Sunday, 22 August 2010

Water Palace and other Places: Oriental Steampunk Inspiration

the incomplete and really rather steampunk Hall of Water

The Hall of Water was started in 1909 and was never finished. It's hidden in the less visited wings of the Forbidden City in Beijing and it's utterly gorgeous. The original intention was to have glass panes put it (hence it's other name of "Crystal Palace") and it reminded me greatly of Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, which is probably the most steampunk building to have every actually existed.

The Costume Mercenary is back from her stay in Beijing (long story, involves helping a lady with her Tofel) and much as I don't want to turn this into My Week in Beijing, I did come back with something of a high in terms of oriental steampunk inspiration (mostly jade cogs and geomantically-powered machinery). Perhaps it's the stepping into what appears to be a world that compulsively and ornately decorates and regulates everything.

I loved the attitudes and the splendour of the China's ancien regime and whilst I'll add that I am wary of overly romanticisming it, I don't see it as any more of a problem as the one general steampunk has with its periods of inspiration.

I learnt several things about ancient China, and the rule of thumb I keep coming back to is: however big you think it is, it's probably bigger. I was wandering out of the Palace Museum's front gate (the heart of the Imperial City, what was the Forbidden City, that is now a museum), handing in my audio guide and twenty minutes later I finally arrive at where the original gate of the Imperial City would actually have been (see map).

some of the consequent
costume sketches
As seemingly no post is complete without the Costume Mercenary in silly clothes, here's a photo of me in borrowed garb Summer Palace's Suzhou Market Street, some three hundred meters of shops and alleys (mimicking that of Suzhou city - hence the name). It's no longer populated by merchants and pedestrians imported from Suzhou, but it's still rather remarkable. It was apparently recreated in half a year for the Emperor Qianlong's homesick (ex-nun) concubine. This isn't the only recreation and there seemed to be this desire (and ability) to recreate beautiful landscapes and areas in not-very-small-at-all miniature in the palace (not unlike Marie Antoinette's Hamlet).

So, just quickly, under the cut, an illustrated steampunk ramble from Beijing. The costume sketches will probably be in another post.

Not quite as brilliant as the amazing South Pointing Chariot (apparently "one of the most complex geared mechanisms of the ancient Chinese civilization") , but I saw China's first automobile (currently residing in the Forbidden City museum). What I love about it is how much it draws its inspiration from the certain rickshaw-carriages.

The great marble boat, built on a solid base in order to symbolise how the dynasty is unmoved by the waves of the populace. Allegedly built from funds earmarked for the navy, it's modelled after a paddle steamer and has surprisingly intricate mechanisms to ensue the illusion that it operates (with mirrors and water coming out of the dragonheads).

In the steampunk universe, it would be cool to have an actual functioning marble boat as a Wonder of the New World. Perhaps echoing the sheer seeming impossibility of iron-ships ("but you can only build ships out of materials that float!"). 

Jade disks (璧, "Bi") from the Han dynasty and the Neolithic period. I've seen something in the region of hundreds in various wanderings through museums and they've always baffled me to certain extent. There are many theories about them, with varying degrees of plausibility and research, and they're included here as the inspiration for my ricepunk idea.

There is vague theory that the ancients believe that jade channels chi and it would seem  make fictional sense (in that fantasy world where it is possible) to build great geomatically aligned machines that work through channelling such energy. The rest of fantasy-China industrial revolution sort of writes itself, with giant waterwheel like structures and imprisoned immortal dragons forced to power button-factories.

Yes, it's fantasy, but as a point of departure, I see it as akin to what Etherscope posits.

A grain measure and a sundial are placed in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a statement of the Emperor's heaven-granted control over the measuring of time and mass. Included here as point of how the emperor was seen to mete out time and measurement to his people, the regularity and structure he and his empire provides. It's a theme that a steampunk setting, with its intricate machines could pick up on and I do wonder what the equivalent in the steampunk world would be.

I saw this pattern after I thought jade cogs would totally be an awesome idea (feel free to disagree) and felt that the incredibly spherical flowers bore some resemblance to how you would draw a decorative gear. It marked that moment when you could suddenly make out the aesthetics of this parallel universe you're dreaming up.

More photos of the Hall of Water.

Where once was the well (井, jing) of Wangfujing (lit., the well of the residence of the princes). The lady I was staying with mentioned offhand that all the streets in Beijing were Hutong (胡同). Some folk etymology later, I came away with the impression that Beijing envisioned itself as being structured around water (mainly wells). It's an idea that I rather fancy, especially given the fungshui principle that Qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water.

I'm finishing with two photos of clocks that weren't so very much behind glass that the photos came out alright. It was a present from France, given at some point during the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911. I love how they appear to have got it and then for want of anything better to do with it, stuck it onto two massive slabs of jade.

Another present from France, same era. 

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