British Museum blog

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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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

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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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The making and meaning of Ming: 50 years that changed China

Visitors examining some of the exquisite textiles on display in the exhibition
Yu-ping Luk, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

One of our missions at the British Museum is to encourage visitors to think about cultures and periods that might be outside their everyday spheres. Everyone has heard of China, and most people have heard of Ming, but we wondered how many people fully appreciate the significance of the Ming era in Chinese and world history – beyond, of course, the making of exquisite porcelain. This was one of the motivations behind our major autumn show, the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, which has just opened and runs until 5 January 2015.

Carved lacquer dish Yongle Period, Ming Dynasty, 1403-1424. BM 1974,0226.20

Carved lacquer dish Yongle Period, Ming Dynasty, 1403-1424. BM 1974,0226.20

We hope that the exhibition will open visitors’ eyes to just how much happened in the years 1400-1450, when the Ming dynasty was in its ascendancy and took its place on the global stage. It was during this period that Beijing became the capital, the Forbidden City was built, and imperial fleets were sent far afield – in short, this was a Golden Age in China’s history.

We are telling the story of Ming-era China though a huge range of items – paintings, prints, ceramics, lacquer, gold, jewels, textiles, weapons and sculpture. Some of the most exciting pieces are spectacular artefacts excavated from the tombs of regional princes, many of them never seen outside of China. They include hats, silk costumes and even gold chopsticks once used by princes.

Gold belt set with gems, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province, about 1403–25. Courtesy of the Hubei Provincial Museum.

Gold belt set with gems, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province, c. 1403–25. Courtesy of the Hubei Provincial Museum.

One aspect of Ming China we are especially keen to showcase is the connections between China and the wider world during this time. This is wonderfully illustrated in a stunning gold belt, set with precious and semi-precious stones, from a princely tomb in Hubei province, central China. The gems include rubies, sapphires and emeralds that were imported to China from Southeast Asia, India and Sri Lanka. Made at the imperial palace, this belt would have been a gift from the emperor to the prince, which also highlights the movement of precious objects not only between China and the wider world, but also within China itself.

Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, Italy, c.1495 - 1505 © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, Italy, c.1495 – 1505 © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The years 1400 to 1450 saw huge state-sponsored armadas journey from China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. These voyages fostered trade, diplomacy and emphasised the authority of the Ming empire. All this took place decades before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas and the discovery of a direct sea route between Europe to Asia. At this point, Chinese luxury goods such as porcelain were reaching Europe only in isolated numbers. This is suggested in a beautiful painting of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Andrea Mantegna. It depicts one of the Wise Men presenting a Chinese porcelain cup filled with gold to the infant Jesus, showing the prestige and luxury that Chinese porcelain represented in Europe.

Visitors looking at some of the exquisite textiles on show in the exhibition

Visitors examining some of the exquisite textiles on display in the exhibition

I was recently asked what my own favourite items in the exhibition were, but I’ve seen so many fabulous things over the last few months that it’s not easy to choose. However, there are certain objects that come to mind. For example, there’s a painted scroll that shows scenes of the Ming emperor enjoying different sports in the imperial palace, such as archery, golf and football (you might not have expected to see these last two depicted in fifteenth-century China!). There is also tiny model furniture excavated from the tomb of a prince that includes a bed with its pillow and a towel rack that still has its cotton towel. And there are fascinating paintings made for a Buddhist ritual that depict ordinary people of different professions: actors, a tattooed acrobat, an eye doctor and a mother holding her baby. They really give a sense of everyday life in China in the early 1400s.

Presentation sword (jian) China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 © Royal Armouries

Presentation sword (jian) China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 © Royal Armouries

We wanted to focus both on the latest knowledge about Ming China, and also give people a real understanding of its culture. We therefore chose to focus on five themes: courts, the military, arts, beliefs, and trade and diplomacy. The artefacts we have chosen to illustrate these themes include examples of the very highest quality. We have been lucky enough to secure major loans from ten Chinese museums and many others around the world, making this one of the most ambitious explorations of Chinese art ever attempted in the UK – an undertaking that is unlikely to be repeated.

Another perspective that we were particularly keen to highlight was the proliferation of imperial and princely courts in this period, and the extent to which they were internationally engaged. This is a departure from past understandings that focused only on the imperial capital and gave the impression of a closed-off nation bound by the Great Wall. Significant archaeological discoveries have shed light on the importance and sophistication of princes in regions across China, something which remained unacknowledged until recently. The exhibition highlights the diversity of China, which, in my view, is actually critical to understanding China today.

Porcelain vase with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Yongle period, 1403-1424, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. BM 1947,0712.325

Porcelain vase with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Yongle period, 1403-1424, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. BM 1947,0712.325

Sharing our work and resources across the regions is very important to the Museum, so for our celebration of Ming China we organised a spotlight tour that is running alongside the exhibition. A stunning blue-and-white early Ming imperial porcelain vase – similar to the one pictured above from the London exhibition – is touring four museums around the UK from April 2014 to April 2015. The vase is being displayed alongside China-related collections at partner museums, as well as new art commissions created by artists in response to the vase. The four partner museums are the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and the Willis Museum, Hampshire. The tour is part of the Museum’s ongoing programme of touring exhibitions and loaning objects across the UK, allowing more than three million people to see British Museum objects outside London every year. You can read more about the tour in a previous post.

Of course, we also hope that as many people as possible will be able to come to London to see this extraordinary exhibition for themselves. I don’t believe anyone who makes the journey will be disappointed; in fact, I’m certain that Ming: 50 years that changed China will surprise, delight and fascinate you.

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

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

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Ming musical moments

detail of Ming vaseA Ming imperial porcelain flask visits Glasgow, by Tom Furniss

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

In the deepest deeps of old slow time,
Five thousand miles from here,
Two continents of clay collide,
Two halves of China merge between
The Yellow and the Yangtze.

Twenty thousand years ago
Potters working in a cave
Formed and fired the southern clay,
Made pots in Jiangxi province:
Shards and bones remain.

In the Xuande reign of the Great Ming,
Six hundred years ago,
A peasant took a bamboo spade
And dug in beds of clay.

Women mixed the kaolin
With pottery stone and quartz,
Water from a mountain stream
And feldspar from the earth.

A potter took the earthen clay
And made a wonder with his hands,
A flask half a metre high,
Thin as eggshell, light as air.

Standing empty in silent halls
More than half a thousand years,
Dynasties rose and disappeared;
Civil wars and revolutions

Destroyed the world that made it;
On a slow boat from China’s shores,
Fifty years and more ago,
It came to the heart of an empire

On the point of breaking apart;
Stood empty in the echoing halls
Of cabinets and galleries;
Now it stands before us here.

Cobalt lotus leaves and tendrils
Stretch around its silent form,
Never living, never dying,
Ice-blue blossoms will not fade.

Frozen there six hundred years
By fired transparent glaze,
Never will lian1 be bare,
It cannot shed its leaves.

A beautiful porcelain flask reveals
A truth that’s not so beautiful,
That all who gaze upon chan zhi2
Will not outlive this piece of clay.

Notes
1 This lotus; Chinese, lian 蓮.
2 The decorative foliage on the flask; Chinese, chan zhi 纏枝.

For each venue of the Spotlight tour a contemporary artist is being commissioned to make an artwork to respond to the vase display. On Friday 11 April 2014 at a special event at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Tom Furniss’ poem about the Ming vase on loan from the British Museum, set to music by Eddie McGuire, was performed by the Harmony Ensemble with Fong Liu, vocal soloist. Eddie performed his own music on a porcelain flute and a xun, a kind of Chinese ocarina looking almost like a miniature Ming flask. Hooi Ling Eng played an array of Chinese percussion instruments and a zheng (a Chinese plucked zither). Laura Durrant played the cello and also the xun.

Dr Tom Furniss is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His research interests include the Enlightenment and Romantic periods and the language of poetry. As well as writing poetry – including some for songs by Eddie McGuire – he has co-authored (with Michael Bath) Reading Poetry: An Introduction (Longman, 2007).

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour was at the The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
It is now at Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, until 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.

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

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A Viking ship on a Chinese note

banknoteHelen Wang, curator, British Museum

‘There are Viking ships on Chinese banknotes’ I said to Gareth Williams, curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, thinking that I could easily research them before the exhibition. After all, these notes were issued in the 1920s by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank, one of the many foreign and joint-venture banks in China at the time. But it has turned out to be more demanding than I expected, thrown up a number of interesting questions along the way, and what follows is by no means the full story.

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18)

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18). View a larger version

The Sino-Scandinavian Bank was given its charter by the Chinese government on 21 July 1921, and began operating on 7 January 1922. It was actually a Chinese-Norwegian joint venture, with the larger part of the funding coming from Chinese sources, and a smaller part from Norwegian investors. The Bank’s first notes are dated 1922, but the majority that have survived (about 30 different types) were probably issued after 1924. The bank appears to have gone bankrupt sometime in 1926 or 1927. Most of the information we know about the Sino-Scandinavian Bank comes from Bjørn R. Rønning’s unpublished master’s thesis ‘Sino-Scandinavian Bank (1921-ca.1927) En norsk bank i Kina?’ (Hovedoppgave i historie ved Universitetet i Oslo, våren 1979). Unfortunately, my Norwegian’s not up to reading it in its entirety in the original, and for the time being I’m indebted to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg’s English summary and images on his website.

Like most of the paper money issued by foreign and joint-venture banks in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this note aims to serve both Chinese and foreign users. At first glance, the Chinese and English sides look bilingual. But a closer look reveals lots of things that don’t quite add up.

Let’s start with the name of the bank. In Chinese this reads Hua Wei yinhang 華威銀行. This translates as the Sino-Norwegian Bank (or Chinese-Norwegian Bank). The first character hua 華 (magnificent) is often used when referring to China. The second character wei 威 (power) is from the Chinese term Nuowei 挪威 (i.e. Norway). The last two characters yinhang 銀行 are the usual term for ‘bank’. It’s interesting that the Chinese and English names aren’t an exact match. I wonder who decided the two names? The Chinese name is a more accurate reflection of the nationality of the investors. On the other hand, wei is much more meaningful (and auspicious) than any of the other characters in Sikandinaweiya 斯堪的納維亞, which is a bit of a mouthful in Chinese. But in English, the Sino-Scandinavian Bank sounds better than the Sino-Norwegian Bank, even if it is more ambitious in meaning.

The images are different too: a scene of Beihai Park in Beijing on the Chinese side, and the Viking ship on the English side. Beihai Park was once an imperial garden, but opened to the public in 1925 (according to the park’s website), three years after the date printed on the notes. The Viking ship was chosen to represent Norway/Scandinavia, an iconic symbol that works very well here (much better than a polar bear, which, according to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg, was one of the motifs originally planned for these notes.

The denomination is also interesting. The Chinese side has ‘five yuan in national currency’ printed in brown below the image, and the English side simply ‘five yuan’. The five black rosettes overstamped just below the denomination obscure the letters PEKING, and the black overstamps on the images inform us that there was a change in use to ‘Yungchi currency’ (in Chinese: ‘for circulation in Yungchi’). Yungchi (pinyin: Yongqi) literally means ‘Yong 7′ and refers to an administrative region encompassing Yongping and six other counties in Hebei province in north China. The name of Changli, one of those counties, is overstamped in black above the image, but only on the Chinese side. Yungchi and ‘Yungchi currency’ are not familiar terms, and it’s interesting to see such local references on a joint-venture banknote.

As we might expect, given the different cultural traditions, the English side has personal signatures in black, and the Chinese side has red seal impressions of authority. However, while it was standard practice to put seal impressions on notes issued by Chinese banks, it was not consistently the practice to do so on notes issued by joint-venture banks.

The signatories were J.W.N. Munthe and Fartsan T. Sung, who were very well connected with the Chinese military and government. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) was Norwegian. Born in Bergen in 1864, he moved to China in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He worked for the customs service, and eventually became a general in the Chinese army. He participated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Siege of Peking (Boxer Rebellion) in 1900. He also collected Chinese art and antiquities, many of which he donated to the Vestlandske Kunstindustriemuseum in Bergen.

Fartsan T. Sung (pinyin: Song Faxiang宋發祥 (1883-?) was Chinese. Born in Fujian, he went to the USA in 1900, and studied science at Ohio Wesleyan College and Chicago. After returning to China in 1907, he held a number of important government positions before the 1920s. He was Technical Expert of the Ministry of Finance, Co-Director of the Ministry’s Assaying Office, Director of the Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) Mine, Co-Director of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Inspector General of Mints, Director-General of the Nanking (pinyin: Nanjing) Mint, private English secretary to President Feng Kuo-chang (pinyin: Feng Guozhang 馮國璋, 1859-1919) and political advisor to the President’s Office. He was a ‘councillor-at-large’ of the Ministry of Finance in 1920, and again from 1922-1924, during which time he was elected a Member of the Commission for the Consolidation of Domestic and Foreign Debts (1923). He co-founded the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in the spring of 1921 and became manager of its Peking office in 1924. From 1928 he was serving in Chinese consular offices overseas: in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1937, and in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. I haven’t been able to trace him beyond this.

There are a lot of interesting things about this banknote that don’t quite add up at the moment, not least why we have the signatures of two extremely well-connected men on notes being used in a very local area. It’s curious that the Sino-Scandinavian Bank does not appear in the beautifully illustrated bilingual catalogue Currencies in Old Shanghai (老上海貨幣, Shanghai, 1998). And even more curious that the great expert on Chinese banking, Eduard Kann (1880-1962) did not include the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in his list of foreign and joint-venture banks in China. Kann started his career in a British bank in China in 1901, moved to the Russo-Asiatic Bank, the French Banque Industrielle de Chine and the Chinese-American Bank of Commerce before becoming an independent bullion-broker in Shanghai in the 1930s (the British Museum acquired his superb collection of almost 200 silver ingots in 1978), so we might expect him to have heard of it.

Perhaps there is more to this Chinese note with a Viking ship than meets the eye?

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Made in China: an imperial Ming vase

detail of Ming vase
Yu-Ping Luk, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

Early last year, when the idea of a Spotlight tour to complement the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China was raised, we had to consider which single object from the British Museum collection could possibly represent early Ming dynasty (1368–1644) China. The answer seemed obvious – it had to be a spectacular blue-and-white porcelain vase.

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Without knowing much about the Ming dynasty, most people will probably have heard of the ‘Ming vase’. The phrase ‘as precious as a Ming vase’ is often used to describe an antique object of great value. The plot device of a priceless Ming vase being smashed to pieces or stolen has been used in films and on television for comic or dramatic effect. The spotlight tour, together with the exhibition at the British Museum, are opportunities for audiences to rediscover this seemingly familiar object and to find out more about the Ming dynasty when it was made.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

The vase that has been chosen for the Spotlight tour is a stunning porcelain flask that was donated to the British Museum in 1975 by Sir John Addis, a former British Museum Trustee and British Ambassador to China. Painted with lotus scroll decoration in cobalt blue, it is inscribed with the reign mark of the Xuande emperor (reigned 1426–35), well known for his love of the arts. Together with his grandfather the charismatic Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–24), the Xuande emperor established a golden age in China during which the imperial and regional courts were centres of culture, military power and contacts with the wider world. The vase is typical of the skill and quality of imperial production in China during the early 1400s.

Apart from its beauty and size, this vase was also chosen as it highlights one of the major themes of the exhibition, the interaction between China and the wider world. While considerable attention has been paid to the contacts between China and Europe from the 1500s onwards, China was already engaged in a network of trade and diplomacy by land and by sea that extended between Japan to the west coast of Africa a century earlier. The imperial court took an interest in and appropriated elements from other cultures, such as by commissioning porcelain with shapes modelled on earlier Middle Eastern objects in metal or glass. This porcelain flask is an example of this distinctive trend.

By displaying this stunning piece from the British Museum’s collection, we hope to inspire people to find out more about Ming dynasty China. It is also an opportunity to rediscover objects related to China in partner museums that may be shown alongside the vase. Each venue will also bring a different perspective to this Ming porcelain vase by commissioning a new artwork in response to it. At the first stop, the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scottish composer Eddie McGuire has composed a new piece of music set to poetry by Tom Furniss. All of us on the project are looking forward to the première of this work on 11 April and we are excited to see what will come next.

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour will be at:
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, 12 July – 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.


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
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London, a world city in 20 objects: Cloisonné decorated jar

Cloisonne jar with dragonJessica Harrison-Hall, British Museum

Cloisonne jar with dragon

Cloisonné decorated jar

Philanthropic Londoners are supporting the Evening Standard’s campaigns to encourage London primary school children to read more and to find young adults work through apprenticeship schemes. This culture of selfless giving is a vital part of London life. Visitors to the British Museum have benefited greatly from this generosity, which manifests itself in new buildings, refurbished galleries and acquisitions of new objects.

Jimmy Riesco (1877-1964) from Croydon was one such benefactor. He collected Chinese art and bequeathed his collection of Chinese ceramics to his home town, where it is now on display in the Riesco Gallery in the Museum of Croydon. This magnificent cloisonné jar, a testimony to the quality of Chinese craftsmanship, was once in his collection. It is decorated with powerful dragons with snake-like bodies and horns flying through the clouds.

Cloisonné is a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make. Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells. The cells are filled with multicoloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks. Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is refired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

From two inscriptions around the rim of this jar, we know who commissioned it and where it was made. Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435), the Ming Emperor from 1426 to 1435, commissioned it and eunuchs in the Forbidden City Palace in Beijing supervised its manufacture. Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. The magnificent dragons were symbolic of the emperor. As you can see from walking around Chinatown today, dragons continue to be a powerful symbol of good luck.

There is only one other jar like this one in the world. It is in Switzerland in the Reitburg Museum, on loan from a private collection. Originally the two jars would probably have been displayed together in the Forbidden City Palace. The British Museum plans to reunite the jars in an exhibition beginning in September 2014, which will show the splendour of early Ming courts and the extraordinary connections that Ming China established with the rest of the world. [Note: This was not in fact possible, and the two jars are not displayed together in the exhibition. 22 September 2014]

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 11 October 2012.

The Cloisonné decorated jar is on display in Room 33: Asia

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Conserving a Qing dynasty calligraphy scroll

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

In a previous post I described a hanging scroll that I was working on – a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy. It is now finished. I wrote then that I would explain the process used to conserve it, so here goes.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the scroll condition. The scroll is executed on paper – zhi ben hua long-fibered, which looks almost like silk. It was carefully analysed, photographed and the treatment procedure set. We next established the proportions and design for a new scroll mount.

A close-up of the scroll showing horizontal cracks

Unfortunately, the scroll was very creased with extensive horizontal cracks and signs of many previous repairs. However, the paint itself was stable and therefore suitable to be cleaned using a ‘wet’ treatment.

Using a broad paibi brush we carefully sprinkled water over the surface and drained it off.

Applying a wet treatment

When the painting was clean we could remove the old linings. A layer of dry xuan paper was placed over the face of the scroll, and the scroll and its support were loosely rolled up. The scroll was unrolled and flattened over wang wang juen (an open silk) face down and left overnight. During this time the paste and layers of backing papers became softer, making them easier to work with.

Removing the backing layers

To be able to remove the backing papers we had to remove many of the scroll layers. The scroll had three layers of backing papers – (i) a layer of white xuan paper repairs, (ii) a second lining of very long fibred paper and (iii) a first lining of thin xuan paper in direct contact with the calligraphy.

We cleaned the edges of the missing areas, removing old paste residues and lightly evened their thickness with a very thin spatula. Some of the previous repairs were in good condition and were left in situ, but some had deteriorated and so were removed. The calligraphy was now ready for relining.

Pasting the back of the scroll

Layers of paper were selected and dyed with natural pigments mixed with animal glue and water to match the tone. The back of the calligraphy was pasted with thin flour paste using a paibi brush. The first lining paper (a long fibered paper) was moistened and positioned over the calligraphy and adhered with a wuzhou brush. On top of this a second lining of mian lian (thin xuan paper) was pasted; this is called jia tou meaning additional lining.

False paper margins were adhered to the edge of the calligraphy to facilitate joining to its new silk mount later on.

Work continues on the scroll

When the lining was complete we could check the calligraphy itself. Missing areas were repaired with new paper made of mian lian and were evened with a thin spatula. The calligraphy was then turned face up and left to dry naturally.

Retouching the calligraphy

After sizing and drying, the calligraphy was again lightly moistened and adhered to a white xuan paper, face up on the table. We could now start retouching. This is done in natural light, and aims to match the repaired areas to the colours of the original. Ink and pigments are carefully diluted and then applied.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

This process was followed by tou liao, the selection and dying of the appropriate silk to form the new mount. The silk mount was to be in two colours, a plain and a grey-blue pattern silk.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

With retouching completed, the calligraphy was detached and the edges of the mount were squared. The mounting silk was cut to size and attached to the calligraphy using a technique called wa hua: a window is cut precisely in the silk and the calligraphy is inserted into it.

The scroll after treatment

A final double-layered backing paper completed the lining stage and, after a period of drying, wooden fittings were attached to the top and bottom of the scroll so it was ready for hanging. I will write about that in my next post…

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