Ming Dynasty cloisonné jar,Xuande period (AD 1426-35). Copyright: Trustees of British Museum
Ming: 50 years that changed China” is one of the exhibitions definitely worth seeing in London this autumn and is on at the British Museum until 4th January. Regardless of whether you entirely believe the curators’ implied claims that the period was uniquely formative in Chinese history and led to the nation becoming a global superpower at that time; there is just so much that is utterly wonderful to behold there.This is largely because of the outstanding quality of the loans from ten Chinese museum and artistic institutions, arranged in a remarkable cultural exchange. The Chinese government, in permitting and encouraging this, will be well aware of the value of art as a means of diplomacy. Indeed the exhibition can be seen as a projection of the country’s status as an international superpowerIt is probably no coincidence that the chosen period, from 1400 to 1450, was one in which China as a nation not only changed dramatically but, like today, looked to the world beyond its own borders.
The Ming dynasty was founded in 1368 and after the death of its first emperor in 1398 a power struggle ensued before the Prince of Yan became the Yongle Emperor in 1402. He established massive changes in the country, moving the Imperial capital to Beijing, constructing the Forbidden City there and setting up his numerous sons in magnificent regional courts. These both displayed and limited their power while real control became centralised in the capital. At the same the growing importance of a class of bureaucrats and administrators, as well the many eunuchs promoted to high office at Court, began to usurp the aristocratic warrior classes at the heart of government.
The visual arts were developed to a height of magnificence as a means of display, legitimising the Imperial rule and projecting its power both internally and abroad. The Empire became increasingly outwards looking, participating more and more in trade and diplomacy. It widened its prestige, trading base and knowledge, through a series of nautical voyages conducted under the Admiral Zheng He. This expansionist phase was brought to an end, or at least curtailed, after the unfortunate capture of the Zhengtong Emperor in battle in 1449. After this time it ceased to be the custom of the country for the Emperor to personally lead his troops into battle.
Given this background there is good reason for the Museum’s claim that the period was uniquely creative and provided a significant break with the past. Nonetheless, the practice of burying princes with grave goods including the best productions of former eras – the antiques of their day even in the fifteenth century- shows the extent to which that past remained revered.All this however, simply provides a structure to the display of several hundred objects of the utmost quality. Many have been recently excavated from regional princely tombs and shown outside China for the first time ever. The Ming didn’t do art quietly; they did bling, but my God, what bling it was!You can see the fusion of techniques and design in a cloisonné jar and sword hilt on display in the exhibition and illustrated in this post.
Most of us think of Ming art as represented by blue and white porcelain, without realising that many of its characteristic shapes in fact have Islamic origins, albeit in other media such as metal, and would have reached China through its growing international trade.The range as well as the quality of the exhibits is remarkable. There are red lacquer dishes and boxes, gold and silver vessels, the jade one would expect and the miraculously preserved silk robes and musical instruments one wouldn’t. There are dragons and the purest and most intense of colours, for example on the lidded cloisonné jar of about 1430 illustrated here. You get the impression that the Ming Emperors didn’t do things by halves or would ever understate their significance. Clever, able, competent are the words that come to mind.
Yet these emperors also wrote poetry, encouraged scholars, composed and took pleasure in music and clearly had a more thoughtful side.We traditionally associate balance, proportion and beauty with the earlier Han and Sung dynasties with their simpler ceramic shapes and perfect, even if not showy, glazes. Here you are most likely to find these qualities in the scroll paintings, designed to be read from right to left as a series of related images. They combine grace, proportion and perfect simplicity of flowing wash and line. One of Prunus blossom by moonlight is amongst the most beautiful objects in the whole exhibition. It clearly finds an appreciative audience who stand quietly in front of it for much longer than you would expect of the average London art tourist.
If you get a chance, you really should see this exhibition. For all its considerable intellectual content and political significance it is probably best enjoyed as a feast of delights for the senses.
Presentation sword (jian) and scabbard. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 (detail) © Royal Armouries