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The Cracked Ming Cup


In 1963, the Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano went to China to interview the last emperor, Pu Yi. He and I were both working for Marcha, a Uruguayan weekly, at the time. Upon his return he commented about finding centuries-old Ming cups treated as useless garbage because they were cracked and had lost their functionality. This wasn’t meant as a critical remark; Galeano was just surprised at how the parameters for what was considered valuable differed across cultures.

A decade or two later I participated in a tour that took a group of visiting faculty through the art conservation program at SUNY Buffalo. They showed us an early twentieth-century mechanical toy that had been used for an exercise in restoration. In good shape, the object was probably worth less than $100, but the labor invested in restoring it was worth well over ten times that much. The result was impressive.

I thought about how the relationship between value and labor might act as a filter for posterity. Outside a classroom, it probably wouldn’t make sense to invest in conservation if the labor expenses involved exceeded the market value of the object. Instead, it would be classified as something disposable, the same fate that had awaited the chipped Ming cup in Mao’s China. In that case, the judgment turned on the question of functionality. In the toy’s case, the parameters were established by money. Both criteria affect legacy, determining what remains for future generations to encounter and what does not. Though a trivial insight, it hit me only then that the objects we use to understand different cultures are simply those that have been allowed to survive long enough to become symbols representing a set of relations we then define as culture.

In this sense, the collection of objects we inherit from the past is a legacy of values, and so becomes part of our education at the hands of history. Although such collections are often designed to flaunt power, they also demonstrate what value looks like for rising generations, shaping the way they think. Therefore the parameters that separate what will be preserved from what will not are as important as the objects that exemplify them. This problem is not limited to Ming cups or mechanical toys; it also extends to ideas. Ultimately, the parameters used for the preservation and elaboration of ideas are probably more important than those that apply to objects, since these precede them. Ideas determine if we see more in a Ming cup than the ability to drink from it, and they decide if the toy should be restored and conserved, and why.

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