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The glories of the Ming Dynasty on display in London

— October 2014

Associated media

Portrait of Yang Hong (1381–1451). Ming dynasty, Jingtai reign, c.1451. Ink & colour on silk Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Inst. Washington DC: Purchase Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, & partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, S1991.77

Jeannie Labno visited the British Museum to report on the latest blockbuster. 'Ming: Fifty Years that Changed China'.

This exhibition explores a pivotal period in Chinese history (1400–50), during the rule of the early Ming dynasty, when China extended international relations by opening up trading routes, thereby enabling the exchange of goods and people, and establishing important diplomatic contacts.

An important feature of this period was the vibrancy of its court culture – not only the main imperial court based in the new capital at Beijing, but the multiple princely regional courts, each ruled by one of the 26 sons of the first Ming emperor, all of which provided a stimulus and market for artistic and technical creativity.

The social and cultural changes during this period allowed China to redefine herself and her connections with the rest of the world, resulting in a flowering of creativity and cultural diversity, which  is highlighted by a wide range of objects arranged in five sections: the court; arts of war; arts of peace; belief; trade and diplomacy. They include recently discovered items not previously seen outside China, as well as exhibits from many museums around the world.

Many people will be aware of the blue and white Ming porcelain, which was mass-produced under the control of the Ministry of Works and exported all over the world. And, of course, there are very fine examples here with their exquisitely detailed decorations of birds, foliage and abstract designs, whose delicacy of touch takes the breath away. But one of the aims of the exhibition is to demonstrate that there is far more to the cultural contribution of this period than Ming ceramics, and in this it succeeds.

To decorate the vast halls of their palaces, the Ming emperor and his extended family required brightly coloured objects and so encouraged new developments in craft technology. A wonderful exampleis a large, brightly coloured jar with dragons made from metal with cloisonné enamels. The large size of this cannot be appreciated from a photograph, which is a pity. It is stunning.

Equally impressive are the gold vessels ... Cassone subscribers click here to read on.

See also Louis Byrne's review of the catalogue to this superb show.

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