Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (British Museum Exhibition)

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China is the new British Museum exhibition which is open till 5 January 2015. It covers 1400-1450 AD which is close to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty period, and is regarded as one of the Golden Ages of Chinese history. The exhibition opens with a short film which gives a brief overview of the historical events during (and immediately before this period) and puts it into context in terms of how it lines up with British history. The Ming Dynasty as a whole lasted for more than 250 years, from roughly the time of Chaucer through to the English Civil War. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, had fought against and eventually driven out the last of the Yuan Dynasty (a Mongol dynasty founded by Kublai Khan). He chose the name of the dynasty – Ming, which means “bright” or “shining”. He was succeeded by a grandson, who was then deposed by one of the Hongwu Emperor’s other sons. This son, the Yongle Emperor, is the first of the period that the exhibition covers. The next Emperor was the Hongxi Emperor, who died after only a year in power. His son, the Xuande Emperor, ruled for the next 9 years and was succeeded in turn by his own son, the Zhengtong Emperor. This Emperor ruled until 1449 when he was captured in battle against the Mongols (he was eventually released from house arrest and ruled once more). The catastrophic defeat of the Ming army in 1449 which included the Emperor’s capture and the deaths of several senior members of court brings the Golden Age of the early Ming to a close.

The first room was concerned with court and royal life of the period. A lot of this is known from some relatively recently discovered intact tombs of minor members of the royal family. Ming Dynasty tombs for royalty are constructed as palaces for the afterlife – laid out like a place to live and containing the things one would want in the afterlife either as actual objects (like clothes) or as a models (like servants or transport). The objects that caught my eye most in this room were the yellow silk robe that one of the princes was buried with, and the model carriages. The robe was interesting both because survival of cloth for that long is always impressive, and because the formal portraits of royalty in China are always wearing a yellow silk dragon robe so it was nice to see an actual example. The carriages were interesting for what they represented about changes in the royal culture over the 50 years – they were labelled as “carriages like this were used during the early part of the period for travel between courts, but in later years princes were confined to their households” (I paraphrase). The Ming Emperors generally had a lot of children – for instance, I think the Hongwu Emperor had 26 sons – and the custom started by the founder was to set up each son in a province about the size of a European country of the time and they would act as the representative of the Emperor in that province. But this allowed the princes to build up their own power bases, which the Yongle Emperor used to his advantage when deposing his nephew. As a result over time the freedom of the princes to leave their palaces was curtailed.

The dynasty was founded in war, and war remained an important part of the court culture of the time – partly out of necessity and partly because that was a part of what defined a good ruler or noble during this period. Interestingly for all that the Ming were positioning themselves as a new Chinese dynasty who had overthrown the Mongols, nonetheless there was continuity with the Yuan dynasty particularly in what sorts of warrior activities were practised. The Ming continued to emphasis horsemanship as an important skill for a ruler. One of the items in this room was a scroll that showed the Yongle Emperor practicing various sports with his eunuchs – football (not like our football, more a competition to keep a ball in the air using only the feet), golf, polo, archery and so on. All of which had a significance as practising for a particular part of being a warrior (the football was a good way to build agility and leg strength for instance). They also had a portrait of an Emperor hunting, which has continuity as a portrait type (and activity) with the Yuan dynasty. The other objects that caught my eye particularly in this room were the weapons which included gunpowder based weapons like cannons. These weren’t actually used that often, because when fighting against the Mongolian horseback archers agility and flexibility counted for more than firepower.

The Ming golden age was not all about war, and the next room focussed on the peaceful arts of court culture – calligraphy, painting, poetry – often undertaken by the same men as were practising the warlike arts (particularly the Emperor). Dominating this space were two long scrolls, each a single artwork. One was of plum blossoms by moonlight, the other a landscape piece. Apparently normally they would be kept rolled up, then the viewer would unroll a section to contemplate a scene rather than how they are displayed these days with the whole piece on view. Which I think explains why the compositions of these sometimes seem repetitive – it’s intended to be seen almost as a selection of overlapping/intertwined variations on a theme.

The next room was on the theme of religion. There were several religions co-existing in China at the time, and the same person might use rituals and observances from different religions for different parts of their life. The three major religions during this period were the state religion (which included shamanic practices and ancestor worship, and in which the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and thus divine), Buddhism (primarily the Tibetan strand) and Daoism. There were also a significant number of Muslims, and Muslim clerics were accorded the same official respect and legal status as monks or clerics of the other religions. The objects in here included statues, and other things given to temples and monasteries as gifts. And some religious texts – in particular there was a very fine copy of some Buddhist texts written and illustrated in gold on a black background.

Throughout the whole exhibition there was an emphasis on how the influence of Ming court fashions and customs spread out to the surrounding countries, and how other countries influenced Ming fashions. The last room of the exhibition was explicitly about this theme, as a sort of conclusion. Early Ming China had trade connections not just with neighbouring countries but also with places as far afield as Kenya (by sea) and Central Asia by land. The Ming court liked to display their cosmopolitan tastes, so throughout the exhibition there were objects inspired by other places – for instance porcelain candlesticks modeled after Iranian metal candlesticks. During this period the Emperor Yongle also sent out vast trading fleets under the command of Admiral Zheng He. The Chinese perception of the trade that went on was that the Ming court were receiving tribute from the countries the fleet visited, and graciously proving gifts to these leaders who acknowledge Chinese superiority. Which is presumably not how the other side were seeing it!

I really liked this exhibition and found it very interesting. I shall be going again at least once before it shuts as I rushed the last room a bit due to running out of time.