The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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Buddhism @ the British Library

Buddhism is a major exhibition at the British Library, bringing together objects and artefacts, folding books and scrolls and manuscripts, paintings and pictures, wall hangings early printed works, along with not one but two displays of the tools which have been used to make precious Buddhist scriptures for centuries, interspersed with half a dozen films (interviews with practicing Buddhists, demonstrations of chanting and praying, how the ancient texts are preserved nowadays), plus an enchanting video installation of a contemporary Buddhist artist painting holy texts on pavements and walls.

It’s a lot of information to take in at once. My review is in four parts:

  1. The life of the Buddha and Buddhism
  2. Myths and legends, preachings and practices
  3. The importance of numbers in Buddhism
  4. The exhibition itself

The life of Buddha and Buddhism

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper in 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism © British Library Board

A brief outline of the Buddha and his teachings is relatively simple. Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal 2,500 years ago, young Prince Siddhārtha Gautama lived a coddled protected wife, which included undergoing an arranged marriage, and living entirely within the palace walls. However, he grew restless and managed to make several journeys into the big wide world where he was shocked for the first time to encounter poverty, hunger, decrepit old age and squalor.

He finally broke free from his gilded life and spent years wandering India, pondering the human condition and one day, seated under a bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment.

‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ in the sense of ‘having woken up to reality’.

He realised that the world is a bubble of transient appearances. Nothing lasts. All of us die and are reincarnated (here he was basing himself on far more ancient Hindu beliefs) back into this world of woe.

What causes all the pain and suffering? It is attachment to things of this world, it is desire, want, letting our physiological urges drive us to try and own or achieve things which are themselves only passing and delusory, which most of the time we fail to attain anyway.

Therefore, the secret of enlightenment, is to strive for a condition of complete detachment from the things of this world. One should begin by observing The Middle Way, not going to extremes of self-deprivation or sensual indulgence. But the techniques of the Middle Way will lead, ultimately, to complete detachment from the things of the world.

Only then will the enlightened one break free of the endless cycle of Samsara – of rebirth, suffering, death, and more rebirth – and their soul achieve nirvana.

Myths and legends surrounding the Buddha

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808 © British Library Board

If this is all there were to it, Buddhism really would be a simple belief system. But one of the most fascinating things about it is not its teachings per se, it is that so many teachings can be generated from such a simple premise.

An enormous number of legends grew up about Prince Gautama:

  • stretching back in time (for it turns out that he had been reincarnated many times before, hundreds of times before and each of those previous incarnations had had numerous adventures which are described in the Birth Stories or Jatakas
  • that he would be reincarnated in the future, in the figure called the Maitreya, to bring us all back to the True Way
  • and, moving away from the Prince himself, it turns out that the world has contained other holy ones, boddhisatvas, people are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so through compassion for suffering beings

Many texts were written about the Buddha’s sayings and teachings. These included a steadily growing number of his wonderful deeds and miracles. Monuments were built, stupas, where the relics of the Buddha himself or the lesser enlightened ones – effectively Buddhist saints – are buried, chief among the holy sites being the very Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (where a vast temple complex was built in the third century BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There are four first-order holy sites related to the life of the Buddha (as there are a defined number of sites holy to the life of Mohamed and the life of Jesus) but countless others where various legendary events took place, as well as important events for the boddhisatvas, take the annual Procession of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE © British Library Board

Monasteries were established, communal buildings for Buddhist monks. Elaborate ceremonies grew up to celebrate key dates in the Buddha’s life, and the monasteries required texts to guide and define the rituals as well as texts of teachings and doctrine for students to be taught and masters to meditate on (for example a long list of the Buddha’s many names which could be used for meditation). The monasteries also preserved and expanded on earlier written accounts of the Buddha’s life.

The exhibition includes a wall-sized animated map which shows the spread of Buddhism up into Afghanistan, east into China and then into south-east Asia. At the same time it developed into three major traditions which took flavour from the local cultures, and used the languages of the regions of Asia which they spread into:

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayan

And by about this stage of the exhibition I had come a long way from the simple insight at the core of Buddhism and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by numbers.

The importance of numbers in Buddhism

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript detailing the early life of the Buddha, on display at the Library for the first time © British Library Board

The Buddha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the others being his teachings (Dharma) and the monastic order (Sangha).

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  • life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering
  • the cause of suffering is desire
  • suffering can be overcome
  • this liberation is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

  • right view
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right conduct
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • and right samadhi (meditative absorption)

The Noble Eightfold path is represented by the dharma wheel (dharmachakra) whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path (although a dharmachakra can also have 12, 24 or 31 spokes, representing other sets of holy values).

The Buddha’s first discourse was given in a deer park to five disciples who become the basis of the huge monastic orders which followed.

The Buddha had 547 previous lives all described in the Jataka tales.

The last ten Jatakas or Birth Stories about Buddha are popular in South-East Asia because they illustrate the ten perfections of a Buddha.

The Buddha’s footprint features 108 auspicious symbols such as royal insignia, mythical creatures, rivers, mountains and even continents.

Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be is characterised by a set of paramita or perfections. The Pāli Canon, the Buddhavaṃsa of the Khuddaka Nikāya, lists ten perfections. Two of these virtues, mettā and upekkhā, also are brahmavihāras.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā sūtras, the Lotus Sutra and a large number of other texts list a different list of six perfections.

The ‘pure illusory body’ is said to be endowed with six perfections (Sanskrit: ṣatpāramitā). The first four of these perfections are ‘skillful means’ practice while the last two are ‘wisdom’ practice.

In the Theravada tradition 28 Buddhas are believed to have appeared in the past and attained Nirvana. The Buddha we know about is the fourth Buddha of the present aeon.

Twenty four of these previous Buddhas gave advice to the Buddha we know about, and they are listed, quoted and depicted in countless manuscripts, illustrations and books.

Rebirths occur in the six realms of existence, three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts, hellish).

The six realms of rebirth are part of the 31 realms of existence. After death the soul passes through ten stages as described in the Sutra of the Ten Kings before entering the six realms of rebirth.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ has six syllables, symbolising the six realms of rebirth.

There is a heavenly realm named Trayastrimsa with palaces, gardens and parks for the 33 gods who live there. Trayastrimsa is only one of the six heavens or celestial realms.

On Buddhist monasteries, of the Theravada tradition, a bhikkhu (male monk) is expected to follow all 227 rules of monastic disciple, while a bikkhuni (female monk) has to follow 311 rules.

The four dignities are ancient symbols that represent qualities of the windhorse, and are: Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, Tiger. Many prayer flags show the four dignities with a windhorse in the center.

The Pancharaksa identifies five female deities and includes spells and rituals to appease them. they are sometimes paired with the Five Wisdom Buddhas.

A monastic is allowed eight personal requisites: three robes in saffron or yellow, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Tibetan Buddhists make use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, ashtamangala, in household and public art, including the conch shell, the endless knot, a pair of fish, the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Dharmachakra and the banner of victory.

Maybe you can appreciate why, by this point, I had begun to feel very confused. The basic idea of Buddhism, which I outlined at the top, had long gotten buried in a litter of legends and a bewildering variety of important numbers.

The exhibition itself

You have to like red. The high-ceilinged basement rooms of the Library’s gallery space have all been painted a deep blood red. It is like going down into a torture chamber or maybe a brothel in some red light district.

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library. Very red

Except that the space is packed with display cases showing a very wide range of types of object – concertina books made of mulberry leaves and manuscripts and paintings and sculptures, bells and drinking bowls, manuscript writing tools and materials, a full calligraphy set, amulet boxes, offering bowls, manuscript cabinets, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of the major sutras, a Buddhist protective jacket, a rare copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead – it’s a feast of Buddhist texts and textures.

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time © British Library Board

TV monitors dot the exhibition showing interviews with current practicing Buddhists, techniques of manuscript conservation and a contemporary artist painting Buddhist texts in what I took to be Japanese letters.

At one point hidden loudspeakers are playing a loop which includes traditional Buddhist monk chanting interspersed with the sound of streams and birdsong.

I didn’t realise that the lotus is the symbol of the Buddha because lotus flowers often grow in pretty muddy, dirty ponds. So they symbolise a state of complete purity and calm which can be achieved despite the mind’s origins in the messy realities of the physical body.

The section on the physical technique of creating, writing, preserving and storing monastic texts was fascinating and set above or apart from the rather oppressive barrage of sacred numbers, a specialist sub-set of the overall subject which gave you interest and respect for the ancient craftspeople who dedicated their lives to preserving and beautifying the holy scriptures.

The display of materials and tools used to make the earliest Buddhist texts, at Buddhism at the British Library

Conclusion

I went intending to like this exhibition but, if I’m honest, I found it a bit difficult.

a) There’s so much factual content to it, from the outline of the core story, to the incredible profusion of legendary events which have accrued to it; the actual history of its spread and development throughout Asia, to over 20 countries.

b) A long and complicated history which is reflected in the sheer variety of items on display, from paintings, manuscripts and scrolls, through to the displays showing the tools used to make manuscript chests and so on.

But c) I think the thing which overwhelmed me was the sheer profusion of Holy Numbers and Perfections and Jatakas and the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, and so on. I quickly got lost and confused in the mathematical maze of Buddhist doctrine.

I felt overwhelmed by stuff when, ironically, I thought the whole point of Buddhism is to clear your head of clutter, and focus on your own existence, cleared of all distractions.

Still, if you’re at all interested in the subject, it is beautifully laid out, with its biography and legends and explanation of the teachings, its maps of Buddhism’s spread, its history, the techniques used to make its manuscripts, as well as beautiful objects like the metal statues of bodhisattvas, a monastery bell, and some exquisite carved chests.

As long as you like red!

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library

The promo video


Related links

  • Buddhism continues at the British Library until 23 February 2020

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

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