China may be transforming the world today but a landmark new exhibition at the British Museum in London is exploring 50 key years which changed China.
The era in question – 1400 to 1450 – represents the ascendancy of the Ming Dynasty. Ming means brilliance in Chinese. If you play word association with a more Western audience, it will likely associate ‘Ming’ with the kind of priceless porcelain vase that people would love to find in their attic or uncover at a car boot sale. But ask someone in China about the Ming period and they are just as likely to say this was the era when China first ruled the world.
In the early fifteenth century, China was already a global superpower a whole century before the Europeans first set sail on their voyages of discovery. This is is one of key focuses of the exhibition and the reason why it is so relevant and interesting today – even for someone with only a passing interest in Chinese history.
While Europe was struggling with the Black Death, Chinese emperors were busy forging trading links across Asia and the Near East through the tribute system. This involved a series of elaborate rituals, which showcased imperial grandeur through the giving and receiving of gifts with the heads of vassal states.
The practice reached its apogee during the early Ming Dynasty thanks to the efforts of a 7 foot tall eunuch called Zheng He. Until about 20 years ago, hardly anyone outside of China had heard of the admiral who sailed seven treasure fleets of 300 vessels and 27,870 men to the coasts of Africa, Arabia and back.
That schoolchildren are now starting to learn more about Zheng alongside later Western counterparts such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama says a lot about changing perceptions of China’s place in world history. The British Museum’s exhibition showcases just how enormous his ships were – 250-feet long compared to the 58-foot vessel in which Columbus sailed to America. That was just as well as Zheng returned to China with a series of exotic gifts, including a giraffe (the animal is depicted in a scroll painting – on loan to the London-based museum from the Philadelphia Museum of Art). It was a gift from the ruler of Bengal and it provided the emperor with some handy domestic propaganda since many at court believed it was the mythical qilin, which only appeared when a wise ruler sat on the throne.
Zheng’s voyages took place from 1405 to 1433 and were funded by the Yongle Emperor. The exhibition begins with this powerful figure, who grabbed the throne from his own nephew, Jianwen, the designated heir of Hongwu, the dynasty’s founder. On display are one of his swords alongside artefacts from the three emperors who succeeded him: Hongxi who ruled for just one year and was known as ‘the bureaucrat’; the Xuande emperor who was a gifted poet and artist, and finally the boy emperor Zhengtong, who was defeated and captured by the Mongols in 1449.
The Ming set the template for what many of us understand as China today. The Yongle Emperor, for example, moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and he also built the Forbidden City. The exhibition depicts the new royal palace in a series of scroll paintings. They’re described as one of the world’s first ‘selfies’ – with a court official standing very prominently at the palace entrance following an audience with the emperor.
The rituals of the imperial court are also brought to life at the exhibition with treasures from the tombs of three Ming princes – Crown Prince Shu of Sichuan, Crown Prince Huang of Lu from Shandong and Crown Prince Zhuang of Liang and Lady Wei from Hubei. The sheer extravagance of their treasures bears testament to the enormous wealth and power exerted through a network of regional imperial courts, ruled over by the Hongwu Emperor’s 36 sons and 16 daughters.
The most spectacular are from the hoard of Prince Huang of Lu, who died at 19 trying to prolong his life by drinking a mixture of mercury and jade. Similar to the Egyptians, the Chinese buried their emperors with everything they might need in the afterlife, including their unfortunate concubines who were often immolated and buried alongside them.
Prince Huang of Lu was buried in a yellow silk robe that is a rare surviving item from the era along with one of only two beaded crowns. More mundanely, he was also accompanied by scaled-down replicas of his household furniture, including a washstand with a cotton towel.
The exhibition took the British Museum five years to put together and as the Times newspaper reports, it may be one of the last of its kind. China is starting to cap the number of historical items it is prepared to loan abroad, while many of its paintings are so fragile they will need to be stored for several years before they can be displayed again.
The exhibition runs until January 5.
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