The Ming dynasty
In 2014, The British Museum ran a major exhibition on Ming China. Here is a selection of my favourite pieces from the exhibition, arranged to form an introduction to the Ming dynasty.
But what is the ‘Ming’?
When one talks of the Ming, one tends to start with porcelain, for the famous blue and white porcelain is the best known of all Chinese art forms – and it reached its height in the Ming period, that is from 1368 to 1644. And during this time, the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen were producing the finest porcelain that the world has ever seen.
Jingdezhen lies 1,000 miles south of Beijing, and this is where the imperial kilns were situated. The best of the pieces were very elaborately painted, displaying scenes of people at play.
The exhibition concentrated on the first 50 years of the Ming from 1402 to 1449: all dynasties tended to begin well and end badly, and the Ming is no exception. In fact the exhibition omitted the first Ming emperor, the Hong Wu Emperor (1368 to 1398) who was an uncultured peasant but soldier of genius, who succeeded in uniting the Chinese and chasing out the hated Mongols, the successors to Genghis Khan, who had conquered the Chinese Empire and established a Mongol dynasty.
But the Hong Wu Emperor defeated them, and established a proper Chinese dynasty: he was brutal but efficient and above all Chinese. But he was rather uncouth, so the exhibition starts with his rather more respectable son, the Yongle Emperor (though he was not all that respectable – he only seized power by a coup d’etat).
The voyages to the Indian Ocean
The Yongle Emperor is one of the greatest of all emperors, who is best known for the voyages he authorised to be undertaken by one of his eunuchs, Zheng He, who sailed with a huge armada of the biggest timber ships the world had ever seen.
The size of the ships as reported in the Chinese documents is extremely large – much larger than any other wooden ships of that time, though recent scholarship has thrown some doubt on the documents. This reconstruction was shown in a film in the exhibition
One of the shipyards where the ‘Treasure Ships’ were built has been excavated in Nanjing, the former capital, where the ships were built. If the ships were built longways, the docks would not be wide enough; but if they were built crossways, they were very much smaller that the documents suggest. But in any case it was a vast undertaking; a map made in 1944 suggested that the docks stretched 2.1 km from north to south and may have contained at least 13 basins. Only one of these basins has been excavated – most of the others are now under high-rise residential buildings.
Tribute, not trade
The main purpose of the expedition was not trade – trade was something menial, best left to merchants – but rather tribute. What the Chinese emperors wanted was for foreign countries to recognise the Emperor as being supreme, the Son of Heaven, and to signify this by offering him tribute
The most exotic of these offerings and undoubtedly the most successful was this giraffe, which was sent by the ruler of Bengal, a painting of which has survived. The emperors built up a zoo of the exotic animals they were sent as tribute.
And here is a foreign ambassador bearing a casket as tribute to the Emperor. This carved stone figure, now in the V and A, originally formed part of a ‘Spirit Way’ leading up to a tomb . He may have been a Korean, as the wide-brimmed hat is a Korean style
Among the most colourful objects in the exhibition are these brightly coloured tiles. There is an interesting story behind them.
They come from what was originally one of the most remarkable buildings in China the so-called Porcelain Pagoda. This was said to be the finest of all Chinese pagodas, nine stories and over 60 m high, and the Chinese claim that it should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was built in Nanjing, the rival capital city to Beijing, though sadly it was destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion in 1856`. There are plans to rebuild it, but all that remains are these rather fine tiles. It is said that the supervision of the completion of the building was carried out by Zheng He in the intervals of his great voyages
The Princely tombs
One of the sub-themes of the exhibition is the display of objects recently recovered from princely tombs.
The founding emperor, the Hongwu emperor, aimed to disperse power among members of his family, and each son had his own estate, staff and substantial army. They were given enough land to produce a substantial income and they were also given salaries from the Imperial central court in the form of rice, paper money, textiles, salt, tea and horsefeed (an interesting insight into the essentials of Chinese life). They were also presented with luxury goods such as gold and jewels direct from the capital.
About 10 undisturbed princely tombs from this period have been discovered, all lavishly furnished. Three of them are featured in the exhibition, scattered higgledy piggeldy throughout the display.
The earliest was Prince Huang of Lu (1370 – 1389), the 10th of the 26 sons of the Ming founder, who was sent out to govern Yanzhou at the age of 15, but who died just four years later after swallowing a potion designed to extend his life. As he was the first of the regional Princes to die in his father’s lifetime, great care was taken over his burial and the tomb furnishings presented a cultured young man who liked to read literature, compose poetry and play chess. More than 2000 items were recovered from his tomb, of which two of the more homely ones are displayed in the exhibition.
One was a carriage in which the prince would have come to court when summoned, escorted by his staff and guards. The carriage had a small chair inside for the Prince and would have been pulled by a team of horses. One can see that it is princely because it appears to have a crown on top.
The tomb included a procession of 500 figures, including musicians, flagbearers and servants. Among these were this group of a horse and grooms. The horse has a fine saddle, and two grooms in front, and a third behind carrying a dismounting stool, which is shown in the somewhat disorganised catalogue, though the stool seems to have disappeared in the exhibition display.
Twenty years later, Crown Prince Zhuang of Shu (1388 1409) was buried. He was a grandson of the Hongwu Emperor, and his tomb was the most elaborate of all, resembling an underground palace, painted in red and gold with green glazed tiles. When it was excavated in 1970, although it had been partially robbed, it still revealed many treasures, including 500 . ceramic tomb figures, among them these fine figures of generals wearing body armour and helmets, reminiscent of the fearsome almost cartoon style figures of the earlier Tang Dynasty.
The third featured Prince was also called Zhuang, Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411-1441), and his wife Lady Wei. He was a grandson of the Yongle Emperor and brother of the Xuande Emperor, but he died aged just 30. His wife Lady Wei wanted to follow the Prince into death, but by the mid-15th century this practice of suicide had been abandoned, and wives were no longer being required to die when their husbands died, and lady Wei lived on till 1451, when her husband’s tomb was reopened and she was interred beside him. As there were no sons to inherit, the tomb goods were spectacular, and the excavations between 2001 and 2002 recovered 5100 items, including 120 gold objects.
One of the most spectacular objects from the Prince’s tomb was this gold belt set with gems, originally set on a leather or silk backing. Men’s jewellery was highly regulated by sumptuary laws in the early Ming, and only the Emperor and the Imperial family were permitted to wear fabulous gold jewellery. It would have been made in the Jewellery Service, a palace office that created luxury goods for the Imperial family. Such belts would have been bestowed on the Prince by the Emperor, either as a wedding gift or when he was sent to his regional court. The prince was evidently a portly gentleman, though court fashions of the early Ming dictated a bulky silhouette. It is now in the Hubei Provincial Museum
The 50 years of the exhibition were a time of peace, but war was always in the background, and the period ends in 1449, one of the darkest years in Chinese history, when it was thoroughly defeated by the Mongols at the battle of Tumu, and the 21-year-old Emperor, who foolishly was leading the army in person was captured; he was eventually returned, but in the meanwhile the Chinese had set his brother on the throne, so six years later he had a further seven years as Emperor (under a different name) which is very confusing
Nevertheless there are images of war: here is a statue of Zheng Wu, the perfect warrior of the Daoists, wearing a loose robe over his suit of armour.
The Three Emperors
The story of this half century can be told essentially as the story of three Emperors. The first we have already seen, the Yongle Emperor, who not only sponsored the voyages of Zheng He, but also moved the capital to Beijing where he built a new palace the which still survives as the Forbidden City. He also built the Great Wall in the in its final form, and at his death, China was exhausted.
After a disputed succession, he was succeeded by his grandson, the Xuande Emperor who was in many ways the best of all the emperors. Xuande was urbane and efficient and was guided through much of his rule by three scholar officials all named Yang. He was a skilled painter who promoted the arts; his one fault – if it be a fault – was that he was a bit of a sex maniac and sent eunuchs out recruiting virgins for his harem. When he died aged 37, 53 Korean princesses returned home from his harem, and several thousand palace women received permission to leave the palace service. But his reign was remarkably peaceful and is often seen as the golden age of the Ming Dynasty.
But he died at the early age of 37 and was succeeded by his eight-year-old son, the Zhengtong Emperor, who was a bit of a disaster. At first he was dominated by his grandmother but following her death, power fell into the hands of an evil eunuch Wang Zhen, and at the age of 21 he decided to prove that he was every bit as good a soldier as his predecessors, so he set off to fight the Mongols, and at Tumu he was defeated and his army destroyed and he himself was captured and taken hostage by the Mongols, and the half-century covered by the exhibition comes to an end. However a year later he was returned by the Mongols, though by this time his brother had been appointed as Emperor, though when his brother died seven years later, he became emperor for a second time, which is very confusing as he is Emperor under two different names. But he was not a success, after him Ming dynasty began to go downhill.
The Chinese invented football! Here we see a game in progress with several leading players in their robes, kicking a ball, with the emperor looking on – the sole spectator. To one side, as player holds a spare ball for further action.
This is part of a long scroll showing various games in progress. A game of golf is being played, and also, somewhat more realistically, a game of polo. It is all said to be military exercises, detailed in a long scroll.
This style of realistic painting is my favourite form of Chinese painting – much better than all those interminable whispy flowers or trees; yet the genre was surely better in the Song, where the painter Zhang Zeduanong painted a long scroll showing life Along the River During Qingming Festival.
The theme of the exhibition was given by the title: Ming, 50 years that changed China. But how did it change China? In what way did it change China? What things changed in China?
The exhibition pointed out that Ming China was incomparably biggest and most impressive empire in the world at that time. Here we show some of the splendid objects that illustrate this.
The exhibition ran from the 18 September 2014 – 5 January 2015 at the British Musum, London.
Click here for the British Museum web page
22nd September 2014, revised 14th March 2015