This exhibition provides a comprehensive picture of China as it was in the fifteenth century when it was a global superpower ruled by one family - the Ming family – during the years 1400 to 1450. It was a dynasty that ruled through a vast network of courts; the most famous being the Forbidden City in Beijing; and that was to transform the country. The exhibition is a multimedia guided tour and features priceless and opulent works of art, decorative art and literature never before seen outside of China.
As you begin there is an interesting four minute film explaining the background and subject of the exhibition. We learn that China was the largest state in the world and boasted a population of 85 million with a sophisticated civil bureaucracy. The Ming dynasty comprised of five rulers who spanned three centuries and the founder selected the word ‘Ming’, meaning brightness, to represent his era. The emperors commissioned amazing crafts, art, decorative arts and literature. They had several wives and thus many offspring who they sent across the regional courts throughout China to help rule and represent the country. One of the first achievements of the Ming dynasty was that the first emperor, Xuande, moved the new capital from Nanjing to Beijing. The palace was completed in 1445 and acted as the centre of government as well as being the residence of the imperial family. We are introduced early on to the huge and beautiful hanging scrolls, the first being a picture of the Forbidden City and comprising 720 thousand square metres.
An important hanging scroll was the ‘Portrait of Daoyan’ which is in ink and colours on silk. It is the only surviving portrait of a Buddhist monk who became Emperor Yongle’s chief advisor on civil and military matters and who was his lifelong mentor. The emperors invested their princes with ornate silk robes, jewels and belts and jewellery for their wives. The Prince Zhuang jade belt that is on display is magnificent, comprising of 18 intricate and delicate individual plaques which would have been sewn onto the leather belt. This was a symbol of prestige and power and was excavated from the Prince’s tomb, who was the 9th son of emperor Yongle. Likewise the beautiful gold hair pins in the shape of a phoenix are astonishing and are one of the highlights of the show. The hair pins are made up of filigree fine metal threads all beautifully woven to look like a phoenix; the symbol of the empress. These were found together with gold arm bangles and bracelets of exquisite craftmanship. Throughout the show is an array of different objects such as lacquer boxes, Syrian glass flasks, gold basins, cloisonné jars and covers and blue and white porcelain vases. The deep red lacquer table desk with drawers is stunning and is the largest surviving piece of lacquer furniture from the Forbidden City. Lacquer was unique to China and made from the sap of trees on which were carved intricate and complex decorations. This table had designs portraying both the dragon and the phoenix, symbolising the emperor and the empress together in symbolic grandeur.
One interesting item is the early Ming sword and scabbard which is in ornate, intricate Tibetan style and which was commissioned by emperor Yongle who was a fantastic military leader. During the Ming dynasty China developed the largest armies in the world. There is a hauntingly beautiful hanging scroll called, “2 steeds under the shade of a willow tree” which depicts two white horses against a grey, brown background of foliage and trees. Horses were essential in warfare in Northern China and so equestrian art was very popular. The courts were also centres for culture, music, publishing and art and commissioned painters to create art work on silk and paper and murals for temples and palaces.
One of the aspects of Ming art that had an important significance for Europe was its distinctive blue and white porcelain. Such porcelain was always blowy and windswept so as to portray carefreeness and the relaxed fun of the outdoors. The enormous wine jar on display has scenes of figures engaged in cultured pastimes. In the painting at the end of the show, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, we see how important porcelain was as it is one of the gifts given to the Christ baby by one of the Magi. It spurred many European workshops to try and make their own porcelain. We learn that there were many varying belief systems in China, including Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism and the Muslim faith as well as other individual cults. The emperors and princes published religious texts and lavishly illustrated books. You can see a magnificent painting called ‘Painting for the water and land ritual’, dated 1459, which is one of a set of 139 paintings that survived. It details the Buddhist ritual of bringing comfort to the souls of the deceased and shows a whole panorama of the universe including actors, entertainers, scribes and ordinary people. Towards the end of the show is a hanging scroll entitled ‘Tribute of giraffe with attendant’ which was given to the emperor by the Sultan of Bengal and signified heaven’s blessing on the dynasty. There was an elaborate tribute trade between the varying embassies of the world and gifts were accepted and given. This scroll marks the 600th anniversary of its presentation!
The British Museum has put together a clever and detailed exhibition on a small period of Chinese history in all its glory and it is definitely worth a visit.