August 1, 2014 5:06 pm

‘Ming: 50 Years that Changed China’, at the British Museum

A look at a Chinese dynasty with telling parallels to today’s world

Ming is one of the world’s great cultural brands. Name a Chinese dynasty? It’s got to be Ming. Found some dusty old blue-and-white porcelain in granny’s attic? You joke that it’s Ming and hope that it is. No marketing department could ask for more.

Like more modern brands, it was carefully chosen. When the one-time peasant Zhu Yuanzhang took Nanjing, then China’s capital, in 1368 and declared himself the Hongwu (“vast military might”) emperor, he gave his new dynasty an upbeat name: “Ming” means “brightness”. Diffidence does not an emperor make. For the next 300 years, it ruled a territory with borders much the same as present-day China, excluding the sparsely populated far western provinces.

This autumn, the British Museum is hoping to reflect some of that brilliance in an exhibition devoted to a key period in the dynasty’s early years, 1400-50. Five years in the making, the show will bring together artefacts from museums around the world, including 10 in China alone. For its first month it will overlap with the National Museum of Scotland’s Ming: The Golden Empire, a survey of the dynasty as a whole comprising loans from Nanjing.

These shows tell of China’s place in the world today, as well as 600 years ago. Exhibitions such as these are prime pieces of cultural diplomacy, of soft power crystallised. China, becoming an ever more prominent player on the global stage, wants to capture a bit of that Ming brand magic. So do its museums: when I visited China last month to see some of the pieces that will be coming to the British Museum, one museum director told me that this would be the first time the objects he was caring for had ever left their province – and that he hoped it would be the last, as visitors would now want to come to China to see his collection for themselves.

The British Museum show’s curators – Jessica Harrison-Hall, the BM’s curator of Chinese ceramics, and Craig Clunas, professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford – contend that the half-century that is its focus was “50 years that changed China”. Perhaps the most obvious supporting evidence today is Beijing, established as China’s capital by the Yongle emperor (1402-24), one of Zhu’s sons (each Ming emperor is named after the title he chose for his reign period; “Yongle” means “perpetual happiness”).

Hitherto the Chinese had been promiscuous with their capital, siting it in cities including present-day Xi’an, Luoyang and indeed in Beijing. Now, bar an interlude back in Nanjing during the first half of the 20th century, it stayed in Beijing, the focus of power in a country divided along the Yangtze into a warm, lush south and a cooler, dustier north switching decisively to the latter.

The Yongle emperor also built the Forbidden City, the vast palace complex that sits north of Tiananmen Square. Many of its buildings date from the Qing period, straight after the Ming, or indeed are 21st-century rebuilds, but the appearance has changed little. One of the British Museum’s exhibits, loaned by the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City, is an ink-on-silk depiction of the Xuande emperor (“propagating virtue”, 1426-35) relaxing outside with his attendants. Portly, straggle-bearded, clad in a grey robe and a black hat, he watches his courtiers set up a quail-fight on the table in front of him; the building behind, with its red and grey walls and elaborate gable-ends, is indistinguishable from the one you can see today.

Similar pavilions frame the action in another Palace Museum loan, a 6m scroll showing more of the Xuande emperor’s favourite outdoor pursuits: a horseback ball-aiming contest, an archery competition, a keep-the-football-in-the-air game. Painted 600 years ago, it still looks fresh – the white-highlighted stonework on an ornate bridge could have been painted yesterday – and abounds in sweet details, such as the boy carefully holding the Son of Heaven’s arrows for him in the game of pitch-the-arrow-in-the-vase, or the big man himself at the end of the day, borne back to the palace aboard a sedan chair carried by straining bearers and looking back wistfully at the scene of his pleasures.

Other details are equally arresting but less appetising: those fellows with the funny hats and no beards – and the little arrow-bearer – are all eunuchs.

That rather drastic requirement on the person specification form ensured that the emperor could father many successors without worrying about the purity of the imperial bloodline. But what to do with all those princes? Here arose another Ming innovation that the British Museum will explore: the establishment of princely courts in the provinces as a means of consolidating power and disseminating imperial culture.

Each Ming emperor is named after the title he chose for his reign period; ‘Yongle’ means ‘perpetual happiness’

China’s turbulent history has trashed much of the material record but recent discoveries paint a picture of pomp and refinement. A spectacular example, unearthed in the 1970s, is the tomb of the Prince of Lu in Shandong province, some 300 miles south of Beijing. The prince was the 10th son of the Hongwu emperor but the first to die, felled at 19 by a potion supposed to confer immortality. But immortality is a long game, and the luckless lad lives on through his possessions, some of which will be coming to London from the Shandong Museum.

The prince’s long-sleeved official robe has lost its original primrose hue over the centuries but the golden dragons embroidered across the shoulders and chest look as luxuriant as ever. The materials and workmanship are too fine for it to have been made just for burial, so we can assume that the prince would have worn this very outfit.

Similarly evocative is the prince’s guqin – or zither – the playing of which was one of the accomplishments expected of a gentleman. The strings and any finer decoration are gone, though you can still see the fingering dots, the resonating cavities, the carved jade spindles at the back that held the strings; what’s most fascinating is that this was a venerable antique when it was interred with its connoisseur owner, having been made during the Tang dynasty some 500 or more years before. And who played it then? Thomas Hardy’s meditation on old furniture comes to mind: “Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,/As in a mirror a candle-flame/Shows images of itself, each frailer/As it recedes ... ”

Perhaps the most intriguing individual in the British Museum show is Zheng He, China’s answer to Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus – although, since those two came later, it may be better to call them Europe’s answer to Zheng He. Starting in 1405, and under orders from the Yongle emperor, he led seven voyages west, sailing on the Yangtze from his Nanjing boatyard, tracking south along the Chinese and Vietnamese coast, passing between Malaysia and Sumatra and striking out as far as Calcutta, Sri Lanka, Mecca and east Africa. His fleets were vast – some 200 vessels strong – and his ships huge: compared with the four or five treasure-bearing ships at the heart of each fleet, all about 140m long, the likes of Columbus’s Santa María, less than 20m long, were small fry.

Zheng brought back local goods for his emperor, fuelling a fashion for foreign exotica in doing so. On loan from the Shanghai Museum will be a plump octagonal candlestick holder, its form apparently inspired by Middle Eastern originals, its material that quintessence of Ming, blue-and-white porcelain.

Different flowers gracefully curlicue on each facet and – suggestively – a stylised wave pattern runs round the top. It has been adapted by the imperial potters to hold incense sticks, and you can see something very similar on one of the decorated panels of a hefty wine vase that will also come from Shanghai. It smokes away behind some elegant court ladies playing the guqin. Perhaps the Prince of Lu is listening in a nearby room.

Zheng’s voyages are one of the great might-have-beens of history. What if the emperor, beset by Mongol incursions in the north, had not pulled the plug on the whole exercise? Would China have dominated the Indian Ocean, impeding Europe’s mercantile ambitions? Would it have stayed engaged with the wider world, instead of turning in on itself for 300 years, until beset by the importunate western powers?

There’s no way of knowing, of course. But what is clear is the esteem in which China holds Zheng today, as an emblem of a prosperous, outward-looking, technologically advanced civilisation.

An exhibition now on at Beijing’s Capital Museum – like the Shandong Museum, another stupendous recent-build – places him at the apex of a long tradition of Chinese seafaring, stretching back to the 2nd century BC Han dynasty. This “maritime Silk Road”, the introductory panel says, was “a peaceful route across the sea for cultural and artistic exchange through commerce between east and west”, one that “produced [a] tremendous impetus for ... the progress of world civilisation”.

If that sounds too good to be true, there are more sceptical ways of construing Zheng’s voyages – as a means of expanding the network of tributes flowing to the imperial court, of expressing the emperor’s might, of widening the radius of the world centred on the Middle Kingdom. Among the items lavished on the locals in those far-flung places were wads of Ming banknotes, redeemable, of course, only in the country of origin (the British Museum show will boast an example, its flimsy paper adorned with an image of the coins it represented and an awful warning to forgers). There are uneasy parallels here with China’s infrastructure investments today in, yes, Sri Lanka and east Africa, among other regions. Who benefits most?

The favoured slogan of Chinese president Xi Jinping since his accession last year has been the “Chinese dream”. What this wonderfully vague phrase means has prompted much discussion among China-watchers – the American dream with Chinese characteristics? – but last month China’s ambassador to London glossed it as an attempt to recapture the glories of his country’s past.

There are a lot of glories to choose from in China, but the Ming half-century that the British Museum has chosen to focus on is, as its founder intended, among the brightest, with its political cohesion and confidence, cultural sophistication and technological prowess – the porcelain of this period is, says the museum’s Harrison-Hall, the finest ever produced in China – and its engagement, via Zheng, with the rest of the world.

The ethnic angle is significant too: the Ming emperors were Han Chinese, like today’s majority Chinese population and unlike the preceding Yuan dynasty (Mongol) and the subsequent Qing (Manchu), China’s last imperial family.

If anyone lived the Chinese dream, the early Ming emperors did. Six hundred years later, as the British Museum’s autumn blockbuster comes together, their brand is once again in the ascendant.

‘Ming: 50 Years that Changed China’, British Museum, London, September 18-January 5 2015, britishmuseum.org Sponsored by BP

Neville Hawcock travelled to China on a press trip supported by Shangri-La Hotels

Slideshow images: The Palace Museum/Beijing; Gavin Hellier/Corbis; The Trustees of the British Museum; Shandong Museum; Shanghai Museum; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Nanjing Museum; Royal Armouries

This article has been amended since first publication to reflect the fact that Ming rule did not extend into the far western territories of present-day China

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