'Ming: The Golden Empire' opens at National Museums Scotland
By Emma Hollaway
Published 4 July 2014
As two exhibitions looking at the Ming Empire open in the UK this summer, we look at the wealth of objects in store.
First two shows on Mondrian and soon two shows on Schiele – it seems that exhibitions are arriving two by two. This year the Ming Empire, the largest, richest and most populous realm of its time, is the subject of separate presentations in London and Edinburgh. Over two months before Ming: Fifty Years that changed China at the British Museum, the National Museums Scotland has opened its doors for Ming: The Golden Empire. The two exhibitions overlap, perhaps for the better. Ming literally means "brilliant" or "bright": and 276 years and 16 emperors would suggest that if anything merits two exhibitions, it is the achievements of the Ming Empire.
Founded in 1368 by the peasant-monk-turned-emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and lasting until 1644, the Ming Dynasty was marked by prosperity and cultural renewal. While the British Museum will focus on the period 1400-1450 when China emerged as a global superpower, the Edinburgh exhibition ambitiously takes on the whole of the Ming Empire. The exhibition combines pieces from the National Museum’s own collection with loans from the Nanjing Museum, founded in 1933 in the city that was the birthplace of the Ming Dynasty and its first capital.
The exhibition begins with the great building projects that defined the early Ming period: the Imperial palaces at Nanjing and the Forbidden City, Beijing. An organised system of court patronage allowed the decorative arts to flourish. Ming culture was, however, indicative of much greater social change as an agrarian economy transformed into a consumer culture. As prosperity increased so did the population, more than doubling from 60 to 175 million. Increasing wealth and an expanding domestic market created a demand for luxury objects. The newly commercialised economy similarly transformed the lives of Ming women. Greater access to books combined with courtesan culture created new opportunities for women and the exhibition contains exceptional examples of embroidery imitating painting by the female members of the famous Gu family.
The highest position within late Ming society was the class of the literati, the scholar-bureaucrats who had survived the arduous civil service examination process that was open to all. The largest section of the exhibition explores the public and private lives of this cultural elite. Self-cultivation was key and those who did attain an official position contributed to Ming culture by becoming artists themselves.
As international trade flourished, European influences added to the dynamic cultural environment. Included in the exhibition is Map of the Myriad Countries of the World by Italian priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Chinese scholar Li Zhizao (1565-1630). Combining European cartography with Chinese text, this map shows China at the centre of the Earth. Ricci, remarkably for an Italian Jesuit, was named advisor to the Imperial court in 1601 and became the first European to visit the Forbidden City. The map is one of the favourite works of the show’s principal curator Dr Kevin McLoughlin as, in his words, it "conveys a great deal of knowledge about what was then known of the world based on 15th- and 16th-century European trade and exploration".
Even Dr McLoughlin admits the difficulty of choosing a preferred piece from such a wealth of objects. For many Ming is synonymous with the fine examples of the iconic blue and white porcelain, produced not only for the Imperial court by the Jingdexhen kilns but also for a domestic market seeking to imitate the literati. The exhibition emphasises that this simply one of many decorative treatments. Some examples, such as a meiping (a plum vase jar) on view, showcase a rare copper red underglaze, an effect so complex that it was considered a technique reserved for the elite.
The final section of the presentation documents the decline of what was the last natively ruled Chinese dynasty. Corruption and governmental weakness, combined with an over reliance on trade with the West, helped bring the Ming dynasty to an end. But, socially and culturally, the Ming Empire represents the beginning of modern China and, although the Qing dynasty that followed lasted for nearly three centuries, it is the Ming that has remained the byword for China’s historic visual culture.
Ming: The Golden Empire is at the National Museums Scotland until 19 October 2014 as part of Edinburgh Art Festival (31 July – 31 August 2014).
Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 – 5 January 2015.
Emma Hollaway is a contributor to RA Magazine