by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palace Museum, Beijing
Amusements in the Xuande Emperor's Palace, which shows eunuchs playing a form of soccer

Ming: The Dynasty Behind the Vases

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 16 October 2014


The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644, and it was under its aegis, during the first half of the 15th century, that technological and design advances brought milky white and cobalt-blue porcelain to perfection.

The most internationally sought-after of all ceramics, Ming products became synonymous with the country that produced them, referred to in India and the Middle East as 'chini' and in English as 'china.'

But this artistic high point was just one of the many achievements of the Ming Dynasty between 1400 and 1450, as shown by 'Ming: 50 years that changed China,' in the recently opened Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. The show runs from Sept. 18 until Jan. 5, 2015.

Five years in the planning, this dazzling show is curated by Professor Craig Clunas of Oxford University and Jessica Harrison-Hall of the British Museum.

With its population of around 85 million, 15th-century Ming China was by far the largest state on the globe. As Professor Clunas points out in the exhibition's exemplary catalog, everything about it was on a grand scale: 'It had a greater land area, bigger cities (and more big cities), bigger armies, bigger ships, bigger palaces, bigger bells, more literate people, more religious professionals.'

Ming was not a family name but an appellation, meaning 'bright,' 'luminous' or 'shining.' It was adopted by the founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, who had overthrown the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the previous rulers of China for almost a century. The exhibition opens with two magnificent silk hanging scrolls: the earliest known painting of Nanjing, where Zhu Yuanzhang made his capital from 1368 to 1398, and a later 15th-century image of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The third Ming ruler, the Yongle emperor (1403-1424), made the momentous decision to move the capital to Beijing. A long-term consequence of this relocation was the adoption of the local dialect, Mandarin, as the language of imperial administration and communication. During this period, in the far south of the country, the Ming also fixed China's southern borders, which have remained unchanged till this day.

The ambition and scope of the Yongle emperor's construction projects and military campaigns from the far north to the far south of his domains led historians to see his reign as a 'second founding' of the Ming dynasty.

The first Ming emperor, who took the personal title Hongwu (Vast Military Power), was prolifically procreative, fathering 36 sons and 16 daughters. Although none of his successors produced so many, the opening section of the exhibition, 'Ming Courts,' radically reassesses the importance of these male heirs as agents of the emperor's rule. The dispatch of these princes to the provinces played a hitherto underestimated part in projecting the dynasty's image through the length and breadth of China.

A fuller appreciation of the grandeur of these princely courts — in Xi'an the court took up half the area of the city — has been made possible above all by the excavation of princely tombs in recent years. A selection of finds from tombs in Sichuan, Shandong and Hubei vividly bring alive the lavish lifestyles of these provincial courts, the traces of which have mostly disappeared above ground.

The finds include clothes, ornaments, gold jewelry, ceramic figures, and furniture; there is even a set of miniature furniture from the Prince of Lu's tomb in Shandong, including a bed with pillows and mattress, wash stands with towels, and storage boxes.

Innovations in the visual arts also opened windows into the life of the imperial court. At the instigation of the Xuande emperor, a new genre emerged of paintings showing the 'Son of Heaven' at leisure. A wonderful scroll here, 'Amusements in the Xuande Emperor's Palace,' on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing, shows him watching an archery competition, a polo match, soccer; playing a form of miniature golf; participating in an arrow-throwing game; and taking refreshments and retiring with his entourage in the evening. Xuande, known as 'the aesthete,' was also an accomplished artist, as is shown by two of his own paintings on display.

Blue and white porcelain was not a Ming invention, but during the Yongle emperor's reign it reached dizzy new heights of refinement. New clay recipes made it possible for vessels to become thinner, and new glazes produced a much purer translucent white and a glossier finish. A far greater range of shapes was introduced, including a number inspired by bottles, flasks, jugs, candleholders and pen boxes from the Islamic world. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of juxtapositions of porcelain items with brass vessels of Middle Eastern origin.

The imperial court fostered the development of more exotic color schemes, combining red and green, yellow and red, and green and white. The size of some orders given to the imperial kilns was staggering: One for 443,500 porcelain pieces with dragon and phoenix designs was placed in 1433, during the Xuande emperor's reign.

The role of Middle East-inspired designs and of cobalt from Iran, which gave a stronger blue than the local product, in the perfection of blue-and-white porcelain are both telling markers of another central initiative of the Ming emperors of the first half of the 15th century: the opening up of China to the wider world. This occurred well over half a century before Portuguese and Spanish ships appeared on the horizon, which according to traditional Eurocentric historical narratives was the primary force in exposing China to foreign influences.

Between 1405 and 1433, the eunuch Admiral Zheng He made seven voyages into the so-called Western Ocean, an area extending from the South China Sea to the east coast of Africa and the Red Sea. The impact of these expeditions, which lasted two years at a time, on trading and cultural relations between South Asia and the Middle East is the subject of the last section of the show, 'Diplomacy and Trade.'

Zheng He's expeditions were born of the dynasty's desire to establish, internationally, the legitimacy of its rule in China and to exact recognition of its primacy in the entire hemisphere, either through persuasion and gifts or military threats. The admiral's armadas consisted of as many as 250 ships, some of them 60 meters long, at the time the largest ever built. These huge treasure ships carried porcelain, lacquer, silks and other precious Chinese goods, and were escorted by up to 27,000 men, most of them armed.

Although the prime purpose of the voyages was political, they played a major part in distributing Chinese goods westward and bringing back to China cargos of pepper, spices and artifacts — not to mention gems, gold and silver bullion. And, as exported luxury Chinese goods began to trickle into far-distant Europe, not the least of the consequences was to stimulate adventurous European navigators to set out across the oceans in search of the sources of these wonders in the mythical regions of 'Cathay.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023