British Museum blog

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

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

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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