Ming dynasty treasures on display at a museum in Britain


A silk painting of the giraffe given to Yongle by the Maharaja of Bengal. -- British Museum

An exhibition shows that China was engaging with the wider world long before the Europeans appeared on the scene with their warships.

There's more to the British Museum’s autumn exhibition than meets the eye. For, hidden among the valuable Ming bling borrowed from museums and private collections around the world, is a truth that debunks some of the Western myths about Chinese history.

I was attracted to this exhibition in London by the image of a dragon on a colourful cloisonné jar – when you mention “Ming”, it is images of those highly prized blue and white vases that come immediately to mind. And we assume these fine porcelain pieces from the imperial kiln are the same ones brought home by European Mandarins and explorers. But we would be wrong, for those are mostly from the later Qing dynasty from the 16th century; the Ming ruled earlier, from the 14th century onwards.

But Ming artefacts did find their way to Europe long before the Portuguese found a sea route to the East: they came through Middle-Eastern intermediaries. As early as 1495, the iconic blue and white porcelain was immortalised in Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration Of The Magi, which features the Christ child being offered a Ming cup of gold coins by one of the three Kings.

A Ming cup identical to the one in Mantegna’s painting is on display at the British Museum now, together with Mantegna’s painting for the more discerning visitor to compare. The Ming cup bearing the imperial mark of the Emperor Yongle (1402-1424) places its origin between 1403 and 1424. The Ming ceramic is said to be the finest ever produced in China.

Royal art: Cloisonn enamel jar and cover with dragons with the mark of the Ming Emperor Xuande. – British Museum

The exhibition, jointly curated by the museum’s Jessica Harrison-Hall and Oxford University’s Prof Craig Clunas, covers the golden years of the Ming, from 1400 to 1450. Artefacts borrowed from museums and private collections worldwide take us into the areas of Court, Art of War, Arts of Peace, Beliefs, and Trade and Diplomacy.

We learn that the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, came to power in 1368 after leading a peasant rebellion against the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Hongwu’s skills, it seems, were not limited to the battlefields: he fathered 26 sons (and 16 daughters) who were dispatched around the country to head regional courts, each with an army of 15,000 men, enabling four generations of the Ming family to rule an empire the size of Europe for almost 300 years.

A Mongolian-style iron helmet bearing Chinese decoration.

It was an absence of military incursions or civil war that enabled the emperors to engage in developing the arts and trade and diplomacy. The two emperors who left a lasting legacy were the third emperor, Yongle, and his grandson, Xuande (1426-1435).

Silk remains a symbol of the opulence of Chinese culture – and from the robes of princes to 600-year-old silk scroll paintings 8m to 11m long (and still as good as new), we are dazzled by the exhibits featuring this royal cloth. One scroll, depicting Xuande playing sport or watching his eunuchs at play, suggests that the Chinese had played a variation of football, archery, polo and golf.

A silk painting of the giraffe given to Yongle by the Maharaja of Bengal. -- British Museum

It is the nine years under the fifth emperor, Xuande, that saw a peak in the golden years of the Ming dynasty. A talented artist and poet, he was a patron of the arts, often bringing together artists and writers at court. His own paintings on show include paintings on two sides of a folding fan, and a scroll painting of pine and lotus.

It was during this period that the blue and white porcelain began to be produced in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen exclusively for the palace, with the number of kilns increasing from 20 to 58. The essential ingredient, cobalt from Persia (modern-day Iran), had already found its way to China but was only incorporated into ceramics during the Ming dynasty. Other Chinese blue and white ceramic implements – like Mamluk brass works – also started to incorporate Islamic designs, evidencing early signs of globalisation.

Also on display are a pair of blue and white jars depicting men and women of culture engaging in pursuits they were expected to master – playing the qin (zither), weiqi (chess), writing fine calligraphy, and gaining an appreciation of classical Chinese painting.

Gold Ming ewer in Islamic shape with Chinese dragon decoration and matching basin.

A zither from the Tang dynasty (618-906) buried in the tomb of Prince Huang of Lu who died in 1389, with all its jade tuning pegs and inscription intact, reminds us of how ancient and precious the exhibits are, many of which have never left China before.

Other treasures recovered from the tombs of regional princes include a set of miniature soldiers, model carriages, and model bedroom furniture intricately produced to include a towel rack with a miniature cotton towel. I was drawn to the silk robe that Prince Huang is believed to have been buried in, looking as good as new despite the 600 years that it had been underground. Apart from that, there is plenty of Ming gold, jade and other precious stones belonging to princes and their consorts to drool over.

China was a multicultural and multifaith country. For starters, a Muslim, Zheng He (Cheng Ho), became the Emperor Yongle’s most senior eunuch and admiral of his fleet. A copy of the Quran completed by fellow Muslim, Hajji Rashad ibn ’Ali al-Sini in 1401 is among the displays in the section on religion.

Buddhist statues remind us that the first Ming emperor started life as an orphan and a Buddhist novice. A gold statue of a dancing Mahakala, the Buddhist deity, was found in the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang, and Lady Wei. The bronze statue of the Zhenwu, the Taoist God of war who featured prominently in the reign of Yongle, rubs shoulders with gilt bronzes of a Bodhisattva and a Buddha from Emperor Xuande’s time.

Where European royalty is served on silverware, gold was the currency in the royal Ming household, with princes being buried with their gold chopsticks together with other worldly goods. Gold basins and ewers bearing the distinctive Chinese dragon decoration and adorned with precious stones, imitate the shape of ewers from Islamic countries like Persia and Turkey.

Other exhibits demonstrating the adaptation of ideas and technology from foreign countries integrated with Chinese decorative designs include saddle decoration pieces in gold with lapis lazuli, another Turkish or Persian influence. An iron helmet, Mongolian in shape, carries the imperial design of dragons chasing a flaming pearl with lotus blossoms and a seated Buddha within a flame of light.

If Zuande was noted for culture and the arts, his grandfather, Yongle, was the warrior emperor. The Prince of Yan (as he was known before adopting “Yongle”) had usurped his nephew Jianwen’s throne after a three-year civil war. He moved the country’s capital from Nanking to Beijing and proceeded to commence works on the Forbidden City, which was only completed in 1421.

Zheng He was the key figure in Yongle’s court. A Muslim from the Mongol province of Yunnan, he was captured in 1381 as a 10-year-old boy by the Ming army that killed his father. He was the great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who had been governor of the Yunnan province during the time of Kublai Khan. Both his father and grandfather used the title Haji.

As his eunuch, Zheng He accompanied the Prince of Yan on most military operations and battles, including the overthrow of the prince’s nephew. His real name was Ma He (“Ma” being the Chinese equivalent of “Muhammad”) and it was to honour him for his exploits at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing, that he was bestowed the name “Zheng”.

In 1403, Yongle ordered the construction of a fleet of ships for an expedition that, by its sheer size, would leave historians gasping. Two years later, Zheng He led an armada of 317 ships, sailing westwards to Malacca, Java, Thailand, Sumatra, India and Sri Lanka. The fleet included 62 gigantic baochuan (treasure ships) that measured up to 122m by 52m, 10 times the size of the Portuguese Vasco da Gama’s flagship, with a capacity of 70,000 tonnes. Escorting the baochuan were slightly smaller-sized ships, including supply ships and combat junks.

Among the 27,000 staff were senior eunuchs and other Ming officials, soldiers, doctors, astrologers, merchants, interpreters, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and accountants.

Zheng He undertook seven voyages between 1405 and 1433, six of which were under the reign of Yongle. Each trip took up to two years, covering nine to 12 places in South-East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and East Africa. He visited Champa (now in Vietnam), Malacca, and Sri Lanka on all the seven voyages. He also visited Pahang and Kelantan.

Despite the fleet displaying China’s military might, China’s interest was primarily exploration and diplomacy. Apart from fighting off pirates, the only time Zheng He became involved in fighting was in Sri Lanka in 1411 when, during a civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils, a Sinhalese ruler attacked a Ming delegation on shore.

Zheng He’s treasure ships were laden with Ming porcelain and Chinese silks and brocades and other exotic gifts, returning with gemstones, fragrant woods, and tropical spices together with ambassadors from the states he visited. Among the exotic gifts was a giraffe from the ruler of Bengal. It was apparently identified by Yongle’s advisers as the mythical qilin, which would only appear during the reign of a sage emperor. A scroll on display shows the painting of the giraffe, with a poem extolling Yongle’s virtues.

The costly voyages ended with the death of Yongle in 1424 but in 1430, his grandson, Zuande, sent one final expedition. As though realising this was his last voyage, Zheng He included Mecca as the final destination and died on the return journey. After this, threats of Mongol incursions put paid to further explorations, and China completely withdrew from any foreign engagement until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1557.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that had China continued these voyages, the course of European imperialism would have changed; for starters, Malacca may not have fallen into the hands of the Portuguese in 1511 and passed on to the Dutch and British.

Co-curator Harrison-Hall hopes that the exhibition will “overturn the idea of China awakening to the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century, and (only) then becoming internationally engaged.”

To this end, she has achieved her aims for, through the carefully selected artefacts, Ming: 50 Years That Changed China demonstrates that, far from being in a deep slumber, waiting to be awakened by the Europeans, China was wide awake and reaching out to parts of the world that the Europeans only reached a century later.

Ming: 50 Years That Changed China is on at the British Museum, London, until Jan 5, 2015; admission is free. For more information on the exhibition and the museum, go to britishmuseum.org.

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