The Chinese Ming dynasty lasted for 300 years, thankfully this exhibition focuses on just 50 of these from 1400-1450, making it a whole lot more manageable. But it is still pretty vast. It’s organised into different topic areas including the Imperial Court, Art of War, Written Word, Religions and Trade.
I find Chinese art slightly impenetrable at times and maybe that’s because of the uniformity. For instance, during this period porcelain production became ever more standardised with extra government control over factories including the famous Jindezhen kilns meaning that decorations all became very similar. But the flipside of this is that there is increased familiarity once you do get to into the subject.
For instance, I was fascinated by a large round red box (similar to the plate above) with intricately carved lacquer work showing landscape and figures – apparently eunuchs carrying boxes and dishes for a picnic – which was striking in its similarity to traditional Chinese paintings making the quality of the work even more remarkable.
Two large painted scrolls in the middle of the first room also held my attention for longer than normal – one was a bamboo painting by Xia Chang a court official, calligrapher and painter and the other was of plum blossoms in moonlight by Chen Lu. Both showed the seemingly effortless, but extremely highly prized brush work that makes these long repetitive scrolls so beautiful to look at.
I also loved the miniature models of everyday objects that were used in graves, although, considering they were buried with their owners because they believed they were needed in the afterlife it seems a bit mean to take them away and put them in an exhibition. But it is pretty special to able to see the miniature copies of furniture from a Prince’s bedroom complete with bed and silk blanket, a towel rail with original cotton towel and chests of drawers.
There’s a healthy dollop of history too throughout the exhibition as we learn how China in this period had the largest armies the world has ever known with over 100,000 soldiers in battle compared to just 8,000 soldiers that the English took to Agincourt in 1415 against 15,000 French troops. And social history is also on show including two porcelain bowls, one depicting men and one women, with both showing them hard at work undertaking the highly valued arts of playing a zither and a version of chess out in the open air. This appreciation of the arts in various forms is also seen in the fact that Chinese Emperors were expected to be able to paint to show they were fully versed in the arts and not just skilled generals.
The exhibition is huge and I haven’t quite warmed to the British Museum’s new exhibition space, but it wasn’t over crowded and seemed quite peaceful, even on a weekend at the end of half term. This peace might be because when you look round you see pictures of peaceful mountains, birds,plum blossoms and Buddhist statues.
China, in all its mass, is pretty hard to get your head round and it is a subject I am keen to get my own head round…slowly (having taken a course in Chinese art a few years ago). This exhibition has helped a lot in this slow process and I hope some key themes from it will stick in my head for longer than just a day.
Ming: 50 Years that Changed China
British Museum, London