Times & Places

Ming dynasty (1368-1644)

The first emperor of the Ming occupied Nanjing in 1368 after the last Yuan emperor fled north. In less than a decade, he reestablished territories held during the Tang dynasty. Thailand and Burma were vassal states, and Chinese navies were active on the southern sea. From 1405-1433, the navies made seven voyages trading, making alliances, and collecting curiosities in Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the coasts of Africa. Unlike Western powers, maritime activity did not involve conquest.

By 1516, the Portuguese were established in Guangzhou (Canton), and the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who took the Chinese name Li Matou, made significant contributions to opening up knowledge of China to the West and the West to China. He translated Chinese classics into Latin, wrote books in Chinese about Christianity and friendship, and translated several books of Euclid into Chinese. Another facet of exchange with the West centered on ceramics. The designation of two distinct types of wares was established: those for domestic consumption and those for export. The production of blue-and-white ceramics continued, and true white porcelain was developed during this time. In the 17th century this white porcelain was shipped to Europe where it was known as blanc de chine.

The first Ming emperor established a Board of Works responsible for creating standardized designs for official objects used in ceremonies, promoting uniformity in early Ming decorative arts. A richness of pattern and color developed in the Ming, and there was interaction of shapes in lacquer, cloissoné, and porcelain. Lacquer was typically carved in red with rich floral or pictorial design, in full relief, or with the background cut away. Cloissoné enamel was more fully expanded, and within ceramics glazes such as doucai "fitted colors", wucai _ "five colors", and _fahua (a ceramic version of cloissoné with blue, turquoise, purple, yellow and white glazes) that were first applied to tiles and architectural ceramics began to be applied to vases and jars to expand the repertoire.

Painting moved away from the observation of nature that characterized that of the Song to an approach that viewed painting as a vehicle for the expression of the intuitive, philosophical ideas of the artist. This approach reflects the influence of tunwu (sudden awakening), an idea borrowed from Chan that was adopted by scholars and literary men who came to view spontaneous understanding as more valuable than learning. It also became customary for an artist to compose a poem to complement the painting, and there was increasing experimentation with the use of color. This theory of knowledge and painting was given expression in the individualist and literati schools, which were concurrent with court and academic painting.

Color printing was significantly developed during the Ming dynasty. The earliest color print in China (and the world) is the frontispiece of a 1346 Buddhist sutra scroll. The practice reached its peak in the mid-17th century and included its use in treatises on painting, a history of which was written during this period. In the late 17th century, Chinese color prints reached Japan. Unlike in Japan, prints did not develop into an art form and declined in the 19th century.

As with other Chinese dynasties, the Ming fell as a result of betrayal by their allies against nomads. In this particular instance, the Ming was supplanted by the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

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