This exhibition, which I just got to see by the skin of my teeth, was a breath of fresh air. Firstly, it was a pleasure to see an exhibition at the British Museum without having to fight your way through crowds and hordes of school children. Secondly, the exhibits were stunning and well presented – but more of that anon. Even though I’m not a Sinologist, I was a bit taken aback by the exhibition’s title, “Ming: 50 years that changed China” because the actual dynasty lasted more than 270 years from the mid 14th to the mid 17th centuries. What we have are artefacts from the period between 1400 and 1450(ish) when Beijing was established as the capital and China was enjoying a period of economic prosperity and burst of artistic creativity.
Many of the objects are really to use a terribly debased word rare and some even unique as the descriptions accompanying the exhibits are not shy to point out and some of the objets d’art are displayed outside of the People’s Republic for the first time. We see the first known painting of Nanjing, the only surviving piece of lacquer furniture, a complete silk tunic from the tomb of Prince Huang of Lu (who poisoned himself with what he thought to be the elixir of life) and a nine-tasselled crown decorated with semi-precious stones threaded on silk which is the superior of the two that are extant. Some are barely out of the ground – a pair of exquisite gold filigree hairpins were only unearthed in 2002.
There are over 240 exhibits displayed over 5 areas, each area organised on a thematic basis – palace life, war, peacetime pursuits, religion and trade. Each area boasts a cornucopia of delights – works in art, gold, silver, lacquer, jade, textiles and porcelain. What was fascinating was to see the blue and white porcelain I associate with Ming ceramics alongside glass and metal objects from the Middle East which clearly influenced their style and shape. And to demonstrate it wasn’t one way traffic the final exhibit is Mantegna’s picture of the Adoration of the Magi which features a blue and white porcelain cup, an exact example of which is displayed alongside.
The enormous and beautifully calligraphed scrolls shed an interesting light on life of the courtiers, particularly one depicting them at play. Amongst the sports they played was a version of polo, golf and a game of keepy-uppy with a football played by eunuchs – I will refrain from making the obvious joke. Two 8 or 9 metre long scrolls painted on bamboo depicting plum blossom and bamboo were astonishing in their simplicity, clarity of execution and harmony of composition.
Jewellery, hats, chop sticks, robes – all the quotidian impedimenta of life were on display and to reinforce pre-existing preconceptions, depictions of dragons abound. On a more sinister level, we were treated to sights of early versions of guns – the Chinese were the earliest experimenters with gunpowder as a weapon of war – including a 10 barrel weapon.
There was so much to see that I could easily have spent a day there, not least trying to understand why with such a vibrant culture and cross-fertilisation of ideas and influences the Ming chose to isolate itself from the West shortly afterwards.
This was truly an exhibition which showed the British Museum at its best.