Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

High culture: the Shanghai museum

A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon
A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon

When we came out of the Shanghai Museum, we were happy that we didn’t skip it. The Shanghai that we had seen before was the modern China, the city of engineering marvels. This gave us a glimpse of the other China: the old civilization that developed across the Himalayas from us.

The museum is located in People’s Square, and entry is free. It is worthwhile to take an audio guide for RMB 40. The museum classifies its collection by form: furniture, bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and so on. Calligraphy is an art form that is hard to appreciate if you cannot read the script. There are also other sections of the museum that we were not culturally prepared for. What we could appreciate was really well selected. I spent a lot of time in the porcelain, jade and painting galleries. The galleries contain a lot; it would be easy to spend half a day in each. We simply did not have the time.

Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
There are exquisite pieces of jade. The photo at the top shows a lovely piece whose cultural significance I do not appreciate. The only connection I know between the moon and a cow is through a nursery rhyme, or the song in Lord of the Rings. The porcelain is astonishing. I had not realized how much technology is required to execute porcelain; the development of celadon work required precise high-temperature kilns. I understood later when talking to a modern pottery artist that the state of the art is not very much further advanced. Celadon kilns work at a little over 1200 Celcius. Modern kilns can achieve around 1350 Celcius, but the success rate of firing pottery in these can be as low as 20%.

The art form from China that is perhaps most familiar to all of us is painting. We saw wonderful examples in the Shanghai museum. In addition to the individual pieces, walking through these galleries gave me a first understanding of how the aesthetics of China developed in a direction so different from either the Western or the Indian.

We arrived in the museum early in the morning, when there was absolutely no queue to enter. When we left at 1 PM we saw enormous queues, and realized how lucky we had been with the timing of our visit.

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