This autumn the British Museum will stage a major exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery on a golden age in China’s history supported by BP. The exhibition will explore the years 1400 – 1450, a pivotal 50 year period that transformed China during the rule of the Ming dynasty. Bureaucrats replace military leaders in the hierarchy of power, the emperor’s role changes from autocrat to icon, and the decision is taken to centralise, rather than devolve, power. The exhibition will include rare loans of some of the finest objects ever made in China, shedding light on this important part of world history that is little known in Europe. China’s internal transformation and connections with the rest of the world led to a flourishing of creativity from what was, at the time, the only global superpower.
This period for China was a time of extraordinary engagement with the world and of fascinating cultural diversity. The admiral Zheng He opened up China’s maritime history, sending treasure ships to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. China enjoyed a period of unprecedented global contacts from Kyoto to Mogadishu through trade and diplomacy, evidenced through gifts of gold, silver, paintings, porcelains, weapons, costume and furniture. This is the first exhibition to explore the great social and cultural changes in China that established Beijing as a capital city and the building of the Forbidden City - still the national emblem on coins and military uniforms today. As well as the imperial court, the exhibition focuses on finds from three regional princely tombs: in Sichuan, Shandong and Hubei covering southwest, northeast and central China. Four emperors ruled China in this period. The exhibition will include the sword of the Yongle Emperor, “the warrior”; the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, “the bureaucrat”; the paintings of the Xuande emperor, “the aesthete”; and portraits of the officials who ruled while the Zhengtong emperor was a boy. There will also be costumes of the princes, their gold and jewellery, and furniture. The exhibition covers court life, the military, culture, beliefs, trade and diplomacy.
During this 50 year period there was unprecedented contact with the world beyond the Ming Empire, through embassies, an assertive military policy, and court-sponsored maritime expeditions. Early Ming imperial courts enjoyed an unparalleled range of contacts with other Asian rulers: the Timurids in Iran and Central Asia; the Ashikaga in Japan and Joseon Korea. Contacts extended to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Africa, and even to Mecca at the heart of the Islamic world. The exhibition aims to replace older histories of China that over-emphasise contact with Europe after 1500 by highlighting complex and longer-lasting intra-Asian connections that played a key role in the formation of the Chinese state, society and culture. At the same time, the exhibition will explore the diversity within the Ming Empire itself, and the idea that it is multiple courts, and not one single, monolithic, imperial court, that are important in this period. Here, the recent spectacular gains of archaeology, in revealing the culture of the regional princely courts of the early Ming, enable art and material culture to significantly alter our view of the period.
The exhibition is part of a wider research project in association with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which seeks to provide a new perspective on a period of crucial importance to China and the wider world, a history that for the first time fully integrates the evidence of material culture with the enormous textual record. The early Ming period defines contemporary Chinese conceptions of their own history, and China’s relations to the rest of the world.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said “the political, social and cultural changes to China during the first half of the 15th century make this a remarkable story which is only now being fully understood. New discoveries and research have led to a new perspective on this significant period that moves away from a Euro-centric view of China’s history. Temporary exhibitions of this nature are only possible thanks to external support so I am hugely grateful to BP for their longstanding and on-going commitment to the British Museum.”
“BP is extremely pleased to support Ming: 50 years that changed China, the second BP exhibition of the new five year partnership with the British Museum. BP has had operations in China for more than 30 years and our activities there are a vital component of BP’s global portfolio. Our support for this exhibition is part of BP’s wider contribution to UK life, enabling people to connect through cultural activities. We are delighted to help bring this major exhibition to the British Museum.” Peter J Mather, Group Regional Vice President, Europe and Head of Country, UK, BP.
This summer the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is hosting the only UK showing of the internationally significant exhibition, Ming: The Golden Empire. Featuring Chinese National Treasures, the exhibition explores this remarkable dynasty of 276 years, the world’s largest, wealthiest and most populated empire. A collection of stunning Ming artefacts on loan from Nanjing Museum will be complemented by a choice selection from National Museums Scotland’s world-class Ming collection. Society changed dramatically during the Ming, as a once agrarian economy transformed itself into a booming commercial economy. The exhibition examines imperial power, the Ming elite, and international trading relationships as they developed over the period. It also sheds light on developing tastes and aesthetics, as an increasingly wealthy society led to greater demand for luxury and craft objects, including decorated porcelain. From 27 June to 19 October 2014.