Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, the magnificent new exhibition at the British Museum, is full of objects that you would expect to see: red lacquer furniture, hanging scroll paintings on silk, portraits of plump emperors wearing gorgeous yellow robes, watery-green ceramics, and – of course – lots of blue-and-white porcelain. But there are also plenty of more surprising artefacts and works of art.
Take the painted scroll on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing that depicts the emperor and his entourage engaged in sports in a park. It contains six scenes in which courtiers hone useful skills such as archery and horsemanship.
One scene in particular stopped me dead in my tracks. It presents several clean-shaven eunuchs playing keepy-uppy with a football. Watching from a pavilion, flanked by two more footballs suspended in red nets, sits the emperor – like a 15th-century version of Fifa’s self-aggrandising president Sepp Blatter.
In another scene we find the emperor enjoying a round of golf, though this week probably isn’t the best time to mention it to Scottish nationalists who like to claim the origins of the game for themselves.
The scroll is hardly the most spectacular artwork in the exhibition – elsewhere there are some scintillating landscapes, including a painting of moonlit plum blossoms almost eight metres long. But it is executed with an efficient, graphic simplicity that anticipates by five centuries the distinctive “ligne claire” drawing style of Hergé’s Tintin books.
As a result, it imparts a wealth of documentary information about what life was like for the Ming emperors and their hangers-on. Many details visible in the painting can be seen in reality among the 280 objects in the exhibition, including red-lacquer boxes and a pair of splendid golden chopsticks, as well as the emperor’s costume and his eunuchs’ black caps with their distinctive, rabbit-ear protrusions.
The emperors of the Ming dynasty ruled China for a very long time, from 1368 to 1644. That’s quite a chunk of history – encompassing, in England, everything from the Peasants’ Revolt and the Battle of Agincourt to the Civil War. Trying to represent 277 years in an exhibition would be foolhardy, so the British Museum has decided instead to focus on a period lasting just 50 years: the first half of the 15th century, which is traditionally understood as the Ming dynasty’s golden age.
As the scroll of the emperor amusing himself with sporting pastimes attests, since it presents a vision of a carefree ruler who could afford to be at leisure, this was a moment of relative stability for China, which was already the most populous state in the world with 85 million people mostly working the land. At the same time, the Ming emperors enacted a number of important changes, such as transferring the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and initiating the construction of the Forbidden City.
Next to nothing remains of the modest material culture of the peasants who toiled to produce rice, wheat, cotton and tea, and so helped to generate wealth for the elite. Rather, this exhibition is about what we might term “Ming bling”: extravagant objects once owned by the tiny minority that ruled China in the 15th century. As one of the curators put it to me: “The Ming aesthetic is more is more. Make it bigger. Put more jewels on it.”
A few examples will suffice. The fist-sized clump of intricately carved jade in a gold setting decorated with precious gems that was stitched onto a hat in the manner of a topknot. The breathtaking iron sword with a golden guard in the form of a jewel-eyed monster biting down upon the blade. An enormous cloisonné jar decorated with five-clawed, goggle-eyed dragons, emblematic of the emperor, writhing against a background of brightly coloured enamel swirls.
For anyone insufficiently dazzled, the wall labels and catalogue proclaim the impressiveness of the exhibits. Here is the earliest known painting of Nanjing. There is the world’s only surviving piece of lacquer furniture made in the imperial lacquer factory in Beijing. A beguiling, nine-tasselled crown, once worn by a regional prince and decorated with semi-precious stones threaded on silk, is apparently the best example of the two that have survived.
But there is more to this exhibition than opulence and glister: there is also an argument. For one thing, the curators want us to shift our attention from the sole figure of each emperor to his many sons, the Ming princes who were sent to live in luxurious estates in order to govern territory that could be the size of a European country far away from the imperial capital.
Thanks to the custom of polygamy, there were lots of these princes: the founder of the Ming dynasty, for instance, had 26 sons. Sibling rivalries bred tension, but this complex network of power ensured that Ming rulers could control a very large area. Many of the choicest exhibits hail from recently excavated princes’ tombs.
The exhibition is are also keen to stress the dynasty’s cosmopolitan, outward-looking nature. The Ming empire did not exist in splendid isolation – a point made succinctly at the start, by displaying a celestial globe from Iran perhaps used by Muslim astronomers from western Asia at the Chinese court. This was the era of the eunuch commander and fleet Admiral Zheng He, whose expeditionary voyages to the Western Ocean brought China into contact with India, the Middle East and East Africa.
Some of the most fascinating moments in the exhibition suggest the extent to which Ming culture absorbed foreign influences. Ming noblemen, for instance, wore fashions inspired by Mongol dress, while wielding swords forged using Japanese steel.
In one pithy, and surprisingly witty, section, we discover that several blue-and-white porcelain goods, which most of us would have considered quintessentially Chinese, in fact copied the shapes of flasks, tankards, candlesticks, basins and brass stands from Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Even the cobalt used to manufacture blue-and-white porcelain was imported from Iran, because it provided a more intense hue than the local variety. Like ancient Rome, which plundered and then rebooted the Hellenic world it had conquered, Ming China gobbled up whatever it encountered, and in the process made it distinctively its own.
This is an exemplary exhibition of the kind that the British Museum does so well. I spent several hours moving slowly through its five sections, devoted to palace life, war, peacetime pursuits, religion and trade. Each part has been organised with great care and intelligence, elucidating complex material without dumbing down. The term “Ming” was not the name of the imperial family but a title meaning “Bright”, “Luminous” or “Shining” – all qualities that could describe this exhibition honouring the dynasty, too.