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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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