I suppose nearly everyone has heard of the Ming Dynasty of China but few in Europe and America would be able to say much about that pivotal period in Chinese history. Six years ago I wrote the following piece for the Financial Times about a marvellous show at the British Museum entitled Ming: 50 Years That Changed China. Beginning with the rule of the Yong-le emperor, it covered just five decades of the dynasty's almost 300 years in power.

Europe’s trade with the far east became a serious concern in the seventeenth century but, while educated westerners know a little about the tea and porcelain trade, Jesuit missions, the Dragon Empress and the Opium Wars, what had previously gone on behind the Great Wall of China, even in the celebrated Ming Dynasty, is for most a great desert of ignorance. This British Museum exhibition does a real service therefore by illuminating a half-century slice of life in China shortly before the establishment of regular commercial links between China and Europe.

The Ming Dynasty lasted for almost three centuries, but here we are concerned with the years 1404-49. Taking its exhibits in roughly equal measure from Chinese museums, other collections worldwide and the British Museum’s own splendid oriental holdings, the curator’s emphasis is on how life was lived – not the life of China’s vast population but that of the elite and, in particular, the imperial court. The Emperor’s ruthless dynastic autocracy operated through a huge military and bureaucratic establishment, but he depended just as much on the more personal support-system of his eunuch-staffed court, first at Nanjing and then Beijing. Like all royal courts, it was a place where culture and politics entwined, and during the Ming Dynasty it spawned offspring in all the provinces of China – regional imperial courts, each of which supported one of the Yong-le emperor’s 24 sons. This courtly diaspora is one of the reasons for the survival of so many Chinese museum objects connected with high-minded relaxation, for to be at court was to confirm your wealth and status above all through lordly loafing and the pursuit of elaborate leisure activities — and to have them represented in art and decorative artefacts.

The visual representation of the courtiers’ everyday lives is extremely rich, whether on painted silk scrolls, paper, porcelain or panels of lacquer. The study of Confucian texts, reading and writing poetry, appreciating painting and calligraphy, making music and playing sophisticated games such as chess and all kinds of sport, are all repeatedly recorded, and often with the thoroughness of documentary. In physical activity horse-sports were paramount, but there was also archery, football and a game that looks very much like mini-golf. Another painting shows miniature cock-fighting, with two quails circling each other around a table-top cockpit.

In China’s visual arts, nature was riddled with symbolic associations, and sometimes with superstitious ones. But it is often drawn or painted so realistically that the viewer of today does not necessarily need to know the ancient systems of thought that underpin it. If you are looking for correspondences between eastern and western art, you will find them in the plants, animals, birds and people that populate these works. They are precise studies, and real portraits. The artist Bian Weijing’s birds have something of the precision of Audubon; the portrait of the Chieftain Baoguiyoudesheng might be by Durer; and some of the horses and hunting dogs have the simplicity and force of Stubbs. There is also room for psychological insight of a kind that is universally recognisable. A brilliant fragment of a hunting scene shows the emperor alongside his grazing horse. He gathers up the fine stag he has killed but can’t help looking around regretfully, or longingly, at another running stag – the one that got away.

There are mythic animals here that have little to do with reality, as in the lion with its bizarre shaggy eyebrows from the Great Monastery of Filial Gratitude (the Porcelain Pagoda). Yet in other cases myth and realism come beautifully together. One hanging – a combination of image and calligraphy – has a portrait of a strange long-legged and amazingly long-necked creature, which dwarfed its handler. The sensation of this beast’s arrival at the Emperor’s court in 1414, a gift from the East African trading state of Malindi (but which arrived via Bengal), was because it was believed to be the qilin, a mythical creature of enormous good omen, whose unexpected appearance was interpreted as divine approval of the Ming emperor’s reign. It was actually, of course, a giraffe. 

The appreciation of visual art at court was a serious matter. A painting’s purpose was not purely decorative: it was to be given detailed study and discussion, an activity which itself was portrayed, so that we can see it being done in context. In some cases a painting was viewed sequentially, just as a book of poetry was read. Such paintings were long horizontal hand-scrolls, unrolled with the left hand and re-rolled with the right until, in time, the whole length of the painting had been viewed – rather as in a film. The experience they offered could be extraordinarily meditative and refined. In Chen Lu’s almost 8 metre long Plum Blossom and Moon Light the eye simply tracks through branches in close-up. The whole plum tree is never seen. 

The subtitle of Ming is a little problematic. It seems to be saying that this half-century changed China in some defining way, as by a revolution. Yet it offers little real evidence of this. Of course the period does see change: a new government; the capital moved to Beijing; a failed experiment with paper money; much of the Great Wall built; a great trading armada launched across the Indian ocean to Africa; widows and concubines ceasing to follow their men to the grave by committing suicide.  But the exhibition demonstrates no distinct existential upheaval, either in thought, politics or visual culture. Instead of charting the drastic effects of new ideas and impulses, it shows above all the extraordinary cultural resilience and continuity of art and life. Chinese culture comes over as inherently conservative and respectful of tradition, and of the old (filial gratitude being its most abiding moral virtue). That spirit existed dynamically alongside the great resourcefulness of the society as a whole, its tradition of pragmatism in religion and philosophy, and its responsiveness to new economic opportunities and challenges as they came along. But that dynamic is not unique to the Ming period. It is in fact the reason the Chinese empire survived, through all its dynasties, for as long as it did.  

Posted on November 23rd, 2020


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