I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the first season of Marco Polo, first aired in 2014. I enjoyed the Victorian English dialogue, superb acting, lavish costutmes, clean, smart and vibrant architecture and occasional spectacular landscapes. I fully forgive the ludicrous historical license taken by the series, partly because of the twisty plot displaying rivalries among the Mongols and their conflict with the Chinese Sung dynasty, partly for the ridiculously acrobatic martial arts on display, but mainly because the copious volumes of naked concubine sex.

What is particularly exciting for me, however, is the character of Jai Sidau, the Crooked Minister, played by Chin Han. Best of all, in one short scene, the minister is brought the cremated ashes of his former lover who had betrayed him in a fashion that made little impact or logic in the plot, but which reveals much about Jai Sidau’s character.

I can’t recall such a striking use of ashes to demonstrate a character’s emotional and sensory inability to neither love the living nor mourn the dead in a television series or film.

Jai Sidau is brought the ashes in a beautiful glazed pale urn with a pagoda-shaped lid, presumably indicating the increasing popularity of cremation under Buddhist influence in Sung China. It is a striking example of how ashes are frequently contained within house-like miniature architectures: a theme I’ve pursued in my research on past cremation practices in Britain.

He focuses his attention on the urn and handles its sides with the reticence we see him display in touching the living woman whose remains are now within.

Then, he appears to try to force a connection, perhaps questioning is own detachment. He opens it, dips his left hand in so that the tips of his fingers are covered in the ash. He then lifts them to his lips to smell and/or taste them. He then carries the urn around the room, seemingly trying to position it amidst others of different shapes and sizes already on display, before returning to his desk still with the cinerary urn.

Regarding the other urns around the room, we are left wondering how many more contained the cremated remains of the dead. If so, what relationships had they with Jai Sidau: his victims, former lovers, or once allies?

Of course, on a point of technical accuracy, it is more than interesting that the ‘ashes’ are literally that, just ashes. They are not cremated human remains, which looks quite different even if it has gone through modern oven cremation to high temperatures before undergoing the second process of ‘cremulation’ – crushing down the cremated bone to uniform particles.

The makers are anticipating that the visual and material inaccuracy doesn’t matter. Au contraire: for me it reveals, as much as the character’s interaction with the urn, just how distanced and confused modern audiences are regarding the cremation dead. Despite it being a disposal method deployed to burn the bodies of the majority of China’s present-day dead, and the majority of people in both the UK and now also the US, the status of ashes as people and material still perplexes us and challenges us.

Jai Sidau is therefore like many people today: unsure whether to treat ashes as people or as stuff. Meanwhile, the inaccuracy of the depiction of ash reveals this too.

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