Interviewing Malcolm McNeill ... art tour expert lecturer
Independent scholar of the history of Chinese art and archaeology, currently based at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London, Malcolm McNeill is joining the Royal Academy art tour to China with Cox & Kings. He has written on Chinese art for the V&A, and most recently worked at the British Museum as a researcher for the Ming: 50 years that changed China exhibition.
The destinations on this tour hold a powerful draw for me. They embody the majesty, vitality and sanctity of China’s imperial past. The Terracotta Warriors are a monumental testament to the ambition of the man who first unified China. Carefully prepared burials in the Han tombs tell us as much about how ancient lives were lived as a belief in the next, and the Longmen grottoes are an awe-inspiring testament to the power of piety.
What do you enjoy most about leading a specialist tour such as this?
The arts, history and culture of China have been a lifelong passion of mine. Whether delving into a museum archive, wandering the site of an old temple, or sharing my enthusiasm through lecturing, I am at my happiest when exploring Chinese artworks. Leading this tour of intrepid and articulate travellers for the Royal Academy and Cox & Kings is the ideal situation in which to share that enthusiasm.
Longmen grottoes, Luoyang
What do you most enjoy about visiting the places on your tour?
Xian, Luoyang and Beijing are all suffused with a palpable sense of history. This isn’t an ossified history exhumed from beneath the earth. This history is integral to what China is today. When I visit these places it is not only to gaze in awe at the splendid art, architecture and archaeology of the past. I delight in sharing that sense of wonder with the Chinese people of the present.
What visit on the tour are you most looking forward to and why?
If I had to pick one visit, it would be the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Ming and Qing emperors came here to make seasonal offerings to heaven, re-charging the batteries of their divine mandate to rule. While so many world heritage sites are visible only from across a fence, here you can stroll across the expansive courtyards of this axis of divine power. You can literally stand on the tracks of the emperors.
If you could only recommend one book to read before departure, what would it be?
This is so hard! There’s so much, from Craig Clunas’ clear and accessible Art in China, to Ma Jian’s gritty travel memoir Red Dust, or any of the expansive bibliography of historian Jonathan Spence. If I really have to pick one, it would be Xinran’s The Good Women of China. Xinran offers sensitive portraits of women from across this vast country. She is a consummate storyteller; her interviews filled with both insight and empathy.
The Terracotta Warriors
Is there anything else you want to add?
In all my excitement over China’s art and culture, I seem to have missed a few things. Did I mention the majestic setting of the Great Wall atop the rolling hills at Jinshanling? Have I told you about the world leading quality of China’s modern museum displays? Did I even hint at the flavoursome array of local cuisines? If any of this whets your appetite, then I’d love for you to join me!