There’s an exhibition on at the Nieuwe Kerk “Ming. Emperors, Artists and Merchants in Ancient China“. The Ming dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 so technically not ancient, particularly as “Ancient China” in historic terms ends when the Qin dynasty begins – in 221BC. That quibble aside it’s a well thought out exhibition, full of interesting artifacts all well documented and explained. All the information is in both Dutch and English.
The Ming Dynasty saw the capital return from Nanjing to Beijing and the building of the Forbidden City, and it’s a map of the Forbidden city that forms one of the first exhibits, along with porcelain and scroll paintings from the royal palace. The next chapter of the exhibition relates to the artists, the artists during the Ming Period were also scholars and ranked high in Chinese society. There are works on display from the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty; Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, and Qiu Ying. The paintings draw on natural elements and Chinese symbology, they were usually in a scroll form, and the artist or owner would add comments at one end of the scroll with their chop, creating a provenance for the work.
The final chapter of the exhibition relates to merchants who increased their wealth and power in the Ming period and began to acquire the paintings, ceramics and other artifacts once out of their reach. This was an important social change in China, and in some ways it undermined the power of the court. In a sealed room there is a series of about 8
Also in the Ming period there was contact with other countries, with Chinese ships travelling to other parts of Asia and as far as East Africa. As other nations began to trade with China the demand for their goods grew. It was in response to this – and the decreasing sales of their own work – that Delft artists copied the famous blue and white pottery of the Ming later developing their own distinct style.
A symbol of the changing attitude to the outside world is a copy of one of Matteo Ricci’s maps, these were completed by hand in the early 1600s, and they’re surprisingly accurate; the continents are in the right place, a number of the islands in South East Asia are there but misshapen but Australia and Antarctica are fused and rather square. One of the other visitors commented sarcastically that the Chinese had put themselves in the centre of the map – but every country does this. The Dutch do it so successfully that New Zealand appears twice on some maps.
The final item is a 3D printed map of the Forbidden City – which is cool, modern. It’s also apparently a work in progress judging by the empty red square on the map and the lack of the Meridian Gate and the Gate of Supreme Harmony. It’s a fun way to bring the story up to date but I can’t help wondering what will happen to all that plastic after the exhibition closes.
You can see an overview of the exhibition in the video below. If you do decide to visit – be a bit quick, the exhibition closes on the 2 February.