China’s Golden Age: Then and Now

China has been in the news a lot recently: projections of Xi Jinping’s rulership; protests for proper democracy in Hong Kong and debates about the Confucius Institute (government-funded centers around the world that promote Chinese culture).  China’s presence is also found in art, most recently in an exhibition at the British Museum (BM) in London, Ming: 50 Years that Changed China.  This exhibition not only reflects on a critical point in Chinese history during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  But it also coincides with China’s rise to power in the 21st century.

The Ming dynasty period was one of expansion and cultural change, during which Beijing became the capital and the Forbidden City was built.  China also connected with other countries, especially in Asia and Europe, extending itself culturally and politically.  Zheng He, a diplomat and admiral, used China’s naval capabilities to connect with neighboring regions in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as evidenced through trade of gold, silver, furniture and porcelain, the BM notes.  Indeed, the importance of Chinese culture during this time cannot go unstated: China produced “more books, ceramic dishes, textiles and spears than any other state on earth,” according to Craig Clunas, the exhibition’s curator, in The Economist.

Famously, the vast production of blue and white porcelain from factories in Jingdezhen, China, underscores the ubiquity of trade and its impact on the arts.  Westerners saw porcelain as luxurious; owning such objects or including them in an artwork could suggest a worldly knowledge—an awareness of trade and travel with the East.  Giovanni Bellini’s painting, Feast of the Gods (1514), for example, includes three white and blue porcelain bowls for seemingly two reasons: it reflects the opulent commissioner, Duke Alfonso d’Este, and illustrates Bellini’s knowledge of trade with the East.

Ming: 50 Years that Changed China focuses on the years between 1400-1450, and tells a timely story about China’s Golden Age through the use of ceramics, gold, jewels, paintings, textiles and weapons, among other items.  The exhibition includes objects borrowed from five other countries, as well as loans from Chinese museums.  As a result, it offers a rich understanding of China’s global connections, which helped shape itself socially, politically and culturally.

To provide an understanding of Ming China and its global influence, the BM focuses on five themes: courts, military, arts, beliefs and trade and diplomacy.  The objects chosen underscore these very subjects, including: a Cloisonné jar (1426-35); presentation sword (jian) and scabbard (1402-1424); red lacquer box carved with narcissi and epidendra (1403-1424); a Porcelain flask with underglaze blue decoration (1403-1424).  Together, these objects tell the story of Ming China during a critical point in its history.

The BM states that its exhibition attempts to emphasize China’s Asian relations and their role in shaping China, which are often overshadowed by its European history; it also aims to demonstrate the diversity of the Ming Empire.  These ideas culminate in the recent archeological gains of art and cultural artifacts that provide a new lens to view the early Ming dynasty.  An exhibition that was years in the making comes to fruition at a time when China is yet again making significant changes, internally and externally.

This is not an exhibition merely about the past.  Visitors implicitly reflect on this past era in conjunction with events in China today by drawing relationships, past and present.  Then as now, China is incurring changes and having a global impact.  A telling article in The Economist titled, “What China Wants,” points to these contemporary changes.  It acknowledges China’s rising strength, such as taking over America’s economy in size (based on purchasing-power) in a few years; the Chinese believe they will regain their role in East Asia as its power increases.  Just as China extended itself to other countries during the Ming dynasty, they do so again today: the vast mass of wealth and people occupy East and North-East Asia are enticing attributes.  The future of the rapidly rising China is unknown.  But if history is any indication, the 21st century could be the start of yet another Golden Age in China.

 “Ming: 50 Years that Made China” is on show at the British Museum, until January 5th 2015.