Most westerners know a little about the tea and porcelain trade, Jesuit missions, the Dragon Empress and the opium wars. But what went on behind the Great Wall before Europe’s trade with China became serious in the 16th century is, for many, a vast tract of ignorance. The British Museum’s exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China illuminates a half-century slice of life in China shortly before the establishing of regular commercial links with Europe.
The Ming Dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries, but here we are concerned with the years 1400-50. Taking exhibits from Chinese museums, other collections worldwide and the British Museum’s own splendid holdings, the curators’ emphasis is on how life was lived – not the life of China’s vast population but that of the elite and, in particular, the imperial court. The Emperor’s ruthless dynastic autocracy operated through a huge military and bureaucratic establishment, but he depended just as much on the more personal support-system of his eunuch-staffed court, first at Nanjing and then Beijing.
Like many royal courts, it was a place where culture and politics entwined, and during the Ming Dynasty it spawned offspring in all the provinces of China – mini-courts, each supporting one of the emperor’s many sons. This courtly diaspora is one of the reasons for the survival of so many artefacts connected with high-minded relaxation, for to be at court was to confirm your wealth and status above all through lordly loafing and the pursuit of a range of elaborate leisure activities.
The visual representation of the courtiers’ everyday lives is extremely rich, whether on painted silk scrolls, paper, porcelain or panels of lacquer. The study of Confucian texts, reading and writing poetry, appreciating painting and calligraphy, making music and playing sophisticated games such as chess and all kinds of sport, are all recorded, and often with the thoroughness of documentary. In physical activity horse-sports were paramount, but there was also archery, football and a game that looks exactly like golf. Another painting shows miniature cockfighting, with two quails circling each other around a table-top cockpit.
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