The Ming Dynasty: Forcing Change

Detail of handle of Yongle sword, iron, gold, silver, wood and leather, Yongle, circa 1420 © Royal Armouries Ming: 50 Years that changed China

The British Museum have organised an exhibition that explores one of China’s most well-known periods of history – the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

After rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang drove out the Mongols in 1368, he made his capital at Nanjing as the founding emperor, Hongwu (r.1368-1398) of the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty. Hongwu subsequently dispatched his 26 sons across China, to princely fiefs that would serve as a defensive barrier against any resurgent Mongol threat. The sons, with the exception of the crown prince and heir, were known as qinwang, ‘princes of the blood’, a hereditary aristocracy that represented imperial power in the provinces. They presided over multiple courts, commanded their own armies and had complete judicial power over their actions.

When Hongwu died in 1398, the throne passed to his grandson, the Jianwen emperor (r 1399-1403). However Hongwu’s fourth son, the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di (1360-1424) coveted the throne, and embarked on a bloody civil war (1399-1402) from his fief in Beijing, seizing it from his nephew at Nanjing. Perpetuating his father’s military legacy as the Yongle emperor (r 1403-1424), he and his successors, Hongxi (r 1425), Xuande (r 1426-1435) and Zhengtong (r 1436-1449) brought the empire for the next half century to a ‘golden age’.

Redefining a Formative period of History

This groundbreaking exhibition redefines a formative period during which the country is transformed. It focuses on the era after Yongle comes to power, when the Forbidden City is built, establishing Beijing as the capital and ends when Zhengtong is captured by the Mongols in 1449. The curators, Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, Oxford University and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Curator of Chinese Ceramics at the British Museum, have used exceptional paintings and surviving objects from 1400-1450 to highlight the material achievements of early Ming dynasty military and civic culture, court life, tributary trade and beliefs. Three Ming tombs with exciting tomb content from Hubei, Shandong and Sichuan are also contributing for the first time to our understanding of the ‘multiple courts’.

The Yongle emperor is credited with inaugurating the zai zao, ‘second founding’ in 1420 when his old powerbase, Beijing becomes the capital – strategically better placed to hold the Mongols at bay. ‘This was a pivotal moment because the capital -– which previously moved all the time –  has remained there and shaped the history and culture of China ever since,’ says Ms Harrison-Hall. ‘There was a big shift in Chinese power relations at the time. Until 1449, all four emperors Yongle, Hongxi, Xuande and Zhengtong led their troops into battle. But not after. This shift from military to civil power from the 1450s had important changes for China.’

Early Ming-Dynasty Rulers

The Ming empire of around 85 million maintained what was arguably the then world’s largest military establishment. Early Ming dynasty rulers lived by the ideal, wen wu shuang quan, ‘complete in the arts of both peace and of war’, which encapsulated twin virtues critical to the character and execution of imperial power. Leading their armies embodied wu, ‘military force’, the arts of war, and was complemented by wen, ‘culture’, the arts of peace.

When Yongle, ‘the Warrior’ launched the first of a series of steppe campaigns – 1410, 1414, 1422, 1423 and 1424 – against the Mongols, he personally led an army of 300,000 men, probably among the largest land battles ever known. His men were armed with portable guns; gunpowder was invented in China, and the world’s earliest extant bronze guns appeared during the Yuan (1279-1368). A Ming portable gun, considered a revolutionary weapon at the time, was found in Mongolia centuries later.

Ming-Dynasty Weapons

‘Ming weapons are in fact now very rare,’ says Prof Clunas, ‘although there are occasional significant – if poorly published – archaeological finds. Similarly very sporadic is the survival of other kinds of objects that formed part of the panoply of war. We know that the weapons of deceased emperors were kept on display at court as part of their relics, as ‘divine imperial objects’.

Occasional fine swords do survive, but they are scattered and have as yet been the object of only preliminary investigation.’ One of the most technically intricate swords to have survived, had been commissioned by Yongle in 1420. Decorated with gold, silver and semi-precious stones, its superb quality and craftsmanship indicate the rank and power of its owner.

‘The visual culture of Ming court militarism is sadly depleted by what is at best patchy survival of its imagery in scrolls, wall paintings and sculptures,’ Prof Clunas goes on to say. Now mostly vanished, the rare commemorative portraits of generals, large paintings and anonymous handscrolls of battles, had been intrinsic to Ming state art.

The prominent military commander General Yang Hong (1381-1451), defender of the Xuanfu garrison along the Great Wall and Ming China’s most sensitive frontier, had a commemorative portrait painted around 1451. It was inscribed by Minister of War, Yu Qian (1398-1457) who described Yang as a man of ‘intestinal fortitude of iron and stone’.

The Deity of Zhenwu

An important Ming cult image was the deity Zhenwu, ‘Perfected Warrior’ in full battle array. His apparition, said to have materialised just as Zhu Di launched his civil war, was taken as sanctioning the latter’s claim on the throne. Zhenwu received imperial patronage as protector of the Ming in temples and homes. One of the largest surviving bronze figures circa 1416-1439, shows him wearing armour with a dragon on his breastplate under his robe. The emperor remained devoted to the deity, reconstructing temple complexes in his honour on Mount Wudang, Zhenwu’s sacred home in Hubei.

Emperor Yongle

Referring to the protracted civil war he had won as jing nan, ‘the calming of troubles’, Yongle set about to shape wen, ‘culture’, the arts of peace. His achievements include a number of ‘firsts’. The Ming may have been the first dynasty when reign periods were named after imperial ‘reign titles’, but the Yongle reign was the first to introduce reignmarks. ‘Made in the Yongle reign’ was stamped as part of court practice on the bases of porcelain, lacquer and metalwork objects, and appeared on textile. Reignmarks provide a valuable framework for classification and dating, and are the dynasty’s most enduring legacy, synonymous with the Ming.

Yongle used the written word to control the historical record. The imperial court was charged with compiling his ‘correct’ version of official Ming history, and standardised other ‘imperially approved’ bodies of knowledge, including the Confucian Five Classics. The monumental Yongle da dian, the ‘Encyclopaedia of the Yongle Reign’ – the handiwork of 2,169 scholars and completed by 1408 – has not survived in the original, however.

Ming-Style Calligraphic Script

The calligraphic script now known as the Ming ti, ‘Ming style’ is based on the taige ti, ‘eminent court official style’ identified with Yongle’s favourite calligrapher, Shen Du (1357-1434). It featured on imperial documents, standard written and printed texts, books, and was visible on Ming paper currency.

These large foldable money notes had a standard layout, stamped with red seals. All specimens, printed and inscribed with the founding Hongwu reign period – even in succeeding eras – were used only in China, in exchange for Chinese goods. Coins engraved with Yongle tong bao, ‘circulating treasure of the Yongle era’ in the same script were produced in Beijing from 1410.

Chinese Archaeological Excavations

Findings from recent Chinese archaeological excavations are rewriting the early Ming cultural landscape. They tell us the arts of wen were not confined to the imperial court. Princely fiefdoms far away from the centre were also patrons of the arts and cultural centres of artistic production. The earliest collections of ‘model calligraphy’ assembled in 1416, belonged to Prince Xian of Zhou, Zhu Youdun (1379-1439), an artist and nephew of Yongle whose fief at Kaifeng was the former Northern Song (960-1127) capital.

At Yanzhou, Shandong, Prince Huang of Lu, Zhu Tan (1370-1389) was a connoisseur who affirmed the place of shu hua, ‘calligraphy and painting’ in the arts of wen. His collection included three exceptional paintings; two Song and one Yuan with seal impressions indicating they had once been in the Mongol imperial collection. At Taiyuan, Shanxi, the princes of Jin had prestigious holdings of art dating from previous dynasties. However, all the princes’ tombs contained weapons and armour, emblematic of their status as protectors of the imperial clan, and of the arts of wu.

A Tributary System and Trade Network

Outside China, Yongle extended the known sphere of Chinese influence through a tributary system, cultivating trading networks by land, and by sea. The powerful Timurid kingdom of Iran and Afghanistan sent missions to Beijing, where Persian was among 10 languages serviced by the Siyi guan, ‘Translation Bureau’. The Timurids exchanged horses and military intelligence for Chinese textiles, porcelain and high quality Chinese paper used for Persian manuscripts.

Superior Persian cobalt already known to Chinese potters due to earlier Mongol exchanges with west Asia, encouraged Persian-inspired symmetrical designs on white porcelain. Their ‘foreign’ shapes imitating Egyptian, Syrian and Central Asian metalwork and glass produced by the Jingdezhen imperial kiln became known to the outside world as ‘china’, ‘blue and white’, and ultimately, ‘ming’. Nearer home, Ming relations were restored with Japan, Korea and the Ryukyu Islands (presentday Okinawa). Diplomatic gifts to Ashikaga, Japan ((1336-1573) in 1403 included 58 carved red lacquer objects – prized as tea ceremony accoutrements – textiles, lacquered and gilded furniture.

Western Ocean Naval Expeditions

The most ambitious naval expeditions that projected Ming might were directed at the Xiyang, ‘Western Ocean’, the waters beyond the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean and possibly, the coast of east Africa. The Muslim admiral, Zheng He (1371-1433) led seven expeditions from Quanzhou in Fujian.

They included fleets of up to 150 ships and 27,000 men, remarkable for their time. ‘It is not usually known that all Zheng He’s voyages, from 1405 to 1433, predate Christopher Columbus’s who was born in 1451,’ says Ms Harrison-Hall. They returned with ‘tribute goods’ and ‘exotic’ gifts – semi-precious stones, sandalwood, medicinal herbs and animals. The Chinese believed the qilin, ‘unicorn’ appeared only when a sage was on the throne. Its closest mythical equivalent, the giraffe, a gift from Bengal was therefore seen as acknowledging Yongle’s rule, and recorded in a rare painting, Tribute Giraffe with Attendant, 1414.

Admiral Zheng He

We now know that the gems Zheng He brought home were used to embellish jewels found in Prince Zhuang of Liang’s (1411-1441) tomb at Hubei; a gold ingot dated 1419, was inscribed ‘purchased from the Western Ocean and other places’. Jewellery and accessories from Prince Huang of Lu’s tomb at Shandong boast an identical decorative style, also replicated on a pair of Xuande gold pillow ends.

They were probably fashioned by the Yinzuoju, ‘Jewellery Service’ at the imperial court and restricted to princes through sumptuary laws. Zheng He’s voyages heralded early Chinese contact with Nanyang, the ‘South Seas’, forming Southeast Asian trading networks from which the diaspora emerged in later centuries. Their eventual migration and settlement in these parts have left one permanent Chinese institution; the huiguan, ‘clan association’, traceable to the 1420s when Anhui merchants installed the first lodgings for provincial clansmen in Beijing.

The Hongxi Emperor

Ming China began to look inwards with Yongle’s passing. The enormous costs incurred by the maritime voyages – in addition to the Forbidden City’s construction – forced the Hongxi emperor to cancel Zheng He’s planned voyage when he ascended the throne. Known as ‘the Bureaucrat’ who favoured a civil administration, he began dismantling his father’s military policies during his nine-month rule.

Had he lived longer, he would have moved the capital back to Nanjing. His successor, the Xuande emperor, ‘the Aesthete’, was the most artistically inclined Ming ruler. Only 12 of his paintings have survived, those in the new folding fan format from Japan, are the earliest in this genre. He too subscribed to wen and wu. The extant hunting portraits he commissioned show Xuande regularly conducting annual expeditions with his elite troops.

The hunt derived from Mongol tradition, was a key activity of the early Ming court, also used by founder Hongwu to maintain martial skills and ‘combat readiness’ in the provinces. Among its most enthusiastic supporters were his sons, the Prince of Zhou, Zhu Su (1361-1425) at Henan and the Prince of Qing, Zhu Zhan (1378-1438) at Ningxia in the strategic northwest.

The Xuande Period

The powers of military strongholds were gradually eroded early in the Xuande era. Since the founding, eunuchs being the emperor’s personal representatives were – for obvious reasons – denied a formal education. The situation was reversed in 1426, when Xuande created a eunuch palace school to educate them so that they might formally communicate with court officials.

Eunuchs infiltrated the ranks of the bureaucracy thereafter, leaving the way open for eventual abuse of power.The shift away from military dominance comes to the fore when Xuande’s eight-year old son, the Zhengtong emperor was enthroned in 1436. Ming civil culture was on the rise. Those at the apex of power were identified by court painter, Xie Huan (1377-1452) in the handscroll, Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden to commemorate a historical gathering of nine officials on 6 April 1437.

Key members include the ‘Three Yang’; Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Yang Rong (1371-1440) and Yang Pu (1372-1446), who served Yongle and all three of his successors, demonstrating longevity and stability of senior office in 15th-century China. The host Yang Rong presides over his guests indulging in the qin qi shu hua, ‘four gentlemanly past-times’ of the zither, chess, calligraphy and painting, part of the culture of wen. The handscroll has a preface by Grand Secretary Yang Shiqi, the oldest member in attendance, and poems composed by all nine participants.

By Zhengtong’s time, the Ming dynasty military establishment was seriously demoralised. Its troops were no longer on constant campaign and unstable frontiers could not withstand newly emerging Mongol power. The notorious Wang Zhen (d 1449), who epitomised the rise of the eunuchs, had greatly underestimated its strength. In 1449, he sent his inexperienced twenty-two-year-old ward, Zhengtong, to head a disastrous campaign against them,  leading to the latter’s capture at Tumu fort and the greatest Ming military fiasco of all time. And the course of Ming China was never the same again.


Ming: 50 Years that changed China is at the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015. An exhibition catalogue has been published by British Museum Press