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In Our Time newsletter: The Ming Voyages

Monday 17 October 2011, 12:30

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Ming Voyages. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM

Ming images

As soon as the programme finished, Craig Clunas told us that scholars were turning the subject we had been discussing on its head. Not just a little bit of an alternative reading, but, in his words, "A 180 degree turn".

Pity we hadn't time for a postscript.

One of the points he made was that the idea of the Ming Dynasty springing fresh anew into life, having driven out the Mongols, is simply not true. They adopted a lot of the Mongol ways. They wanted to be Khans, like the great Genghis. They acted like Khans and it seems were built like Khans: not the long tapered fingernails of the traditional Chinese emperor, but tough guys, out on the steppes, fighting away.

Yongle was a warrior who led his troops into battle, although he seems to have been sensible enough to stay at home while the fleet was out for a year or two. Absence makes the throne less secure.

And it appears that the Mings might have pinched the idea of world domination from the Khans. They saw themselves as rulers of the world and the Mings ran with that.

There was talk of why it mattered whether the capital was in Beijing or in the south. Beijing meant that they were concerned with their borders and with the issues of land territory. The south meant that they were concerned with trade and exploration overseas.

I think it was Craig again who said he had been in China while they had shown what he said was "109 episodes, or it felt like 109 episodes, of the history of the Ming dynasty", which portrayed the Mings as peace-loving explorers encountering exotic and primitive peoples around the world, but unlike any other empire, especially the British Empire, they declared that their intentions were not to do with war and colonisation.

There were a number of Chinese scholars who believed that Yongle missed a trick with the fleet. He should have gone right around the world, even to America, and really established world domination while he was at it.

Perhaps, 500 years on, urged on by the 109 episodes on the Ming dynasty on Chinese television, they might have another go?

On to the cutting room to see a film I made about William Golding at the end of the 1970s for The South Bank Show. There's to be a Golding evening on BBC Two and this will be part of the archive. It is very, very curious to see yourself as an archive. But I found it interesting how much I remembered of that encounter with Golding: his house, Stonehenge - around which we could roam freely - sitting on a rock by the sea when he described how his racing boat had collided with a ship. Only chance enabled him, his wife, his daughter and three friends to survive. No more on the sea for William Golding after that. Something which had mattered to him and been part of his life became something he feared.

From the cutting rooms down to the Lords. Had to whisk by the side of St James's Park. No ducks, but saw four proud pelicans sitting on a rock and about forty persons from, I think, Eastern Europe, snapping away merrily.

The debate this afternoon is on the impact of the Government on universities, and it's a chance to say something that might make sense because I've been well-briefed by the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, of which I am Chancellor.

And on we go, but that's enough for Ingrid today! (Ed's note: Regular subscribers to the In Our Time newsletter will know that Melvyn dictates the newsletter and that Ingrid produces the transcript - PM)

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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    Comment number 1.

    Please excuse me for adding a rather late comment to the Shinto program. It took me some time turning it over in my mind before I really felt the need to speak up.

    I always enjoy In Our Time, on a scale from much to very, very much, and I really enjoyed the recent In Our Time program on Shinto, although I found some parts of the discussion unsatisfying. After seventeen years of living in Japan, I definitely think that Shinto is a religion. It is a controversial point, of course, and I would like to have heard some clearer ideas on each side of the question. What is a religion? This is a question that I have been wrestling with as I try to understand the Japanese belief system.

    Second, although Lucia Dolce was perfectly correct that shrines come in many shapes and sizes, there are some generalizations that could have given a picture of the typical shrine, and help people understand its place in the culture. Shrines are everywhere around us here, and I walk through the lovely park-like grounds of one nearby shrine on my way to work. Some shrines belong to a family of shrines that may spread over a part of Japan or over the whole country. Most shrines consist of a number of wooden buildings with beautiful roofs, either tile or gracefully curved copper. The main building contains an altar. People go there to pray. To get the god's attention, you clap your hands twice, or pull on the big rope that leads to a bell under the eaves, then bow and make your prayer. Of course, you have to put an offering of money in the collection box first, otherwise the god may not listen! However, even a small coin will suffice. The sanctum sanctorum of the altar remains closed most of the time. The few I've had the chance to see when open, contain a mirror, associated with Ameterasu, I believe. It does make me wonder however, when I look in the mirror, if it is really the worshiper who is the god.... Most shrines sit in the middle of a small forest. It may be no more than a copse for the smaller ones, but the one at Ise Shrine is very large, indeed. The shady grounds of the shrine are great places to take a break in the hot Japanese summers!

    Shrines are important centers for the rituals that are so much a part of Shinto. My Japanese wife and I took our new baby to the shrine for the omiyamairi ceremony. This is when the baby is first shown at the altar and blessed by a Shinto priest. Little girls put on kimonos for ceremonies to celebrate that they have attained the wonderful ages of three and seven. Boys get dressed up and go to the shrine for their ceremony at the age of five. The girl's and boy's ceremonies together are called "shichigosan," which means "seven-five-three." Then there is the Coming of Age ceremony, seijinnohi, when young people attain adulthood at the age of twenty. It has been said that, "Ritual defines religion." If so, Shinto definitely qualifies.

    One of the men mentioned that festivals are very important, but he really should have explained why. Festivals are central to Shinto -- its beating, living heart. He should have talked about the great variety of festivals, and what they mean to communities. Festivals tend to be specific to each locality, although there are certain typical features. Festivals often involve the pulling of huge, heavy wooden floats, which may be on wheels or on wooden runners. (They didn't have the wheel in ancient Japan.) Long ropes are attached so hundreds of people can join in lending a hand. I once took part in a seasonal festival called the funematsuri ("Boat Festival") in Shimosuwa, Nagano, in which the god is moved from the spring shrine on one end of town to the fall shrine on the other end. It took us all day to haul the boat-like float, but we took our time, as well as frequent breaks for sake or beer. These festivals are pretty easygoing events. In some festivals, people climb on top, playing music or dancing to encourage the pullers. It appears to me that these ritualized festivals are not only celebrations in themselves, but are also both a manifestation and a cause of the famous Japanese group identity. When Joseph Campbell came to Kyoto, a Shinto priest there told him: "We don't have theology. We dance."

    Shinto is unquestionably difficult to pin down, and is especially hard to grasp for those of us from Christian countries, but I missed discussion of some of these important points.


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