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Episode 39 - Admonitions Scroll

Admonitions Scroll (sixth - eighth century AD). Chinese painting

This week we're roaming the globe around two thousand years ago, looking at what occupied us when we were at leisure. We've had banqueting and gay sex in the early Roman Empire, smoking and ceremony in North America, ball games and belief in Mexico. Today we're with what is, for me certainly, one of the greatest pleasures of all - looking at painting. And this programme is about a masterpiece of painting from China. It's a scroll, painted around the years 400 or 500, and it embraces three separate art forms, known in China lyrically as the "three perfections": painting, poetry and calligraphy.

As a handscroll it was made to be viewed in private, and as a fine work of art it was cherished by emperors over hundreds of years. It's known as the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies - or the Admonitions Scroll for short - and it's a kind of ancient guide to manners, and above all to morals, for ladies of the Chinese court - it tells powerful women how to behave.

"To me it's an incredibly seductive artwork. It's both delightful and frustrating at the same time." (Shane McCausland)

"And it tells a story of obviously a very powerful woman." (Charles Powell)

A common theme that's emerged from the objects of this week has been the changing views of what constitutes an acceptable pleasure - at different times in world history spice has turned into vice - or vice versa. But enjoying a work of art like the Admonitions Scroll has always been entirely acceptable, and the scroll itself carries the record of those who, through the centuries, have been lucky enough to look at it and enjoy it.

And today, astonishingly, I am one of their number. I'm in the specially built East Asian painting conservation studio here at the British Museum - where the entire painting is laid out.

The story of its creation is a process that brings together artists of different periods, and since it was completed this scroll has been continually cherished. The starting point was a long poem written by the courtier Zhang Hua in 292 AD. Then about one hundred years later, so around 400, a famous painting - now believed to be lost - incorporated the poem. The painted scroll that I have in front of me now was probably completed a hundred years or so after that, but it faithfully copied and captured the spirit of the great painting - and there are indeed some who think that this may be the celebrated original painting itself. But whatever its precise status, this scroll is one of the most celebrated examples of early Chinese painting to have come down to us.

About half of the scroll is made up of painted scenes, each one divided from the next by lines from the poem. As the scroll was slowly unrolled for you, you would have read the poem and then been able to see only one part at a time, and that sense of unfolding is a key part of the pleasure. The frame in front of me now shows a disturbing scene. A beautiful and seductive woman of the court harem is approaching the Emperor. The billowing robes and red ribbons that she's wearing accentuate her movement as she flutters coquettishly towards him. But as we look more closely, we can see that she's actually just faltering: she's just been brought up short by the Emperor's outstretched arm and hand, raised in an uncompromising gesture of rejection. Her body twists as she abruptly begins to turn away, and on her face is the expression of a shocked, thwarted vanity.

At the time that the poem was written, China was in a state of fragmentation - following the collapse of the Han Empire - and competing forces jostled for supremacy, constantly threatening to dethrone the Emperor. The Emperor himself was mentally deficient, and so his wife, Empress Jia, had a great deal of power, which she spectacularly misused. The poem was written by her courtier, Zhang Hua, who was a minister at court and, according to a written history of the time, Zhang Hua was increasingly horrified by the way the Empress and her clan were usurping the authority of her husband; she was jeopardizing the stability of the dynasty and of the state by murder, intrigue and riotous sexual affairs. Zhang Hua wrote the poem ostensibly to educate all the women of the court, but his real target was of course the Empress herself. He hoped, through the inspiring and beautiful form of poetry, that he'd be able to lead his wayward ruler to a life of moral correctness, restraint and decorum:

"Keep an eager guard over your behaviour;
For thence happiness will come.
Fulfil your duties calmly and respectfully;
Thus shall you win glory and honour."

The painting that illustrates this poem also has a high moral purpose and interestingly, although the lessons are ostensibly for women, they can also speak to men. When the Emperor refuses to be seduced by his vain wife, he sets an example of male judgement and strength. Dr Shane McCausland, a leading expert on early Chinese painting, has studied the Admonitions Scroll in detail:

"I think it's about positive criticism, he's trying to not tell people what not to do, but to tell them how to do something better, and each of the scenes describes ways in which ladies of the court could improve their conduct, their behaviour, their character. Admonition is really about learning, improving yourself, but in order to do that, if your audience is very jaded, I think you need to inject quite a lot of wit and humour into it, and I think that's exactly what this artist has done.

"It bears very closely on kingship, on the tradition of statecraft, of principled government. It's a really incredibly insightful portrayal of the human interactions which go to governing."

Unfortunately Empress Jia was impervious to the poem's moral message, and she carried on with her scandalous sexual exploits and her murderous activities. Some of her ruthlessness may have been warranted, since there were rebels stirring up civil war, and ultimately in 300 AD there was a successful coup. She was captured and forced to commit suicide.

A hundred years later, around the year 400, the court was once again beset by the same old problems. One day the Emperor Xiaowudi observed to his favourite consort, "Now that you are 30 years old, it's time I exchanged you for somebody younger". He meant it as a joke, but she didn't take it well, and she murdered him that evening. The court was scandalised. It was obviously time to remind everybody how to behave by re-publicising Zhang Hua's poem in a scroll painted by the greatest artist of the day, Gu Kaizhi. The resulting masterpiece was the Admonitions Scroll. Jan Stuart leads the Department of Asia here at the British Museum, and is very familiar with this painting and its purpose:

"The scroll before us fits into a tradition of didactic imagery established in the Han Dynasty and influenced by the great philosopher Confucius. When you read the text alongside the images, you realise that there's a deep message being communicated here. Confucius had the idea that everyone in society has a proper role and place, and if they follow that, then a very healthy and effective society is ensured. Now that message must have been especially important at the time that the poem that this scroll is based on was written, and at the time it was painted, because these were times of social chaos. So what the message is, is that the woman, even one with great beauty, must always evince humility, she must always abide by rules, and never forget her position in relationship to her husband and family; and by doing so, she is a positive and active force in promoting social order."

Advisers to the powerful have always attempted to guide their leaders, both male and female. Charles Powell knows very well how to advise artfully and loyally one powerful woman in particular: he was Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy advisor in the 1980s, and he frequently worked with her on China:

"Well this magnificent object tells a story of a very powerful woman. And powerful women in modern history are actually quite rare - really powerful women. Margaret Thatcher was an exception, an exception I don't think is going to be repeated any time soon in this country. It shouldn't be difficult to approach superiors: after all, if one's chosen to be an advisor to somebody, then you've got to give them your honest advice and be fearless in doing so. So the idea that advisers are simply courtiers who say what the leader wants to hear is not true at all. But it is true that Margaret Thatcher benefitted from the fact that most of her cabinet ministers were public-school-educated British men, brought up not to be rude to a lady and to defer to the other sex, and perhaps sometimes this unconsciously qualified their willingness to go head-to-head with her on difficult issues.

In the Admonitions scroll we find that a lady ought never to exploit the manners or weaknesses of her man. The only time that a lady should put herself before the emperor is to protect him from danger. Another scene in the scroll illustrates a true event, when a ferocious black bear escaped from its enclosure, during a show put on for the emperor and the ladies of his harem. In this particular scene we first see two harem ladies, running away from the wild beast but looking back in horror. We next see the emperor seated, frozen with shock, and in front of him the valiant lady, who has not run away but has rushed to place herself between the emperor and the bear, which is leaping at her, snarling fiercely. But the emperor is safe. This, the picture tells us, is the kind of self-sacrifice we need and expect from our great ladies.

This scroll became the prized possession of many emperors, who may have found it to be a useful aid in subduing troublesome wives and mistresses, but who also admired its sheer beauty, and used the act of collecting this precious masterpiece as a way of showing just how culturally astute and powerful they were. We can know exactly whose courts it was viewed in, because each imperial ruler has left their mark on it, in the form of a stamp carefully placed in the blank spaces around the paintings and the calligraphy. Some of the previous owners have also added their own comments to the scroll. And this brings a kind of pleasure you can never find in European painting: the sense that you are sharing this delight with people from centuries past, that you now are joining a community of discerning art-lovers over centuries who've cherished this painting. For example, the eighteenth-century Qianlong Emperor - the contemporary of George III - sums up his appreciation of the scroll and that of his predecessors:

"Gu Kaizhi's picture of the Admonitions of the Instructress, with text. Authentic relic. A treasure of divine quality belonging to the Inner Palace."

It was such a treasured relic that only very small audiences would ever have been given access to it - and that's true now as well, but for a different reason: the silk that this is painted on suffers greatly if exposed to light, and it's too delicate to be put on display except very rarely. But thanks to digital imagery everyone can now share this pleasure, which was once the preserve of the few. And although we're not allowed to put our own stamp on it to record our delight, we can all join the Qianlong Emperor and the other people who through the decades have so enjoyed gazing at the Admonitions Scroll. The private pleasure of the Chinese imperial court has become universal.

From the privileged enjoyment of high art on the eastern coast of China, tomorrow we move to high dining among friends in Suffolk. We explore the zenith of the Roman Empire in Britain and its fall ... through a little silver pepper pot.

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