LONDON - International relations emerge as the star of the new and highly anticipated exhibition at the British Museum, the BP exhibition, Ming: 50 Years that Changed China. Focusing on the formative golden years of the Ming dynasty, it seeks to challenge existing worldviews on 15th century China and presents the young empire as a truly multicultural and cosmopolitan society.

Two key events frame this thematic exhibition: the civil war of 1399-1402 following the death of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Hongwu (1368-1398), and the capture of the Zhengtong emperor by the Mongols in 1449. It encompasses the reigns of four emperors: Yongle (1403-1424), Hongxi (1425-1426), Xuande (1426-1435), and Zhengtong (1436-1449).

After overthrowing the Mongol Yuan Empire who had ruled China for nearly 100 years from 1279 to 1368, the first Ming emperors were faced with the imperative task of a swift cultural restoration and expansion to cement their supremacy, both within their borders and beyond. The court sought to return to the humanistic Confucian ideology, which centred on virtue and ethics, established during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) and developed during the Song (960-1279). Military hierarchies of power gave way to centralised bureaucratic leadership and the reinstatement of the scholar official class. The emperor now stood as the embodiment of Chinese civilisation. Furthermore, with the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing came the symbolic move of the capital from Nanjing.

Fundamental to China’s exposure to foreign territories was the court-funded expeditions of the admiral Zheng He. Zheng opened up China’s maritime history, commanding voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa from 1405 until his death in 1433, which marked the end of China’s overseas missions. Tribute items he presented to the court from abroad varied wildly, from gold and silver to exotic animals such as zebras and a giraffe. These further fuelled the emperors’ desire to develop their own nation while interpreting and integrating foreign elements into their own scholarly pursuits and artistic expressions.

Anonymous, ‘Tribute giraffe with attendant’. Hanging scroll,
ink and colours on silk. Dated 1414. Image courtesy of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Context plays an important role in this exhibition, evidenced by the timeline that immediately greets viewers upon stepping into the galleries. Notably, curator Jessica Harrison-Hall describes it ‘not as an exhibition of treasures but a slice of history’. Nevertheless, it is the underlying theme of international engagement that provokes closer inspection of the exquisite objects and the exhibition as a whole.

‘Ming’ often conjures images of blue-and-white porcelain, and this exhibition is swift to assert that the refinement of porcelain was only one of many achievements of this period. It boasts the world’s first encyclopaedia, royal patronage of Tibetan Buddhism, the documentation of leisurely pursuits of the emperor (including games that are markedly similar to golf and football), and impressive expeditions to the West. Rarely are such exquisite historical artefacts and works of art from leading collections around the world presented in one venue. 

*Spoiler alert*

The final painting in the exhibition exemplifies the global impact of and on China in these fifty years. Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (1495-1505) depicts the three Magi presenting their gifts to the Christ Child in precious vessels: a Turkish censer, an agate vessel and a delicate blue-and-white porcelain cup of the Yongle period. It is, perhaps, the starting point for the discussion that has been presented.

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China

18 September 2014 – 5 January 2015

The British Museum

Great Russell St, London