Kublai Khan: There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the brazier, a dizziness makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the plainspheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies' protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell....Italo Calvino
I recently read that so tightly controlled was the Great Khan's empire that it was claimed that a beautiful woman could cross the great expanse of pax Mongolica carrying a solid gold tray atop her head and be assured of arriving wherever she was going in perfect safety.
Empire does have its advantages, I suppose.
In spite of his tremendous power and wealth, however, the Great Khan seems restless; and while he doesn't necessarily believe everything the Venetian tells him, still he enjoys the listening; for indeed, there is no better way to wile away the evenings than in storytelling.
And so like a magnificent Caliph in a long and luscious dream, Kublai Khan listens to the Venetian tell stories of marvelous and exotic cities located on the edges of his vast empire. And, in this way, the Khan and his humble servant Marco Polo engaged in the most exquisite conversations-- where sometimes they even speak without words, as one imagines what the other wants to say, the other imagines answering.
You will recall that I too sometimes have conversations with an emperor. While we often talk about the way the light reflects on the icy cold river, whose waters flow slowly south from Siberia; sometimes he will silently-- extemporizing a poem-- describe one of his paintings; delicate and perfectionist paintings of flowers or tiny, plump birds-- "paintings
which are but a promise
of a thousand autumns to come
Painting Autumn birds"
Every so often too, we will playfully try and describe a partiular shade of color. This game often goes on for hours as describing a shade is never easy. Some may even say it is impossible to describe a color.
He said, "Close your eyes and imagine the color of the sky, in early morning after a rainshower..."
I closed my eyes and recalled that
over the years, my Emperor and his unquenchable “yearning for blue was a beautiful, imperial dream which had somehow worked its way into my own heart (in the way of all truly fine conversations). And, I became fascinated not so much by his passion as by his method-- for what better way to capture a shade than in porcelain?
And as the wish of the great Emperor, it wouldn’t take long for the ingenious potters at nearby Ru to provide him with exactly what he as looking for either.
The most beautiful porcelain in the world
Because Ru ware was created with the Emperor’s particular taste in mind and then disappeared mysteriously without a trace after the fall of his dynasty, it has been forever after associated with my man. And, with less than 100 surviving examples, a very small piece was sold several years ago at Sotheby’s in New York for approximately 1.5 million dollars. The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds the great majority of the remaining pieces, with a large amount held British museums as well.
As rare as they are stunningly beautiful; the celadon glaze ranges from pale green to a lavender blue and is characterized by its delicate opalescent quality caused by minute crystals and air bubbles trapped in the glaze. It is this shimmering quality--this transportive luminecence-- which reminds me of the luxerious purple of the Roman emperors.
The glaze is also characterized by a fine crackle, a quality which was highly appreciated as a kind of natural decorative element to the otherwise unadorned vessel. Due to its watery translucency and magnificent green-blue color, the quality of its much admired glaze reminds one more than anything else of jade, and although countless artists and even scientists have tried to re-create it, its exact method of production remains a mystery.
Researcher, Fumito Kondo, on assignment for Japan’s NHK, visited the Ru kiln site not all that long ago, and he describes his meeting with a Chinese researcher, a certain Mr. Zhu, who had been working for over 20 years en-situ, attempting to unlock the glaze’s secrets. Kondo writes,
On the day we arrived at Ru to begin filming, 30 pieces of celedon were being fired. The color in celedon glaze is extremely delicate and so slight changes occur depending on where the vessel is placed inside the kiln. Mr Zhu, carefully removing each piece, upon examing
them, discovered that not one piece had turned out! Mr. Zhu then
exclaimed that 20 years at Ru together with all the advances in
modern technology had been unable so far to bring back that very
mysterious color blue.
Its not just Ru ware either. Many of the most renowned Song dynasty glazes as yet remain impossible to perfectly reproduce. Isn't that amazing?
My emperor. When he spoke of his Palace so faraway-- it was almost as if like a swallow traveling south-- his eyes too were locked faraway on the horizon.
How can I ever forget that old Palace?
Sometimes I visit in dreams
And yet all alone
Sometimes I am even unable to dream
To not be able to dream-- and yet, so well did he describe that rain-drenched color of the morning sky after a rain-- that, well, I don't believe he ever stopped dreaming-- though sometimes I understand how he felt.
-- It's not the voice that tells the story but the ear (Calvino's Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan)
-- Recommended viewing: Ru Ware at the Palace Museum