More than just vases: British Museum showcases the worldly masculinity of the Ming dynasty

An exhibition at the British Museum will show that Cold War-era ideas on China’s past gave a short-sighted view of the country

The British Museum is aiming to prove there is more to Ming culture than porcelain vases with a blockbuster exhibition displaying an array of treasures – from a 15th-century gun to the world’s oldest surviving encyclopaedia – that help show the “foundations of modern China”.

The show’s curators are hoping to shake off the interpretation of “Cold War-era historians” and stress the hitherto ignored “macho culture” of the Ming court, which included hunting, horse-riding and military prowess.

The exhibition will draw heavily on new archaeological finds which “significantly alter our view of the period,” one curator said.

Ming: 50 Years That Changed China, sponsored by BP, will open on 18 September and run until early January. It promises to display “some of the finest objects ever made in China, shedding light on this important part of world history that is little known in Europe”.

Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator at the British Museum and one of the two co-curators of the Ming exhibition, said: “This is a crucial period in Chinese history. We’ll look at China as a global superpower, with one family ruling a country the size of a continent.”

She added: “This period is relatively unknown outside of China. We hope this exhibition will tell a new history of this period.”

It runs from the civil war that culminated with the Yongle emperor overthrowing his nephew in 1402 until his grandson, the Zhengtong emperor, was captured by the Mongols in 1449.


During this period, Beijing became the capital of China, the borders were fixed as they are today and the Forbidden City, still a major cultural symbol for the country, was built. As well as objects from its own collection, the museum is to display loans from 10 Chinese institutions and 21 international lenders.

The curators hope to present a new view on this period of history. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said: “We want to look at it not from the traditional European perspective, but how does China see its place in the world.”

Part of this is re-evaluating the theory that the emperors looked down on macho activities. Co-curator Craig Clunas, professor of art history at Oxford University, said: “The belief that they looked down upon hunting and horse-riding was formed in the 1950s and 1960s. New research has prompted a massive re-think.”

Among the objects is an early Chinese gun consisting of a series of tubes which would be set alight to fire projectiles. A cannon from the era will also be on display.

As well as artworks detailing daily life in the era and, of course, porcelain objects, the exhibition will provide the oldest folding fan to survive, painted on by emperor Xuande, as well as the earliest surviving encyclopaedia, which is on public display in the UK for the first time.

The original 1408 tome made for the emperor no longer exists, but copies dated from 1562 to 1572 will be used. Entries include everything from bean recipes to feng shui diagrams and how to prepare a corpse for burial. It is thought that 2,000 scholars worked on 200 volumes. Eight will be on display, on loan from the British Library.

Mr MacGregor said the exhibition was about a time when the country was “rethinking itself and reshaping itself”. Other treasures on view will include jewellery, costumes, paintings, the sword of the Yongle emperor and a rare artwork depicting a giraffe.

Mr MacGregor said: “It’s when China engages not just with its immediate neighbours, but with the whole of Asia and the Indian Ocean. It’s the moment China stops being just China and becomes, for the first time, a global power.”

During that 50-year period of the Ming dynasty, texts were published in multiple languages, and the country had links with Korea, the Middle East and Africa. Beijing hosted astronomers from Iran, Vietnamese architects and Japanese weapon specialists “all intermingling at court,” Ms Harrison-Hall said.

The exhibition marks a growing interest in Chinese culture and its past. It follows Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, which will soon conclude at the V&A.

“The idea of China as a closed, difficult place says more about the 1970s than it does about the 1420s,” said Mr MacGregor. “It is important to understand what the world looks like if you are Chinese.”

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?