05 April 2014

WEEKEND READING LIST: One Thing Leads to Another

Bla and I were both inspired by PH's improving habit of systematically eating at one new cafe a week, reading one new book a week, going to one exhibition, one performance, watching one movie, every week. He'd been doing this since the new year and he has the notebook as proof of his resolve, on each rather dog-eared page are lists and dates, in his poor scribble, of all the new things he's seen and read and watched and (hopefully) absorbed. 
And so last week, one very hot afternoon, Bla and I, to kickstart our very own effort, visited the Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, to view the rather special Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and the Tang Court (till 4 May).  It's a rather lively and interesting show (see the tortoise container above? It's so cute and a real luxury item don't you think?) and I urge you all to go look at it if you haven't already.
Anyway, that led me to want to learn more about Chinese history and this led me to randomly pick up a book, without much thought from a shelf about Chinese history. It was a lucky chance find. I'm now swiftly devouring A Brief History of the Dynasties of China by Bamber Gascoigne (2003). I can't put it down. I'm sure it's not as pedantically academic as it can be, but it's exactly what I need at the moment. You see, the focus is oddly personal and Mr Gascoigne just seems to zoom in on all the sometimes odd details and character that does bring out the flavour of each of the periods he's writing about; It's a quick guided tour of over 2,000 years, and Mr Gascoigne's concerns, are thankfully like mine, heavy on the arts and culture (and the odd fact or two), and less about warcraft and politics. I like that it's quite a subjective focus, and it's beautifully, humourously written. This isn't to say that Mr Gascoigne is without erudition, it's just that he uses his learning to convey his own passions for his subject. Of course this is just an entertaining launch pad for more specific reading. 
I learnt a lot from just one swift reading. For instance, did you know that Marco Polo was only 20 years old when he was made a high official in the court of Kublai Khan? He later waxed lyrical of Kublai Khan's appearance:
"He is of good and fair size, neither too small nor too large, but is of middle size. He is covered with flesh in a beautiful manner, not too fat, nor too lean; he is more than well formed in all parts. He has his face white and partly shining red like the colour of a beautiful rose, which makes him look very pleasing; and he has the eyes black and beautiful; and the nose very beautiful, well made and well set on the face."  

Isn't this a marvellous detail to highlight? I was simply entranced that this 20 year old Venetian boy is studying this great Mongolian emperor as if he were some model come for a casting! I would never have thought that the thing that struck one about Kublai Khan (above left) would be his beautiful black eyes. Highly recommended.

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