Ming: 50 Years that Changed China review – misleading and unhelpful
Source:The Guardian Date: 2014-09-17 Size:
Reframing a short period in Chinese history as the birth of modernism is ridiculous. Why must the British Museum persistently talk down to the public?

Gilded bronze sculptures of the enlightened being Avalokitesvara at the Ming exhibition in London’s British Museum.

This is the new world that Christopher Columbus dreamed of.

When Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492, he was not looking for a continent in the west, but a route to China. By then Europeans had fairly accurate knowledge of what this distant land was like. They knew it was a mighty empire of stupendous wealth. The Venetian merchant Marco Polowent there and wrote about its wonders in the 13th century. But it took him three years to get to China overland; Columbus was looking for a quick route by sea.

Here are the treasures he might have found there, for the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition Ming: 50 Years That Changed China is a detailed look at the artefacts that survive from the short period of China’s long history, from 1400 to 1450, on the eve of Columbus’s voyages – and of Vasco da Gama’s discovery in 1498 of a sea route that really did lead to Asia.

Red lacquer cabinets that drip with ornate decoration glow like the embers of dragon fire. White and blue porcelain of infinite delicacy sits next to gold and silver. The silk clothes of members of the Ming imperial family, perfectly preserved in their tombs, shine as brightly as the day they were stashed away.

The Ming dynasty still used the burial customs that prevailed in China more than 1,500 years earlier. When the crown prince of Shu died in 1409 he was interred in an underground palace stuffed with treasures. A model wooden carriage offers a glimpse of how he travelled the country. Treasures from other tombs give this exhibition a sense of archaeological discovery. There’s a Chinese chess set and a zither from the tomb of Prince Huang of Lu, who died in 1389.

Sadly, the zither is a clue to all that is misleading and unhelpful about this exhibition, which like its predecessor Vikings risks talking down to, and confusing, its public. This instrument was buried with Huang in 1389 – and yet it was made many, many years earlier, between 609 and 915AD. In other words, it was a precious antique. It proclaims a reverence for the past that runs right through the treasures gathered here – and yet we told we are seeing speedy, funky, modernising change.

Ming: 50 Years That Changed China claims in its title to tell the story of a revolutionary age, a seismic shift, a transformation. Did the first half-century of the Ming dynasty really turn China upside-down? It certainly introduced one of modern China’s most famous landmarks, the Forbidden City in Beijing, which was originally built in this time. Yet the exhibition provides no historical context that makes sense of its bold claims for the Ming age. It doesn’t even try to sketch the preceding era out of which this epoch was forged.

If the early Ming changed China it was primarily by putting a Chinese family back on the throne. China had been conquered by Genghis Khanin the early 13th century and was part of the Mongol empire until the Ming finally drove out the foreigners. Mongol China was truly cosmopolitan, with Tibetan monks running the bureaucracy and Venetian merchants hanging around at court. This exhibition implies the Ming opened up China to global curiosity – there’s a Chinese portrait of a giraffe; relics of the voyages of the eunuch Zheng He – and yet the court was actually becoming less global in its values.

The overwhelming impression of the evidence presented here is of renewed continuity with ancient ancestors. Ming art cherished civilisations of the past. There are some stunning things here. There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful painting by Xia Chang of Spring Rain on the Xiang River, and another by Chen Lu of Plum Blossoms and Moonlight.

These 15th-century paintings have a freedom, spontaneity and sensitivity that evokes Monet’s water lilies – painted 500 years later. And yet, the style of these scrolls was not new in 1400. The culture we see here is not revolutionary; it is conservative. Ming emperors themselves painted – though their efforts displayed here are amateur – and why? Because emperors painted before them.

Among the most majestic artefacts are deep red porcelain vessels made for state rituals. The red glaze was made of melted down antique bronze. By literally infusing the past into their rites, Ming rulers asserted their unbroken connection with ancient China. It doesn’t seem logical, therefore, to insist on “change” when the evidence of conservatism is everywhere. Even the most impressive manuscripts and printed books are compilations of classic texts.

It is all beautiful, of course. I am as much in awe as Christopher Columbus might have been if he ever got to China. Yet surely, in the 21st century, we need to be informed rather than awed.

This exhibition takes a moment in China’s history totally out of context and fails to give its visitors the broader, deeper knowledge and debate we need about the history of China. Its bold yet vague claims of change will surely lead some visitors to think the Ming era invented classical Chinese culture, when in reality it aspired to ancient standards set centuries earlier.

Change is not the only criterion of achievement. When I look into the little blue landscape painted on a Ming vase, it is not change I see but timeless harmony. How western to want to see modernity where every vessel sings of the longing for eternal perfection.

[Editor] 刘建兰