The British Museum’s latest exhibition is dedicated to the Ming dynasty. It begins by showing aspects of court life; life size paintings of the emperors, carriage models from their tombs (which seem much like Egyptian tombs in their use of grave goods), cloisonné jars, gold & porcelain vases (showing brass Islamic models for them) through to lacquerware. The next section focusses on aspects of social life, with a sculpture of the perfected warrior Zhenwu, calligraphic handscrolls, decorated suras, temple tiled decorations of elephants and winged goats, a beautiful calligraphic scroll showing a giraffe, gold sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, grave rubbings and spirit way statues.

I’ve been reading Zola’s Money, a novel that I’m surprised hasn’t been adapted for television in recent years given that it revolves around a banking crash. The novel shows a rather ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; obviously much of it depicts an economy characterised by unprincipled gambling that leaves its victims destitute, showing both a bankrupt aristocracy and a poor working class at the mercy of loan sharks. However, it also repeatedly describes capitalism as a force for progress, precisely through this process of destruction. One of the voices most critical of capitalism is the Marxist Sigismund, who suggests the concentration of assets in bodies like the Universal bank presages the way to collectivisation; but the collapse of the bank essentially invalidates that argument, as is illustrated by Sigismund’s death alongside the victims of the bank crash. The collapse of the bank is ultimately attributable to excessive idealism and enthusiasm rather than the sort of ruthlessness shown by Buch or the calculation of Gundermann.  The novel also shows a typically undecided stance on race and heredity. It repeatedly opposes the Catholic Universal Bank to a set of Jewish dominated rivals, with the character of Buch in particular being very much a Faginesque stereotype. Conversely, the character of Gundermann is very much humanised, as with Caroline’s observation that she finds Jews to be much as other people. Equally, heredity appears attributable to Victor’s rape of Alice, just as his father had treated his mother. But whereas affluence civilises Saccard, poverty leaves Victor as little more than an animal.


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