Sunday Salon 1-27-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:00 Sunday morning, getting an early start for a change, at my main computer.

Reading: As reported a couple of weeks ago, the reading year has gotten off to a fine start, with eight books completed already, and another two underway! Much of that recent reading has been related to the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Belleza, that I have been participating in. I’ve already posted a review of the first book read for that Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi. Reviews of two further books, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and The Japanese Sense of Beauty by Shuji Takashina, will be coming in the next week or two. My current focus is a volume I’ve been anxious to read since it came out a few months ago, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (who is also one of Haruki Murakami’s main English translators). For a blog article or two as well as a presentation on Impressionism I’m doing in a couple of months, I’ve also completed Karin Breuer’s Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism.

Viewing: I only watched two movies this week. One was middling, a Korean historical drama called Empire of Lust. But the other, Gabbeh, a 1996 film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was outstanding, atmospheric and poetic and wonderfully colorful. Makhmalbaf is a prolific, highly-regarded Iranian director, but Gabbeh was just the first film of his I’ve seen. I will be seeking out more!

Listening: My main listening for the last week was related to program notes I wrote for the next concert of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The program is an interesting one: Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (this gave me an excuse to revisit her excellent Vespers for a New Dark Age that she recorded with her group Victoire), Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky. The latter inspired a short blog post on Tchaikovsky’s bad reviews that I’m going to post tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Blogging: This week saw only the posting of my review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a Wordless Wednesday bit of medieval illumination. Coming this week, I hope, are a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and the short article I’ve been planning for some time on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art. My problem with the latter, which I’ve been thinking about for weeks, is the same one I often have – I enjoy the research too much, accumulate way too much information, and then have a hard time figuring out exactly what my subject is. I’ve got dozens of pages of notes for this darn Monet article, which probably won’t end up exceeding 1,000 words. We’ll see how it turns out, and what I actually end up writing about.

Pondering: I feel strongly the desire to travel, but also feel equally strongly the need to keep a close eye on my finances. What to do?

And finally: Something I came across this week, which has pleased me greatly and gotten itself lodged in my head, is a version of Queen’s song “Killer Queen” played on, of all things, a hundred-plus-year-old fairground organ. It’s much too delightful; the entry of the chorus (“She’s a killer queen…”) makes me laugh, in a good way, every time I hear it. The introduction to the video mentions a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the same organ, which you’ll also find below in case you need it … which you might.

Beethoven’s Coffee

Along with being one of the great musical geniuses of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven is remembered for a variety of personal peculiarities – his wild hair, his explosive temper, his chaotic living arrangements (it is said that he changed residences between seventy and eighty times during the thirty-five years he lived in Vienna). His eating habits were distinctive as well. He loved salami as well as macaroni and cheese (parmesan was his cheese of choice). Every Thursday, he was served a very particular bread soup. As composer-conductor Ignaz Seyfried describes it, “Together with [the soup], ten sizable eggs had to be presented to him on a plate. Before they were stirred into the soup, he first separated and tested them by holding them against the light, then decapitated them with his own hand and anxiously sniffed them to see whether they were fresh.”

Beethoven also sometimes enjoyed cooking for guests. Here’s Seyfried again: “After waiting patiently for an hour and a half, while the turbulent demands of their stomachs were with increasing difficulty assuaged by cordial dialogue, the dinner was finally served. The soup recalled those charitable leavings distributed to beggars in the taverns; the beef was but half-done and calculated to gratify only an ostrich; the vegetables floated in a mixture of water and grease; and the roast seemed to have been smoked in the chimney … [his guests] found it barely possible to choke down a few morsels.”

In terms of his diet, however, Beethoven was remarkably fastidious about one thing – his coffee. His biographer and friend Anton Schindler once remarked, “coffee seems to have been the one indispensable item in his diet.” He always prepared his coffee himself, starting every day by counting out exactly sixty coffee beans and grinding them. Hot water would then be poured through the ground coffee via what has been described as a “glass contraption.” It is said that Beethoven’s sixty beans is about ten fewer than what would be used for a modern cup of coffee. Due to modern processing, though, the caffeine content in Beethoven’s coffee was likely far greater than that which we would enjoy today.

Beethoven wasn’t the only historical celebrity who had coffee idiosyncrasies. Remaining in the musical world for a moment, Johann Sebastian Bach was another famous coffee fan. He even went so far as to write a Coffee Cantata (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211), in which a father demands that his daughter give up her coffee addiction so that she can find a suitable husband. She ultimately decides to marry only when she has found someone who loves coffee as much as she, and the cantata ends with an ode to the delight women take in the drink.

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”
(from Bach’s Coffee Cantata)

Theodore Roosevelt is said to have drunk a gallon of coffee in the average day. In 1907, he apparently also coined Maxwell House’s motto “Good To The Last Drop.” Mathematician Paul Erdös, who alternated between espresso shots and caffeine tablets, once said that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Honoré de Balzac supposedly drank fifty cups of coffee a day, starting at the same time he began his day’s writing, at approximately 1:00 a.m. Voltaire also drank between forty and fifty cups per day. He liked his coffee mixed with chocolate, and paid bonuses to his servants if they managed to secure particularly good coffee beans.

The award for the sweetest brew goes to philosopher and author Søren Kierkegaard. According to his biographer Joakim Garff, “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” He would then swallow the concoction in one gulp.

“Beethoven’s Caffeine Addiction” (
“Beethoven’s Kitchen” (The Daily Beethoven)
“Top 11 Famous Coffee Drinkers from the History Books” (Coffee Makers USA)
“Coffee: From Balzac to Beethoven, it has fueled artistic endeavor for centuries” (

Sunday Salon 11-18-18

Sunday Salon badge squareAs this is my first blog post in quite a while, I will resist the temptation to detail my activities over the last year-and-a-half, and just talk a little about the last week or two (and the future!)

Time and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: In an attempt to find motivation, feed my creativity, and address my ever-faltering self-esteem, I’ve been spending a lot of time with self-help books recently. The one I’d like to call special attention to is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, perhaps (along with Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist) the best book on creativity that I’ve ever come across. Tharp is direct, detailed, revealing of her own pretty astonishing creative life, and full of practical suggestions. I’m also currently in the middle of Michael Pye’s very entertaining and informative The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, and have been eyeing hungrily my as-yet-untouched copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book Killing Commendatore.

Viewing: The imminent demise of the invaluable FilmStruck service – apparently to be replaced in a few months by the new Criterion Channel announced a couple of days ago – has led me, and many others, to try to go through our queues of movies before FilmStruck disappears on November 29. My focus has been on two areas: expanding my knowledge of the works of Japanese directors like Kon Ichikawa and Masahiro Shinoda, and becoming acquainted with the films Ingrid Bergman made in the early, Swedish part of her career (many featured in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years). I’ll save for another time the overwhelming experience of last night’s viewing, in its beautiful new Criterion Blu-Ray edition, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s magisterial Andrei Rublev.

Listening: Over late October and early November, I spent a couple of weeks writing program notes for a chamber music festival. It was such an intensive and awful experience – 63 compositions and 16,000 or so words written (edited down to 10,000 for space) over fourteen days! – that I came out of it with a genuine, and I suspect temporary, aversion to classical music. So I’ve been checking out lots of other fun stuff: Thai and other southeast Asian pop and folk music, my old favorite Stereolab, Bollywood soundtracks, and more (see below for another example). A lot of my listening, too, I have to admit, has been to my own music, as I’ve recovered my music-writing groove and am busily assembling bits of what will eventually be a long piece that I trust is going to be great!

Blogging: As I mentioned above, this is my first blog post in a year and a half, but I’m pretty sure not my last. I’ve been accumulating some content which will be turning up here soon, as well as developing a new project about which I’m going to remain silent for the moment. More news soon! By the way, my Twitter feed is now much more active than before, so I encourage you to follow me there.

Pondering: I left my previous job, a very demanding and time-consuming one, about three months ago. As with the last time I left that organization, it has been a difficult transition, especially on a personal level. I had always guessed that most of my friendships within that workplace, even some of the close ones, were not actually friendships but rather relationships of convenience, existing simply because of my title and possible utility to people. It’s not really unusual or surprising, nor am I really complaining about or condemning those people. But it has admittedly been painful to see my social circle diminished by something like 95%. However, I’m also extremely grateful for the people that have stuck with me and stayed in contact! And my social horizons are growing, gradually…

And finally: I’m pleased to share some music by a recent, very pleasant discovery, Khruangbin. This Houston-based band brings together a diverse group of influences, from Thai pop music to progressive rock to surf-rock instrumentals to film scores and more, via the rock-solid grooves of drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, the hypnotic and melodic bass playing of Laura Lee, and the virtuoso guitar of Mark Speer. When I found out that (1) Laura Lee came up with the name Khruangbin, Thai for “flying engine” or “airplane,” because she’d been studying the Thai language at the time and liked the word, and (2) they have a website, AirKhruang, where they put together Spotify playlists of cool and obscure music from around the world, I knew this was a band I would like. Their NPR Music Tiny Desk concert features three songs: “Maria También” is a great introduction to their musical world, the bass line of “August 10” has been stuck in my head for weeks, and the closer, “White Gloves,” pretty much makes me cry every time. I absolutely love this stuff, and hope you will too…


When one thinks about the earliest woman composers in history, the name most commonly thought of is Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). There are other earlier names, including Enheduanna, one of the daughters of Sargon of Akkad, who was writing music and hymns in the twenty-third century BCE and is perhaps the first composer, male or female, that can be identified. But in terms of those whose music still exists, Hildegard is among the earliest. Along with the great beauty of her music, her reputation for learning – she wrote nine books on subjects ranging from natural history, medicine, and cosmology to music, poetry, and theology – make her an important figure in the artistic and intellectual history of the Middle Ages.

kassiani-iconBut she is not the earliest female composer whose music can still be heard today. That distinction is held by Kassiani (810-865). Like Hildegard, Kassiani was an abbess at a convent. Also like Hildegard, she wrote her own poetry as well as music. Around fifty of Kassiani’s hymns have come down to us, and twenty-three are still part of the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Kassiani, sometimes known as Kassia, was born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She was said to be very beautiful, and supposedly had a chance to marry the young Emperor Theophilos and become the Byzantine Empress. According to chroniclers, when Theophilos suggested to Kassiani that “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” she replied, “And through a woman came forth the better things.” In any event, the marriage didn’t happen, and a few years later, she returns to documented history in 843 as the founder and abbess of a convent just outside Constantinople. Later she settled on the Greek island of Kasos, near Crete, where she died and where her tomb and reliquary can still be seen. The feast day of Saint Kassiani is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7.

Probably the best-known of her compositions is the beautiful Hymn (or Troparion) of Kassiani, which is sung every Holy Wednesday. According to legend, the Emperor Theophilos, who was still in love with Kassiani, went to visit her at her convent as she was writing this hymn. He wanted to see her one more time before he died. When she realized who it was that was arriving, she hid in a closet in her cell, not wanting to reawaken old feelings on either her or his part. Theophilos came into her cell and saw the unfinished hymn on her table. As he cried over having rejected her years before, he added a line to her hymn: “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.” Then he left, and Kassiani finished the hymn. Its music is slow and sad, and is demanding for the singers who perform it. People apparently still go to services on Holy Wednesday specifically “to listen to Kassiani.”

Very few recordings have been made of her music, unfortunately, although it has been taken up by groups like the Kronos Quartet. It would seem that the only CD of Kassiani’s music is by the ensemble VocaMe on the Christophorus label. That entire album is happily available on YouTube.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Inside a mountain on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole resides the largest collection and reflection of crop diversity in the world.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed samples of the world’s crops, duplicates of the samples stored in the world’s other seed banks. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples. Since each sample contains an average of 500 seeds, the total capacity is something like 2.25 billion seeds. Right now, around 860,000 seed samples are stored there, or between one-third and one-half of the seed diversity stored around the world. More than 150,000 distinct varieties of both rice and wheat, as well as hundreds of much less common plants, are represented. Priority is given, not surprisingly, to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds there, although China and Japan haven’t yet joined in.

svalbard-1The Seed Vault is housed over 400 feet inside a mountain – “Platåberget,” or “plateau mountain” – on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just over 800 miles from the North Pole. Cary Fowler, a conservationist who helped start the Vault, has said, “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel.” It’s so cold at Svalbard that the seeds would be safe even if the refrigeration failed. There is also considerable permafrost, and little tectonic activity there. It’s at a high altitude, so flooding isn’t an issue, and the humidity is very low. The seeds are stored at just below zero Fahrenheit in foil packages, and should be viable for many centuries.

There are around 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard food crops. But not all of them are in the best of shape. The seeds are aging, and the technology they use is behind the times. Many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or even the disappearance of governmental funding. War can be an issue, too – the seed banks of both Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost that way, and those of the Philippines and Egypt have been damaged by fire and looters. In fact, due to the civil war in Syria, in 2015 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history, to replace some lost at Aleppo’s seed bank (luckily, Aleppo had stored duplicates of some 80% of its holdings at Svalbard).

svalbard-2Conservationist Cary Fowler, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Seed Vault. When governments started thinking about the potential danger to crops, Norway was one of the few places still trusted by most nations. It was also willing to put up all of the $9 million needed to start the project. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on February 26, 2008 with its first deposit, of rice seeds, delivered by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Norway even provided for some art for the facility, in the form of the illuminated Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, which runs the length of the facility’s roof and down to the entryway, marking the location of the vault from a distance.

The Seed Vault is owned and administered by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides financial support for the operation of the Seed Vault and, until recently, the transportation of seeds to the facility. NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, operate the facility and maintains a public database of the samples stored there. The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box, with the Vault owning the building but the depositor owning the seeds.

Food security is a challenge in developing countries. Crop diversity is key in developing plants that can withstand disease, pests, and changing climates. However, there has been some dispute about whether preserving crop diversity is best done by institutions like the Seed Vault or by working in the field with individual communities. Research, for instance, suggests that as much as 75% of global crop diversity is actually held by farmers around the world, most of them women.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, in a sense, the world’s backup plan – or, to use more dramatic language, a “doomsday vault” – insurance against both catastrophic and incremental loss of the world’s crop diversity.

The Toba Catastrophe Theory

Lake Toba (photo by Andrey Samsonov)

Lake Toba (photo by Andrey Samsonov)

Werner Herzog’s quite enjoyable, and typically discursive, recent documentary Into the Volcano featured a short vignette on a specific volcanic eruption, and a theory associated with it, that I hadn’t encountered before.

Around 74,000 years ago, one of the Earth’s largest-ever volcanic eruptions, the Toba super-eruption, happened at what is now Lake Toba, in the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. According to the Toba Catastrophe Theory, this eruption caused a planet-wide volcanic winter that lasted six years or more, as well as global cooling that extended over a thousand years. Because of this, according to a related theory, the ancestors of modern humans nearly died out, or at the very least were severely challenged.

This super-eruption, sometimes called the “Youngest Toba Tuff” or YTT eruption, has been called “the largest known volcanic eruption in the history of the human species,” and is generally believed to have been the largest of the last 2.5 million years. Its estimated volcanic explosivity index was 8, the maximum possible. By way of comparison, the Toba super-eruption was about 100 times larger than the largest recent eruption, the one in 1815 at Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which resulted in 1816’s “Year Without a Summer” in the Northern Hemisphere. Current research says that Toba expelled an amazing 700 cubic miles of magma – one article put that number in context by saying that this mass is roughly equivalent to 19 million Empire State Buildings. The famous Krakatoa eruption of 1883 released only about 3 cubic miles of magma.

All life in the immediate area of the Toba super-eruption must have been destroyed. At least six inches, and perhaps even several feet, of ash were likely deposited over the entirety of South Asia, including the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The volcano itself collapsed to form a huge caldera now home to Lake Toba, the fifteenth-deepest lake, and largest volcanic lake, in the world.

Michael Rampino and Stephen Self have argued that the Toba super-eruption caused a “brief, dramatic cooling or ‘volcanic winter.’” Temperatures around the world would have dropped, they suggest, by several degrees, and contributed to the beginning of the last glacial period, the Würm glaciation, which had probably already begun but was helped along by Toba.

This eruption might also have prompted what has been called a “population bottleneck” in the course of human evolution. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, so the argument goes, the worldwide human population decreased sharply, perhaps as low as 3,000. There is some genetic evidence that all humans alive today are descended from just 1,000 to 10,000 breeding couples that lived around 70,000 years ago, and that the bulk of genetic differences between modern human populations dates from that time, rather than a more gradual process spread out over hundreds of thousands of years.

According to the “population bottleneck” theory, the Toba eruption and the resulting volcanic winter led to a global ecological crisis that could have destroyed most of the food sources available to the human population, thereby resulting in that much smaller population. Some evidence can be marshaled to support this idea. Mitochondrial DNA have shown that the major human migration from Africa happened between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, which fits with the Toba timeline. There is also some evidence of genetic bottlenecks in other species from certain regions at that time, including chimpanzees, orangutans, tigers, and cheetahs.

On the other hand, a seven-year project led by Oxford University along with several Indian institutions found that many forms of life then existing in India survived the Toba super-eruption. This included human populations that seem to have been there at that time, whose stone tool assemblage, very similar to that of the human populations in East Africa, remained consistent before and after the super-eruption. (This is controversial, however, because there is argument about exactly when modern humans first arrived in India.) Also, in East Africa, where most or all humans lived at that point, there was apparently no volcanic winter, or even much of a change in climate. Farther afield, in Europe, Neanderthals certainly survived whatever global impact the Toba eruption had. However, it has been suggested that the eruption might have forced humans to adapt to a new environment, which helped them ultimately to replace the Neanderthals.

It is clear that as a result of the Toba super-eruption, some areas were totally devastated. Others, however, experienced minor changes and recovered very quickly. Not many people embrace the Toba Catastrophe Theory anymore, it would seem. Nor is it generally thought that there is a connection between the super-eruption and major changes in the human population that existed at that time. But the evidence either way isn’t extensive, and the theories are certainly interesting.

Sunday Salon 10-25-16

happy-tuesdayTime and Place: 7:00 a.m. Tuesday, at my main computer. I’m about 48 hours late for my usual Sunday Salon, having taken a couple of days off to celebrate my birthday. But now I’m back with a special Tuesday edition of the Salon.

Viewing: For a change, I’ve been indulging myself a bit on the movie front, largely thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Hammer Studios horror films are a big part of TCM’s Halloween celebration this month, so I’ve been watching fine, atmospheric films like Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Also in the horror vein, thanks to my friend Jessica, I saw Stephen King’s It at her combination birthday-dinner-Halloween movie party. On the non-horror front, thanks to MUBI, I also saw a relative rarity by Luis Buñuel, La mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden).

Reading: I’m currently continuing with the same three books that I had underway last week: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart, and Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write.

Listening: While I haven’t been listening to much music, I’ve been enjoying a couple of podcasts that I am happy to recommend: Myths and Legends, featuring modern re-tellings of mythological tales from around the world, and my current favorite, You Must Remember This, “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.”

Blogging: I was reasonably active last week, posting…

* An article on the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of 13th century woodblocks containing some of the world’s oldest Buddhist texts
* A look at Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendor
* Norman Mailer’s Lego City
* Shinji Tsuchimochi’s wonderful 100 Views of Tokyo
* A cool photo of Harry Partch and his instruments

Pondering: Yesterday I embarked on the second half of my sixth decade on the planet. In other words, I turned 56. I don’t know that this is a particularly noteworthy achievement, but that I have managed to avoid major health problems and actually feel fairly decent at such an advanced age is a positive. I don’t think I’ve wasted my life thus far, either, and I hope to continue that trend. As it happens, I share my birthday with George Crumb, who turned 87 yesterday – Happy Birthday to the great composer! (Fun fact – George Crum, minus the “b,” a nineteenth century New York-based chef and travel guide, was the inventor of the potato chip.)

Anticipating: The World Series is about to get underway, leading me to post the following on Facebook a few days ago: “The Chicago Cubs came into being in 1870 as the Chicago White Stockings, and were one of the original eight National League teams when the League formed in 1876 (they officially became the Cubs in 1906). The Cleveland Indians started life as the Grand Rapids Rustlers in 1894, and as the Cleveland Bluebirds became one of the original eight American League teams in 1901 (the Indians nickname was adopted in 1915). I love baseball history! Two of the oldest of all baseball franchises go to the World Series!”

Gratuitous Van Lingle Mungo Reference: Thinking of baseball history leads me, inevitably, to Van Lingle Mungo. Along with a pretty decent career that included three All Star Team selections, 120 career wins, and leading the National League in strikeouts (with 238) in 1936, Mungo has been immortalized by Dave Frishberg in a classic song, the lyrics of which are entirely made up of the names of baseball players from the past. Few of those names, however, are as sonorous as Van Lingle Mungo.

Tripitaka Koreana

korean-buddhist-canonOver 80,000 woodblocks, created in the mid thirteenth century and containing one of the oldest and most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world, the Tripitaka Koreana, or Korean Buddhist Canon, is a significant accomplishment in world history.

The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia was dependent in large part on the availability of the important Buddhist scriptures, and translations thereof. The generally accepted date for the beginning of Buddhism in Korea is 372 CE, around three centuries after it had arrived in China, as translations from Sanskrit to Chinese of important Buddhist texts, along with commentaries on them, started making their way from China to Korea.

Initially, these were in the form of handwritten manuscripts. In the tenth century, the Chinese started to carve the central Buddhist canon onto wooden printing blocks. From these, xylographs (prints made from woodblocks) could be made in large numbers. The first set of such carvings was executed between 971 and 983. Koreans soon became aware of this and requested their own print, which arrived in 991.

In 1010 the Khitan invaded Korea, and it is said that the Korean King Hyonjong vowed that if they could be expelled from his country, he would have a new set of carvings of those Buddhist texts created. That happened and the King followed through, resulting in the first Korean carvings, completed in 1087. By that time the central canon had grown, supplemented by further texts brought from China and Japan by visiting Korean monks. As a result, by the end of the eleventh century Korea possessed one of the most comprehensive collections of Buddhist texts to be found anywhere in the world.

But then, in 1231 CE, the Mongols invaded. King Kojong had to leave his capital, and the precious set of woodblocks were taken to a distant monastery. Not long after, the Mongols overran that monastery and burned the entire set of blocks. Four years later, the task of creating a new set of blocks got underway, continuing from 1236 to 1251.

That set has been preserved to the present day as the Tripitaka Koreana. Totaling 1,511 titles and 6,568 volumes, the Tripitaka Koreana remains among the most complete and accurate collections of ancient Buddhist texts. It is so accurate, in fact, that the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese editions of the Tripitaka are based on the Korean version. Tripitaka, by the way, means “three baskets,” referring to the three categories of writings included within the canon: rules for monastic life, sutras or sermons of the Buddha, and Buddhist philosophy and interpretations.

korea-haeinsa-tripitaka_koreana-01Also called the Goryeo Tripitaka (Goryeo being the dynasty that ruled Korea during the tenth to fourteenth centuries, and the source of the country’s modern name) or Palman Daejanggyeong (Eighty-Thousand Tripitaka), the Tripitaka Koreana consists of 81,258 blocks, each twenty-seven inches in length, nearly ten inches in width, and more than an inch in thickness. Each is carved on both sides with twenty-three lines of fourteen characters each. So uniform are the Chinese characters that some have speculated that a single person carved them all, although the current thinking is that a team of some thirty craftsmen probably did the work. No errors have ever been discovered in the 52,382,960 characters!

The wood for the blocks came from birch, magnolia, and cherry trees from Korea’s south coast. The wood was first soaked in sea water for three years. After the blocks were cut, they were boiled in salt water, then left outside for another three years. Once they were carved, the blocks were covered with a poisonous lacquer to ward off insects, and given metal frames to prevent warping.

They were first stored at a palace, then resided at a couple of different monasteries before being taken in 1399 to Haeinsa, a temple and monastery on the slopes of Mount Gaya near Taegu, where they have remained to the present day. Four buildings, called the Janggyeong Panjeon, were built in the fifteenth century to house the woodblocks. Along with the buildings’ natural ventilation, the foundations are reinforced with charcoal, lime powder, and clay to help control both temperature and humidity. Now almost eight hundred years old, the blocks remain in excellent shape.

The Tripitaka Koreana is the 32nd national treasure of Korea, and the Janggyeong Panjeon is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 52nd national treasure of Korea.

Died Eating Library Paste

This gravestone can be found at the Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery in Goldfield, Nevada. Apparently this “unknown man” was starving and came across a tub of library paste that had been put in the trash. While it might have seemed safe enough to eat this combination of flour and water, the paste also contained alum. Alum has commonly been used in the past in baking and pickling, and still often turns up as a deodorant. But it can have toxic effects on the human body. There probably wasn’t much alum in the library paste, but in this case, combined with the man’s already-weak health, there was enough to kill him. It is hard to know how authentic this grave marker might be. But it makes for a good story.

Emperors’ Treasures

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art From the National Palace Museum, Taipei, recently on exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, featured over 150 pieces in various media selected from one of the world’s great collections of Chinese art. Asian Art Museum Director and CEO Jay Xiu, a co-curator of the exhibition, enthused in the Museum’s member magazine: “This is the absolute ‘best of the best’ of Chinese imperial art. Jade, paintings, ceramics, calligraphy … This will be a rare opportunity to experience these priceless treasures.” Most of these works had not been seen in the United States before.

The exhibition was presented within the frame of the stories of nine of China’s rulers. Eight emperors and one empress, spanning 800 years of art and history, were represented: Han Chinese emperors Huizong and Gaozong of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE); Kublai Khan, Mongol founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); Yongle and Xuande of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); and Manchu monarchs Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). These dynasties, explained the exhibition panels, tended to have their own artistic tastes – the “dignified” Song, “bold yet subtle” Yuan, “brilliant” Ming, and “dazzling” Qing.

Collecting art treasures wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics for these emperors – it was political. Emperors were seen as custodians of the culture, and this gave them power. In most cases, the works featured here would only have been seen within the emperor’s court, and were inaccessible to the common folk. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we can still enjoy these works today. They are very well-preserved because, for the most part, they weren’t hung up or on display for extended periods. They spent most of their time carefully stored away, and were only taken out occasionally at the request of the emperor.

Grotesque Stones by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Grotesque Stones, by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Emperors not only collected great works of the past and present, but were in many cases creators themselves. For instance, Huizong (1082-1135) – the name means “Glorious Emperor” – was an excellent calligrapher, inventor of the “slender-gold” style of calligraphy, as well as a fine painter and a patron of the arts. An example of his calligraphy in the exhibition, Grotesque Stones, praises an unusually shaped rock (looking like “a beast about to pounce”) in writing that is strong, elegant, disciplined, and very distinctive. Huizong’s court aspired to the past glories of the Bronze Age through excellence in interpreting Confucian teachings, creating new music, and reviving ancient rituals. The Song Dynasty, in fact, was one of the great creative periods in Chinese history.

Huizong, however, eventually had to go into exile when the Song lost much of its territory to an invasion by the Jin. The court relocated further south, and his Northern Song gave way to the Southern Song. Huizong’s son Gaozong (1107-87) became the first emperor of the Southern Song. Author of a book called The History of Brush and Ink, he was known for his skill in calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Paintings of this time tended toward the intimate, as opposed to the more monumental works of the Northern Song. One such Southern Song painting, Walking on a path in spring by Ma Yuan, was recently discussed here.

The Yuan Dynasty (the word Yuan means “great primordial”) was established by the Mongols, who came in from the north. Its art was more rustic and vigorous than the refined Southern Song. One of its best-known emperors, Kublai Khan (1215-94), wasn’t himself an artist. But he recognized its importance, and created institutions for the preservation of artistic styles, ritual objects, and items for court. He embraced Chinese culture, somewhat to the consternation of his fellow Mongols.

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Han Chinese rule and culture was restored with the emergence of the Ming Dynasty (Ming means “bright”). After the overthrow of the Mongols, Ming rulers wanted to return to the old ways of the Song and of Confucian philosophy. It was Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), whose name means “Perpetual Happiness,” that sent the famous explorer Zheng He on his seven voyages. Trade flourished in far-flung regions during this period, and Chinese silk and porcelain became known all over the world. Symbolic of these interactions with the wider world is the Vase with West Asian Entertainers, one of only two like it still surviving. Created for export, the work’s shape and handles evoke West Asian and Near Eastern models. Yongle was also responsible for creating the Forbidden City in his capital Beijing.

Naval exploration was scaled back during the rule of Xuande (1398-1435), the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Focus returned to the homeland, and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of great material prosperity, and growth in China’s cities. A painting by one of Xuande’s court artists, Li Zai (d. 1431), Mountain villa and lofty retreat, is a grand composition, over six feet tall, filled with detail, with an active, lively zigzagging motion through the different vignettes of the scroll.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.

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