresses), made by many of the same ethnic minorities whose territories Dingle walked across a hundred years ago – the Miao, Buyi, Dong, Shui, Yao, Yi, Gejia, and others. For those of you who have never swaddled, it is the habit of wrapping babies tightly in cloths to restrict their movement. This is neither the time nor the place to discuss swaddling and its merits or drawbacks, but in my part of the world no one has swaddled since the seventeenth century while China’s ethnic minorities were still doing it back in the 1970s. Actually, I’m not sure they were swaddling the way we did it. As I understand it, we wound strips of cloth tightly around a baby. What was on exhibit here, though, were squares of cloth about one metre by one with long belts. My guess is that they were used to make pouch-like holders into which the baby was slipped.

But let me get back to the point of the exhibition, which was not swaddling but the decoration of the swaddling cloths. And the decorations were simply lovely: bright colours, complex patterns, bold combinations. I’m not an expert on the decoration of textiles, but there was a lot of very fine embroidery, there was patchwork, there was printing, there was appliqué, and I’m sure I’ve missed a thousand things.  I shall let the photos speak for themselves. Here are a few, just to whet your appetite!

You can see many more at this site.


Just to complete the story, this collection was put together by two dedicated Han Chinese who lived in Guizhou. I record the names of these two wonderful people for posterity: Ma Zhengrong and Ma Li. Over a period of some twenty-thirty years, the two Ma’s “ran around” the province (as the English introduction to the exhibition charmingly put it) collecting these swaddling clothes from the province’s ethnic minorities. They chased their collection over hill and dale – or rather mountain and gorge – up in the back country. All this, while the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution raged and burned all around. Somehow they, and their collection, survived unscathed and they have now donated it to the Museum. I salute them.

Like everywhere else these ethnic particularities are disappearing under the onslaught of modernity. Numerous groups around the world are fighting to save this hugely rich cultural heritage that we have accumulated over thousands of years. Like I said in my earlier posting on the Lacebark pine, extinction is for ever; if we lose our cultural heritage it will never, ever come back.

Having smashed everything worthy of the name culture and tried to burn every form of individualism out of their citizens during their Communist period, the Chinese elites are now going at cultural preservation with the enthusiasm of the converted. But is it better than the wanton destruction of before, I wonder? As far as I can make out, the Chinese approach to preservation is to create cultural Disneylands, as one element in their enthusiastic promotion of the tourist industry. What they want is for their ethnic minorities to sit in their prettified villages, dress up in their prettified clothes, and have pictures taken of themselves and their villages by Han Chinese. But that is not what the ethnic minorities want. They, like everyone else, want a modern life, all modcoms. And who are we to deny it to them? Surely the answer is to take their cultural heritage and update it, make it part of all our heritage. They should not embroider swaddling clothes but dresses, shirts, ties, pillows, curtains, sofas. Their beautiful art needs a new, modern context, not the embalming of a tourist village. My wife is looking for a local partner to start getting the great fashion houses of the world into ethnic art. Anyone interested, please post a comment!