Books: Ming 50 years that changed China

cover ming 50 years

This colourful volume is the catalogue for the 2014 Ming exhibition at the British Museum. I have written before about the Ming exhibition and the 2014 Barlow Lecture by Prof Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) discussing the art in the exhibition, so I thought it was time to complete the trio by saying something about this book.

If you saw the show, this is of course an ideal way to refresh your memory, and it shares many of its strengths. Firstly, the sheer diversity of the material, from ceramics and handscrolls to furniture and lacquer. Secondly, the close examination of Ming contacts with other foreign powers, which includes all sorts of interesting material such as Korean maps, Vietnamese ceramics and illustrated manuscripts in Arabic. Thirdly, the excellent photographs, giving a more detailed view of pieces that you could not explore so closely in the actual displays – for instance, the gold filigree jewellery.

However, reading the book from cover to cover proved less enjoyable than I had hoped. As emphasised in the Clunas lecture, this was a show about history, not a show about art or artists, and the catalogue adheres firmly to this approach. For me at least, this made the reading mostly rather dry, with unexpected highlights such as the section on hunting, an activity that was crucial to the ruler’s identity and that was part of a common Eurasian court culture that the Ming shared with Timurid, Ottoman and Mughal rulers.

Sometimes material is repeated in more than one chapter, which is fine for important topics like Zhu Di taking power as the Yongle emperor, but faintly irritating for less important topics such as the gifting of giraffes and elephants. The structuring of the material feels choppy too, mainly because your reading of each essay is interrupted by clusters of catalogue entries, which are incorporated in the body of the essay, not left until after.

I don’t regret my purchase and there are some fabulous images, but this is one you do have to work at.

Ming: 50 years that changed China
Edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, 2014.
The British Museum Press, 312 pages, £25 (or £40 in hardcover).