Ming: 50 Years That Changed China – the British Museum Exhibition

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Cloisonné enamel jar and cover with dragons. Copyright image courtesy of the British Museum, used with permission.

Cloisonné enamel jar and cover with dragons. Copyright image courtesy of the British Museum, used with permission. All rights reserved.

The British Museum presents Ming: 50 Years that changed China. The exhibition looks specifically at the period between AD 1400 and 1450.

This very important period in Chinese history fits between two dramatic events – the civil war of 1399-1402 that brings the Yongle Emperor to power, and the capture of the Zhengtong Emperor in 1449.

At that time China was the world’s only global superpower, run by just one family – the Ming dynasty. Chosen by Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), the founder of the dynasty, “Ming” was not the name of the imperial family, but a title meaning “Bright,””Luminous” or “Shining.”

During these years the Chinese people saw power centralised in Beijing and the building of the Forbidden City. Bureaucrats and diplomats replaced military leaders, and the emperor became an icon, not an autocrat.

Speaking at the British Museum, Craig Clunas, curator of the exhibition, said:

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“The point of the exhibition is to look at fifty years which we need to understand if we’re really going to understand China today. This is a history most of us don’t learn very much about in schools and universities. It is a history that has produced the most extraordinary range of things but above all these things come from a moment at which China re-defines itself and its relation to the rest of the world.”

China and the World Beyond

There is a common misconception that Chinese engagement with the outside world started somewhere after the year 1500. Ming: 50 Years that changed China aims to show that this contact with other countries started very much earlier that we think. At the start of the fifteenth century early Ming courts were already in touch with other Asian rulers, including the Timurids in Iran and Central Asia and the Ashikaga in Japan and Joseon, Korea. An unparalleled trading and diplomatic network extended to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Africa, and Mecca.

Ming: 50 Years that changed China looks at the diversity of court life, the military, culture, beliefs, trade and diplomacy. The exhibition focusses on archaeological finds from three important princely tombs in Sichuan, Shandong and Hubei.

Jessica Harrison-Hall, join curator of the exhibition, describes the court set-up:

“There are multiple courts established across China. These are the sons of the founding Ming emperor, and really they represent imperial authority across China, across the rivers, surrounding the borders. Twenty-four sons of founding Ming emperors spread out across China… as the many emblems of the emperor.

“So this is the point at which you have an extraordinary richness of court culture but you also have a wonderful international engagement. This is the moment where the treasure ships are sent from Nanjing to South Asia, South-east Asia, the Middle East and even the east coast of Africa.  As well as representing a great military presence in those regions and re-opening up the trading routes they are also a way of bringing Chinese goods to all these different places and of bringing back foreign goods and people.”

Gold Head Ornament. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Gold Head Ornament. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

So, in the early fifteenth century China was well and truly engaged with the outside world through a strong military policy as well as through trade and diplomacy. Chinese artists also travelled the globe depicting their experiences on some of the most beautiful paintings and artefacts ever created, and now featured in this exhibition. Many of these items, loaned by both Chinese and other international museums, have only recently been discovered, and very few shown outside China until now.

Cloisonné Jar and Cover from Xuande’s Reign

Many of the artefacts show the extraordinary craftsmanship of Ming artists. This beautiful cloisonné jar and cover date from Xuande’s reign, 1426-1435. The dragon and clouds decoration is very typical of the Xuande period.

Cloisonné is an enamelling technique for decorating metalwork. The craftsman uses metal wire cells (cloisons in French) to make the pattern. Then the craftsman drips melted coloured glass rods into the cells and  fires the item. Once it has cooled and the glass shrinks, he fills in the resulting gaps in the design and fires the item again. It could be fired up to four times. The craftsman polishes the item and covers the metal wires in gold. The Ming emperors encouraged new technology through their patronage.

Gold Head Ornament Shows Highly Skilled Craftsmanship

The display also showcases a very beautiful gold head ornament or headdress. Ming aristocrats wore their hair long, tied up in a bun. The ornament fitted over the hair and a gold pin that slid horizontally through the headdress secured it. The imperial court restricted the use of gold, reserving it for the imperial family and high officials.

Embroidered silk robe. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Embroidered silk robe. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Imperial Robes  – Yellow – the Imperial Colour

This embroidered silk robe is extremely rare, having survived six hundred years intact. Made in Nanjing, in about 1389, for Zhu Tan, Prince Huang of Lu, the robe was originally bright yellow, a colour reserved solely for the imperial family. The robe had paler dragons woven in a raised pattern on front, back and shoulders.

By wearing bright yellow, the prince indicated that he represented the Emperor outside the capital city. Prince Huang was buried in the robe, together with six other “dragon” robes. In Chinese culture, the dragon symbolized imperial power and strength.


Carved Red Lacquer Table With Drawers

Made in Beijing, this exquisite table carries the Xuande mark and dates from 1426-1436. The design on the top of the table features a carved five-clawed dragon ascending and a phoenix descending on a bed of lotuses with ornamental rocks at the bottom. The dragon symbolizes the emperor, and the phoenix symbolizes the empress.

The three drawers on the front carry a similar decoration, and there are peonies, chrysanthemum and prunus on the legs. This table is the world’s only known surviving piece of lacquer furniture made in the Guoyuan chang (Orchard Factory), the imperial lacquer factory in Beijing.

The process of lacquering was long and complicated. Lacquer is the sap or resin harvested from the trunk of the Chinese lacquer tree. The very toxic raw sap can cause terrible dermatitis if it comes in contact with the skin. The craftsman filters the sap and heat-treat it before applying it with a brush onto the basic wooden furniture.

Cinnabar, a common ore of the mineral mercury, serves the purpose of colouring the lacquer red. The craftsman applies several layers, each taking up to twenty-four hours to dry. A table such as this needed at least one hundred layers of lacquer.

Seeing Ming: 50 Years that changed China in Person

Ming: 50 Years that changed China, supported by BP, is on show until 5th January 2015. Visitors can obtain tickets and further information from the British Museum.

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© Copyright 2014 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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