Ming mania at the British Museum – is it time we got over our obsession?
Source:The Guardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2014-09-11 Size:
As a blockbuster show of the exquisite Chinese porcelain opens at the British Museum, Jonathan Jones takes a hammer to our cliched obsession with all things Ming...

Both the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland are holding major Ming exhibitions.

The word Ming conjures up precious, fragile, beautiful things. “Man breaks priceless Ming vase” was a story to remember in 2006, even though the three Chinese vases smashed by a clumsy visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge weren’t Ming at all. They were made in the Qing (or Manchu) era. So why are we so quick to reach for this word? Why are we so fixated with this one period in the long, brilliant history of China? And does this Ming mania blind us to the intelligence, ambition and originality of other ancient Chinese art?

If you want proof that we westerners are still as in thrall to the Ming dynasty as our grandparents (mine decorated their house with fake Ming vases), consider the fact that not one but two blockbuster Ming exhibitions can be seen in Britain this autumn. Ming: The Golden Empireis at the National Museum of Scotland, while Ming: 50 Years that Changed China opens next week at the British Museum. There’s even a touring exhibit of a single Ming vase, courtesy of the British Museum, for those who can’t get to Edinburgh or London.

So why do we have this stereotype? Why do we think that all art made in China before modern times can be boiled down to two words: Ming vase? The Ming dynasty, which ruled from 1368 to 1644, now provides instant brand recognition: it has become shorthand for a golden age of Chinese civilisation. The museums know that. From Pompeii to Vikings to Ming, if you’re going to sell history, pick a period with a sexy name. An exhibition called Song or Tang wouldn’t have nearly the same blockbusting appeal, even though both dynasties were far more artistically creative.

The Ming era was not the golden age of Chinese civilisation, whatever blockbuster shows try to suggest. It was an age of missed opportunities and weak but brutal rulers, sandwiched between two periods of foreign domination. And it heralded imperial China’s decline into impotence and backwardness. It would take the 20th century, which saw a revolution and a transition from communism to capitalism, to make China great again.

The real golden age happened earlier and was contemporary with a period in European history that encompasses ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. Confucius, said to have lived from 551 to 479BC, created a philosophy of government and ethics that was to be the backbone of Chinese civilisation for more than 2,000 years. Then, as Rome conquered the west, the Qin and Han dynasties created a powerful Chinese state. There was even trade between Rome and China, via the fabled Silk Road through Afghanistan.

But the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe was plunged into poverty and barbarism. China meanwhile became more and more civilised. Despite political ups and downs, the culture of the Tang (AD618–907) and Song (AD960-1279) dynasties was brilliant. This, and not the Ming age, was when porcelain was perfected and when China invented printing, gunpowder and the compass. While those inventions are well known, the west remains blind to the artistic originality of the Tang and Song, dazzled by the myth of Ming and the notion of Chinese art as something ceramic and shiny that looks nice on the mantelpiece. We have reduced a civilisation to decoration, “chinoiserie” as it was called in the 18th century.

What did happen during the Ming era was that China and Europe discovered one another – though that may not be quite the right word, for each remained largely ignorant of the other, trading without learning, dreaming without seeing. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India. Once that eastward route was established, it was only a matter of time before European navigators reached China. By 1577, Portugal had a base in Macao and soon the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) was muscling in.

Two Portuguese ships loaded with more than 200,000 Chinese porcelain objects were seized by the Dutch in 1604. After these were auctioned at the courts of Europe, the DEIC imported so much Ming-era porcelain that they appear routinely as household objects in 17th-century Dutch art. The cult of the Ming vase was born. By the 18th century, China was making porcelain to western specifications. Our reverence for porcelain of the Ming era was born and it remains a cultural cliche to this day.

So what is wrong with admiring this porcelain, which was taken to refined heights by the imperial workshops at Jingdezhen? The answer lies in a fascinating exhibit in the British Museum show. It is not Chinese but Italian: the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna’s painting The Adoration of the Magi. In this work, from about 1500, Mantegna depicts a Ming porcelain cup as one of the gifts the wise men bring. Pictured in exquisite detail, it is one of the very first European images of Chinese porcelain. Mantegna plainly admires it. Yet it is an artefact within an artwork: something smaller inside something greater. While porcelain is beautiful, a Renaissance painting like this embodies all the reasons the west came to believe itself superior – a more ambitious, more intellectual way of seeing the world. A painting is a work of thought as well as craft. A pot, however lovely, is only a pot.

In the west’s cult of Ming porcelain, a patronising lie is concealed. For China’s art before modern times was not just decorative. Far from it. Centuries before Mantegna was even born, painters in Song China depicted nature with acute, mind-boggling naturalism. When Europe was mired in medieval squalor, China’s artists did not simply paint landscapes with deep sensitivity – they invented the idea of art as an intellectual and meditative activity. It was scholars and even emperors who painted on silk, using brushes to reveal their emotions. Painters in China were praised for their expressive, individual manner, long before such ideas occurred to Europeans.

In other words, many of the key ideas of the Renaissance and even of modern art (naturalism, the high status of the artist, the belief that art is self-expression) were invented long before in China. That’s a truth to stand the story of art on its head. But we can’t see it for all those Ming vases on the mantelpiece.

[Editor] 刘建兰