Sitting On History
Antique expert Roger Schwendeman reads Chinese history by touching and feeling it
In a previous life, Roger Schwendeman worked in information technology, where things changed constantly. In his job of the last seven years with ACF China, a company that employs local artisans to collect and restore Chinese antiques for overseas shops, wholesalers, dealers and collectors, any item less than 50 years old is considered new. Roger’s work has allowed him to learn about Chinese history through the stories of the antiques he deals with, and he shares this knowledge through the various classes he teaches at The Hutong. We asked Roger a few questions about his work.
How long have you been in China?
If I do the math properly, I think this would be my 12th year. Some days it feels like just yesterday. Other times, it seems like an entire lifetime. No, I didn’t plan to be here for this long, and yes, I do plan to stay longer.
What got you interested in Chinese history?
I’ve always been interested in Chinese history, but it was the antiques part that really snagged me. A few years back, upon moving from a furnished to an unfurnished apartment I suddenly found myself in need of furniture. Of course, my instinct was to head over to my friendly neighborhood Ikea for some stylish but cheap (and poorly made) furnishings. By coincidence, at. the same time a friend of a friend needed to stop off at an antique furniture shop to check on some antique reproduction chairs she was having made, and I was invited to tag along.
The instant I walked through the door I was hooked. Rich colors, subtle textures, romance, Chinese culture, stories and history, craftsmanship, quality and nostalgia and everything that Ikea lacked, this is the real China — history you touch and feel. It sidesteps all nastiness of politics, Internet scandals and the sharks in business and gets right down to the nitty-gritty aspects of daily life. There is nothing more ingrained in a culture than the chairs we sit on, the tables we eat at and the beds we sleep in. Even more surprising was the cost. While I could not afford to buy everything, there were a number of solidly built pieces that were well within my Ikea-sized budget.
In one regard, I owe my thanks to Ikea. Their contemporary designs are driving Chinese people to discard their old antique furniture, and that’s good for me.
What’s your favorite historical period?
I think the Qing dynasty period and onward is quite fascinating. During this time, the number of eunuchs was growing, with males voluntarily submitting themselves to castration in order 10 become eunuchs. The idea of voluntarily undergoing such a process just blows my mind.
The 1920s and 1930s in Shanghai is also a fascinating time frame. Let’s just say that during this period nothing was being cut off … quite the opposite, in fact.
Are your students mostly foreigners or locals?
Foreigners. Other than older generations, most Chinese today seem to know very little about the physical components of their history, things like antiques and furniture. I’m still always thrown off when someone local asks me what a certain piece is and what its use was. As a foreigner, I naturally assume that it would be them who explain to me what an item was used for. In reality, though, it’s more often the other way around.
China is so interested in the new that the “old” gets neglected. People are more concerned today furnishing their new apartments with Ikea, and unfortunately it tends to be us foreigners’ who stop to appreciate a wardrobe or chair with a few hundred years of history. That trend is changing, though ever so slowly. As people become more creative and have time to appreciate such things, more and more Chinese are starting to become interested in their own history again.
So which periods of Chinese history are your students most interested in?
Foreigners tend to be interested in either the cultural revolution period or the ting and Qing eras.
With so much history to choose from, how do you select what you teach in each class? How much detail do you go into?
It depends if it’s an overview session or a detailed session, out in brief we focus on a specific style of Chinese furniture while discussing the historical factors that significantly influenced it. For example, the arrival of colonial powers in China led to “Old Shanghai” furniture – essentially a blending of European and Chinese-style furniture. Japanese furniture can also still be found in China today, particularly in northeast China, which was annexed by Japan during the war. I use photos, discussions and, if circumstances permit, the use of physical samples — even field trips when possible.
What are your own favorite historic sites to visit around Beijing?
There’s an antique market on the outskirts of town that caters mainly to workshops, dealers and restorers. I could spend days there without getting bored. It’s true Chinese history in its most raw form. Operated by a collective of peasants from across various parts of China, you can find anything there from antique clocks to porcelain and furniture — all in unrestored, just-collected-from-the- countryside form.
A few years back, one of the vendors there had two Mao portrait, identical in form and size to the one that hangs at Tiananmen, just at the entrance to the Forbidden City. I suspect this one came from the square of a smaller secondary city of a village out in the countryside. This place is better than any history book. Unfortunately, it’s only open to traders, so it’s not the sort of place one can go to buy a small stool or a cabinet.
Panjiayuan is not a historical site in the traditional sense, yet it is filled with culture. Most of the terns there today are reproductions, out there really is no other place in Beijing to get a shot of Chinese history and Chinese culture like the weekend market. You could probably learn more about Chinese history picking through the items there than you will in any museum ~ especially if you take the time to learn what each item is, what it is for and where it comes from. I could spend hours there, and have done on many occasions. I also love wandering through the hutongs around Gulou. If you look closely, you will find some amazing things, from 300-year-oid door stones to carved woodwork that has survived the generations.
See www.thehutong.com for details on Roger’s classes at The Hutong in July. Roger also writes a specialist blog about the antique furniture industry in China at www.antique-chinese-furniture.com/blog/
Interview by Rita Chung