The British Museum is hosting a new major exhibition which centres around the golden age of the Ming dynasty in Chinese history, which they claim to be fifty years that changed China. This exhibition aims to change the way the Western world has viewed Chinese history, focusing on using the rare items on display in order to understand the culture at the heart of the Ming dynasty. The British Museum boasts its new collection of some of the exhibition’s items that are being displayed for the first time outside China, which will explore the social and cultural changes in China during this fifty year period. For China, this was a time in which the country redefined itself and established its international relations, something which, according to the curators, is relatively unknown in Europe and taught little in education.
The large exhibition focuses on the lives of the leaders during this time, their family and their associates, with the exhibition exploring many facets of court culture, the military and trade relations. It is well split into five sections, which use the objects on display to examine the lives of the emperors and what was involved in life at the Ming courts, while also giving insight into how their international trade influenced the things they created. The exhibition also introduces the viewer to the history of the Ming dynasty for those who are new to Chinese history and a timeline which includes events from English history so viewers have an idea of the context of some of the events during the Ming dynasty.
The exhibition includes many fascinating objects. There are some very interesting scroll paintings of the city Nanjing, which was their capital before Beijing was made capital during the Ming dynasty, and one of the Forbidden City. Included at the beginning of the exhibition are items which have been found in tombs of princes, which give an insight into the kinds of treasures they owned. There is also a wonderful display of crowns and gold jewellery belonging to the royalty and a display of surviving robes that would have been worn by members of court. Throughout the exhibition, the items show the influences that Chinese artists would have had during the Ming dynasty, thanks to their international trading with countries around Asia and even reaching as far as the Middle East. Also notable are the many types of vessels, with influences from Iran, Egypt and Syria for example, which were influenced after maritime trade and diplomatic missions to these countries.
The two sections, arts of war and arts of peace, are contrasted interestingly, with both sections containing lengthy scroll paintings. Arts of war contains one which depicts the emperor overseeing sporting activities with members of his army, which I found entertaining. Two others particularly caught my attention, one painting of a river scene and the other of plum blossoms, both of which were beautiful to experience and are well worth the visit. There are many other paintings throughout the exhibition, all of which are stunningly beautiful and enjoyable to view.
Further parts of the exhibition provide information on China’s trading which explain about China’s internationality in the 1400’s, something which not many people may know about. I spent a couple of hours going through the exhibition carefully, and I learned much about this important period in time. There is a wide range of objects displayed, which are all fascinating to learn about. I feel like a lot can be learned about both China’s international relations and what life at court was like by simply the items on display. To me it was an eye-opener, and I learned much about the Ming dynasty I found that the objects which had been inspired by other countries were particularly interesting. Most impressive for me, however, was the large scroll paintings in the arts of peace section, which I found to be both inspiring as an artist and beautiful as a viewer.
Overall, it is a very informative exhibition, designed to re-educate viewers on the importance of the Ming dynasty and how it shaped China as a country. The rare items on display range from scroll paintings to pots to furniture which all teach the viewer about many different aspects of court culture and China’s international relations. The exhibition intends to promote the study of objects at the heart of understanding history and I think that it meets this purpose very well. Viewers can get much out of this experience, whether it is just an appreciation of Ming dynasty art, or a wider knowledge of the fifty years that changed China.
Words:© Bushraa Qureshi Artlyst 2014 Photo: Courtesy British Museum all rights reserved