British Museum blog

East meets west in Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi

Dr Caroline Campbell, interim head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, National Gallery, London

One of the most remarkable objects in the British Museum’s extraordinary BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China isn’t Chinese at all. It’s a quiet, subdued painting, made by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1490s, probably in the north-eastern Italian city of Mantua. It is in the exhibition because of the delicate blue-and-white porcelain vessel held by the oldest of the three Magi, who kneels bareheaded before the tiny infant Christ, humbly proffering his gift of gold coins.

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Mantegna (1430/1–1506) is one of the most extraordinary talents of the 15th century. He trained as a painter in Padua, the pulsating university town near Venice, at the time one of the most exciting places in Europe to live and to learn. Indeed, Mantegna was such a remarkable artist that Jacopo Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of his day, arranged a marriage between his daughter Niccolosa and Mantegna so that the Bellini family workshop could benefit from his genius. The marriage endured, but the benefits to the Bellini were short-lived: Mantegna moved to Mantua, where he spent the remainder of his life as court painter to the city’s rulers, the Gonzaga family. Mantegna was one of the first artist-printmakers, and his inventions spread throughout Europe in the form of prints by him and his students.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

We know that Mantegna had a life-long passion for antiquities. It’s a feature of much of his surviving work as both a painter and graphic artist, and it evidently permeated his life. One of the most famous anecdotes about the artist – which also happens to be true – concerns a boat trip he made to Lake Garda in 1464, together with the scholars Felice Feliciano and Samuele da Tradate. Not only did they search for and copy old Roman inscriptions, they dressed up as classical Romans and made ancient music as they worked – ‘Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant’. We can see Mantegna’s response to Greek and Roman forms, such as survivals of antique sculpture and architecture, in an engraving such as the ‘Battle of the Sea Gods’, a vigorous, lively, and very un-classical recreation of ancient sarcophagi and friezes.

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery London (NG1145)

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery, London (NG1145)

Many of his works also meld classical form with 15th–century function, but perhaps none do this as beautifully as the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah of around 1500. It has been painted to look like a cameo, a miniature relief carved in the different strata of a precious stone by Roman gem-cutters. Such objects were much admired and collected in Mantegna’s circle.

But Mantegna also recreated lost forms of classical art. Although he had never seen an ancient Roman painting, his highly-coloured pictures ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ made for Francesco Gonzaga around 1485 (probably his greatest achievement, now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court) were inspired by written accounts of Julius Caesar’s military celebrations in Rome, as well as surviving Roman antiquities.

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

It is in the context of Mantegna’s interests in antiquity that we should view the blue-and-white porcelain cup in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Chinese ‘export ware’ wasn’t directly traded with Europe until the 16th century, but the potteries of Jingdezhen were producing Ming porcelain that made it to Europe in the previous century. The bowl in Mantegna’s painting is decorated with a delicate floral motif which is typical of some bowls and cups produced in the Imperial factory in Jingdezhen, still the symbolic centre of China’s porcelain industry, during the Yongle reign (1403–24). Interestingly, Mantegna’s bowl was not a new object by the time he painted it in the late 15th century.

How had it come to Mantua? Chinese ceramics, highly valued for its rarity and beauty, are recorded in European collections as early as the 14th century. During Mantegna’s lifetime, only a few major gifts of Chinese porcelain were made to European rulers, such as the twenty objects sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, in 1487. Several examples are recorded in Mantua – there are four mentioned in the 16th-century inventory of Isabella d’Este’s possessions – but none are for certain the bowl depicted in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

What we can be sure of is that these were highly valued objects, often embellished with European metal mounts, and found either in princely collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. These collections were also often home to other luxury objects from outside Europe, from the far closer Eastern Mediterranean, including carpets, fabrics, metalwork and glass. These could also be set into mounts or ‘Europeanised’ in some other way, and many were also celebrated for their connection with the Holy Land. As objects made in the geographical regions where Christ and his disciples had lived, they could have a sacral value. But as some scholars, particularly Alexander Nagel, have argued persuasively, they could also, legitimately, be considered ‘antiquities’, even if they were made in more recent centuries. Their foreignness could make Europeans think of them as objects made in a distant time, which was far removed historically as well as geographically.

Could the same be true of the Ming bowl in Mantegna’s picture? Its very rarity and value manifestly adds dignity and prestige to Mantegna’s elderly Magus, but it also serves to situate the sacred story of the Magi’s discovery of Christ as taking place outside of historical time, as well as to accentuate how exotic he and his companions were. Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ may seem a simple retelling of a familiar story, and a straightforward depiction of a Ming bowl, but, in fact, nothing is quite as it seems.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

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The unregarded woman: another look at a Ming painting

Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Of the many paintings included in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the most famous is the ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’, showing a swanky party held in 1437 in the garden of Yang Rong (1371–1440), Grand Secretary and all-round important person of early fifteenth-century China. It’s in all the books on Ming painting, appears on loads of websites, and is generally one of the most reproduced images dating from the period covered by the exhibition. This is partly because of where the painted silk handscroll now is, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and so it has been relatively easy to view and study, as well as to publish in books about Chinese art. I’ve used it myself in the classroom and lectures in all sorts of ways, as it’s a very rich image for talking about patronage of the arts, the relationship between politics and art in the Ming, the role of the artist and lots of other topics. I find it is one of those images that you can always learn more about, and indeed there remain a number of mysteries.

Who is it by? It bears the signature of an artist called Xie Huan; his dates used to be a bit vague, but recent research by Yin Ji’nan, Professor of Art History at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, has established definitively that he was born in 1377 and died in 1452. He was an important person in the early Ming art world, apparently working as an advisor and painter to the Yongle and Xuande emperors, as well as maintaining a presumably lucrative private practice, producing images like this for important people like Yang Rong and his friends.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

The nature of the event – senior officials of the empire demonstrating the calm and peaceful state of affairs by gathering for a day of relaxed gentlemanly pastimes – means that more than one person present might have wanted to have an image of the party. Indeed another version of the same subject exists, in the Zhenjiang Museum in China. Are both paintings by Xie Huan? Did he, like Italian artists at the time, run a workshop where multiple versions of the same subject were turned out with the help of assistants? Is one painting the original, and the other just a copy?

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

All of these views have been put forward by art historians at some point, and indeed I’ve contributed in my time to the scholarship on this painting; I’m particularly intrigued by the painting within the painting (of which we can only see a tiny corner). So it’s a bit humbling to confess that there is a detail of this painting that I’ve never really noticed before, though I’ve looked at it many times, both in reproductions and at the Met in New York. The figures depicted as attending the party are all men, since mixed-sex gatherings would have been vaguely indecent affairs in the Ming, where men and women were strictly segregated in most aspects of elite life. The servants who attend them are all male too, young boys who hold up the painting for viewing, or roll up scrolls no longer wanted, or attend to incense or bringing in the drinks.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Except (and this is what never registered properly with me until I had the chance for extended viewing of the picture in the exhibition), that there is one woman visible. She is right at the very left edge of the scroll, the last section to be unrolled when the painting was viewed in sections. She is peeping out from behind a tree, coming out from (presumably) the kitchens carrying a large handled basin. We can’t see the contents, perhaps it is hot water to warm the wine, or maybe it is meant to represent a serving of snacks to go with the drinks. She is doing something important, but unregarded. As it happens, historical Ming gossip tells us that Yang Rong had a famously dowdy wife, a woman from his home province of Jiangxi in the south; she was once given a makeover by the empress, to the extent that she was unrecognisable beneath the added palace glamour. I don’t think the woman in the painting is meant to be her. Yang Rong’s wife was after all a lady, she did not serve the drinks at parties. But I’ve become aware that my own failure to notice her until recently has compounded the invisibility of women, which skews our understanding of Ming art and Ming culture more generally.

In 1437 the emperor was a young boy, and the gentlemen we see here were in fact governing the empire in coalition with the powerful women of the imperial family, the child ruler’s mother and grandmother. I like to think – in fact it’s entirely reasonable to think – that in the depths of the palace they and their ladies-in-waiting were partying in their own way. But they’re not in the picture.

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

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Poetry and exile: contemporary art from the Middle East

Holly Wright, administrator, British Museum

The current temporary display in the John Addis Gallery: Islamic World, Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon, curated by Venetia Porter, brings together the recently acquired work of six artists all exploring the phenomenon of exile. In a gallery predominantly populated with Islamic art and objects dating as early as the 7th century, it could be said that this display of contemporary art is incongruous. So why is it here?

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism,2012 One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism, 2012. One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

I first became interested in the modern and contemporary collections of the Middle East department in 2012, while visiting Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. The work of Ahmed Mater immediately stood out to me, as it added an unexpected emotional interpretation of the pilgrimage to Mecca which was unique and surprising to me as a visitor. I would later go on to study the collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in greater detail for my MA, still barely scraping the surface; as it continues to grow and to be used in increasingly imaginative and diverse ways.

In this display the concept of exile is approached through the personal experiences of each artist and their political and humanitarian views. Each work directs the viewer to the incidents that have inspired them and it is these references which place the art within a broader context. Not only do the works inspire an emotional response but they also ignite curiosity as to what inspired those artists. It is this emotional engagement and varied approach which makes the pieces so important and interesting to me, and hopefully to the visitors who will see the display.

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). &copy Ipek Duben

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). © Ipek Duben

The works in the display were not created in isolation; their influences overlap whether it be on specific political or personal events or the work of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and Farid al-Din Attar (c. 1145–c.1221). The works are all united by difficulty, whether that of the artist or the experiences of others. Ipek Duben formulates this difficulty in her book Refugee by overlaying images of suffering with delicate gauze and simple embroidered text and in doing so she starkly contrasts the hardship shown in the images. The simplicity of the technique employed gives the work a scrapbook feel, rendered incredibly moving as it highlights the experiences of refugees from Kosovo, Pakistan, Liberia and elsewhere.

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi’s work Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, one of three displayed on the opposite wall, is inscribed with the poetry of the renowned and revered Palestinian poet (1941–2008). The one illustrated here is The Poem of the Land. For me, an interesting element of this work is that the style of Saudi’s drawings echo posters which she created for the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, some of which are displayed alongside Homage and are part of a group that have been donated by the Palestinian Poster archive. This is a unique quality of the British Museum’s collection of Middle Eastern art, in that the works often contain references that extend beyond the collection itself and in doing so give even small displays the ability to explore more widespread elements of history and human experience.

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

In Canan Tolon’s series, Futur Imparfait, her exile is more singular and personal. Inspired by her experience of illness as a child, the series acts as a memory of her protracted stay in a French hospital when she was separated from her home. The thirty delicate drawings on Mylar add a voice from another perspective. It is a series executed in ethereally light washes of ink and graphite, reflecting the removed reality she experienced while in a strange country and environment. Tolon’s own words are relevant regarding not only her own work but of the artists in the exhibition as a whole:

… it is not the misfortune of others which fascinates and astonishes but the extraordinary will of a child to live…

This sentiment is characteristic of the message and draw of the works in this display; there are painful and violent stories here, but predominantly it is the human reaction to these events and not the suffering in itself which is explored. The aftermath of war, illness and displacement is discussed through delicate drawings and through poetry. This alone is reason enough for these pieces to be here.

This space within the gallery of Islamic art is used for rotations of works on paper from across the collection that we are not able to put on permanent display. These include Persian or Mughal paintings, even shadow puppets as were featured in a previous display. With the ever-expanding collection of Middle Eastern art, this small area will continue to host increasingly diverse and exciting exhibitions, so watch this space! Further information on this collection and the Middle East department as a whole can also be found on the Museum’s collection online.

Before joining the Museum as an administrator in the Middle East Department in 2013, Holly Wright studied for the MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. Her dissertation was ‘Collecting the contemporary: modern and contemporary art in the Middle East Department of the British Museum’.

Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon is on display in Room 34 until 1 March 2015, admission free.

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Ming culinary culture: it’s all very beautiful, but what did they eat?

Malcolm McNeill, project researcher and doctoral candidate, SOAS, University of London

In the book accompanying the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, curator Jessica Harrison-Hall’s chapter ‘Courts: palaces, people and objects’ vividly evokes the sumptuous banquets of the Ming elite. A Timurid embassy’s account of a feast held in a meadow on 20 August 1420 treats us to an enticing description of geese, roast fowl, and dried and fresh fruits, all artfully arranged to impress these Central Asian dignitaries. The alfresco fine dining experience was accompanied by courtly pageantry. Beautiful cross-dressed male performers danced for the envoys, while entertainers in papier-mâché animal masks moved like wild beasts. These same Central Asians tell us that the Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–1422), the warrior, dined on a multitude of meats in a single sitting and had a penchant for yellow wine made from grain or rice (huang jiu). This combination of theatrical and culinary delights paints a revealing portrait of early Ming courtly fine dining. The plethora of porcelain and gold vessels in the exhibition show just how lavish the tables of early Ming imperial and princely courts would have been.

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum

Gold ladle and chopsticks, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei, at Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. © Hubei Provincial Museum.

We even have two sets of chopsticks, inscribed with the date they were made, their weight, and the name of the imperial workshop in which they were produced, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang and his wife Lady Wei. Looking at these in the exhibition, I imagined the delicacies these golden chopsticks might have lifted from plate to palate. This left my mouth watering, but also set my mind wondering. How were these delicacies made? What did they smell and taste like? And what would ordinary people, without the wealth of an emperor, have had for dinner?

While researching objects for the Hands On desk outside the exhibition entrance, I found answers to some of these questions. The desk doesn’t just let you touch the wonders of the early Ming, you can smell them too. If you go, do ask for the small box of tea grown at the site of the Ming imperial tea plantations, the Wuyi Mountains in China’s southern Fujian province. These loose leaves of high-grade oolong tea tell a story that can be traced back to the first Ming emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398), the founder. He had a profound impact on the way tea was brewed in 15th-century China. Hailing from lowly stock, he was frequently exasperated by the aristocratic excesses of his courtiers and ministers. This frustration led to an edict issued over the preparation of tea, which forbade brews made from laboriously manufactured bricks of tea powder in favour of infusing tea from dried leaves. While the brick tea popular in the courts of the preceding Song and Yuan dynasties is still drunk in Japan, Hongwu’s loose leaf tea is the brew of choice across China today. Something to bear in mind next time you pop the kettle on for a quick cuppa…

With my mind turned to food and drink, I recently revisited the exhibition in search of more clues about smells and tastes. Looking at the books on display in the section devoted to the arts of peace, my eyes lighted on a collection of bean recipes. These are found in an incredible compendium that aspired to contain all knowledge within the empire, the ‘Great Canon of the Yongle Reign’ (Yongle da dian). Rather than an original piece of writing filled with definitions and explanations, the Yongle da dian was a reference text that pieced together pre-existing knowledge. It was more like a library than an encyclopaedia. The three volumes on show in the exhibition illustrate its breadth of subject matter. On the right you see a selection of feng shui diagrams, on the left a guide to funeral etiquette, and wedged between them is a list of recipes for the humble bean. Reading the text I was staggered by the number of uses for simple pulses: there are recipes for salted beans with minced pork and lamb, beans in oil, beans with salted bamboo shoots, beans from the ‘barbarian’ tribes to the south, and beans of foreign states.

Anonymous, after Zie Huan (1377-1452), 'Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden' (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

Anonymous, after Xie Huan (1377–1452), ‘Elegant gathering in the Apricot Garden’ (detail); handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 1437. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift 1989.

For all the detail in this great compendium, and for all the glamour of golden tableware, it was in the corner of one painting that I found the fullest expression of Ming gastronomy. At the far left of the handscroll ‘Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden’, is a scene of elite opulence with servants preparing wine for their master’s guests. We can only imagine the taste and smell. I want to end by sharing with you a translation of a recipe for honey wine from Liu Ji’s (1311–1375) ‘Many Methods for Humble Tasks’. We don’t know exactly what kind of wine was being heated in the Apricot Garden, but Liu Ji’s recipes were in circulation in Ming China when Xie Huan’s painting was made. The painting captures a single moment, but the recipe narrates every stage of a similar process: from the skimming of the bubbling mixture with a chicken feather to the pounding of a pungent paste for fermentation, ending with adjustments of timings to match the rhythms of the seasons in fermenting this sweet, honey wine. I hope that seeing the painting and recipe together gives you a flavour of Ming China.
 

Method for making honey wine
Slowly heat two jin of honey in one dou of water, scraping off what bubbles up with a chicken feather. Continue heating until nothing more bubbles up. Grind cinnamon, pepper, ginger and red bean, and combine these parts together. Place no more than eight qian of this mixture in the vessel, then add no more than four liang of plain flour, and finally add the honey water. Use oiled paper to seal the honey container under seven layers of bamboo. In winter leave it to mature for 27 days, 10 in autumn and spring, and 7 in summer.

 

The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

To learn more about Ming culinary culture, come to award-winning cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s talk Tastes of Ming China on Friday 14 November.

If you prefer something you can literally sink your teeth into, have a look at the special Ming menu in the Museum’s Great Court Restaurant.

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The long march to Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain city

Family business. © Roger LawRoger Law, artist and satirist

It was a long march from London’s East End to China’s Jingdezhen. The first step was closing the factory gates on the satirical puppet workshop Spitting Image. Moving to Australia, it turned out, was the next great stride. No one can live in Australia for long without becoming very aware of the influence of China, both culturally and economically. As fast as the Australians miners can dig raw materials out of the ground they are shipped to China. And the cultural exchanges between the two countries follow thick and fast. Australia is China’s favoured concubine.

Ah Xian, a Chinese contemporary artist now an Australian citizen, introduced me to Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City. First through his work exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2001, and then when he was kind enough to meet up with me in Jingdezhen.

Family business. © Roger Law

Family business. © Roger Law

I was surprised to discover that most of the workshops in Jingdezhen are highly specialised, family businesses – skilful pottery sweatshops, not unlike my Spitting Image puppet factory. Porcelain City was as busy making things as the UK in the 1950s, I felt oddly at home in this strange culture.

I travel extensively in Australia drawing surreal and exotic creatures found in the wetlands and seas around that sunburnt country – everything from Weedy Sea Dragons to Cheer-leader Crabs. I was looking for a way to use this Aussie bestiary.

Finding a way to work collaboratively with artisans in Jingdezhen is problematic. I began working in Porcelain City when failure was affordable. And fail I did. My failures gave me a better understanding of the properties of porcelain and carving seemed to be the way to use my Australian drawings.

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Finding craftsmen to work with me was also difficult. ‘Why should I learn to do something I shall never need to do again?’ was one very good answer I received. Finally a young carver, Mr Wu Songming, was willing to risk working with me. The Cheer-leader Crabs and Weedy Sea Dragons started to appear on fine porcelain.

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen calls itself Porcelain City with good reason. Over a million pots a week are made there – a small city by China’s standards with most of its 700,000 residents involved in making ceramics. On my first visit to Jingdezhen the workshops were busy turning out copies of copies of traditional designs. The last decade has seen a creative and economic revitalisation of its workshops. The traditional blue-and-white ware of Jingdezhen, Qing Hua, is still the city’s bread and butter, but new designs reflect demand from the growing Chinese middle class.

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

On my first visit everything in Jingdezhen was filthy – except for the people. How the workers achieved it is a small miracle. After a day on the earth floors of the workshops, strewn with slabs of wet clay and porcelain dust, the men and women emerge spotless, the women’s high heels as clean as the day they were bought. The workshop conditions were grim. No doors in the doors, no glass in the windows. Humid in the summer and brass monkeys in the winter.

I have seen the city change unrecognisably. The bicycles have morphed into motorbikes, the motorbikes to cars. The workshops now have concrete floors but the potteries still ensure plenty of carcinogenic intake of copper, lead, zinc and solvents etc.

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

My translator, Joey Zhou, refrains from translating when a conversation becomes heated. I can become very volatile in 100% humidity. Joey will wait until things calm down. I asked him why Chinese are not more direct when dealing with problems. ‘That is not the Chinese way.’ Joey replied sagely. ‘They will say nothing and hate you secretly.’

Roger Law, co-creator of the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, is contributing to the Ming Late: courtly pleasures, Friday 14 November, 18.00–21.00 in the Great Court. Free, just drop in.

ROGER LAW is at Sladmore Contemporary from 30 October to 15 November.

The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

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Where were you the night the Berlin Wall fell?

Sabrina Ben Aouicha, project curator, Germany: memories of a nation, British Museum

Wach auf, Sabrina! Du musst dir ansehen, wie Geschichte geschrieben wird!

‘Wake up, Sabrina! You have to witness this; history is being written!’ These were the words my father woke me with, on a cold November night 25 years ago today. Although I was 8 years old (nearly 9) at the time, I still remember them today.

I think there are just a few events in recent history that are shared by people all over the world and become part of the human memory. I even dare to say there is one memory shared by every German over the age of 30. This can be summarised in one question: ‘where were you the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) fell?

So, where was I? I would love to say I was on the streets when it happened but I wasn’t. The fact is I was in bed after an exciting and exhausting day in school, probably dreaming of becoming the first German-Tunisian female astronaut (my career aspiration at the time). After my dad woke me with those words, he sat me on the sofa in front of the TV between him and my mother. On the screen we were astonished to see people pouring through the different crossing points along the inner German border. At this moment I hadn’t really realized that the life I knew until then would change forever.

I was born and raised in West Berlin in the early 1980s, as daughter of a German-Silesian mother and a Tunisian father. For the first years of my life it felt normal to live in a city that was like an island. I knew there was an ‘end’ on each side of the city, a massive wall in the east, and border controls to the west.

The author with her mother during one of their walks along the Berlin Wall, 1987/88

The author with her mother during one of their walks along the Berlin Wall, 1987/88

Growing up in West Berlin in the 80s was an adventure with a taste of danger. Although my parents never really spoke to me about this when I was a child, I could sense that our situation was different to the people who lived in West Germany. It was normal for me to go on walks along the Berlin Wall with my parents and be watched by suspicious East German border guards in their watch towers; or to be told how to behave when we needed to cross the Border and drive through the GDR (East Germany) to visit my grandparents in West Germany or Tunisia – a situation that was always very stressful for my parents.

All this changed after that night in November 1989. One of my first impressions of this new situation was how busy ‘our part’ of Berlin became. My father worked near the Kurfürstendamm, the main boulevard of West Berlin, and my mother and I picked him up from work from time to time. I never saw the city so busy and crowded then in these first days after the Berlin Wall fell. Most striking and memorable for me were the crowds of mainly East Berliners in front of the local McDonalds, in a queue that went around the whole building.

The first few weeks felt like a real party. My parents took me to the Wall to join the vast numbers of Mauerspechte (so-called ‘wall woodpeckers’), who hacked at the wall after the border crossings were opened, mostly to take a piece of it as a souvenir. I still have a piece on my desk in Berlin that I hacked out myself.

Life in Berlin started to change more and more in the next few years. There was a spirit and a sense of new beginnings in the air that we could all feel. I grew older and so Berlin did as well; I share most of my unique memories of my early teenage years with the changing city.

British Chieftain tanks during the Farewell Parade on Strasse des 17. Juni, Berlin, 18 June 1994. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Imke Paust

British Chieftain tanks during the Farewell Parade on Strasse des 17. Juni, Berlin, 18 June 1994. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Imke Paust

The last Military Tattoo in 1992 – a highlight of my early years as I always went with my Dad – was one of them. Another was the day of the Farewell Parade when French, British and American troops were marching the last time on the Strasse des 17. Juni on the Western Side of the Brandenburg Gate on 18 June 1994. Surrounded by over 75,000 other Berliners I waved ‘goodbye’ and ‘au revoir’* to the British, American and French troops who were such an important part of my childhood. Although it was the end of an era, it was also the beginning of a new one, as Berlin was handed back to the German government as capital of a new and reunited country. The city was free from foreign military presence for the first time in 49 years.

While I saw old women crying on the streets and asking: ‘Who will look after us now?’ I just thought, well it’s up to us now to look after ourselves.

Memorial for the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), following its former course.

Memorial of the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), following its former course. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Ben Aouicha

Today, the evidence of the division within the city is fading out more and more. Sometimes I remember things and events of my early childhood while walking around the city; especially when I am showing British friends around, trying to explain them the difference of the Berlin of my childhood to the one they see now.

I would like to finish this post with the same question I asked at the beginning: where were you the night of 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell? I look forward to reading your memories in the comments section below.

—————

*I remember (from talking to my older relatives) that they a) didn’t really know the difference between ‘au revoir’ and ‘adieu’ and b) still hoped some of them would return as friends/tourists rather than military personnel.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , ,

Barlach’s hovering angel travels to London

Clarissa von Spee, curator, British Museum

‘Everything is packed and we are on our way now!’ said a breathless voice on the phone, and it took me several seconds to realize that it was the chairman of the Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Barlach Foundation).

Güstrow Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, User:Schiwago. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Güstrow Cathedral. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, User:Schiwago. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Güstrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Güstrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Barlach's Angel prior to removal for loan to the British Museum exhibition

Barlach’s Angel prior to removal for loan to the British Museum exhibition

On Monday 29 October the parish of Güstrow, in the north German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, removed their famous Angel, a 150kg bronze sculpture suspended in a chapel of their cathedral, and sent it by train and ferry to London to be shown in the exhibition Germany: memories of a nation. The Angel arrived two days later in London. Too large to fit into a lift, the bronze was carried by no less than 8 well-muscled Heavy Object Handlers to the exhibition space.

Güstrow, also known as Barlachstadt (Barlach city), was the hometown of Ernst Barlach, a German expressionist sculptor, whose most important work is his floating, or hovering bronze figure (Der Schwebende) made in 1926 to commemorate the victims of the First World War. Barlach himself fought in this war and returned a pacifist.

Der Schwebende ('The Hovering'), by Ernst Barlach, Güstrow Cathedral.

Der Schwebende (The Hovering), by Ernst Barlach, Güstrow Cathedral.

Barlach’s memorial is unusual and unique. Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the hovering figure expresses an internalized vision of the grief and sufferings of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The sculpture also holds an additional message for us. The British sculptor Antony Gormley said in a recent talk at the British Museum: ‘If you want to know how it feels to exist beyond space and time, just close your eyes and look inwards.’ Try it, it works! In the exhibition, Barlach’s hovering bronze figure faces us directly, but its eyes are closed with arms folded over its chest. A perfect way to come to peace with the world.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

In the episode Barlach’s Angel, Neil MacGregor focuses on Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial, commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,

The Kingdom and the Beauty

Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies, King’s College London

I’m very excited about the screening of The Kingdom and the Beauty this Sunday afternoon at the British Museum. When I was asked to help the Museum put together a small series of screenings as part of the programme supporting the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, this was the film I was most determined that we should get. This Sunday provides a rare opportunity, so I’d like to tell you what makes this screening so special.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty (‘Jiang shan mei ren’)is a big, lush, gloriously colourful, and unabashedly romantic musical set when the Ming dynasty was at the height of its power. A kind of Cinderella story with a tragic twist, it was made by the legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers in 1959, when they too were at the height of their power. The Kingdom and the Beauty was a huge hit across Southeast Asia, winning awards at film festivals and sparking off a series of similar Mandarin-language musicals.

The story is about the Zhengde emperor, who ruled from 1505 to 1521. He was known as a bit of a playboy, and the film shows him sneaking out of the court in Beijing and traveling south to the rich heartlands around the Yangzi Delta. There he falls in love with a village girl, played by Shaw’s leading star of the time, Linda Lin Dai. Recalled by his duties at court, he forgets about her, but she discovers she is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with him. Her character in the film is a girl with a sunny nature who suffers a tragic fate, as Lin did herself a few years later. The film is remembered for her upbeat renditions of charming and catchy tunes. But Lin killed herself in 1964, and became an icon who has endured through the ages.

Nearly all other films set in the Ming dynasty take place in the 17th century, when the dynasty begins to fade. They feature stories about patriotic outsiders trying to defend the country in the face of dynastic failure (the Ming were replaced by the Manchu Qing in 1644). The Kingdom and the Beauty is unusual in this respect as it is set in the early 16th century, and is more indicative of the splendour of the early Ming courts, as seen in the Museum’s exhibition. No film better communicates the image of the Ming as the largest, richest, and most successful civilisation of its time.

Sir Run Run Shaw, the great Shaw Brothers founder, who was also the producer of The Kingdom and the Beauty, died earlier this year. Our screening of the film, made possible by Celestial Pictures, which owns the 760-film Shaw Brothers library, is our way of honouring Sir Run Run and Shaw Brothers.

It’s a classic musical, a big, old-fashioned and indulgent pleasure for a Sunday afternoon that I think everyone would enjoy. Do join us to sit back and float off into a fantasy world of Ming luxury and romance.

Tickets for The Kingdom and the Beauty are available from the British Museum website.

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

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , ,

Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story

Frances Carey, art historian

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The seated figure of an elderly woman cast in bronze presides over a square in a part of north east Berlin known as Kollwitzkiez, the ‘Kollwitz district’, where Käthe Schmidt (1867-1945) came to live in 1891 on her marriage to Dr Karl Kollwitz. The sculpture by Gustav Seitz, installed in 1960, was commissioned under the DDR (German Democratic Republic) just as the renaming of Wörtherplatz and Weissenburger Strasse had been done in her honour in 1947. The nearest U-Bahn station is Senefelderplatz opened in 1923 and named after another notable figure in the history of printmaking, Alois Senefelder, who is credited with the discovery of lithography in 1796. When I stayed on Kollwitzstraße in the summer of 2009, the formerly bohemian neighbourhood of the 1990s after Die Wende (‘The Change’, i.e. including the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification) was fast shedding its down-at-heel appearance. All the familiar signs of rising property values and gentrification were plain to see, much more so now: handsome, well-buffed apartment buildings, smart shops, cafés such as Anne Blume (called after Kurt Schwitters’s subversive poem of 1919), and nearby parks and playgrounds with brightly coloured equipment for children. TripAdvisor waxes lyrical about the area as a tourist destination.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901 © DACS, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901, lithograph, 269 x 204 mm © DACS, 2014 (1951,0501.81)

It is a far cry from the surroundings where Käthe and Karl (d.1940) were to spend almost the whole of their adult lives. Prenzlauer Berg, the larger district in which Kollwitzkiez is situated, was developed as a working-class neighbourhood to cope with the great surge in population after 1871 when Berlin became the capital of a united Germany; by 1900 the population had grown from around 800,000 to 1.9 million. Street after street of Mietskasernen or tenements (literally ‘rental barracks’) were built where conditions were dire. The Frauenkunstverband (Organisation of Women Artists), co-founded by Käthe Kollwitz in 1913, protested that 600,000 Berliners lived in dwellings with five or more people to a room while 100,000 children had nowhere to play. The title of the polemic by Werner Hegemann published in 1930, Das steinerne Berlin: Geschichte der grössten Mietskasernenstadt der Welt (Stony Berlin: History of the Largest Tenement City in the World) captures the impact of this remorseless urbanization. Prenzlauer Berg was dominated by these tenements and the breweries that were the major employers.

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) 1909, 6th state, etching and engraving 382 x 530 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Kollwitz was rooted in the nineteenth century, drawing much of her inspiration from the narrative realism and emotive power of writers such as Dickens, Ibsen and Zola. She grafted her reading of fiction, whether it dealt with near contemporary circumstances or ostensibly historical ones, onto the direct experience of ‘the lives of others’ who were beset by the uncertainties of casual employment, deprivation, high maternal and child mortality, and often domestic violence. In this challenging environment she found a beauty and a grandeur that became her mainspring as an artist. It was a largely black-and-white world, but with many gradations of tone and texture. For the realization of its expressive potential she turned to drawing and printmaking, above all to the example of Max Klinger (1857-1920) and his championing of graphic art as having an important status of its own. His series of ten etchings and aquatints called Dramen, Opus IX (1883) comprised six tragedies set in Berlin among the different echelons of society. Two dramas – Eine Mutter (A Mother) and Märztage (March Days) – unfold over three plates each, while the other four have just a single sheet apiece. Märztage seemed to refer to the failed liberal revolution of March 1848, but Klinger made it clear that he had in mind the contemporary context of Germany’s Social Democratic movement in 1883.

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I (A Mother I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 318 mm (1981,1107.23)

Max Klinger, Mârztage I

Max Klinger, Mârztage I (March Days I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 358 mm (1981,1107.28)

Käthe Kollwitz was similarly inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The Weavers, 1892), which she saw at its first performance in 1893, to create a print series that was more about the conditions of the poor around her, than Silesia in 1844. Her second graphic cycle Der Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War) executed from 1902-7 and published the year after, used the religious and economic conflict of 1524-5 as yet another vehicle through which to express the heroism of the working class. This series along with her later work after the First World War in woodcut and lithography, earned her significant influence on the development of printmaking in Russia and China in the 1920s-40s and beyond.

Within a few years of commencing printmaking in 1890-91 Käthe Kollwitz had demonstrated considerable artistry and technical competence. Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt) – three etchings and three lithographs completed in 1897 – propelled her to the front rank of artists in Germany. When she went to Paris in 1904 she was given a glowing testimonial for Rodin from Hugo von Tschudi, Director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Her greatest champion was Max Lehrs, Director of the Dresden Print Room who both acquired her work for the collection and published the first catalogue of her prints in 1902. He likewise encouraged a curator, later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Campbell Dodgson (1867-1948). Dodgson bequeathed to the British Museum (which was not then permitted to buy the work of living artists) a remarkably fine body of impressions from the most innovative phase of Kollwitz’s career: none more so than a sequence of three states of the harrowing subject of Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead Child) of 1903, which shows Kollwitz’s mastery in every aspect of its accomplishment. The artist and her younger son Peter (b.1896) were the models at a time when her elder son Hans (b.1892) had narrowly escaped dying of diphtheria. The sculptural quality of her treatment of the motif anticipates her later interest in working with a three-dimensional medium which was one of her objects of study in Paris.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child)

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash, 415 x 480 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3928)

Frau mit totem Kind has none of the resignation of her later sculpture (1937) of a mother and her dead son, ‘something like a Piéta’, of which the artist said ‘There is no longer pain, only reflection.’ In the 1903 print there is only pain, but however much she drew upon personal experience and observation, it is nonetheless a carefully contrived artistic composition.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), woodcut, 1924, © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait) 1924, 6th state, woodcut, 209 x 301 mm © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Kollwitz’s most unwavering commitment was to being an artist: ‘It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.’ (New Year’s Day, 1912). Her intensely examined life as expressed in all her work, not just the many self-portraits, her journals and correspondence, is humbling to recall amidst the middle-class comforts of modern Kollwitzkiez. I admire her because she succeeded in doing what a great contemporary artist has advocated: ‘I thought women as artists should focus on how to start, lead, and sustain a creative life. It’s not a question of style or a break with tradition.’ (Bridget Riley, 2004).

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. In the episode Kathe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness, Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz, who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , ,

Tears of the Buddha : gem stones in Ming China

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins
Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

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.

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

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

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© 2003 The Natural History Museum.
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