Five star objects from Ming: 50 Years that Changed China at the British Museum

By Culture24 Reporter | 08 January 2014

As the British Museum announces Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, here are five of the key exhibits to look out for in the show

A photo of an elaborately-coloured pot from ancient China featuring a yellow dragon
Cloisonné enamel jar and cover with dragons (1426-1435). Metal with cloisonné enamels, Xuande mark and period Beijing© Trustees of the British Museum
Cloisonné is a French term used to describe a method of decorating metal objects with a network of wire cells or cloissons. Cloisonné wares are particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make.

Craftsmen sketch a design onto a metal jar using a brush and black ink. Wires are cut out of sheet copper and fixed to the body of the jar, forming cells.

The cells are filled with multi-coloured opaque glass, which produces a brightly coloured surface. The jar is then fired in a kiln at about 600 degrees centigrade. After firing, the jar cools and the glass shrinks.

Any gaps in the design are filled in and the jar is re-fired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally, the jar is polished and the metal wires gilded.

Inscriptions around the rim of this jar reveal its commissioners – it is one of only two such jars known in the world - and where it was made. The Xuande Emperor, who reigned from 1426 to 1435, ordered them, with eunuchs in the imperial Palace in Beijing supervised their manufacture.

Ming Emperors ordered such brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces.  According to the inscription under the rim, they were made under eunuch supervision in the Directorate for Imperial Accouterments (Yuyongjian ).

The jar is decorated with magnificent dragons, which were symbolic of the emperor.

A photo of a blue and white porcelain vase with a tall spout and a large circular base
Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)© Trustees of the British Museum
An iconic blue-and-white porcelain flask with lotus decoration. At just over 50 cm tall, it is the largest Ming imperial porcelain in the British Museum collection.

It carries an inscription stating that it was made during the reign of the Xuande emperor, an able ruler who possessed both martial skills and a love for the arts. He was the grandson of the charismatic Yongle emperor (ruled 1403-1424) who moved the capital to Beijing and ordered the building of the Forbidden City.

Their reigns dominated early 15th century China, during which the imperial courts were centres of culture, military power and contacts with the wider world. The beauty and size of this object embody the spirit of the age.

While blue-and-white porcelain is now thought of as quintessentially Chinese, it was in fact a product of cross-cultural interactions. The aesthetic of blue-and-white porcelain originated from the Middle East and developed under Mongol rule which preceded the Ming.

The bold colours and design would have seemed foreign to the cultural elite in China, who were accustomed to more subdued wares. The exoticism of this example is further emphasised by its flattened round shape, which references Middle Eastern metalwork or glass rather than traditional Chinese design.

The taste for the exotic is consistent with the expansionist attitude of the Ming court during the early 15th century, exemplified by large-scale court-sponsored maritime expeditions. Blue-and-white porcelain became immensely popular across China and around the world during the Ming when for the first time it reached Europe in bulk.

Jingdezhen, a town in Jiangxi province in southeast China, was the centre for porcelain production. Blessed with high quality raw materials and situated in a convenient location, at its height the area supplied wares for the imperial court, domestic consumption, as well as export around the world. Its kilns continue to be in operation today, supplying China and the world with porcelain wares.

A photo of a tall, three-storey piece of turqouise pottery containing gold Chinese figures
Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province© Trustees of the British Museum
Model shrines were produced at the Longquan kilns during the Yuan (1279-1368) and early Ming dynasties (1368-1450). This is one of the most impressive surviving examples and is important because it is dated.

On the reverse are nine holes and an incised inscription, “Made on an auspicious day in the 4th year of the Yongle era [AD 1406]”. The shrine is extravagantly modelled, with stylized clouds that frame separate grottos containing gilded and lacquered deities.

At the top, the supreme Daoist god of thunder Leisheng puhua tianzun, rides a mythical beast called a qilin. the middle niche are the Three Pure Ones, gods who encapsulate Daoist philosophy.

In the centre is the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Being (Yuanshi tianzun); to the right, holding a sceptre, is the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao tianzun); and to the left, holding a fan, the Celestial  Worthy of the Way and its Power (Daode tianzun), known as the deified Laozi.

They are accompanied by a jade maiden (yunu) and golden lad (jintong). In the lower grotto are the Jade Emperor, seated in the centre, with Zhenwu, the god of war, accompanied by his symbol of an entwined tortoise and snake, and another unidentified Daoist god, together with guardians.

A photo of a square piece of golden and gem-covered craft from ancient China
One of a pair of gold pillow ends, decorated with two dragons and worked in relief with chased detail and openwork (1426-1435). Gold, rubies, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones, Beijing or Nanjing, Xuande era© Trustees of the British Museum
One of a pair of gold pillow ends, decorated with two dragons and worked in relief with chased detail and openwork (1426-1435). Gold, rubies, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones, Beijing or Nanjing, Xuande era

These pillow ends are decorated with two gold dragons and a flaming pearl among clouds. Both plaques are pierced around the edge for the attachment to a textile pillow.

They are worked in relief with chased detail and openwork, and are inlaid with semi-precious stones.  The gems were imported from South Asia.

Many jewels, hairpins and belts, decorated in this style of setting jewels into gold, were excavated from the Hubei tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411-1441) and from other princely tombs, such as that of Prince Huang of Lu (1370-1389), both of which will feature in the exhibition.

As the use of these materials was restricted through sumptuary laws, this pillow was probably made for a member of the early Ming royal family.

A photo of a circular piece of red ornament from ancient China showing figures moving
Carved red lacquer on wood core (Yongle mark and period, 1403-24). South China© Trustees of the British Museum
This lobed dish is decorated with a man approaching a building, accompanied by two servants. One servant is carrying a lantern and the other a zither (guqin).

Inside the building, a man is being served warmed wine. His servant attends to the brazier which is warming a jug, and beside him are wine cups and fruits on a table.

Beyond the garden fence is a fine landscape with flowers of the four seasons in the border. These flowers are repeated on the back but in reverse order.

Having all the flowers blooming at once is symbolic of the emperor controlling all of nature. On the base is an inscription, Imperial Household Department of Sweetmeats and Delicacies (Neifu tianshi fang), and the reign mark of the Yongle emperor.

It is extremely rare to find lacquer wares which still have their inscriptions describing where they were used within the Forbidden City and what they were used for.

  • Runs September 18 2014 – January 5 2015. An accompanying spotlight tour, Made in China: An Imperial Ming Vase, will continue to The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (April 12 – July 6 2014); Weston Park Museum, Sheffield (July 12 – October 5 2014); Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol (October 11 2014 – January 5 2015) and The Willis Museum, Basingstoke (January 10 – April 4 2015).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Your guide to exhibitions in 2014:

The best art exhibitions to see in London during 2014

The best art exhibitions to see in Scotland during 2014

The best art exhibitions to see in Wales in 2014
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