034：EPISODE 34 - Chinese Han Lacquer Cup
Chinese Han lacquer cup (made around 4 AD) found near Pyongyang, North Korea
This is a week about different kinds of power - about how to achieve it and how to keep it. Millions of words have been written on the subject of influencing others, but two thousand years ago - which is the period of this week's programmes - leaders weren't given many handily-packaged tips explaining their methods; no books at the airport, then, on how to be a better emperor - rulers just had to get on with it!
In our less confident times, a new ruler could find lots of literature on just this subject, and one best-seller has become so famous that its title has entered the language: 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' has sold over 15 million copies, telling us all how to do exactly what it says on the cover. But, strangely, nowhere in that book does it mention one very obvious strategy that the power-brokers in Imperial China of two thousand years ago knew very well, and practised brilliantly: don't just 'say' encouraging things; 'give' your target a hugely extravagant present.
Throughout history, as any anthropologist will tell you, the simplest way to bind people to you has been to give them a special gift - a present that only you can give, and only they are worthy to receive; a present like the object in this programme.
"Lacquer-ware in cups such as these would have been the equivalent of silver plates for the Romans, or blue and white porcelain in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century." (Roel Sterckx)
"I mean what you have here is a very high standard both of craftsmanship and of technology - exquisite artisanship, exquisite decoration with simple lines, very beautiful, combined in this one intriguing object." (Isabel Hilton)
In the last few programmes I've been considering how the leaders of vast kingdoms and empires built and retained their supremacy, whether by borrowing the image of Alexander the Great, preaching the ideals of the Buddha in India, or buying off the priesthood in Egypt. In this programme, we are in Han Dynasty China, two thousand years ago, exploring the giving of Imperial gifts - an activity which straddles the murky boundary between diplomacy and bribery.
Our cup comes from a turbulent period in the Han Dynasty, when at the centre the emperor was under severe threat and, at the edges of the Empire, he was struggling to keep control. The Han had extended Chinese power as far south as Vietnam, west to the steppes of Central Asia and north to Korea, and in each of these places they had set up military colonies.
As Han commerce and settlements grew in these outposts, so their governors gained in power, and there was always a risk that they might turn into independent fiefdoms - what the Chinese now call 'splittism' was a worry even then. The governors' loyalty to the Emperor needed to be secured. And one of the ways the emperor kept them on-side was to give them gifts that carried huge Imperial prestige. In the British Museum we have an exquisite lacquer wine cup, which was probably given by the Han emperor to one of his military commanders in North Korea around the year 4 AD.
I've got it with me now. It's very light to hold, and it's less like a wine cup and more like a small serving bowl - a bowl that would hold the equivalent of a very large glass of wine. It's a shallow oval about seven inches (18 cm) long, so roughly the size and shape of a large mango. And on each of the long sides there's a gilded handle, and it's these handles that give the cup its name - it's known as an ear cup. The core of the cup is wood, and through some of the damage you can just see that wood, but of course most of it's covered in layer after layer of reddish-brown lacquer.
The inside is plain but the outside has been decorated with gold and bronze inlay - pairs of birds face each other, each sporting exaggerated claws against a background of geometric shapes and decorative spirals. The whole effect is of a costly highly wrought object - elegant, stylish, confident. Everything about it speaks of assured taste and controlled opulence. Roel Sterckx, Professor of Chinese History at Cambridge, knows exactly how much effort would go into making one of these drinking cups:
"Lacquerware takes an enormous amount of time to make. It's a very labour-intensive and a very tedious process, because there's the extraction of the sap of the lacquer tree, followed by all sorts of procedures, mixing with all sorts of pigments, letting it cure, applying successive layers on to a wooden core, to finally produce a beautiful piece. And it would have involved several sets of artisans."
High-quality lacquer was brilliantly smooth and virtually indestructible. Fine pieces like our cup required up to 30 or more separate coats, with long drying and hardening times between each, and so it could have taken up to about a month to make. Hardly surprising, then, that they were inordinately expensive - you could buy more than ten bronze cups for the price of one in lacquer - so lacquer cups were strictly reserved for top management, the Imperial governors controlling the frontiers of the Empire. Although the Han Chinese and the Roman empires covered roughly the same land area, a census conducted in China, only two years before our cup was made, came up with the wonderfully precise figure of a population of 57,671,400 individuals. Here's Roel Sterckx again:
"One of things we need to keep in mind, of course, is that the Chinese Empire is immense, and that it straddles a hugely diverse geographic region. And in the case of the Han, we're talking about a distance that stretches from North Korea to Vietnam. Contact between people is obviously not always very obvious, and so the circulation of goods, the circulation of imperially sanctioned objects, together of course with texts, is part of that symbolical assertion of what it means to be an empire. You might not see people who are part of the same empire, but you might actually - by witnessing the goods that are produced across the empire - feel, or have a sense of belonging to, that greater imagined community in many ways."
Fostering that sense of an imagined community was a key Imperial strategy - and it didn't come cheap. Typically, the emperor paid out a large chunk of state revenue every year to provide allies and vassal states with luxury gifts, including thousands of rolls of silk and hundreds of lacquer cups. So, our cup is very much part of a system - it was given either as an Imperial gift or in lieu of a salary, to a senior official at the Han military garrisons near present day Pyongyang in North Korea. We can be pretty sure that, apart from its sheer monetary value, it was intended to bestow prestige and to suggest a personal link between the commander and the emperor.
At this point in the Han's history, however, the affairs of state were not in the hands of the emperor but of the dowager empress, the formidable Grand Empress Dowager Wang, who effectively ran the state for 30 years, as none of the emperors had much time for business. She had one emperor son - who spent most of his time with his concubine, Flying Swallow, who, it was said, was so light that she could dance on the palm of his hand - one grandson emperor - who was besotted with his male lover - and another grandson � the one on the throne at the time of our cup, who had acceded at the age of nine, and was to be poisoned with pepper wine at the age of fifteen, two years after our cup was made. So this cup lived in interesting times, and its making was almost certainly organised by the Grand Dowager Empress.
The machinery of the state, and the production of luxury goods, was so well structured that it could work perfectly well despite any foibles at the top. This cup is remarkable for the supreme craftsmanship of its making, and even more so because it was subjected to a level of quality control that far exceeds any designer handbag today.
Looking at the cup again, I can see that around the oval base runs a thin band with 67 Chinese characters on it. Now in Europe you might expect this kind of band to be a motto or a dedication, or something like that, but in fact here the characters list six craftsmen involved in the different processes involved in manufacturing the cup - making the wooden core, undercoat lacquering, top-coat lacquering, gilding the ear handles, painting, and then final polishing - the name of every one of the craftsmen. And then - and this could surely happen only in China - it goes on to list the seven product inspectors, whose responsibility was to guarantee quality. Six craftsmen, seven supervisors - this is the stuff of real bureaucracy. The list reads:
"The wooden core by Yi, lacquering by Li, top-coat lacquering by Dang, gilding of the ear- handles by Gu, painting by Ding, final polishing by Feng, product inspection by Ping, supervisor-foreman Zong. In charge were Government Head Supervisor Zhang, Chief Administrator Liang, his deputy Feng, their subordinate Executive Officer Long, and Chief Clerk Bao."
What I find fascinating about this cup, is that it is such a powerful document of the link between craft production and state administration; bureaucracy as a guarantee of beauty. It's not something that's familiar to the modern European, but for the journalist and China expert Isabel Hilton, it's a continuing tradition in Chinese history:
"Well in Han times, the government had a major role in industry, partly to deal with its military expenditure in order to finance the kind of expeditions that it required against the aggressive peoples of the north and the west, again echoes of today.
The government nationalised some major industries, and it regulated major industries for quite a long time, so they were often run by private entrepreneurs, or people who had been private entrepreneurs, but under state control.
And again, if you like, there are modern parallels here, because what we've seen in the past three to four decades, is the emergence of a hybrid system in China; from an economy that was completely under state control on a socialist model and a planned economy model, to a more market-oriented model - connecting with the global economy but nevertheless very firmly under state direction. And if you look at where the capital gets invested, and what the structure of ownership is of Chinese industry, it is still largely state-controlled."
So, exploring this lacquer cup of two thousand years ago, takes us into territory that turns out to be disconcertingly familiar - private enterprise under Chinese state control, cutting-edge mass production allied to high technology, deft management of relations between the Chinese capital and North Korea, and the skilful deployment of diplomatic gifts. The Chinese still know that the best gifts are always the ones that only the giver can command. In the time of the Han Dynasty, that was silk and lacquer cups. Today, when China wants to establish friendly relations, it still gives the present that nobody else can match - it's known as Panda Diplomacy.
In the next programme, we move from gift-giving as a power strategy to image-making: I'll be looking at how the Roman emperors struggled to control their outlying provinces - we'll be on the Nile with the Emperor Augustus.