Song Dynasty - Ru Ware

from Porcelain Girl

Translated by: 
Brian Holton

Asia Literary Review Volume 26: Winter 2014

In the mornings, Li Mingqin would lean on his balcony railing and smoke a cigarette before going back to bed with a good book. He had lately been skimming through The Story of the Stone, and, although he wasn’t terribly interested in the teenagers or their whims, he was fascinated by the descriptions of the house interiors, and had practically off by heart the passage where Lin Daiyu arrives at the Rong-Guo Mansion:

A long, high table of carved red sandalwood, ornamented with dragons, stood against the wall. In the centre of this was a huge antique bronze cauldron, fully a yard high, covered in a green patina. On the wall above it hung a long vertical scroll with an ink painting of a dragon emerging from clouds and waves, of the kind often presented to high court officials in token of their office. The cauldron was flanked on one side by a smaller antique bronze vessel with a pattern of gold inlay and on the other by a Ru Ware wine goblet in the Antique Beauty style.

Whenever he read this, he was overtaken by a kind of awe – a Ru Ware vessel like that, made between the tenth and thirteenth century in the Song dynasty Imperial Kilns, would fetch at least ten million if it ever came up for auction. Now, displaying cut flowers in a national treasure like that would require a freedom from all spiritual encumbrance, for to place such a unique piece at the service of a mere human need would show that you had quite transcended the material plane. While he appreciated such a rarefied state of being, Li Mingqin was well aware that few would ever attain it.

His gaze took in the photograph on the wall. In it, an old western building was surrounded by French plane trees that stretched up toward the sunlight, their branches like Krazy Kalligraphy, the luxuriant clusters of their supple leaves in sharp contrast to their bare boles. The trees screened an English villa, and only the tiniest patch of blue sky above the roof brought the picture to life. Its hipped roof was of red tile and the arches above the doors were red brick; the porch was topped with decorative concrete slabs and its antique quoins gave it a sturdy, robust look that might bring to mind the sunken eyes and prominent nose of a European face.

His mother used to say that Father had loved this house so much because his family had spent such a fortune on it, and perhaps this was true up to a point, for Father, much as he adored Chinese culture, had fallen in love with western art, too: he howled in his sleep for years after his beloved house was confiscated. Back when Li Mingqin had the photo of the house enlarged and hung on the wall, Mother had been against it, saying the sight of it just upset her. But Li Mingqin was determined it should hang there, because that photo was where he let his fantasies roam. He would dream of how the old house had once been decorated with antiques of every sort; the study had been furnished in rosewood and sandalwood, with round-backed chairs, zither tables, and display cases groaning with all kinds of porcelain; a long side table ran across the full width of the main entrance hall, set with carved lacquer ware, bronze censers, and blue and white vases, and the walls were hung with the kind of work by famous painters that gave it that proper literati look. Though it didn’t quite reach the wondrous standards of the Rong-Guo Mansion, the imposing classicism of its interior wasn’t too far off the mark.

Li Mingqin comforted himself with the thought that, though it was all long gone, there was no telling what might not come back to him one day. Even if he had nothing else, he told himself, in front of him he still had that lugged vase from the Southern Song Imperial Kilns, which he had bought very cheap, and which was now said to be worth millions. What might he not rebuild, with that much money?

He thought of how he had drifted off to sleep the night before with the vase in his arms, and how thick and fast the nightmares had come – first the vase was stolen, then it was pronounced a fake. He’d woken in a pool of sweat, the dreams a reminder that, yes, you can’t always be thinking of the nice stuff, and that sometimes you have to dwell on the other side of life. You say it’s worth millions, but on what grounds? What makes you think a Hong Kong businessman is going to buy it from you? If, when the time comes, he decides it’s a wrong’un, wouldn’t it all have been as senseless as trying to catch rain in a sieve?

He turned the whole business over in his mind for a while, wondering if it was all too much trouble. There’s this work of art, and while some say it’s genuine, others say that it’s a fake. If it’s genuine it’s worth millions; if it isn’t, you might just about get a dozen salted duck eggs for it – so who do you listen to? In the antiques trade, there’s never any shortage of pretentious clever-dicks who will tell you all about how good – or bad – the piece is, but when it comes to putting their hands in their own pockets, they just crawl right back into the woodwork.

The Holy Diddler in Cream of the Crop on Antiques Street, he was that sort, always bragging about what a great eye he had. Somebody once brought him an eighteenth century Qianlong period famille rose vase, wanting fifty grand for it, but he was scared to splash out that much, so he sent the guy away. Then it changed hands for 280,000, and the asking price had gone up to half a million by the time The King Cobra of Antiquities Hall saw it. He was another one like The Holy Diddler, a big-mouth with a great eye who never passed up on a good deal (or so he’d tell you), and who had spent ten grand on an early nineteenth century Jiajing period blue and white bowl he’d sold for more than ten times as much. This time, when the big cheese came along, wanting half a million for his famille rose vase, The King Cobra was quaking inside but wouldn’t admit it was out of his league, so he had to say of course he would have bought it, if only it had been genuine Qianlong. In the end it was bought by a big dealer up north who got an American to pay 800,000 for it; the American smuggled it out of the country and sold it at Sotheby’s, where it was eventually knocked down for 4.5 million.

Bluffing does you no good in the antiques trade: nobody believes a bluffer.

This is what they do believe, though:

A dealer puts his hand out

To find out where he’s at:

Thoroughbred or donkey?

Either will pull his cart.

If you want to see the real cognoscenti sorting out the wheat from the chaff, then go to the Antiques Market, where fakes are many and genuine pieces few, and where it takes proper expertise to buy the good stuff. At this point, Li Mingqin still hadn’t found anyone with the skills he needed.

He picked up a pack of cards, intending to tell his own fortune. He flipped over one or two, then laughed at himself for being so childish, and took a celadon pot from the cabinet: it had neither lid nor handle, being designed for the ancient game of Pitchpot, in which divinations were made by throwing dice from a few feet away. He was going to use it to find if his vase was genuine: if five out of ten dice went into the pot, then it really was genuine Song Dynasty Imperial Ware.

Taking careful aim, he threw the first die. It clinked against the rim of the pot, bounced in and rattled down inside. That was a bit of luck, getting it in one. The second one bounced out, the third went in, and then he had a run of misses. He sat there feeling stupid, then tried again, but all the dice he threw after that bounced out of the pot.

He sat back on the bed, lit another cigarette and began to flip through The Story of the Stone again, laughing at his naivety – letting chance decide his destiny! And yet, sometimes, fate is as simple as that: Heads or Tails, Yin or Yang – each will change into the other. Good times, when the shadows beneath the willow trees are forgotten amidst the sunshine and flowers, can change in a moment into times of constant uphill struggle: these sudden reversals don’t always feel like chance, though, for sometimes they present themselves as bare necessity. In the same way, the glory days of the Jia family had vanished in an instant, and the great House of Rong-Guo had fallen into the dust.

Feeling sleepy, he put his book down; and then the phone rang.


‘You don’t know me, but . . .’

‘Who are you? What do you want?’

‘Never mind who I am. I have some dependable information . . .’

Li Mingqin hung up without letting the caller say any more. But as he lit his cigarette, he thought it couldn’t do any harm to hear the guy out, so he picked up the receiver, and heard the voice say, ‘That’s right, you’d better listen to this.’

Li Mingqin shuddered: the guy hadn’t hung up. Who could he be? There was a silence, then the voice said, ‘Public Security are after you.’

Li Mingqin laughed. ‘What are you up to?’ the caller hummed and hawed, then said he wanted the vase, and would give him 100,000 for it. Li Mingqin deliberately asked, ‘Dollars?’ The caller, as if he hadn’t understood Li’s tone, said, ‘Don’t be silly. RMB.’

It was yet more clear proof that he had his hands on a masterpiece. If he hadn’t known its value before, he might have sold the vase, but if a vase bought for just over a thousand can be transmuted into something worth a hundred thousand, then Li Mingqin wasn’t going to be satisfied with that measly hundred thousand, because, of course, he wanted to be a millionaire.

‘Not enough.’

He had been getting regular phone calls from strangers ever since he had bought the vase. Most were curious, some honestly wanted to do business, but if that guy sounded like a buyer, he also sounded like a conman; and, he thought, am I so easily cheated? Someone had bought another lugged vase for 800,000: if you offer 100,000, are you saying I look desperate for the cash? But if this guy is genuinely giving me a warning, it could be that Mother was dead right when she reckoned that, if some out-of-town museum had been robbed, and there was something fishy about the piece’s provenance, then I’d be an accessory to the theft, and the first thing the Public Security Bureau would do would be to confiscate it, regardless of where I’d got it. Li Mingqin couldn’t sit still. After a while he thought, ‘What if I tell them I bought it thinking it was a fake, or that I gave it away to somebody? Can Public Security carry out a compulsory search if they don’t believe what I tell them?’

His family had once owned a lot of Imperial Ware porcelain, amounting to rooms full of riches, all of which had dwindled away in his father’s care – or, to speak more plainly, had been destroyed during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Nowadays it wasn’t easy to own a piece of world-class porcelain, and if that was going be what revived the Li family’s fortunes, he’d need a good few million to lay the foundations for that dream. A world-class piece would be worth a huge sum of money, but so as long as he kept it safe, his dream would be safe, too. The stranger’s phone call wasn’t necessarily undependable, but it was better to be safe than sorry, he thought, and he paced around the room looking for a good hiding place.

He opened the door of the storage unit on his balcony and went rummaging through the odds and ends inside, but very soon closed the door – a place like that would just be too easy. In the “CultRev” the family next door with the triplets had hidden some letters from Taiwan in their bin area, where there was a cat box that stank to high heaven, but the Public Security guys just clamped their hands over their mouths and raked through it, and in the end the neighbours were labelled “Chiang Kai-Shek Spies”.

He squatted down to look under the bed, pulling out boxes out and poking vaguely into this one and that, before pushing them all back in again. Under the bed wasn’t safe – in the troubles back then, rebel factions had lifted floorboards and torn great holes in the family’s Simmons bed in their search for evidence of Old Thinking, Old Customs, Old Habits and Old Culture. It wasn’t a small room by any means, but there just wasn’t anywhere safe enough. He had thought of hiding it at his mother’s, but he’d been afraid that something so underhand would worry her.  

He imagined Hong Changren standing there, giving him a talking to: ‘You’ve got a big mouth, boy. How come so many people know about this?’ And Jiaojiao would almost certainly dump him if she knew he hadn’t got this figured out. Was she going to walk out in a huff, after all the trouble he’d taken to get her in the first place?

That was as far as he allowed his thoughts to go. He cursed and swore until he’d got it out of his system, then decided that this kind of one-man show wouldn’t help, and went on looking for a hiding place, because, if he didn’t, and it was found, he could easily be held as an accessory to theft. Stealing the National Heritage was inexcusable – you’d get at least ten years, people said, like that young guy who had stolen a Late Imperial fan from a museum. He got the death penalty – a single bullet. Now Li Mingqin was really getting jittery. ‘I used to lead such a quiet life!’ he thought. ‘Nothing ever bothered me, but since I got that vase, there’s been a cold wind blowing through my life. I’m afraid all the time now.’

Last year, in early spring, Mother had reminded him that the antiques trade might seem pure as the driven snow from a distance, but, like a swamp, once you’re in it, it’s hard to get out. At the time, Li Mingqin had disagreed, but to his surprise, she had been right: in that whole year, not one millionaire buyer had turned up, there had been endless hassles and, to top it all, he was now in fear of his life. At that moment, as he leaned over the balcony, another cigarette between his lips, he thought of how he had gradually fallen into this mess. He was right in it now, and was there any chance of rescue?

With its rows and rows of houses packed together like sardines, the Old Town silently presents itself to the eye like some huge and ancient objet d’art, its paulownia tree winding and coiling about it like a dragon, and hiding beneath the trees lies one little street – Fortune Street. The old folk say that it’s a hundred years old, and because by the End of Empire in 1911 it was peopled by mandarins and rich merchants, its many shops and stalls all made money – hence its name. The antique dealers were confined to that one street at first, but as they prospered, so their stalls began to spread out in every direction, until East Street, West Street, Fortuna Defenda Temple, Fern Lane and Old Drill Yard were all getting rich, all along the street that snakes through the district like a dragon. As well as the traders’ stalls, there are antique shops lining the cross-streets and lanes. Every shop has its door wide open, but there isn’t much to choose from among the “Antiquity Lodges”, “Antiquity Dens”, and “Treasure Houses”. Locals have always got straight to the point and referred to them as the Terracotta King, the Zither King, or the Chamber Pot King: from a distance the bits and pieces they sell look antique enough, and there is a very cultured air about the whole place.

Here is chinaware from the 8th-century Tang Dynasty onward, zithers copied from Tang originals, bricks and tiles from the earliest Qin and Han dynasties two thousand years ago, Early Modern paper from the 14th17th century Ming Dynasty and Late Imperial ink blocks, sandalwood and red cedar furniture from the mansions of mandarins, gewgaws and woodcarvings from the early 20th century Republican period, and much more besides – you can find anything you want here. At first glance you’d almost think you were on a Tang Dynasty street, or in one of the many markets of the 12th century Song period; and if the passers-by were wearing traditional headscarves and long gowns, the illusion would be complete.

Business on Fortune Street is normally slow, but when Sunday comes round it fairly buzzes with life, as wandering tourists come and go, and the teeming hordes chase after antiques. Fortuna Defenda Temple was once a place of worship where travellers could burn incense, while in the final decades of Empire troops were inspected in Old Drill Yard. On every street there will be tourists circulating, and crowds gathering and mingling from morning till night: Fortune Street in particular will be a solid mass of pedestrians, giving off as much heat as a rack of bakery steamers. Dealers from all over the country come here in droves to spread their mats out on the street.

Another reason these streets are famous is that people can make fortunes overnight: if you buy a little gewgaw for a few hundred and it turns out to be Qing Imperial Ware, then straight away, you’re a few hundred thousand better off; and if you spend over a thousand on a portrait by the 16th century master Zhang Tangyin, then someone may offer you three times as much as soon as you’ve put your money down. But such good fortune is rare, for most of the business is in dribs and drabs, ‘building the house one brick at a time’ as they say.

Round here, it’s hard to say who is luckiest, because a lot of the people who make a pile don’t noise it abroad. But if you were to pick one who did let it be known, then Hong Changren would be at the top of the list. Not long after he’d opened Famille Rose on Fortune Street, a young woman popped into the shop while she was visiting relatives in Old Drill Yard, and told him she had some stuff at home to dispose of, as she was emigrating to America. It was high summer, and she wasn’t wearing anything special, though her sunglasses did give her a certain style. She took Hong Changren to an old villa on the West Side, where he saw a table piled with porcelain, lacquer ware, ink-stones and other curios. He took it all in with one rapid glance. Now, quality sings its own song: as soon as he lifted a pair of vases he realised that they were genuine 18th century Yongzheng period Imperial Ware, and worth 5 million, easily.

It’s possible the girl had taken some advice beforehand, because she understood that this was Imperial Ware, not common or garden stuff, and her starting price was one million.

Inside, Hong Changren’s heart was bursting with delight, but he spoke with real coldness: ‘Too dear. Where would I find a buyer at that price? I might think about it at two or three hundred thousand, though.’

He knew perfectly well that she wasn’t very well informed, and he was hard as nails in forcing her price down. You want to go abroad, you sell cheap. But no matter how long he harried and chivvied her, she wouldn’t budge, so Hong Changren investigated her family background, looking for a gap in her defences. It turned out that she was related to the 19th century statesman Li Hongzhang, and she had two sisters: both were good-looking girls, but she was decidedly plain; and while her sisters had married young, she had spent a dozen sad and lonely years waiting for Mr Right to come calling. She put the blame on her mother, saying it was unfair that her sisters were like her in every other way, and she was the only one born like that. So on her deathbed, in spite of opposition from her other daughters, their mother had signed over the greater part of her goods to the youngest, by way of compensation. Once he’d heard that story, Hong Changren started turning up at her door on various pretexts or none, pretending to be her friend: he told her he wasn’t much bothered about buying her antiques, but that he’d take care of things, help her find the best price . . .

First he had his brother-in-law pretend to be an antique dealer and view her collection, so the pair could try working a double-act on her. Next he asked Li Mingqin to impersonate a northerner, but Li said, ‘You’re trying to fleece a big grown-up girl like her?’

‘You don’t get it,’ said Hong Changren. ‘This is the way of the world nowadays: you have to grab every chance, because every penny counts. And she really doesn’t get it, either. These lovely things are wasted on her.’

When he got to her house and saw the goods, Li Mingqin opened the bidding at 200,000.

‘You see,’ said Hong Changren. ‘Nobody will buy at the price you’re asking.’

‘Ah, but what if the two of you are teaming up to pull the wool over my eyes?’ she replied.

‘Not Guilty, Ma’am,’ he smiled.

‘You’re a well-bred young lady from a good family,’ said Li Mingqin. ‘We wouldn’t have the nerve to con someone like you.’

‘The price you get isn’t such a big deal,’ said Hong Changren, ‘but leaving the country and settling abroad, that is a big deal, now, and you’ll need someone to look after things and keep you right.’

Joking, she said, ‘Is that a proposal, My Dear Sir?’

Hong Changren shook his head. ‘It’s not me who’s going abroad. Me, I like Shanghai.’

‘So do I,’ she said. ‘Someone as good-looking as you must be quite surrounded by beautiful girls, I suppose?’

‘Your humble servant may have the looks, but I’m just the common or garden variety. You’re different. A nicely brought-up young lady, so well mannered, so accomplished, you’re Imperial Ware, you are, a real Porcelain Girl,’ said Hong Changren.

‘Oh, don’t you come that one with me,’ she said. ‘I know well enough what I am.’

Li Mingqin chimed in from the sidelines. ‘In your lover’s eyes, you’ll always be the loveliest girl in the world. If he thinks you’re beautiful, then you’re beautiful – and anyway, what’s the measure for beauty? But if you’re talking about manners and taste, then you’re in a league of your own: you’re a real aristocrat. In this town you’ll find the common or garden varieties anywhere, but Imperial Ware – that’s not easily come by, no matter how hard you look.’

Feeling that things were getting just a touch too sociable, Hong Changren steered the conversation back to business.

The girl smiled pleasantly and said, ‘Well, after all this sweet-talking, I’ll trouble you to save your breath now – you can have the lot for half a million.’

Hong Changren took the haul back to his shop with the greatest of care, and immediately sold a pair of late 18th-early 19th century Jiaqing famille rose vases, for 3 million.

When he got the money, Hong Changren dumped his wife and married a young girl.

Then there was Mr Wang at Treasure Den. An Old Drill Yard family who had once been well to do, and who were related to the nineteenth century scholar-general Marquis Zeng Guofan, they came under attack in the CultRev and had all their antiques confiscated. The only thing left was a yellow rosewood Ming dynasty couch tray. On the day when the Red Guards had burst in on them, an old man had been busy chopping pickled cabbage and green beans on it, so the teenage Red Guards had thought it was just some everyday kitchen utensil – which was how that one antique yellow rosewood couch tray survived.

The old man was later diagnosed with dementia, and a few weeks after he died, word reached Mr Wang. He hotfooted it to their door, only to find the family had nothing of interest except that old battered couch tray. They called it a “table” which alerted Mr Wang to the fact that they knew nothing about antiques, so he just said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and gave them ten thousand.

When he got it home, he gave himself a really good pat on the back: his Lucky Star had risen, he’d found the Elixir of Life, he’d pulled off The Big One!

The carved ivory panels on the couch tray were decorated with a relief of Two Dragons Chasing the Pearl of Immortality: the workmanship was immaculate and the wood grain was gorgeous – it had to be worth two hundred grand! He loved to blow his own trumpet, Mr Wang, and that was how he got his reputation.

That kind of story spreads very quickly, and attracts new enthusiasts by the dozen. When the antiques trade got going again in the early eighties, it wasn’t uncommon to hear tales of people Hitting the Big One, but after a few years, as buyers became more knowledgeable, there were fewer good pieces, and before long, proper bargains were rarer than gold dust.

Although Li Mingqin had grown up in a family of connoisseurs, he wasn’t interested in old bygones at first. He could be amused by anything that he came across at home, but if he were short of money, he’d turn that old stuff into cash. When the Antiques Market was first set up, though, he wandered around it often enough to acquire a real enthusiasm for antiques. Hong Changren and his friends all had houses full of old rosewood furniture and display cabinets full of good porcelain, so Li Mingqin started to hang around with them, coveting the things he saw.

He’d often bemoan the turning of Fortune’s Wheel: Hong Changren was from a working class family, yet his house was full of antiques, while Li Mingqin’s own family had fallen so low that they had less than Hong did. Li spent his time with these guys in an odd state of mind: he wanted to collect old furniture too, but sandalwood and yellow rosewood were far too rare and expensive for him, so he’d just have to settle for plain old rosewood. He liked to go to Hong Changren’s place to sit in an antique chair and stroke its armrests, an old amber cigarette holder clamped between his teeth.

Hong would say to him, ‘We all know you’re from some big-shot’s family, so how come you haven’t got a thing? That’s really weird!’

‘How do you know my family haven’t got anything?’ Li would say, and Hong would make him repeat that, and he’d say, ‘Listen to the way you speak: maybe you do have some good stuff after all.’

‘Of course,’ Li Mingqin would say, though he wished his family really did have some good pieces, because with the support of a decent collection he could assert his natural dignity, and once people had seen that, they wouldn’t say the Li family had nothing.

On one hand, old things help you keep up appearances; but on the other, they can hold you back. As Mother said, they entail too much respect for the past, and they can give you a sense of inadequacy, of poor self-worth.

She’d said that the very day he’d commissioned Hong Changren to buy some old furniture for him. He told his mother when he got home, and she said, ‘It’s good that you can afford it, of course, but do you really know what you’re doing?’

She was dusting the sideboard at that point, so he asked why she was bothering to clean such a worthless old thing, and she said, ‘It may only be rosewood veneer, but it’s old too, and it’s a lot better than that new stuff. After they confiscated all our sandalwood and yellow rosewood in the CultRev, they gave us this in compensation in the seventies.’

Li Mingqin didn’t know where to look. He saw that as she went about dusting and cleaning over the next few days, she was trying to tell him something, and eventually she said, ‘You really ought to ask Uncle Wang for advice, you know, if you do want to start buying.’

This was something he had to take notice of, because Uncle Wang was a connoisseur who had been her father’s business partner, back before Liberation in ’49, when they’d shared their love of antiques. But he told his mother that she’d be sure to like what he bought, because he’d only buy good pieces, and as she dusted a famille rose lidded teacup set from early last century, she said, ‘You shouldn’t be so unrealistic, now. We did have a lot of good pieces once, but that’s over and done with. Times change, and you’re still dreaming of the past, even though we’ve not got a thing. It seems to me that if you stuck to just buying little things you’d do just fine – old wooden combs, old mirrors, stuff like that.’

She was always banging on about this, but Li Mingqin knew that there had been a time when she had used nice things every day, so he said, ‘It’s all about being a cautious buyer. A roomful of the good stuff, now, that’s doable. And don’t you always say that in the old days, every decent family had fine furniture?’

As he spoke he took some photos of old villas from a drawer; he flicked though them and asked her, ‘Where is this?’

She took it and said, ‘That’s a ball at the Sheng Mansion on Huaihai Road.’

He gave her another: ‘That’s Otto Braun’s villa on Xinhua Road.’

Li Mingqin pointed out all the fine furniture visible in the background of both pictures.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘it goes without saying; the Sheng Mansion was sandalwood just everywhere, and yellow rosewood, too. Otto Braun’s villa was the same, but the owner was American, so there was a Chinese-style study, but the living rooms were all baroque, full of Louis Quatorze.’

‘Well, European-style furniture is in fashion now, too,’ said Li Mingqin, ‘only it’s all chipboard, mass-produced on an assembly line. It’s all the rage with the nouveaux-riche, and they think it’s genuinely European, but it’s so vulgar.’

‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that. Times change, and everybody has their own likes and dislikes.’

They chatted on for a bit, and in the end she reminded him to be very careful: she believed that places like Fortune Street harboured confidence tricksters of every sort, who, if they couldn’t knock the rider off, would nick the horse he rode in on. If you went shopping there, you’d better be cautious, cautious, and far more than cautious.

Li Mingqin spoke up: ‘It’s not going to be a problem. I have an old pal helping me find stuff.’

‘Well, that’s easy for you to say, but the closer the friend, the more careful you have to be. Your father lost so much – his ‘friends’ dug traps for him, and in he fell: he always did. He lost out every time, and there was nothing he could do about it.’

‘It was only a small minority, surely.’ He knew about his father selling off the family’s antiques to buy drink, and he knew his mother still brooded on that.

‘A minority? So how come it was always us in the minority, then? Never mind the villa being confiscated – there was all that Imperial Ware sold off after that, and you’ll never explain that away!’

‘He brought it on himself. He couldn’t see through people.’

‘See through people? Can you guarantee you can see through people? I don’t think anybody can guarantee that. It’s like assessing antiques: the more you see, the less you’ll be cheated, and the less you’ve seen, the more you’ll be swindled! Don’t you go thinking Fortune Street is all nice and sweet and the dealers all nice and refined: they’ll try any trick in the book to get their hands on your money! Do you know what the single highest-earning business in this country is? Do you?’

Li Mingqin was thinking of that conversation as he looked around for somewhere to hide his vase, and he realised that had she asked him now, he could immediately have answered: it wasn’t difficult. Everyone in the antiques trade knew. It was a phenomenon that went back to at least the Song Dynasty in the tenth to thirteenth centuries, when they called the curio trade The Devil’s Market, and when fraud and deceit were everywhere, simply because it is so very easy to make money from counterfeiting. Antiques and curios don’t breed, so if everyone wants them, demand will soon exceed supply, and forgery will follow very soon after that.

Li Mingqin hadn’t been able to reply at the time, so his mother had informed him that the highest-earning business in the country was forgery. Mother had often helped out at the family shop on Five-In-Hand Road in the old days, and naturally knew the antiques market well at that time. Forgery and counterfeiting had been commonplace in the Republican period, but that sort of thing was even more widespread now, with any modern piece of porcelain passed off as Ming or Qing Imperial Ware, newly-carved jade sold as two-thousand-year-old Han Dynasty artefacts, and new mahogany furniture with painted-on grain sold as antique – forgery really is the easiest way to make a fortune nowadays, she’d said. Ming-Qing Imperial Ware is widely counterfeited, too: if it looks right, it can sell for hundreds of thousands, if not millions – and at a cost of no more than a hundred or so for new porcelain, it’s no wonder that people will dream up the most amazing schemes to make and sell forgeries. Many, many people in the antiques world have been burned, and even an old connoisseur, if he takes his eyes off the ball for an instant, will inevitably make a mistake.

Connoisseurs weren’t infallible? Even Uncle Wang? Sitting there on the sofa, topping up his mother’s tea, Li Mingqin could almost believe it.

‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She stopped dusting her ornaments and picked up an early 20th century lidded teacup and saucer painted with a motif of Chinese belles, lifted the lid, sipped at her tea, put the cup back on the table, and replaced the lid. Then she poured a little water onto an everlasting purple bamboo and an asparagus fern, and moved a bonsai banyan over to the writing desk.

As she began to tidy up its leaves, she began: ‘This story happened back before Liberation in ’49, and I expect everyone in the antiques trade knows it.

‘In those days Loo-Woo Curios was owned by Mr Wu, a very distinguished dealer who had spent a lifetime in the trade: he had an uncanny eye for Song dynasty Imperial Ware, and his taste in archaic bronzes was impeccable, and very widely known. If a palace or a mansion came on something of interest, it would be Mr Wu who was called on for an appraisal; if he was strolling through the Antiques Market and he saw a bronze on a stall, he didn’t have to walk over, far less bend down and examine it, for he could be 90% certain from several yards away that, if it wasn’t a Ming copy, then it would be a Qing one: the patina would be not quite right here, or there would be something wrong with the modelling there. If ever there was a real old-style connoisseur, then it was Mr Wu.

‘Well, one day, his friend Mr Huang took him to see some bronzes. Mr Wu took one look, and could hardly believe his eyes: he was looking at a complete set of ritual bronzes from the Shang dynasty, made between the 16th and the 11th century BC! They were all there: the cauldron, the chalices, the drinking horns, the beakers, all beautifully modelled, and all with that wonderful patina that only the genuine ones have. There and then, he made a decision: he paid out three thousand silver dollars and had them taken home. From then, on he would spend whole days just pottering around with his beloved bronzes, and he had two of them put on his bedside cabinet, so he could admire them before he went to sleep.

‘Now, Mr Wu had a nephew called Ye Shuzhong, who had married his daughter, and was in the same line of business: when Ye Shuzhong saw the bronzes he began to doubt. He didn’t dare say anything, for fear of making Mr Wu angry, but he quietly worked his way toward the truth, and it was as he had suspected – Mr Wu had been swindled!

‘It wasn’t many days after that Ye Shuzhong, in a tactful and very roundabout way, spoke to Mr Wu, who didn’t believe him at first. How could there ever be a forgery good enough to catch him out? But when he looked again at the bronzes, he was flabbergasted: though the decorative grooves and channels were all that they should be, the rims, the edges of the flanges, and the corner ridges were stiff and crude; overall there was neither scoring nor any evidence of the distinctive shims and spacers, not on any of the vessels. Mr Wu felt his spine crack; he broke into a cold sweat and slumped onto the sofa, slack-jawed.

‘It turned out that the bronzes had been made in Suzhou, where there were a lot of sophisticated bronze workers: Zhou Maigu, Li Junqing and Luo Qiye were the most famous, but it was Zhou Maigu’s counterfeit bronzes that were the most convincing – the decorative grooves and channels on his fakes had fooled plenty in the trade, and many a connoisseur had been taken in by them.

‘This knocked the wind out of Mr Wu. He’d just sit at home chapfallen, sighing over how arcane and unfathomable the antiques trade was, or he’d be moping over the ways of this wicked world, where neither kith nor kin could be trusted if money was involved. From that day on he kept his hands firmly in his pockets, and never again asked about the state of the antiques market. Instead, he repeatedly told Ye Shuzhong that he was to be buried with the fake bronzes.’

Li Mingqin said he’d heard of Ye Shuzhong: he was an older relative of young Ye next door.

‘Yes,’ his mother nodded, ‘and his shop was at 70 Zhaotong Street.’

‘So what became of Mr Wu?’

‘Did he go through with it? Was he buried with the bronzes? I never really heard,’ said Mother.

It gave Li Mingqin goose pimples, that story. If that was how it was for a great connoisseur, what hope was there for the likes of him? Seeing her son speechless, and thinking she’d frightened him, by way of consolation his mother said, ‘Well, it’s only a story, and maybe it was embroidered in the telling.’

She gave the banyan another wipe, put it back on the windowsill, and went on to say, ‘There is a good side to this business, though: people in the antiques trade see a lot more of the world than others, and because they’re exposed to all kinds of swindles, they have a solid understanding of how people really behave. But if you want to go in for that sort of thing, then you’d better be well prepared, and that should include all the inside information you can get. We’re not badly off here, right next to Fortune Street, so you can have a good look before you buy; and there are all the heritage shops across the way too. If you examine as much of the real stuff as you can, then you’ll eventually learn all the tricks too, as time goes by. But if you just put your hand in your pocket and buy stuff when you don’t know what you’re doing, then they’ll be out there, digging their traps, waiting for you.’

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