The Museum of the Six Dynasties, Nanjing

It was my fourth trip to  Nanjing. And this time,  I was travelling with Terry and my parents-in-law. On the night of our arrival, I looked for museums as we were planning where to go the next day. I thought about the Nanjing Museum, where I visited the last time. It is the first public museum in China and it would I assume attract my parents-in-law who had never really visited a museum and who would be interested in the old and precious objects on display. Terry then mentioned ‘The Oriental Metropolitan Museum’ (in my opinion a literal translation ‘The Museum of the Six Dynasties’ would be more appropriate). I skimmed through a few comments by visitors and located it on the map. It might be a better choice, as it is so close to the tourist attraction ‘Office of the President’.

So the next day, we travelled to the museum by underground. The museum was in a modern building, next to a cafe and hotel. Upon entering the hall on the ground floor, Terry yelled excitedly as he pointed to one of the wooden carriage on display in the open air. The vehicle could measure how many distance it travelled, etc. He began to explain the mechanism: how the little man (a small statue) would strike the drum when it covered one Li (half kilometre). By counting the strikes, people could record the distance they had travelled. It was called ‘Mileage Recording Chariot’. At another corner, we also saw a ‘Compass Chariot’. The two vehicles looked extremely new and they were certainly replicas. I suppose they were exhibited because they were considered great inventions during that period of time.

The Chinese name of the museum is the ‘Museum of the Six Dynasties’ because Nanjing had served the capital of six dynasties in ancient times (Eastern Wu Dynasty, Eastern Jin Dynasty, Song Dynasty, Qi Dynasty, Liang Dynasty and Chen Dynasty). We watched the video shown on a big screen on the ground floor. The location of the screen was well selected, as it was just outside the toilets and served as an excellent place for visitors to have a rest. But to be honest, the cartoon video was not well-designed and did present any appealing ideas nor images.

As we went to the lower ground floor, we saw more archaeological objects and also the site of the ancient city wall. Then I learnt that the museum was only built a few years ago, following the archaeological discovery of the ancient city wall. That might explain why it was so modern and also most objects upstairs were replicas.

One of the most famous type objects were perhaps the ‘soul jar’, made of ceramics with complicated decorations of architecture and animals on top of the jar (Terry first thought that the jar was for preserving ashes, but the guard heard our conversation and approached to tell us what it really was). It was said that the little holes were supposed to hold the ‘soul’ of the owner of the tomb. As there were only few soul jars and they represented the burial rituals and beliefs during the Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms and the Jin Dynasty, they were extremely valuable artefacts.

Overall, the museum did show us some aspects of the lifestyle during the Six Dynasties. The biggest disadvantage is that it does not have plentiful objects on display. But the settings were well designed, and I especially like the ambience on the first floor (decorations with stones, bamboo, and lotus).

While the lack of objects can be one disadvantage, the museum does offer much space for walking around, and it matches the Taoist philosophy. It would be better if the exhibition can highlight the geographical importance of Nanjing and how its role changed over time. I saw many objects about the eating habit, and transportation of that time. It would offer a more comprehensive picture if more objects about costume and music.

Creative Writing at Kettle’s Yard

Well, that was quite a long time ago. February 28th, Friday. It was a workshop late at night, but awkwardly also dinner time for me. I had an early dinner with Terry at Prezzo by the river and headed to Kettle’s Yard for the workshop on creative writing. I was there quite early, well, around 7-8 minutes before 6 p.m., and there was already another participant waiting outside the gate.

It was a rainy day and surprisingly, I saw Rosie (who I know) who came and opened the door to us. Soon after I paid the 5 pounds workshop fee, Sophie, the workshop leader came and introduced herself to each one of us. The gallery space was now much different from last time, with the new exhibition ‘Art and Life’ being on show. And the exhibition would be the stimulus for our writing.

Well, I know I need to grasp every chance to practise my creative writing skills, and when I saw the workshop I immediately decided to participate. And it is in Kettle’s Yard, the contemporary gallery!

We each could have one drink from the so-called ‘mini-bar’ in the education room (which was in fact some drinks on a small table) and there were two to three volunteers who helped to facilitate the workshop. The assistant learning officer Lucy was also there. The first activity was much fun.

We were asked to walk around the exhibition on our own and to look at a particular painting (or pot) for five minutes and then start writing for around 10 minutes without stopping. One painting exhibited on its own just outside the education room caught my eye. And after I toured around the whole exhibition, I decided to go back to the painting.

This is the draft I created:

A mirror dumped, left alone by a lady.

Two supportive feet, can they be real feet?

It was the place that she used to making up, in front of the mirror, absorbed in her own world–a peaceful world, a world filled with elements from Nature: grass, garden, a little vase of violets. Though the mirror looks quite dumb, yes dumb, heavy wooden frames, a big size comparing to other delicate small accessories: her white bracelet, her accessories.

Now, it’s so quiet. She’s grown up. She has another well-furnished room, much bigger, with a big making-up desk. This little corner has been dumped. The mirror has been dumped. It is sad. The fake left from several weeks ago started to go bad, emitting a strange unpleasant flavour, but overlooking the garden, the mirror gets a good view. The lady seldom takes a stroll in the hard now. Before, she holds the mirror as a treasure, now she doesn’t even care to wipe of the dust away. In fact, she seldom comes back.

 

When I was writing, I did what Sophie asked. Just let the words flow, without too much thinking about structure and grammar. She read my little vignette and made a few comments. She said she liked the repetitive tone, and pointed out how the sound of some words really corresponded to the whole flow: the delicacy of “vase of violets” and heaviness of the word “dumb” itself. And the contrast between the past and the present.

 

It was after we created this little vignette that Lucy gave as a tour around the exhibition and highlighted the theme behind the exhibition. I was amazed that the two parallel pictures were painted by different artists who were looking at the same scenery. And how different they were! Especially the way Winifred Nicholson mastered the colours. I thought we were then going to work on the basis of what we had just wrote.

But we in fact did something else. We started to talk about creative ways of describing colours and Sophie asked us to think about a piece of childhood’s memory and to capture moments of particular emotional engagement. We then delved into writing for about 15-20 minutes and shared our writing.

This is what I wrote:

I remember.

I remember the rain drops clustering on the window panes. But they soon distorted as a group of naughty kids of “Wind” shouted hilariously. ‘Bump!’ I remember the bump. Then before I knew which dream I was chasing, my legs danced their way next to my head.

Strangely, it felt so quiet. We all crept out through the right side door, then onto the edge of the road by the mountain. Maybe it was then that I saw blood, mixed with glittering pieces of glasses. the blood was streaming down, slowly, elegantly, stylishly, on the limbs of my grand auntie and grand uncle. Everything got wetter, and brighter under the rain. I felt I was looking at an aquarium. The blood was streaming down, like watermelon-skinned goldfish, swimming in water. It was still raining. And I was so cold. My head still hurt. Did the window pane get stuck on my head? And I felt cold. I felt cold in my little shot purple dress. I looked down at my legs. They slowly turned purple as well. There I was, standing at the side of the water ditch by the mountain. I was like a little fig, lying on a vast piece of wet earth, covered only with half of the skin.

 

As I was writing, the image streamed in my head like a movie. It was the only car accident I had in my life when I was very young, but I could still remember it. And I volunteered to read the piece I wrote. I was the first to volunteer. Others captured beautiful moments of their past as well.

For the last proper writing task, we were asked to drop down a few words to summarise the whole impression of the memory and turned it into a succinct piece. I didn’t do well on that one. I wrote down “wet” and “helpless”. And the little piece:

‘Bumps’ window panes struck by my head inside

and rain drops outside

Looking at the blood streaming down

as watermelon goldfish in an aquarium

Little I in little purple dress

with little purple legs

A helpless half-skinned fig, lying at the foot of a mountain.

All wet.

 

Apart from these three exercises, I really liked the one of playing around with words to make up “found phrases”. The words were cut out from the letters that artists sent to Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard. I did a few and really enjoyed the event:

blueberries get lonely in the mist

a light secret glittering in dark water

writing fresh letter in the morning

 

It was an two-hour session. Two hours of reflecting and writing and experimenting. Sophie was very friendly, and humble person as well. I asked her what she does, and she told me she teaches creative writing in secondary schools with kids and she also runs a creative writing course at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Oh, how I wished I knew that earlier. But hopefully it will restart later this year.

 

I shall write. Keep writing. And then I shall never be afraid of writing.