Most westerners know a little about the tea and porcelain trade, Jesuit missions, the Dragon Empress and the opium wars. But what went on behind the Great Wall before Europe’s trade with China became serious in the 16th century is, for many, a vast tract of ignorance. The British Museum’s exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China illuminates a half-century slice of life in China shortly before the establishing of regular commercial links with Europe.

The Ming Dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries, but here we are concerned with the years 1400-50. Taking exhibits from Chinese museums, other collections worldwide and the British Museum’s own splendid holdings, the curators’ emphasis is on how life was lived – not the life of China’s vast population but that of the elite and, in particular, the imperial court. The Emperor’s ruthless dynastic autocracy operated through a huge military and bureaucratic establishment, but he depended just as much on the more personal support-system of his eunuch-staffed court, first at Nanjing and then Beijing.

Like many royal courts, it was a place where culture and politics entwined, and during the Ming Dynasty it spawned offspring in all the provinces of China – mini-courts, each supporting one of the emperor’s many sons. This courtly diaspora is one of the reasons for the survival of so many artefacts connected with high-minded relaxation, for to be at court was to confirm your wealth and status above all through lordly loafing and the pursuit of a range of elaborate leisure activities.

The visual representation of the courtiers’ everyday lives is extremely rich, whether on painted silk scrolls, paper, porcelain or panels of lacquer. The study of Confucian texts, reading and writing poetry, appreciating painting and calligraphy, making music and playing sophisticated games such as chess and all kinds of sport, are all recorded, and often with the thoroughness of documentary. In physical activity horse-sports were paramount, but there was also archery, football and a game that looks exactly like golf. Another painting shows miniature cockfighting, with two quails circling each other around a table-top cockpit.

In China’s visual arts, nature was imbued with symbolic associations, and sometimes with superstitious ones. But it is often drawn or painted so realistically that the viewer of today does not necessarily need to know the ancient systems of thought that underpin it. If you are looking for correspondences between eastern and western art, you will find them in the plants, animals, birds and people that populate these works. They are precise studies, and real portraits. The artist Bian Weijing’s birds have something of the precision of Audubon; the portrait of the Chieftain Baoguiyoudesheng might be by Dürer; and some of the horses and hunting dogs have the simplicity and force of Stubbs.

There is also room for psychological insight of a kind that is universally recognisable. A brilliant fragment of a hunting scene shows the Xuande emperor alongside his grazing horse. He gathers up the fine stag he has killed but can’t help looking around regretfully at another running stag – the one that got away.

There are mythic animals here that have little to do with reality, as in the lion with its bizarre shaggy eyebrows from the Great Monastery of Filial Gratitude (the Porcelain Pagoda) in Nanjing. Yet in other cases myth and realism come beautifully together. One hanging, a combination as so often of image and calligraphy, has a portrait of a strange long-legged, long-necked creature dwarfing its handler. The sensation of this beast’s arrival at the Emperor’s court in 1414 (it was a gift from the Sultan of Bengal) was because it was believed to be the qilin, a mythical creature of enormous good omen, whose unexpected appearance was interpreted as divine approval of the Ming emperor’s reign. It was actually, of course, a giraffe.

The appreciation of visual art at court was a serious matter. A painting was not decorative, it was to be studied and discussed (several of these objects showing exactly how this was done in context). In some cases it was read sequentially, just as a book of poetry was read. Such paintings were long horizontal hand-scrolls, unrolled with the left hand and re-rolled with the right until, in time, the whole length of the painting had been viewed – rather as in a film. The experience they offered could be meditative and refined. In Chen Lu’s almost 8-metre long “Plum Blossom and Moonlight” the eye simply tracks through branches in close-up: the whole plum tree is never seen.

The subtitle of Ming is a little problematic. It seems to be saying that this half-century changed China in some defining way, as by a revolution – yet the show offers little real evidence of this. The period does see change: the capital moved to Beijing; Chinese ships ventured further than ever before, to the shores of Africa; much of the Great Wall was built; widows and concubines ceased to follow their men to the grave by committing suicide. But the exhibition demonstrates no distinct upheaval, either in thought, politics or visual culture. Instead of attesting to the drastic effects of new ideas and impulses, it shows above all the powerful cultural resilience and continuity of art and life in this period.

Chinese culture comes over as inherently conservative and respectful of tradition and the old (filial gratitude being its most abiding moral virtue). That spirit existed dynamically alongside the great resourcefulness of the society, its tradition of pragmatism in religion and philosophy, and its responsiveness to new economic opportunities and challenges as they came along. But these are not qualities unique to the Ming period. They are in fact the reasons the Chinese empire survived, through all its dynasties, for as long as it did.

‘Ming: 50 Years that changed China’, British Museum, London, to January 5 2015.

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