Ming: 50 years that changed China, at the British Museum

This post was contributed by Yi-Wen Huang, a PhD student in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

A few weeks ago, I, along with my fellow students, attended the British Museum’s current exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China which opened on 18 September. The visit ended with a Q&A session with the project curator, Dr Yu-Ping Luk. The exhibition is divided into five sections, namely the Ming Court, the Arts of War, the Arts of Peace, Beliefs, and Trade and Diplomacy. The arrangement of the exhibition allowed for the depiction of the aesthetic qualities of the works. In addition, the display and accompanying text alongside the exhibitions also provided a contextual perspective through highlighting how these objects reflected the social hierarchy and conditions of Ming China.

One of the questions that I had in my mind before attending the exhibition was trying to work out in what ways did the fore-mentioned 50 years in the Ming Dynasty change China? According to the curator, the 50 years between 1400 and 1450 were important for three reasons: the shift of the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, the emphasis placed on art by the Emperor Xuande and the explorations undertaken by Zheng He. The exhibits on display thus reflected these three shifts.

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

The objects that impressed me the most were the long scroll paintings on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing. These paintings depicted hunting activities, eunuchs playing polo and horse-riding. If you look carefully enough, you would be able to find images of the emperor appearing in different scenes participating in the various activities. These paintings reflected life in the imperial court through an insightful observational panorama brought to life through the technical skill of the artist on a long scroll. The landscape paintings with accompanying calligraphy were another display that I found interesting. Landscape painting has long been part of an intellectual tradition of the literati in China. In the Ming regime, landscape painting was one of the Four Arts (四藝 sih yi); the other three being able to master the musical instrument, the Gu Qin, being able to play Chinese Chess and becoming skilled in calligraphy. These landscape paintings at the exhibition explicitly reflected the elegant (雅 ya) culture among the literati. Finally, I was also fascinated by the display of the very first Koran in China which reflected the multicultural and multi-faith in the society in Ming China.

The Q&A session after our visit with the project curator Dr Luk was the most rewarding part of the visit. Through sharing her experience in curating the exhibition, Dr Luk highlighted how this exhibition was the result of five years of research, preparation and collaboration between scholars and professionals from different institutions. Learning about how the objects were loaned from China for this exhibition also provided some insight on the various negotiations that had to take place between government institutions in China. It was also interesting to think that there was a need to consider political sensitivities when presenting information about the objects on display.

It was great to be able to learn more about the exhibition through the Q&A and additional activities about this exhibition, such as the Curator’s Introduction are being organised throughout the duration of the exhibition. Based on what I learnt on our trip, I will definitely be trying to attend more of these events.

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Researching the Text – The Fourth Dimension…

This post was contributed by Jackie Watson, a PhD student in English.

Coming to early modern thought through a study of the period’s material culture may
be a commonplace of twenty-first century scholarship, but the bringing together of
experts in different literary and art historical disciplines can still be a revelatory
experience!

Thursday 5 June saw the fourth such event at Birkbeck, organised by Professor Sue
Wiseman. In previous years, experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum have
joined faculty and postgraduate researchers from Birkbeck and other universities to
explore the inter-relationship between texts and objects. This year’s range was as
wide as ever, with speakers joining London students from Cambridge, Queen Mary
and the National Portrait Gallery. With panels and lectures accompanied by a
magical tour of the British Museum, the stage was set for a hugely entertaining, as
well as informative, day.

The first panel brought together three surprisingly cohesive papers from speakers at
different stages of their careers in Cambridge. Opening the day was Irene Galandra
Cooper from Jesus College, whose paper on the role of rosaries in Italy began the
spiritual thread which was to weave through so many papers on supposedly physical
objects. Irene discussed the presence of rosaries on inventories and examined specific
examples made of a variety of materials from the everyday wooden versions to those
made of amber, coral and precious metals – some even filled with perfumes such as
ambergris. As she displayed images of their use in portraiture, she hinted at the
liminal quality of an object which was at the same time a means of guiding prayer and
a bodily adornment.

Building on the issues of cultural, geographical and social contingency Irene raised,
the second speaker, Ellie Chan from St Catherine’s, went on to discuss the
multiplicity of meanings in her thinking about points, which is to be the subject of her
PhD thesis. From developments in geometry to clothing design, Ellie challenged the
presumption of a mathematical point’s static nature, looking instead at the mobility
involved in a point’s development of patterns, and in the effect of points on the body
and on the senses.

Post-doc researcher, Lucy Razzell, from Emmanuel College, completed the first
panel, with another paper of dazzling semantics. Focusing this time on chests, Lucy
explained how her work formed part of a larger project on containment and enclosure,
and went on, via a discussion of the parallels between wooden chests and the human
thorax, to a perceptive interpretation of Act 2, scene 2 of Cymbeline. Forced by all of
the papers to think hard about the tension between materiality and language, between
the physical and the spiritual and sensual reality of objects, we were prepared for a
development of some of these ideas in the second panel of the morning.

In this, Birkbeck PhD students, Becky Tomlin and Sue Jones, were joined by Nicolle
Mennell, just leaving Queen Mary and about to embark on her thesis at Sussex.
Nicole’s focus was on Zibellini, the often-ornate objects made from the bodies of
martens or weasels. Erroneously called flea-furs in the nineteenth century, these
Zibellini were sometimes unembellished, but more often covered in precious metals,
enamelled and/or embedded with jewels. Her discussion of the function of the objects
(which some scholars have suggested were amulets connected with childbirth) led
Nicole to an interesting reappraisal of the reference to ‘a sable silvered’ in Hamlet.

Silver also featured prominently in Sue Jones’ paper on the Admiralty Oar. A unique
object of great material worth, the oar had even greater symbolic value in its use at
Admiralty courts, and indeed still does today. In a fascinating paper detailing
references to the oar from the late middle ages, we saw the presence of the oar at
judgements of early modern piracy as well as the creation of ‘mini’ oars to enable
justice overseas in times of Empire. Prompting consideration of how an object can
embody the authority of an institution, the paper fitted well alongside that of Becky
Tomlin, whose discussion of a 1576 manuscript prayerbook encouraged consideration
of its functionality within the wider context of the Reformed Church.

The prayerbook, created by Robert Heasse, minister at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, existed
alongside the officially sanctioned Book of Common Prayer – and clearly one had to
question why, in this especially controlled area of life, a handwritten copy of the
minister’s contributions to services throughout the year should exist at all. In a
perceptive survey of the issues involved in consideration of a book as an object,
Becky’s paper explored its aesthetic qualities as well as its likely place in religious
observance and, perhaps, its creation as an aid to an aging priest with possibly
diminishing eyesight. From issues of authority and religion, to the pragmatics of
everyday life, the second panel added to the larger questions the day was raising about
the study of objects and their interrelationship with text and ideas.

The afternoon offered two sessions led by established experts in their fields. Firstly,
Jane Eade, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, delivered a hugely enjoyable
lecture on family portraiture in the early modern period. Her account of how
portraiture burgeoned at the Reformation, in response to the decline of ecclesiastical
painting, focused on the growth of a new form of family portrait in England during
the latter part of the sixteenth century. From issues of genealogy and the presence of
coats of arms on highly ornate representations in church settings, to the more intimate
depiction of family groups such as Holbein’s painting of Thomas More’s, the lecture
enabled listeners to develop skills in reading these particular objects – like many
already discussed during the day, contingent on cultural and social circumstances, but
particularly dependent on visual interpretation.

The final session of the day built on the liminal – the spiritual and symbolic qualities
of many objects so far considered – and moved to an appraisal of objects believed to
be able to establish contact with the spirit world. Beside the British Museum’s
collection of objects supposedly owned by John Dee, Dr Stephen Clucas discussed the
probability of this ownership as well as exploring the ways in which such objects
would have been used by the man whom many consider a champion of the occult, but
who was actually demonstrating his devotion to God in his attempts to contact the
angels. A reading of excerpts from Dee’s Libri Mysteriorum allowed understanding
both of the precision with which objects such as the ‘Shew Stone’ were used and of
the kind of messages Dee felt he was receiving through scryers such as Edward
Kelley.

Stephen Clucas communicates through the glass

Stephen Clucas communicates through the glass

Birkbeck’s fourth study day on the relationship between objects, culture and texts was
both enjoyable and rewarding. The range of material touched upon, the breadth of
ideas and approaches to objects, and the consequent development of contextual
understanding, all made the event very useful to the researchers who were part of it.
The day concluded with a superb London Renaissance Seminar lecture delivered by
Professor Alan Stewart from Columbia. His discussion of Richard Stonley’s diaries,
their function and their composition, led to a lively discussion of the various factors
involved in life-writing in the early modern period. Many know the diaries by
Stonley, a man clearly both devout and widely read, because they contain one of the
first accounts of buying a copy of a Shakespearean text (here Venus and Adonis) in
print. Those who had participated in the day had a fuller understanding of what
consideration of such a diary demanded, and how to question its materiality; it had
become more than simply a three-dimensional object.

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