by Doctor Science
I got caught up in one of those obsessive desires to find out what something is -- a lifelong procrastination trap of mine which the Internet is *not* helping -- and found myself at the British Museum website, looking at this pot:
Porcellaneous stoneware wine-jar of guan form, with ovoid body. The wine-jar has a gilt copper-bound mouthrim. The wine-jar has finely crazed turquoise glaze. There is an inscription on the shoulder.Made in Jingdezhen, a major center of Chinese ceramic production for at least 1700 years.
Maybe it's just me, but I find this staggeringly beautiful, literally jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Even in the midst of other beautiful things, this one seemed to leap at my eyes.
The inscription reads: "For use in the Inner Palace", and I can well believe it. It made me wonder what it was like to live in a world where the uppermost classes had a material culture so different from that of most people's lives. It must have been very easy for both the ruling class and the mass of people to think of each other as almost different species.
It may be one of the marks of modernity that there are no more sumptuary laws, and that high and low alike can wear almost the same clothing and eat very similar food. There's some idea there about inequality, meritocracy , and social mobility, but it's pretty vague in my mind as yet.
One thing, though: although we may think of traditional Chinese society as being more rigid than traditional European society, I wonder if it was. Aside from the whole question of the meritocratic examination system, I notice this:
Zhu Yuanzhang, who founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368, rose all the way up the social scale, from starving peasant to Emperor. I know of no European ruler who started any lower than petty nobility or bourgeois wealth, for the thousand years before World War I.
Even Napoleon was born somewhere in the top few percent, and the other European rulers of his era were all from a smallish handful of families that had been at or near the top of the heap since the Middle Ages. The Chinese ruling class, it seems to me, shows turnover on the scale of centuries, while the European ruling class does not.
 I've become a connoisseur of museum websites, and the British Museum's may be the best. Not only does it allow you to search along a number of axes, including setting your own date parameters (many museums, e.g. the Met Museum in NYC, force you to use their date-lumping systems), but the Brit's object description frequently includes cross-links to other items that were donated or acquired with this one, to the collections of previous owners, to items of similar date, place, composition, culture ...
The only problem with the Brit is that the server is kind of slow, and it includes archaeological collections which can include a lot of junk, misc., collected in the 19th century.
 Yes, this means I'm reading Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes. I'll probably have more to say when I'm done.