Exhibition of stunning Ming artefacts

Esme Haigh with a cast figure of the god of literature. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Esme Haigh with a cast figure of the god of literature. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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PRECIOUS and beautiful, they are national treasures from the Far East brought to Edinburgh only after a special agreement was struck with Chinese authorities.

Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas are still the stars of the show of course, but soon a collection of the finest objects from one of China’s leading museums, including priceless porcelain, stunning trinkets and textiles, calligraphy and beautiful paintings, are set to rival Tian Tian and Yang Guang for our attention.

Edinburgh has been selected as the only UK destination for dozens of precious exhibits from Ancient China, brought together in a fascinating exhibition that charts one of the most dynamic, inventive and best known eras in history.

For when it comes to priceless antiques and dazzling artworks, mention of the Ming Dynasty’s stunning treasures conjures up images of the ultimate in lavish design and perfection – and the hope that maybe there’s an old pot in the attic that happens to be stamped “Ming”.

Dozens of artefa cts have been carefully selected from the world-famous Nanjing museum and gathered into a dazzling new exhibition, Ming: The Golden Empire, unveiled at the National Museum of Scotland yesterday.

Accompanied by stunning examples of Ancient Chinese art and porcelain from the museum’s own collection, the exhibition charts the incredible 276-year dynasty, from 1368 until 1644 when 16 emperors of the Zhu family commanded the very finest in craftsmanship, and technological advances were at a peak.

It will examine life during the Ming era, from the dramatic cultural and social achievements of the age to day-to-day living and the sumptuous lifestyle of the Royal Court.

According to Dr Kevin McLoughlin, Principal Curator, Central and East Asia at National Museums Scotland, it is designed to showcase the pick of art and design from the period in a manner that’s accessible to all. “We have tried to give visitors an overview of the Ming Dynasty. So they will get a sense of how an object was used and why it looks the way it looks. Visitors don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy it.”

More than 120 artefacts have been selected from Nanjing’s museum, one of the most famous in the world. Among them are items which have been categorised as “national treasures” for their unique quality, style and background.

Among the most beautiful is a reliquary – used to store burial relics – excavated in 1966 from a stone chamber below the 15th century Hongjue Temple, south of Nanjing. It features four porcelain urns used to store fragrant herbs and a dazzling gilded bronze container as its centrepiece.

Alongside is a richly coloured painting from the early Ming era which illustrates the symbolic grandeur and order of Beijing’s new Forbidden City. It became the imperial seat for emperors for five centuries, and was the world’s largest palace complex. There are also dozens of exquisite objects in a variety of precious materials, such as gold earrings and a flawlessly executed late 15th century adornment of a gold cicada on a jade leaf, excavated from a family tomb in Jiangsu province in 1954. But the era is perhaps best known for its stunning porcelain, which left Europeans scratching their heads in confusion when they first encountered it.

“People couldn’t figure out what this material was,” he adds. “We had ceramics in Europe but it was stoneware or earthenware and nothing like porcelain. So there was speculation as to how it was made, and whether it was glass.

“Porcelain was one of the great Chinese contributions to the world – Dutch and English ceramics were all influenced by Ming porcelain. Nowadays we use it every day in our lives, we couldn’t be without it.”

The price tags for the items on show are not available. However in April, a rare Ming cup just three inches in diameter sold at auction for over £21m. Three years ago, a blue and white Ming vase fetched more than £14m.

“It’s interesting though that what European traders really wanted from China was tea and silk, these were the things most desired,” adds Dr McLoughlin. “Porcelain came third in that list. Of course today tea is very cheap, silk is very available. Ming porcelain, however, is very expensive.”

n Ming: The Golden Empire runs until October 29. A programme of connected events, including workshops and talks, accompanies the exhibition. Prices are: £10 for adults, £8 concessions, £6.50 for children aged 12-15 and free for under-12s and museum members.