I went along to the new Ming exhibition at the British Museum just because I wanted to see it, not thinking it would have much of a Japanese aspect to qualify it for a blog post. But, as so often happens, once I got there I found all sorts of references to Japan – not really surprising when you consider that Japan is China’s nearest neighbour after Korea. So here’s a Japanese take on a Chinese exhibition for you.
The Ming dynasty ruled China for nearly three hundred years, but the exhibition focuses on the key fifty years between 1400 and 1450 when four successive emperors transformed China while living lives of luxury surrounded by great art and artists. They were known as the Yongle Emperor (the warrior), the Honxi Emperor (the bureaucrat), the Xuande Emperor (the aesthete), and the Zhengtong Emperor. They established Beijing as the capital, built the Forbidden City and transformed China into a centralised power with the Emperor at its centre. They presided over a period of immense creativity and openness to the world.
Among their trading partners was Japan, where the Ashikaga court highly prized their red lacquerware, which they used in the tea ceremony. I can see why, as the laquerware items are some of the most intricate and beautiful objects in the exhibition.
Japan even learned to make red laquerware for itself – this box was made in the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa).
In an example of the sincerest form of flattery, Japan made its own version of high quality Yongle era coins. The gold coins in the centre of this picture are Japanese made but bear the inscription ‘Circulating treasure of the Yongle Era’. Copying Chinese coins was banned in the early 1600s.
Japan’s interest in China extended to Chinese poetry. This book is a dictionary to help Japanese writers compose Chinese-style verse using Chinese characters. It belonged to a Japanese monk called Shosho, who left a handwritten note inside dated 1431.
This is a Japanese edition of the Analects of Confucius, published in the early 1400s.
Japan’s greatest poet writing in Chinese was Tenjin (AD 845-903). This image of his spirit was produced in Ming China for sale to Japanese customers.
China had adopted the folding fan, which was invented in Japan, during the earlier Song dynasty, but it was in the Ming period that they became popular. This fan shows the Xuande Emperor showing off his artistic skills and cosmopolitan tastes.
There’s a massive amount to see in this autumn blockbuster of an exhibition. Some of my favourite, non-Japan related exhibits are the warriors at the top of this post, part of a model army buried with the Crown Prince of Shu, and this tile from the Great Monastery of Filial Gratitude.
The exhibition is well laid out and explained so I would definitely recommend a visit. It continues until 5 January 2015. It’s open 10 am to 5:30 pm Saturday to Thursday and 10 am to 8:30 pm Fridays. Admission costs £16.50.