In the darkly lit hall, encased in gleaming glass, furniture drips with red lacquer, painted scrolls hang delicately, golden chopsticks shine, silken robes glow, swords glitter, bronze statues overwhelm and an emperor’s crown hangs with beads that would have tinkled as he moved.
Think of a word to describe ancient Chinese art and you’ll probably think ‘Ming’. This very word that conjures up images of exquisite vases, delicate silks, glittering artefacts and so many things we think of as quintessentially Chinese does in fact mean “bright” or “illuminating”.
The Ming dynasty, which ruled China for 276 years from 1368 to 1644, has become a byword for the golden age of Chinese civilisation and is the focus of the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition. But it comes with a twist.
The exhibition hones in on the years 1400-1450. Sandwiched between civil war and the kidnap of an emperor, this brief period of the dynasty’s tumultuous rule was one of relative stability in which the state consolidated its power and developed an extensive trade network, from Kyoto to Mogadishu, which the exhibition explores through five sections; the Royal Courts, Arts of War, Arts of Peace, Beliefs, Trade & Diplomacy.
There are saddles and swords, guns and trumpets and… all the objects you’d expect to see in a display of 15th century imperial wealth. And some that you certainly wouldn’t. Take, for example, the delicately painted scroll depicting the royal court attendants engaging in various traditional physical pursuits such as archery, horsemanship, football and golf. Yes, that’s right. Football. And golf.
Or the case of blue and white Ming vases, mass produced and exported by the Ministry of Works as the “the world’s first global brand”, which in fact turn out to be porcelain reproductions of Middle Eastern vessels.
We learn that Ming courtiers wore fashions inspired by Mongol dress, wielded swords forged with Japanese steel, drank from Syrian flasks, lit their palaces with Iranian candlesticks and received giraffes as diplomatic gifts.
Then there are the guns and explosive weapons for which the expertise, it turns out, was gained when they captured a Vietnamese leader and his son, who was a firearms expert forced to produce guns and explosives for the empire under the supervision of the court eunuchs.
But the thing is, though the exhibition is keen to demonstrate that this period was a cornerstone of China’s modernisation; multicultural, multifaith and internationally engaged, there are a few problems with it. Firstly, its presentation is shamefully traditional. Hosted in the Sainsbury Gallery (which is enormous as anyone who went to the Viking exhibition will know), there’s nowhere to sit, it is poorly spaced, darkly lit and the descriptive text that accompanies each of the 280 objects is tiring to read.
But the main disappointment with this exhibition is the top-down history showing us what we already thought we knew; that the Ming dynasty produced some of the most fantastic luxury goods in the world, trading them all over Asia and Africa and absorbing foreign influence as it went.
Yet among all this imperial grandeur, the empire had 85 million agricultural workers. Though you might catch a glimpse of a peasant in one of the courtly paintings, their story is left largely untold.
And whatever a blockbuster exhibition like this suggests, many would argue that the Ming era was not so much a golden age of Chinese civilisation, more an age of weak and brutal rulers and that the real golden age came much earlier with the likes of Confucius 2,000 years previously.
The overwhelming impression is that the exhibition tries to ‘wow’, ‘come marvel at these treasures!’, without actually engaging visitors physically or mentally. There is no doubt that it is an impressive collection of some of the most splendid items of the time, but to be honest, it left us feeling that we’d only seen the icing on the cake… and none of the sponge below.
Ming: 50 Years That Changed China is on at the British Museum, London, until 5th January, with a sister exhibition Ming: The Golden Empire at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until 19 October.
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