Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China
In 2009, when I first saw the amazing finds from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (d.1441) in the Hubei Provincial Museum, it was impossible not to be impressed by the gleam and flash of the gems with which so many of the objects were decorated. Jewelled belts, jewelled buttons for a princely hat, the lavish gold hairpins of princely ladies all set with rubies, sapphires, turquoise and a variety of other precious stones; these conjured up like nothing else the luxurious lifestyle of the early Ming princely palace, and the splendour of its inhabitants. Since then I have done a bit more research on these gems, where they came from and how they were used, and I have become even more fascinated by what they can tell us about Ming courts and their contacts with the wider world.
China is not well supplied with precious stones, and almost all of the gems in the objects from Prince Zhuang of Liang’s tomb came from outside the Ming empire, where they were seen as exotic and precious imports. Take rubies for instance, with their impressive deep red hue. One of the world’s richest sources of these, the most rare of the major gem types, is a mine at Mogok, now in Myanmar (northern Burma). It is possible that the early Ming courts obtained rubies from here through overland trade with the Shan States who occupied this part of the world in the 15th century. But a much more likely source of some of the large and truly impressive gems, like the rubies which stud the centre of each carefully-worked filigree plaque of Prince Zhuang of Liang’s gold belt , is the island of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka had long been known as one of the best sources of red rubies and blue sapphires (which are almost exactly the same mineral in chemical terms; tiny differences in impurities account for their very different colours). In 1283, in the Yuan dynasty, one of the island’s rulers had written to a sultan of Egypt with the proud boast that ‘I have a prodigious quantity of pearls and precious stones of every kind’. At least five diplomatic missions from King Parakramabahu VI (r.1412-1468) of Sri Lanka to the Ming took place between 1416 and 1459, and the great Ming eunuch admiral Zheng He stopped off on the island on several of his voyages. One of Zheng He’s crew was the interpreter Ma Huan. In his account of the voyages, An Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores, he tells us how Sri Lanka is rich in gems of many kinds:
Whenever heavy rain occurs, the water rushes out of the earth and flows down amidst the sand; they search for and collect [the stones], and that is how they get them. There is a common saying that the precious stones are in truth the crystallized tears of Buddha the patriarch.
He also calls the gems by foreign and not Chinese names; he calls some of them yagu, which comes from the Arabic word yāqūt, meaning sometimes ‘ruby’. This use of an Arabic name tells us that the trade in gems in the Ming period was a very international one, as indeed it is today. Gems are not only very valuable, but very portable, and Ma Huan tells us that they could be bought at ports all round Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, in Java and Thailand, at ports in modern Kerala in South India, at Hormuz in modern Iran and Aden in the Yemen. Wherever there were ships and traders there were gems. The Chinese city of Zhongxiang, where Prince Zhuang of Liang lived and died, is a long way from the sea. But these glittering fragments of the exotic must have told all who saw them, shining and gleaming on the bodies of himself and his wife, that these were people who, through their connections to the imperial court in Beijing, could command extraordinary resources from across the globe.
The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online