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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