Category Archives: Art and Inspiration

Qing Dynasty Photography

I blundered into a bunch of old photographs of China by a Chinese photographer, and I’m geeking out over it so much I’ve just got to share my favorite images from the batch, and some observations about them. Inspect everything carefully and ask questions, and these photos have a lot to teach about history. If you want to play along, look for patterns, think as much about what you don’t see as what you do, and be ready to make inferences. Engage your brain. Everything’s more fun that way.

 

About the Artist

Lai Afong, a very sober and scholarly-looking photographer in a nice silk shirt.

The photographer himself, around 1870. Although it’s getting rickety after two Opium Wars, a civil war on the scale of WW I in terms of death toll, and a bunch of really unfair trade concessions, that’s still a solid 30 years or so before the Qing Dynasty finally collapses like a late-game Jenga tower.

This is the only photograph I know of of the photographer himself, known to us here and now as Lai Afong. Very very few Chinese family names have two syllables, and when you look at the card, the first character on the left is Fāng, which is his real surname. “Ah” in this case is a familiar-toned prefix. Here’s a biography from the History of the Three Kingdoms to show you how this works (scroll down and expand the first note if you don’t want to read the whole thing although you’ll be sorry you didn’t – history is awesome). I ♥ Lü Meng, and you should too. Back to the photography! In any case, Fāng was active from the 1860s through the 1880s, until his death in 1890. I like these images so much because most of the other photographs we have of China at this time are taken by people who aren’t Chinese, and this means that in their photos we see the Qing Dynasty through literally foreign eyes. Fāng, however, can show us much more than that, and his subjects seem a lot more at ease. He also gets photographs of people that foreign photographers can’t, and, as everybody twigs to what the new technology can do for them, and the portfolio develops around demand, there’s suddenly lots of insight to be had by historians about just how fast people will adopt new technology, how they want to be seen, and what Fāng’s marketing strategy was like for the successful studio.

 

Portraits and Landscapes

 

Beardy brit soldier and his wife, presumably, on an old card-style photograph.

Based on the photography tech, the man’s uniform and beard, and the woman’s updo and the profile of her dress, I’d guess this was made around 1867. Not quite a full-on 1870s bustle, yet, but we’ve passed the low bun hairdos of the first half of the 1860s.

This one’s a stand-in for all of the other visiting-card portraits and landscapes from the studio. There are lots of these, especially early on. Fāng seemed to market his skills toward the foreign market, and take portraits and landscapes that people might want to send home. Since a photography studio exists to create photos people want to buy, Fāng’s output always existed in tension between pandering to whatever foreigners wanted to see in China (literally and metaphorically), and what his rapidly expanding Chinese clientele wanted to see in themselves.

 

The Hairdresser

A barber (or photographer's assistant playing a barber) in the studio with props, shaving another man's head.

I picked the barber example for a reason. Pay attention: this is all going to be very, very, important.

Of the photos that seem to be aimed at foreigners, there’s ones like this, showing everyday events or occupations. In the context of a book written by outsiders looking in, who don’t know and don’t care what the haircut is about, the meaning might boil down to something like: Their hair is different. Look how different their hair is. (Different is bad and inferior.)

Let’s try to rectify that a little, and talk more about the context of the hair in a big-picture kind of way. I can’t know how much of this was wrapped up in this photograph, because I’m not Fāng, but I can give you a broad historical overview. Hairdos are about identity. This is true for the people who used the queue to caricature and segregate the Chinese outside of China, and hairdo-as-identity is certainly true inside China. Traditionally, Han Chinese culture looked on the human body as a gift from one’s parents. To harm any part of it was a violent act against the parent-child bond. Before the Qing Dynasty, cutting or shaving hair was simply not done. To have your hair cut was an assault on your ties to family and society. Similarly, tattoos or body modification were out. The Qing Dynasty was ruled by the Manchu, and when they conquered the Ming Dynasty, they imposed the queue haircut on the Han ethnic population, forcing the men to shave the front half of their head to the crown, and braid the rest as a test of loyalty. If you were a man, having a full head of hair was a flagrant statement of Ming loyalist intentions and therefore high treason and a capital offence.  So, hair-cutting during the Qing Dynasty carried a heavy cultural and historical burden.

….Aaaaand you just read this from a modern American who’s so white I’m having completely un-ironic and un-exotic bratwurst and noodles for dinner tonight (11/17/2018), although I do have a very solid college background in East Asian history. I hand-picked all these pictures, so they’ve been pre-filtered. BY ME. PRANK’D!! Everything has a source, everything is a source, and everything has a point of view. Your teachers do, your movies, video games, and books do, your parents do, bus drivers do, I do, you do, there’s no avoiding it, so be aware of it. Again: engage your brain.

The only Han Chinese people involved here are Fāng and his studio, and a large number of his clients. They decide how we look at what we’re looking at in any given photo, even if the subject matter was picked by someone else. Even if we can’t know everything about these photos completely, we can still see the world through his lens. Speaking of which…

 

A Street in Canton

A deep, narrow street lined with tall signs, and people walking in the road.

I love street scenes. Trying to get the film exposure times right for this picture must have been tricky.

You awake and alert yet? Good. We’re just warming up. The historian in me loves all these photos, but the artsy side loves this one the most. Composition, motion blur, light levels, all of it just comes together perfectly. Fāng had an incredible eye. Back to the history, though. Look carefully, and you’ll probably be most struck by what you don’t see. There are no women at all in this picture. Maybe they’re hiding, out of sight, or maybe they just wouldn’t be out on the street in the business district. Either way, we’ve learned something about this time and place and culture – public life is an all-male social universe. Protip: you might be drawing on your own cultural framework right now to try to interpret what this means, or even make some inferences about how the rest of Qing Dynasty society operates. Resist the temptation, and be patient. If you draw on your own experience while trying to understand a different place, time, and culture, you’re literally looking at the wrong evidence. Gather as much as you can of the history you’re actually trying to learn about, and do your best to meet it on its own terms.

 

Two Officials in Summer Uniform

Two gentlemen sit for a portrait.

A couple of officials, in summer uniform. Infuriatingly, I can’t quite make out what’s on the embroidered badge on the front of their robes. If I could, I’d know what rank they were. If it were in color, you’d be able to tell from the round ball on the hat. I’d guess they’re relatively high ranking, though, because of the peacock feather dangling from the hat bobble – those could only be worn as a decoration granted by the Emperor.

Pretty soon, people started to sit for portraits. Although there’s still plenty of pictures of Fāng’s studio having staged meals, pretending to gamble, or cosplaying accountants, the pace of portraiture of local people really picks up. This particular set – two chairs, and the stack of books on an end table – is particularly popular. You’ll see it later.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about what these gentlemen do for a living, and how they got there. In order to be an official, you had to pass a grueling entrance exam. Basically, they locked you in a guarded cubicle and expected you to produce an essay. Then the essays would be ranked, and the people who had written the best ones got slotted into openings in the bureaucracy. In order to get where they are, they had to pass this bonus-boss-level essay exam. Aside from the uniforms, though, the books, writing on the hand fan, and even the long fingernails (if you work a nice cushy desk job, you don’t wear down or break your nails), imply that these are gentlemen and scholars. It’s a studio photograph: everything in front of the camera was placed there by someone who wanted you to see it.

 

Courtesans?

Six women sitting for a portrait. They're probably singing women.

Advertising FTW! Given her more matronly hairdo, I’d guess the woman seated on the right is in charge, and the group portrait is her idea. Also, note that they wear both pants and skirts, either/or, and sometimes at once.

The caption on Wikimedia commons says “courtesans,” but that’s not a very precise term, and, unfortunately, the English language – for abundant historical and cultural reasons – doesn’t have a lot of nuance in this particular area. Meanwhile, across East and Southeast Asia – for equally abundant historical and cultural reasons – there are a massive diversity of female (and frequently male, and also third-sex) entertaining jobs that English-speakers struggle to define. All of our words that even vaguely approach the idea seem to imply prostitute, on some kind of spectrum between least-fancy to most-fancy, when this isn’t really the same.

Clearly, just one word – courtesans – isn’t going to cut it. Given the caption, the haircuts, how nice their clothes and jewelry are, the very tiny bound feet of two of the women, and the savvy studio portrait, I’d guess that these are a troupe of high-class singing-women, and they planned to use the picture to advertise. Singing-women were entertainers, prized for their beauty, artistic accomplishments, and refinement. There might be sex-for-pay involved, there might not, depending on the class of singing-woman and her relationship with the client. Ideally, a singing-woman might be able to catch the long-term patronage of a wealthy man, and even enter his household as a concubine.

“Concubine.” Guess we’d better cover that, too. Okay. So. Marriages between men and women (note qualifier, *hint hint*) in China at this time were (at least potentially) polygynous. One man could marry several women, as long as he could afford to pay the bride price for them, and for their upkeep. There wasn’t the same idea of legitimate vs illegitimate birth as there was in Europe, because women were ranked by seniority in the household, and children inherited the relative status of their mothers in addition to their place by birth order. The highest-ranked son, usually the firstborn son and/or the firstborn son of the primary wife, succeeded to lead the family when his father died. (In the case that the firstborn son wasn’t the primary wife’s, she often adopted and raised him as her own.) Most men could only afford to marry one woman, though, and some men couldn’t afford to marry any women at all, usually those who were extra sons from poorer families. Men also generally married women later in life than women married men, providing a little demographic padding for the sex imbalance to sort itself out. Here’s an example of a couple of paragraphs from the Liji (The Book of Rites), in the book Nei Ze (the Pattern of the Family), that lays out the customary ages of marriage for men and women (paragraphs 80 and 82, respectively). The Chinese Text Project strikes again! Also, note that men are expected to marry at thirty, and women at twenty or twenty-three. The Liji is from the Warring States Period, contemporaneous with Ancient Greece (although it was still very much regarded as an important morality guide a couple of millennia later), and so don’t believe a word of that “people always married way young in the past” nonsense. Blanket statements Just Won’t Do.

 

Upper-Crust Ladies

Four women, one of them probably a maid or other attendant, sitting for a photo, all holding books.

Finally! I think I can make out cranes on the woman on the left’s robes’ embroidered border.

Given the embroidered clothes, brocade silk, and probably motifs that were restricted in use to the wives or daughters of officials, these are definitely ladies. Each of them has a book – they want you to know that they’re literate and literary, too. Given the bound feet, and the hairdos, they’re not Manchu, but probably Han. Again, everything in front of the camera was put there. You’ll also note that there are no men. All of the pictures show only men, or only women. It just wouldn’t be proper, otherwise. I don’t mean improper for the ladies only, either. It would be definitely weird for men to be seen in the company of women in public. My guess is that Fāng’s services were so valuable and in-demand in households like this that he was given special permission (with male family members no doubt present off-camera) to photograph the ladies, OR, maybe Fāng’s studio had female members – a wife or sister, perhaps – who could photograph women, since women could go where men could not. Maybe men and women saw each other in public social spheres more than these photos suggest – again, it’s what people are choosing to show us.

 

Two Women

Two ladies sit for a portrait. One of them has bound feet, and the other doesn't.

Another portrait of women. Note the same table with books on it as a prop. This is the same setup as the two officials, earlier.

These women seem to be roughly comparable in status, though. Nice silk clothes, pants, some jewelry. This is also taken in the studio, and it’s the exact same setup as with the officials, much earlier in this post. Note that the one on the left has bound feet, while the one on the right does not. Even at this point in time, the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding wasn’t universal. The Manchu never bound feet, and even among Han women, it wasn’t a given that every woman’s foot was bound. The extensive record of foot binding found in these photographs among high-status women might seem to contradict the earlier information that body modification was taboo. There’s a loophole, though: since your body came from your parents, it’s okay if your body is modified by your parents. Given how nice her clothes are, I’d love to know why the woman on the right has natural feet. Did she see an unexpected and meteoric rise in fortunes over her lifetime? If so, how? (Especially since foot binding was practiced in the first place as a means to aid daughters in marrying up.) Was she born into wealth, and her family just didn’t practice foot binding? There’s a story here, a very interesting one, that over-generalizations and stereotypes would erase completely.

 

It’s the Book Table Again

two more women sitting for a portrait at that book table. One of them is dressed as a man.

If men and women are never seen in public together, and taking a portrait together would be unheard of, who is that rather scholarly-looking gentleman?

I told you at the very beginning that this would be on the test. Men’s clothes and hat. Male posture with knees wide apart. Unbound feet. Look very closely at the hairdos, though, and you’ll find the first big clue. The person on the right has hair visible at the temple, forward of the ears. He is not biologically male. Given the feet, however, he was almost certainly raised to be male, though, from at least toddler-hood, since foot binding generally started very young, before the bones could completely calcify.

Theater actors, maybe? An example I know of from modern China is the opera actor Wang Peiyu, who specializes in wise old minister roles (laosheng roles). Here’s a nice interview, where you can see lots of examples of the roles and other biological women who have been male-role opera stars, and all the training behind Wang Peiyu’s current expertise. All 20 minutes or so are well worth it, even if you won’t understand a word. It’s also somewhat common for these actors to be male-gender off-stage too, like Wang Peiyu. Honorary men aren’t exactly unheard-of, in historical China.

In Qing Dynasty China, sex and gender aren’t invariably connected to someone’s physical attributes, but exist in interplay with social roles. Given foot binding and the existence of a rare but vitally important artificial third sex, eunuchs, the idea was to mold the body to fit the role, rather than the other way around. Virtually all of the rules we have in our culture for how sex and gender work, or even the definitions of the concepts themselves are different than what you see in historical sources. If you assume things work the same, across all places and times, you’ll be mislead.

History is fearsomely complicated and nuanced, and that’s how I like it. Don’t take my word for it, though, here’s the entire category on Wikimedia Commons, so you can look at all the pictures for yourself. There’s lots of cool stuff there that I didn’t have the time to get into.

Accountant cosplay! A wildly unenthusiastic Japanese picture bride (probably)! Blatantly inaccurate book captions! (“Each instrument has one string only,” my foot. You can clearly see at least two in the actual picture, let alone counting pegs. Yeesh, C. J. Cornish, get it together.) Go explore!

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:

 

Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.

Four?

Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.

Cat Samurai Mystery Solved!

Just in time for AnimeCon 2018, I have finally found out the origin of the samurai-walking-a-cat artwork, and what it’s all about!

You know, this amazing picture:

old scroll style artwork of a samurai taking a cat for a walk. Love the put out expression.

A samurai walking a cat. Thank goodness I figured out where it was from.

Anyway, it turns out it’s an artwork from an exhibit by contemporary artist Tetsuya Noguchi, who specializes in insanely well executed renditions of samurai in comical and surreal situations. Here’s a blurb about the exhibit, with more examples of the art, including a samurai on a penny-farthing bicycle!

Absolute respect for getting all the details dead-on accurate. There was a lot of research that went into this, in addition to the artistic skill. My favorite part is the multiple layers of humor, and the farther you look into it the funnier it is.

Modern parody artwork of samurai doing something incongruous, which quotes from historical sources, some of which are themselves parody artworks of samurai doing incongruous things, or which seem incongruous out of context. Nice.

A quick bit of said context so you can appreciate it all the more!

About “Samurai”:

  1. “Samurai” means, basically, “servant” so no high-class warrior would consider themselves a samurai, like some sort of ashigaru (footsoldier) prole. As for what to call a pre-modern Japanese warrior in general, I’m going to go with bushi (warrior), from here.
  2. During the eras of actual warfare, and not the long relative peace of the Edo period, where they were channeled into less destructive tendencies like loyalty and honor, bushi were all about one thing, and one thing only: cutting off heads and getting rewarded for it. (Acceptable hobbies include playing the flute or biwa, appreciating noh theater, flower arranging, and poetry.) This leads to a few developments:
    • Looking distinctive – Make sure your armor is unique, and instantly identifiable, so that you get properly witnessed by others on the battlefield if you do cut someone important’s head off, so you can get rewarded for it. This also serves to make sure that people know that YOU are important enough to try to cut your head off if you get killed, because it would be miserable, pointless, and horribly humiliating if you died, and nobody even bothered to harvest your noggin. This is also why you should also wear makeup and grow facial hair (high class gentleman!) if at all possible.
    • LOTS of paperwork. This whole system of Eternal War for Fun and Profit ran on bureaucratic red tape like an old timey steam engine ran on coal. Historians love this fact. How do we know who took what heads and got which rewards? We have the hearing transcripts and the severed head receipts.
  3. Awesome. Let’s look at some historical examples!

Probably late Sengoku Era, or in the style of that time, armor. Wearing a face guard so people can’t see your mustache? Just put a mustache on the face guard. Problem resolved! Probably lots of people are wearing a helmet that looks like a gentleman’s hat. Cover the hat with fur to match the mustache, and add some gilt bronze horns, for bonus distinctiveness points!

Closeup of the helmet and faceguard of a suit of Japanese armor.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/tiseb/with/6454720709/ tiseb [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Honestly, at this pace, kitty ear helmets aren’t out of the question. Here’s a rather worn example, of somewhat less fancy armor, with rabbit(?) ears.

Rabbit ears or maybe deer ears tacked onto a helmet.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/49836706/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Oh, Minamoto no Yoshistune, you were thirty when you died (1159 – 1189), yet the first thing people do to you in the future (by which I mean 1500-something) is make you prettier for extra romantic pathos:

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune's girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru, in a 1500s painting. Note that they've apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on makeup. It's all about priorities.

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune’s girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru for contrast, in a 1500s painting. Note that they’ve apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on armor and makeup. It’s all about priorities.

See you guys at Anime Con, where you can Ask Me Anything!

Of Pies and Birds

Bird pies, pied birds, and pie birds.

It all started when I wanted to do a full-on program on mute swans and swan upping. As it turns out, this was a weird idea, and maybe not suited for an actual mini-class that people would actually come to. I never did get enough material for a program, but I did keep turning up primary sources on a fairly bizarre historical food. Behold! A Mute Swan Pie.

Kitchen scene with fancy swan pie.

Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, 1644.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but take a minute, and really process this. In the back, there’s people roasting various birds on spits over a fire. There’s even more game birds, including teeny songbirds (Katherine, later: and a GREY PARTRIDGE!! They’re everywhere!), bottom left, probably also destined for their own pies. Various meats abound. The swan pie is right there, on the table, next to the red-skirted cook who’s peeling apples. It’s fancied up with a crown and flower garlands.

Sooo… what on Earth is with the swan pie? Well, the pie itself is the ancestor of pot pies. So, meat filling, and the crust is a lot thicker and tougher than our flaky pie crust is today, because it’s meant to seal in and support all that meat. People still make and eat meat pies of this sort in the UK. So, inside the elaborate crust is the roasted mute swan meat, in its own gelatin and drippings. Also, it’s decorated with its own severed wings and head, which, guessing from copious amounts of 17th Century paintings, was the fanciest possible way to cook and present a bird.

Turkey Pie

Turkey pie with a pink rose in its beak.

Still Life With a Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627.

 

Some Kind of Personal Small Bird Pie (Grey Partridge Perdix perdix ?? That’s my best guess.)

A picture representing February of a cook holding a tiny pie - what looks like a gray partridge pie I guess.

February by Joachim von Sandrart, 1642.

I think that the personal pie bird in question really looks like it’s a gray partridge. What do you think?

Gray partridge in snow.

By K.Pitk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hmm. Gray neck and front. Speckled wings and tail. Rust colored face. Also, I’ve been looking at partridges long enough trying to figure out what that bird is that the word has started to look really weird. Partridge. Partridge.  P a r t r i d g e.  Gah! On to the next thing.

In addition to ending up inside pies, some birds are pied birds. Magpies, for example. Pied is an archaic word describing the pattern of having patches of different colors, usually black and white. The Eurasian Magpie is usually what people mean by magpie, and it’s easy to remember what it’s scientific name is, because it’s what Pikachu would say (although arguably misspelled.) Pica pica

Eurasian magpie on a fence

By Garry Knight (Flickr: Magpie on a Fence) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper 

A street fair in Hamelin, Germany, with a bunch of kids dressed up as rats, and a pied piper guy.

The city of Hamelin, Germany still has all sorts of stuff commemorating the Pied Piper from folklore, or, creepily enough, maybe based on historical fact.

Healthy surplus kids getting sold to slave traders is not off the table in this case. Especially since the rat-catching bit seems to have been added a couple centuries later, and doesn’t show up in the original sources we have for this folktale… Check it out at this nifty archive of folktales. Well, that took a horribly grim turn. You know what will cheer everybody up? Ponies and linguistics! Yay!

 

Piebald Horse

An old picture of a piebald drum horse.

A piebald horse is a horse that is black and white. A skewbald horse is a horse that is any other color than black and white.

Stewball was a racehorse. No. Really. He was an actual horse. And he was probably a skewbald. Hence the name. Also, if you’ve never heard this word used for horse colors before, it’s because in North America, we generally use the Spanish-derived pinto (painted) to describe a white-splashed horse. Then the word bounced back to English, and we call them paint horses too. Lest you assume that the picture is one of those dusty crusty remains of the long lost past, nah, they still totally have ceremonial drum horses. What’s harder than playing a slide trombone? Playing a slide trombone on a horse.

The Pied Crow Corvus albus

A pied crow - black with a white belly - in a tree.

By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These guys are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not to be confused with crow pie, of course. As we’ve seen already, it’s totally reasonable that the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are literally an entire crow massacre cooked in their own juices in a pie. What a way to eat crow.

So, now that we’ve covered bird pies and pied birds, what about pie birds? If you made a totally sealed pie, with no holes cut in the top crust, the steam and pressure build up from cooking might cause a piesplosion. Or, less dramatically, at least soggy crust. To keep the steam from ruining your pie, you need to make sure the crust has a hole to let it out. Sure, it’s pretty easy to just cut holes in the crust, but, in true Victorian fashion, the people of the 19th Century weren’t going to leave it at that. A pie bird is a little ceramic piece shaped like a bird (usually with an open beak), and hollow, with an open bottom and top. You put the pie bird in your pie and poking up through the crust, to vent it. That’s it. Wikipedia has an article, but otherwise it’s hard to find more about the use of pie birds. We just don’t use pie birds much anymore. Instead, people collect them as prime examples of obscure consumer culture kitsch. Nothing quite like kitchen accessories that nobody really needs.

Death’s Scythe

Death in a cholera outbreak, mowing down people.

This is how it’s done. Death mowing down people like wheat in a cholera outbreak.

Here we go. RANT TIME. I draw things, often. I don’t know if you draw, but if you do, I hope this helps you out, or at least gives you something to think about. Even if you don’t draw, hopefully you’ll find plenty to think about. Maybe this sort of thing will become a series, too, about things that bug me about art. Being an artist is about training the eye and observational mind as much as the hand. The topic today is Death’s scythe. This is seriously one of my personal artistic pet peeves – understandable, but it really does impact how Death comes across. I’m talking here about personified Death itself. The Grim Reaper. If you take just one thing away, it should be this:

A SCYTHE IS A FARM TOOL, NOT A WEAPON. YES, THIS MATTERS.

Let’s get what a scythe is out of the way, because although it’s interesting, it’s not as interesting as why this matters, and how so many artists get this wrong, especially recently. A scythe is a farm tool for cutting down wheat or grass and such, really efficiently.

Like so:

Obvious Note: less physical work is not the same thing as faster.

A scythe is not an awkward weapon that has a blade that sticks out at right angles to the pole for some reason, with the edge on the wrong side. A scythe is an elegant mowing machine. In most models, the blade is angled, so that it’s horizontal to the ground when the scythe is in use. Why this matters: a scythe is not a tool for combat between roughly-equal beings. A scythe is a harvesting tool. Death carrying a proper scythe means that human lives are as single stalks of wheat before the blade. Look at that newspaper illustration at top again: that’s what a pandemic is like – death mowing people down like grass.

So, that’s what a scythe is, and why it matters. The last question – why do artists have trouble with Death’s scythe, especially recently? – is an open one, and interesting. I can think of two possible reasons, maybe even both at a time. Maybe artists in recent times don’t have much experience with scythes, and don’t have the chance to observe how they’re used or put together. We don’t generally harvest with a scythe anymore, so the chance to see one in action is more rare. The other half is that maybe the modern experience of death itself has changed. We’re used to people dying one at a time from disease, picked off with precision, not mown down. For contrast, this is what the 1918 Flu Pandemic looked like:

South Beach Hospital Ledger.

South Beach Hospital admissions ledger. Everybody’s got the flu, and four people are dead in a matter of days. WWI was just wrapping up, and still gets most of the attention, but this flu pandemic still killed more people than the entire infamous Great War, and in a matter of months. Here’s the document source!

Yikes. By contrast, our death, the death with a wonky, useless scythe is a much less fearsome entity than the Grim Reaper.

 

High Concept and Low Concept

Sometimes, if you’re discussing books that you read, games that you play, shows that you watch, music you listen to – basically any media you consume – you need some specialized ideas and terms to help you describe and discuss it. “It was great” or “It was bad” or “I thought it was OK” are all very well and good, but it’s so much more satisfying if you can also talk about WHY you liked/disliked something. If you want to win arguments and impress your friends, remember your ABCs – Always Backup Criticism.

Have examples, of course, of things you like or don’t and why. But, sometimes, you need some special vocabulary and ideas in order to help you with your critique. That means it’s time to add another idea to your toolbox: high vs low concept. This is all about how much concept a work of art contains, not how good the concept is. Think of it as a matter of the amount the concept itself contributes to the total content of the work.

Jane Austen’s novels are generally low concept. The idea of the novels – that people in various economic circumstances need to get paired up (or not paired up, or not paired up the way they thought) – is nowhere near as important to the books as the interactions between the characters, which is why people read them. Here’s an example pie chart, based on a very precise and academic guesstimate:

There’s also works that split it pretty much right down the middle, generating interest in equal parts from the idea that drives them, as well as the execution of the plot and characters:

On the far end of the scale, there’s also works that are high concept – that get their interest mostly from the ideas that drive them. I can think of no better example than 18 Days, which breaks down about like this:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the library has the concept art book, if you want a look at the idea, but, sadly, they didn’t get full funding for the series as it was originally conceived. Instead, you can watch it in a few different languages on the Graphic India YouTube channel. Still pretty awesome, though.

Whatever the level of concept in your media, now you have a new way to talk about the things you love: is it high concept, low concept, or a balance of the two?

Image Gallery

In my quest to provide you only the best of content, I frequently raid Wikimedia Commons – the free-use image archive from which Wikipedia gets its pictures – to complete my posts. When I need a picture of something crazy, like a Javan Chevrotain, or a fancy coconut chalice, that’s where I go. The point is, I look at a LOT of images, to pick the best ones. Sometimes, I stumble across images that are so amazingly great, that I can’t forget them, even if they can’t be used for the post I’m writing. It would be a shame to let them fade into obscurity, and I just have to share some of them with you. You’re welcome. (Since I’m finding crazy images all the time, this will probably become the first of a series, too!)

 

A Snuggle of Honduran White Bats

Four white tent bats snuggle up under a leaf.

By Leyo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ch/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ectophylla alba, the Honduran White Bat, or the Honduran Tent Bat, is a species of bat that roosts, not in caves or hollow trees, but underneath large leaves, like those of banana plants. They nibble through the ribs of the leaves, to cause them to droop over in a tent, sheltering the small colony of bats from the weather. Their stark white fur also acts as camouflage, as sunlight filtering through the leaves tints the bats a matching green. This picture shows a colony of four bats all snuggled up together to sleep under their leaf tent during the day. You can even see the bite marks along either side of the leaf spine. These bats are incredibly cute. “Snuggle” should obviously be the collective noun for a group of roosting bats.

 

The Monowheel Driver

Smug man in a hat on a monowheel, which is a motorcycle that has only one wheel, but instead of the engine and driver sitting over the wheel, they sit INSIDE a really large single wheel.

Look at that smug expression. I think I’d be that smug too, if I had a monowheel motorcycle.

I love everything about this picture. The boots, the hat, the diesel-punk aesthetic of the technology (except this actually happened in real life). The fact that it’s a monowheel. A monowheel is like a motorized unicycle, but instead of you sitting ON the engine and wheel, you sit on the engine, INSIDE the one giant wheel. The engine ratchets you around the rail inside the wheel, and your gravity keeps the whole machine moving forward. Don’t ask what happens if the wheel gets stuck in the mud or something. I love the nonplussed bystanders, just out of focus in the background. Most of all, though, I love the smugness on the driver’s face. The “you know you want this monowheel” look in the eyes.

 

Cry ‘Havoc’! and Let Slip the CATS OF WAR!!

It's a painted wall scroll. Of a samurai in black armor with kitty ears on the helmet, walking a cat - who also is wearing armor, on a leash.

I’m speechless.

What. What is even happening here. This is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen. It’s a painted scroll of a warrior, in armor, walking a cat on a leash. Yet, if you take the time to look at the details, it only gets weirder. The cat has its own tiny suit of brigandine armor. Cats are not known for their ability to either leash train or wear clothes. The warrior’s helmet has cat ears on it. I love the kind of put-out expression, and the dainty hold on the leash. Why isn’t he wearing shoes? Who is this? Is this some sort of edgy and topical sociopolitical commentary of the mid 1600s? Or… are we to believe that war cats were a thing in the Sengoku Era? Did some warrior of that time have a cat… theme… going on? If so, who? Did Japan’s fascination with cat people start way earlier than anime would have us believe??!? So many questions. Almost no answers.

Howard Pyle’s Pirates

Play a game with me: imagine a pirate.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

 

Got a picture of your pirate in your head?

You’re imagining a Howard Pyle pirate. Yes, this definitely includes Jack Sparrow. In a previous post, I mentioned a centuries-old book about art criticism, and how even now, the ideas in it shape our perception of what art even is. This time, it’s about the illustrations themselves. Illustrations to books have a profound impact on the popular imagination, and yet they’re rarely given as much weight as the words on the page. You probably don’t know who Howard Pyle was, yet, he’s in your head right now, painting your pirates on the canvas of your imagination, with an army of other illustrators, costume designers, and film directors doing his bidding, and has been completely dominating the entire perception of what pirates were for the last century. Now that’s raw power.

 

Introducing (Officially) Pyle’s Pirates

Although you’re already subconsciously familiar with them, all of the following scurvy sea dogs are from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903). This gorgeously illustrated book is full of illustrations of pirates. Pyle’s pirates are grubby, scruffy, and rough-looking, yet arrogant and roguishly fashionable. The artist uses red as a highlight to draw and hold the eye. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen!

painting of pirates dividing up a pile of gold

Pirates divvy up the loot.

Is a fancy red sash really practical for people who have to climb rigging and fight with cutlasses? No. Did real pirates – even European ones of the Caribbean – actually dress like that? Probably not. Do they look great? Heck yes.

Sparrow look-alike in a red cloak.

I’m just going to go ahead and call this guy Captain Sparrow. Nice pose and red cloak.

This pirate even has earrings, and scraggly hair, and possibly even eyeliner. He might be Johnny Depp. He’s also an illustration that’s over 100 years old. Generations of kids have grown up on Howard Pyle pirates, at this point. By now, this is just what pirates look like.

Pirates fight over treasure chest, while the crew looks on.

I love basically everything about this picture. The composition, the colors, the anatomy, and how straightforward the storytelling is. What’s going on? Pirates knife-fighting over their share of the booty, obviously. Yarrrr mateys.

Howard Pyle had students, who went on to paint their own Pyle-style pirates. Pylerates, if you will. This group of massively influential illustrators became known as the Brandywine School – including, most famously, N. C. Wyeth. The techniques of the school, and the means of storytelling through art would go on to shape illustrations in books for decades to come, and even eventually mutate into comic books as we know it. How do we get to comic books from here? Let’s look at Wyeth, for a bit.

 

N. C. Wyeth

What are illustrations actually for? Seriously. It’s not just pictures to decorate books. Illustrations go with the text. Sometimes, a good illustration even adds to the storytelling even more nuance than was in the text to begin with. The story itself even happens in the pictures. Look at this N. C. Wyeth illustration from The Boy’s King Arthur (1922):

A joust with knights, the blue knight is unhorsed by the red knight.

There’s a lot going on here. Choice of what to illustrate, motion – splinters of lance in the air – reaction – the rearing horse – everything adds to the story, and makes it exciting.

Fancy expensive books need illustrations, but so do cheap dime novels, too – so do magazines, and newspapers. Soon, newspapers and magazines were paying authors to write short stories or continuing storylines – serials – for publication, to draw in an audience. All of these need illustrators. It wasn’t long before these illustrated serials got their own section, and became standard features. Some magazines specialized in publishing these picture stories.

Billy Bones with a spyglass, wearing a billowing cape.

You know what this character is like, even if you haven’t read Treasure Island at all. It’s the attitude and the cape. Instead of a cliff above the sea, imagine a skyscraper above Gotham City. That’s how these techniques transfer to comic books.

Next time you read a picture book, or any book with illustrations, think of how different it would be without them. Yet, we give less weight to the pictures, or even scorn books that have illustrations. Consider the case of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These books have been on the American Library Association’s most challenged book list for decades. Top of the list, for 1990 to 1999, even. Dropped lower afterwards, though – and why? Because in the meantime the publisher totally caved to pressure from pearl-clutching parents, and changed the bone-chilling original illustrations which is why they were so frequently challenged. 

People would be up in arms if the opposite happened, and a challenged book “just” had all the text changed, but the illustrations left alone. But Scary Stories was mutilated, and hardly anybody but the fans of the original illustrations noticed. Stick up for illustrations, and artists. Pictures are important. Read the original versions of the Scary Stories books in protest, if you want.

Pylerates attack the stockade in Treasure Island.

N. C. Wyeth did great Pylerates, too! You also owe it to yourself to read the original Treasure Island, unabridged.

 

Cover of a book about Wyeth. Search the catalog for more.

The library has lots of books about Pyle, Wyeth (both of them) and the Brandywine School. They’re gorgeous.

 

Squeeze the Source: In Your Face

Warning: contains super-secret library hacks, severed heads, and a horse being killed. Some (illustrated) blood is involved.

Last time, on Squeeze the Source, we covered the basics. This time, we’re going to try a slightly different approach. I’ll tell you literally everything I can think of to fill in the gaps and context of the following images, and your job is to be the very best inquisitive four year old you can be and pick up on one single detail that’s literally right in front of your face. Heh. Remember when I told you last time to not take anything for granted, and throw away all your preconceptions so they don’t get in the way of the obvious? Well there’s no better time than now!

This is a detail of a much longer scroll – Moko Shurai Ekotoba – that was commissioned by a warrior named Takezaki Suenaga. None of these people would have called themselves “samurai” since the word means basically servant. They are warriors, or bushi. Let’s get that out of the way right here. Click on pictures to see them full-screen!

Scroll detail of three people and two severed heads.

Takezaki Suenaga (in green and brown) at a court hearing, seeking rewards for beheading two members of the invasion force. He brought the heads as proof. Adachi Morimune is the judge, here, in red armor on the left. The guy in black is the secretary: it’s thanks to people like him that we have so many primary sources about this. Historians are practically rolling in receipts for severed heads.

The 13th Century warrior class in Japan was very much a headhunting culture. The military government – bakufu – didn’t prevent violence so much as referee it, and regulate it with lots of paperwork. This scroll is about the Mongolian invasion of Japan, and although there are plenty of scenes of Takezaki Suenaga fighting, a large part of the story is an interlude where he goes to court and insists on being given a replacement horse, since his own horse was killed out from under him in battle. The lifestyle of a bushi was all about fighting, taking heads, and getting rewarded for taking heads.

Takezaki Suenaga on his horse. The horse has been hit by several arrows.

The pivotal scene of the horse being killed by arrows.

The bakufu didn’t just dole out rewards like lollipops, though: you had to prove you earned it. You couldn’t just say you killed an important enemy, you had to bring the head. You couldn’t just bring the head, you had to have witnesses. The witnesses couldn’t be your relatives or friends, either. Preferably, they were third-party eyewitnesses, who didn’t have anything to gain if you won your case.

Interesting, huh? Maybe so interesting that you want to read a translation of the scroll itself? You want in on this HOT CIVIL LAWSUIT HORSE-REPLACEMENT ACTION!!! Too bad the Louisville Free Public Library doesn’t have a copy. (It’s a super-specialist history academic book, and expensive, so buying it isn’t going to be much help.) Never fear, for I will show you how to use your sweet library skillz to get even the most elusive of manga-style academic works. (That’s right, it’s published right to left like a manga, so as not to break up or flip the scroll. Hardcore.)

First, you need to know about the book. The title is In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan ; the translator is Thomas Conlan ; the publication year is 2010. Here’s the ISBN: 978-1-885445-13-1 (ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number – it’s a serial number unique to every edition of a book or book-like publication. Use this to be sure you get the exact book you want, and not something with the same title or whatnot. Convenient!) It’s published by the University of Hawai’i Press. Nifty.

Now, with all your information about the book, you can use this to get YOUR library to borrow a book from ANOTHER library so you can read it. Not only are you not limited to all the books in OUR system, you can also read all the books we don’t have that other libraries are willing to lend out! To use The Awesome Power of Interlibrary Loan, just get all the information about a book you want that we don’t have, go to our website, and click on “services” – there you will find a link for “interlibrary loan” and a webform you can fill out to get our library to borrow a book from another library for you. First, though, be absolutely sure that we don’t already have it. You can use it three times a month. Just promise you will use your power for good, and not for evil. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

This is all very well and good, but there’s one visual detail that’s right in your face in this picture that says a lot about this headhunting culture, and its values. Look over all the pictures we’ve seen so far. Notice anything about these gentlemen? (Especially, if not exclusively, the gentlemen, actually.)

A warrior in red armor, on a camp stool with a fan.

Shoni Kagesuke, chillin’ on a camp stool. Have a good close look. What you’re looking for is so obvious that you’ll kick yourself, I swear.

Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint! We’re lucky in that the painter of the scroll in these scenes is actually very precise and naturalistic, in terms of details, like accessories, clothes, hairdos, and hats and such. You’re looking for a detail of personal appearance that’s clearly in all the primary sources like this, but almost never reproduced in period piece movies or TV shows, no matter how accurate they’re trying to be. This is your chance to review the pictures, and look for it. It’s not something subtle, or tricky even. Channel the inner four year old.

Select between the brackets to reveal the answer: [ Adachi Morimune in the court scene, Takezaki Suenaga himself on the horse, and Shoni Kagesuke are all wearing (quite a lot of) makeup. Faces don’t match hands, or other people’s natural skin color. You can see it plainly. Go ahead and look again! Stark white base makeup with red lipstick, and in Shoni Kagesuke’s case, he’s also dyed his teeth a fashionable black. It’s not geisha makeup, It was anybody’s high-class makeup, if you were rich and pretty enough to pull it off. Geisha just happen to still wear it. ] Interesting. I can’t tell if we don’t see it in period-piece movies and such because nobody is expecting to see it, so the costume department doesn’t know (I mean, you didn’t until just now, probably), or if it’s omitted because the producers think that the audience will be distracted if half the cast is wearing it, even if they would have, historically. Also, it’s possible to infer that its use is associated with class and rank – only the higher ranked warriors have it, and not all their followers. In addition, Suenaga is shown wearing it in battle, but not the court case, implying that some warriors specifically wore it into battle, even if they didn’t necessarily for other occasions. Maybe so that they looked their best: it would be a shame if somebody killed you and didn’t think you were high-ranking enough to bother cutting off your head. I doubt the Mongolian forces cared about it, but Takezaki Suenaga and his peers sure did.

That’s why looking at actual primary sources is important. No matter how well-researched representations of the past are, they’re filtered through the culture and expectations of their own present. While you can’t remove your own cultural filters, you can look at the primary sources directly, rather than relying on second-hand versions.