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Living & dying as an imperial consort

The Emperor will need female companionship in the afterlife

sunny 26 °C

They buried the concubines in pits, after the women had hung themselves from silk ropes or swallowed poison. This is what my guide to the Ming Tombs in China, John, informs me as we both stare down at the metal grate covering one of the pits in question.


Upon death and his entry to the afterlife, the Emperor would need female companionship. So he chose which concubines were to be executed by palace eunuchs or to commit suicide, and they were buried on the outskirts of the tombs.

“Sometimes they were burnt, and very rarely they were buried alive in a standing position, so they could greet the Emperor in the afterlife.”

The latter two practices were discontinued in the advancing years of the Ming dynasty after being deemed uncivilized.

The Imperial Garden was the site of concubine try-outs. Concubines would audition for entry into the Emperor’s select inner harem. Some Emperors had thousands of concubines, so making it into the elite inner circle was no small feat. Those who didn’t make the cut were given as presents to foreign dignitaries, nobles, or those the Emperor was pleased with.

Staring at those burial pits, wind through cypress needles, I shudder, snap a photo, and walk on.




Posted by DenaAllen 06:08 Archived in China Tagged culture city china forbidden living_abroad Comments (0)

Sense-drunk & sweating

Bali's insistent indulgence

sunny 31 °C

November 25, 2010 – 8:22 AM Ubud, Bali


There is a woman whose job it is to pick the flowers. The flowers used to adorn every nook and corner of the villa I’m staying at in Nyu Kuning village on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali. She has a long stick with a forked end, and a plastic bag half full of blooms looped over her arm. She quietly prowls this garden that makes words like verdant and lush seem understated. I have grown gills and cannot be convinced to leave the pool. Bending down, she shows me her collection and asks if I’d like one. “For your hair,” she says, offering me a pink frangipani.


The flowers are also used as offerings. Bundled with fruit and incense and intriguing little flourishes like a mini-Ritz cracker or a plastic-wrapped candy. Balinese people are intensely devout and small shrines and offerings are everywhere – outside family dwellings, shops, dotted around guesthouses, on sidewalks, tucked into the corners of green spaces – incense wafting and the little banana leaf packages being raided by birds.

“The ephemeral arts”. I am in love with this phrase. I found it on an art gallery wall used to describe the offerings Balinese women are responsible for making on behalf of the family throughout the day. Simple or elaborate, these spirit gifts must be constructed. The forces of good and evil must be kept in balance. Words must be spoken.


Magik. Incense. That otherworldly gamelan music in your ears. Flowers. The shining filaments of butterfly cocoons dripping off palm leaves. Water running over rocks. Snakes red and brown and small. The iridescent exoskeletons of beetles. People moving slow and smiling quick. Fat, glossy lizards. A lushness that teeters on the obscene.

Cruising around rice fields on the back of a motorbike. Koman and I are on a mission to find the perfect woodcarving of Rama and Sita for me to take home to Bangkok. We’ve stopped for a break at a roadside eatery – I’m sticking to the red plastic chair and scarfing down some of the best roast chicken on record.

Art is ubiquitous. Paintings, carvings, music, dancing, ceramics, silverwork…galleries and museums both in your face and hidden away. Every café and guesthouse and shop features some artistic offering for either view or sale. Walking into the surreal and sensual Blanco Renaissance Museum, I’m presented with an oversweet welcome drink and a flower “For your hair”, the lady who takes my ticket informs me with a slow smile. Large tropical birds – both tame and wild – muttering and screeching, a giant stone dragon slithers down the imposing entrance steps, there’s opera in my ears, and a stained glass dome filtering coloured light downwards to glance off the already shockingly bright walls and canvasses.

The Blanco museum is bonkers and beautiful. Ornamental, strange, sexy. Rococo doesn’t even begin to cover it. Carved gilt frames and flashing black eyes and full breasts. Fruit and glitter and the sound of insects. Strange words strung together. Dizzying. Hot. Me, sense-drunk and sweating. Blanco, and Bali, softly but firmly whisper to me that more is more. As if I needed convincing.

Posted by DenaAllen 22:14 Archived in Indonesia Tagged art bali indonesia culture living_abroad Comments (1)

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