Ming: The Golden Empire, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh – review

The National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition on the Ming dynasty is intended, says curator Kevin McLoughlin, to be an introduction to a hugely important period in China’s history that is still relatively unfamiliar to many in the west.

This is no dry academic primer. A rich and often startlingly beautiful collection of objects from the Nanjing Museum, built on the site of the first Ming emperor’s palace in the eastern Chinese city, gives an inevitably incomplete but still compelling vision of a dynasty that ruled from 1368 to 1644.

The Ming was the last Chinese dynasty to govern China and its rule spanned the heights of cultural, military and diplomatic success and the depths of leadership stasis, economic mismanagement and revolt before it was eventually replaced by invading Manchu usurpers.

Early in the exhibition there is a useful reminder of the dynasty’s early power, a nearly 2m-high scroll of the Forbidden City, built by the Ming rulers when they moved their capital to Beijing. Chief architect Kuai Xiang stands proudly in front of the sprawling complex of vermilion walls and golden roofs. In one courtyard there are six elephants, gifts from rulers in Burma and Vietnam, that embody imperial reach and wealth.

Later, we meet some of the men who made governing China possible: the scholar-official class who acted both as cultural and ideological guardians and administrators overseeing a highly sophisticated bureaucracy.

Here are eight acutely drawn portraits of eminent figures from the late Ming, followed by examples of written papers, in elegant Chinese characters, submitted during the official exams that sifted the literati into bureaucratic ranks while also schooling them in orthodox philosophies of government. High culture was central to the elite’s conception of itself. Mandarins’ mastery of calligraphy, painting and poetry marked them as worthy transmitters of traditions that reached far back into antiquity.

Remarkable cultural continuity – and its eclectic mix of faiths including Buddhism, Daoism and the philosophy of Confucianism – meant China never had a break with its past of the order of Europe’s Renaissance and Reformation. But the 15th and 16th centuries were still times of great change, and Ming rule in many ways set China’s course into modernity.

Among the most important turning points was the dynasty’s abandonment of its early confident, outward-looking approach. In the 15th century, the Yongle emperor despatched great fleets of treasure ships – each far larger than any vessel launched from European yards – on diplomatic and military cruises as far as Africa. But court infighting, bureaucratic opposition and military pressures on northern borders led to the scrapping of the fleets and an end to maritime diplomacy.

Turning inward did not immediately threaten China’s international pre-eminence. Fuelled by growing urban wealth, an increasingly commercialised economy excelled at producing luxury goods of great sophistication. The development of new ceramic technologies and the emergence of commercial kilns established China as a mass manufacturing exporter. The Kraak porcelain plates displayed here are much cruder than the nearby wares made for the imperial court – but Europeans could not get enough of them and a new global trade was founded.

But while Ming rulers could still see themselves as the masters of a Middle Kingdom surrounded by less significant and barbarous peoples, their empire was increasingly buffeted by faraway trends over which they had little control. The surge and later decline in supply of silver currency from the Spanish Americas added to economic stresses. Imports of European artillery showed that China’s technological supremacy was not assured.

One of the finest items in this exhibition is the 1608 “Map of the Myriad Countries of the World” based on the work of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and his friend, the Chinese cartographer Li Zhizao. Ricci was an Italian polymath who mastered the intricacies of Chinese elite culture in order to win a hearing for his Christian faith. Li was a senior official in the ministry of public works fascinated by the far-travelling cleric’s geographical knowledge.

Nearly 4m long and bedecked with detailed commentaries and explanations, their map was a challenge to the Ming understanding of China’s place in the world. Though fellow Christians would later criticise Ricci for putting China at the centre of the map, its central meridian actually runs through the Pacific – to the dismay of some Chinese officials. Ricci himself long refrained from offering his maps to the Wanli emperor, worried that the relatively small area devoted to the Ming empire might be seen as an act of insolence.

In fact, the emperor embraced Ricci’s map when he finally saw a copy. But a new perspective on the world could not save the dynasty. Attempts at reform foundered on conservatism and vested interest. In 1644, the last Ming emperor hanged himself from a tree outside the Forbidden City.

The story of the Ming is too big for any single show to tell, but this is a flavoursome taster. The British Museum will from September host a major exhibition exploring in greater detail the dynasty’s first half century. We can only hope that there will be more to follow.

Until October 19, nms.ac.uk

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