British Museum, China: Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644)
The Ming (literally 'brilliant') dynasty was founded by General Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368. He came from an unusual background, being an orphan and a Buddhist novice from Nanjing.
The previous rulers, the Mongols, had generally been ineffective towards the end of their Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Peasant unrest was compounded by droughts and famines, and there were many rebellions against the alien ruling power. Zhu Yuanzhang emerged victorious among the various warring factions, and pushed the Yuan court back into Inner Mongolia. He declared himself emperor, with the title Hongwu ('vast military accomplishment'). He kept his capital at Nanjing and ruled until 1399. In 1421, under Yongle (1403-24), the third Ming emeperor, Beijing was completely rebuilt and became the official capital. Although the city has been rebuilt in part many times since, the Ming design has been maintained.
The Ming dynasty was one of the more stable and longer-lasting dynasties of Chinese history. Hongwu reorganized the government in a way that was effective when the emperor was strong and capable, but worked badly when the emperor was not conscientious. After Hongwu and Yongle, few of the Ming emperors stand out as great rulers.
The short reign of the Xuande emperor (1426-35), however, was regarded by later Ming scholars as a golden age of good government and patronage of the arts. Xuande was himself a talented artist and poet, and he gathered a group of artists at court. Notable advances were made in the porcelains produced at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.
In the later fifteenth century, Chenghua (1465-87) and Honghzhi (1488-1505) presided over competent administrations. The later Ming rulers, however, were less interested in the details of government, which deteriorated as a result. By the late sixteenth century, the Ming dynasty was further weakened by foreign marauders and internal rebellions. Following the suicide of the last Ming emperor, the Mancus invaded northern China and proclaimed the Qing dynasty.
Boldly decorated jar with imperial mark
The Chinese perfected the cloisonné enamel technique in the fifteenth century. By the time this jar was made it was considered appropriate for imperial use, and many superb pieces were made for palaces and temples. Some of the vessel forms were borrowed from ancient Chinese bronzes. Other shapes, and some of the motifs, resemble contemporary porcelains.
A famous scene on the front and a poem on the back
Although it was known earlier, carved lacquer with a pictorial scene was perfected in the Song or Ming dynasty (960-1644). These beautifully executed pieces were often made to imperial order and some were exported to Japan as diplomatic gifts. This dish is one of the earliest known examples of polychrome carved lacquer with a pictorial scene. Red, green, yellow and black lacquer are used.
The setting is a famous fourth-century drinking and poetry party at the Lanting (Orchid Pavilion) in the southern province of Zhejiang. That event has been the subject of countless Chinese paintings and poems. In this depiction, the sky is full of clouds and cranes, birds symbolic of immortality. The party arriving in the foreground is accompanied by deer, also associated with immortality, and the Islands of the Immortals rise out of the waves around the border of the dish. The bracketing and tiling of the buildings are executed with great intricacy, and the carver has signed his name and the date around the door of the pavilion.
A verse by the Tang dynasty poet, Wang Bo (650-675), is carved on the back of the dish.
This bowl is painted with four armorial-style shields containing a hydra with the heads of two humans and five fabulous beasts. The shields have streamers with the Latin maxim, 'Septenti nihil novum' (sic) [To the wise man nothing is new]. The remaining decorative motifs are Chinese.
The exact source of this Western design has not yet been traced. The motif has been compared to a similar hydra in a printed illustration in Camillo Camilli's "Impresse Illustri" (Venice, 1586) and to another hydra on the stone façade of the cathedral of St. Paul, Macau carved 1620–27. However, neither of these hydras is contained within a shield nor do they have the Latin motto.
This specific design appears in seventeenth century Portugal, Holland and Iran suggesting that specially commissioned wares could also be sold more widely in the late Ming dynasty. A dish with the same motif forms part of a pyramid-shaped ceiling festooned with Ming porcelain in the Santos Palace, Lisbon, Portugal.
With an Arabic inscription
Emperor Zhengde was still a child when he ascended the throne. He was strongly influenced by Moslem eunuchs at court and may have converted to Islam. He was known occasionally to wear Arab dress. Many of the porcelain vessels produced during his reign show Islamic influence. Many have Islamic shapes, and Arabic calligraphy was frequently used in the decoration, though not always accurately.
Pieces with Islamic decoration would also have been made specifically by and for the large Muslim population living in China. Persians, Turks, and others were involved in the production and export of ceramics and many other goods, at all levels. Many were extremely wealthy merchants or shipowners.
A Daoist goddess
Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, is an important figure in Daoism. She lived in the Kunlun Mountains, in an enchanted palace with beautiful pagodas and a magical garden. Among her plants was the famous tree with peaches of longevity. Though they ripen only once in 3000 years, they bestow immortality. A kind of jade plant also grew there, which also conferred everlasting life.
The scene on this bowl shows Xiwangmu as she is usually portrayed in paintings, a beautiful woman in her garden, with her two maids, one holding a large fan, the other with a basket of magic peaches. Xiwangmu is often shown riding on a crane and sometimes with doves, her messengers.
'Sweet white ware'
Yongle (reigned 1403-24) was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Though his father was the first emperor, Hongwu (reigned 1368-98), Yongle usurped the throne from Hongwu's designated successor. He therefore needed to prove the legitimacy of his reign. Yongle honoured his father with elaborate Buddhist rituals and the building of a nine-storey pagoda faced with white porcelain bricks. White is the colour of mourning and filial piety in China and has strong associations with imperial ceremony.
Recent excavations at Jingdezhen (the site of the imperial kilns) clearly reveal Yongle's taste for white; 98% of the ceramics found in the stratum attributed to his reign are white porcelain. The purity of the body and glaze resulted in wares superior to any that had gone before. They are often called 'sweet white wares'.
This ewer gets its name from the caps worn by Tibetan monks, and its shape from Tibetan metalwork. The emperor maintained strong connections with the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. Monk's cap jugs are either plain or incised with floral scrolls, as this one is, or very occasionally with Tibetansūtra scripts
From the reign of the first Ming emperor
Though Chinese potters developed underglaze red decoration during the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368), pottery decorated in underglaze blue was produced in far greater quantities, due to the high demand from Asia and the Islamic countries of the Near and Middle East. Painting with underglaze red was more difficult than underglaze blue: the copper oxide used as the colouring agent was harder to control than the cobalt that was used for the underglaze blue. The firing left parts of the red areas grey, as on this large jar.
The first emperor of the Ming dynasty, which was to rule China for the next 300 years, was the general Zhu Yuanzhang (reigned 1368-98), whose title was Hongwu. He overthrew the Yuan dynasty, whose rulers had been foreigners (Mongols). He was determined to re-establish the dominance of Chinese style at court, and blue-and-white porcelain was produced in designs following Chinese rather than Islamic taste. Similar pieces were executed with underglaze red for use by the emperor.
Possibly Cai Shen, the God of Wealth
The kilns at Dehua have been in production for almost one thousand years, from their origins in the Song dynasty (AD 960-1278). In the sixteenth century they became famous for the white porcelain wares known as blanc de Chine. At the time the kilns were producing altar vessels, figures of popular gods and Buddhist sculptures for family religious use. Wares made specifically for export were also modelled in Christian forms, particularly the Virgin and Child. Dehua wares were produced on a very large scale in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), with more than one hundred kiln sites known.
This figure represents a popular Buddhist god. He is thought by some to be Cai Shen, the god of wealth, and by others Guandi, the god of war. The figure is certainly modelled with armour, but is also incised with dragons and floral decoration. The inscription on the reverse of the base translates: 'Made at the wei hour on the renyin 26th day of spring in the 37th year of Wanli [AD 1610]'. Dated pieces of Dehua porcelain are particularly useful in helping to date other examples, as the composition of body and glaze changed very little from the Ming dynasty to the present day
A smiling Buddhist monk
The fat, smiling monk Budai is a popular figure in Chinese Buddhism. His character is an accumulation of several Chinese legends; he is sometimes regarded as an incarnation of the Future Buddha, the Buddha who followedShakyamuni. Sculptures of Budai are frequently placed in the entrance halls to temples and monasteries, surrounded by the Good and Bad Boys. These two appear as officials or judges, recorders of a person's good and evil deeds during life, who decide whether to send a person to heaven or hell.
This Budai is glazed in the sancai ('three colours') palette developed in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), and which re-appeared in the Ming (1368-1644). An inscription on the left side dates it to 1486, the twentieth year in the reign of Chenghua (1465-87). While many large, popular figures like this were commissioned for religious reasons, the majority of imperial Chenghua ceramics were delicately formed and coloured porcelains.
Shrine models like this were produced in China during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This is one of the most impressive surviving examples. It represents a collection of Daoist and popular deities, the groupings are in the style of Buddhist art.
The shrine is extravagantly carved with stylized clouds that frame the separate grottoes. In the lower grotto is the God of the Eastern Peak, with attendants and guardians. In the middle are the Jade Emperor, Taiyi, the originating principle, and Laozi, the first Daoist sage. On the top, an immortal orarhat rides a mythical beast. The figures are also gilded and lacquered.
On the reverse are nine holes and an incised inscription meaning, 'Made on an auspicious day in the 4th year of the Yongle period' (AD 1406).
In the eighth century AD, a Tibetan king, Khri-song, invited Buddhist monks to build monasteries and spread Buddhism in his isolated land. Eventually Buddhism took a strong hold in Tibet, absorbing the native cults. The relationship between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism was established early, and in the ninth century a peace treaty between China and Tibet was negotiated by Buddhist monks from the two countries. Later, many Chinese emperors, particularly during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), were inspired by the charismatic qualities of the monks, and became enthusiastic supporters of Tibetan Buddhism.
This important image of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, displays the integration of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist art in both its intricate design and metal-casting technique. It is one of the largest and most ornate Sino-Tibetan bronzes surviving from the early fifteenth century. The bronze is cast in three sections: the Buddha and the double lotus throne, the rectangular stepped base and the background mandorla, which is pierced with fire and floral scrolls.
The figure's gesture indicates that Shakyamuni has just warded off temptation and gained peace and truth.
A scholar and his servant who carries his lute (qin) are shown travelling through a valley. In the foreground, a large rock textured with 'axe-cut' strokes draws the viewer's eye into the painting. The grove of trees next to it links the foreground with the imposing peaks rising from the mists in the background. This painting is a fine example of the Zhe School, which took its name from Zhejiang province. Paintings from the school are characterized by the distinctive composition, the scale of the human figures and the effective gradation of ink-wash techniques to create misty effects. The artists were primarily professional and court painters who modelled their style after the romantic landscape traditions of the Southern Song Academy (twelfth to thirteenth century).
The painting is currently attributed to Jiang Song (active about 1500), a professional artist from Nanjing. This is based on its similarity in subject matter, composition and brushstyle to other surviving, and signed, works by this artist.
Modelled on an ancient pendant
Archaism (Chinese: fang-gu) is an important aspect of Chinese art history. The Chinese have always admired and collected objects inspired by past traditions. It was a way of showing their veneration for the past.
The archaistic style of the fifteenth century is a notable example. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) had re-established Chinese rule, taking over from the Mongols (Yuan dynasty, 1279-1368). Chinese traditions and styles were revived in all things. Many ceramics and jades, in particular, were modelled on ancient forms.
This archaistic jade ring is in the shape of a dragon and a boy. Pendants in the shape of coiled dragons were made as early as 4000 BC, in the Hongshan culture, and the form continued into the Shang and Zhou periods (1500-221 BC). This one is ornately carved, in an archaistic fashion.
An imperial 'rank badge'
In the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368), some Mongol officials wore square cloth plaques with floral designs on the front and back of their robes. These decorative cloths were probably the source of the rank badges which came into use early in the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644). In 1391, regulations were issued specifying the birds (for civil officials) and animals (for military officials) for each rank, first to ninth. The emperor and his immediate family wore round badges with dragons.
This gold garment plaque, one of a pair, may be seen as a high-quality version of the cloth rank badges. It is decorated with two dragons and a flaming pearl among clouds. The design is done in relief with chased detail and openwork. Two rows of inlaid semi-precious stones frame the dragons. The small holes around the edge are for attaching the plaque to a robe.
This plaque was probably for imperial use. In the Ming dynasty only the emperor could use items decorated with five-clawed dragons, although this rule was often ignored.