Ming dynasty 1368–1644

Selections from the Collection

In 1368, the troops of the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398) captured the Yuan dynasty capital of Dadu to end Mongol domination. Native rule returned to China and Zhu Yuanzhang became the founding ruler of the Ming dynasty, reigning as the Hongwu emperor (r. 1369–98). In the early Ming, the primary capital was established at Zhu Yuanzhang's southern base at Nanjing, Jiangsu province. After his death the throne was usurped by Zhu Di (1360–1424), who reigned as the Yongle emperor from 1403 to 1424. During his father's lifetime, Zhu Di had been enfeoffed as the Prince of Yan at Beiping (later Beijing), which became the center of his military strength. Upon seizing the throne, new imperial palaces were built at Beiping between 1406 and 1421. In 1421, the city was renamed Beijing (literally the "Northern Capital") to become the main capital; Nanjing ("Southern Capital") was lowered to auxiliary status. Duplicate imperial institutions and government bureaucracies were maintained at both locations. As it turned out, the main halls of the newly completed Beijing palaces suspiciously burned early that same year, preventing the transfer. Only after the destroyed halls were rebuilt was Beijing once again elevated to become the primary capital in 1441. Although almost all the Ming palace structures have been later restored or rebuilt, with the result that the present-day Forbidden City retains the basic layout of this era.

During the nearly three centuries of Ming rule, tributes recognizing Ming hegemony were submitted at various times from Annam (present-day Vietnam), Burma (present-day Myanmar), Korea, Mongolia, Siam (present-day Thailand), and from rulers in Chinese Turkestan as far west as Samarkand. Seven maritime fleet expeditions led by the eunuch Zheng He (1371–1435) were undertaken between 1405 and 1433, reaching India, Sri Lanka, and the east coast of Africa. Direct contact with European traders and missionaries also began in the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. The Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) arrived in China in 1583 and succeeded in gaining the favor of the Ming court. The Jesuits were able to introduce Western methods of math and science, becoming employees of the Bureau of Astronomy. They also brought new artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro and perspective rendering, setting the stage for later cultural interaction.

The imperial bureaucracy was reorganized by the Hongwu emperor in 1380. Instead of reporting to the chief administrative agency of the Grand Secretariat as in the past, the ministries now reported directly to the emperor. This reorganization functioned well when the emperor was able to devote his energies to governance, as in the case of the Hongwu and Yongle emperors. Afterwards, however, few Ming emperors were as conscientious in their duties, which eventually led to eunuch control, factional conflict, corruption, and disregard for responsible government. The reign of the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–35), however, was a stable period when support for the arts flourished. The emperor was himself an artist, poet, and significant patron of the arts. Imperial sponsorship of the ceramics kilns at Jingdezhen resulted in unsurpassed blue-and-white porcelains and wares imitating Song dynasty types.

The Chenghua (1465–87) and Hongzhi (1488–1505) emperors also were capable rulers, but later emperors withdrew from their duties. The late Ming saw a rise in peasant unrest, the spread of native and Japanese pirates affecting commerce, and a re-emergent threat from Mongolian and northern tribes. In the Tumu Incident of 1449, the Chinese emperor was even captured by the Mongol troops and had to be ransomed.

The Ming government became increasingly ineffective in the late sixteenth century. The decline of the dynasty has traditionally been ascribed to the reign of the Wanli emperor (r. 1573–1620). The reign started well with new reforms, but as the emperor became estranged from the government bureaucracy, factional disputes embroiled many of the leading political figures of the day, including many scholar-artists and their patrons. As rebel forces entered the imperial palaces in Beijing, the Ming dynasty collapsed with the suicide of the last Ming emperor in 1644.


Painting in the Ming is commonly regarded as a series of oppositions: court–sponsored professional and literati amateur painters, Zhe and Wu Schools, or Northern and Southern Schools. Highly skilled painters in the Painting Academy at court were expected to work within rules and regulations to satisfy imperial tastes. Academic painting of the Song dynasty was often taken as a model. In landscape, Ming professionals imitated the traditional Song styles of Ma Yuan (act. ca. 1190–1264), Xia Gui (act. first half of 13th century), Guo Xi (ca. 1020–ca. 1070), and the colorful blue-and-green landscape manner. In the area of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, a loosely associated group of professional landscape painters working in a freer Ma–Xia manner became known as the Zhe School. This group was heavily influenced by the court artist Dai Jin (1388–1462) after his dismissal and return to Hangzhou.

In court painting circles the category of bird-and-flower painting was split between two main camps following Song academic models. The vigorous inkwash manner of Lin Liang (ca. 1450–ca. 1500), associated with Xu Xi's (d. ca. 975) use of "boneless" inkwash without outlines, was pitted against the descriptive-realism of Lü Ji (b. 1477) following the meticulous outline and color technique linked with Huang Quan (903–968). Such infighting within the professional orbit, however, was soon overshadowed by scholar-amateur painters in the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries from the Wu region around Suzhou, a city now famed for its reconstructed gardens.

The formation of the Wu School painting tradition is credited to Shen Zhou (1427–1509), who refined the expressionistic brush-oriented manner of the Yuan dynasty masters. The outcome was a simplified brush idiom that reflected the aura of a "gentleman." Transmitted from master to pupil, first to Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) then to Chen Chun (1483–1544), this style developed alongside the growing influence of literati garden culture in Ming society. The garden, like painting, calligraphy, and poetry, had become an expression of personal virtues and sometimes political aspirations.

The traditional categorization of Ming painting into opposite camps is woefully inadequate to explain the era's complexity. Paintings by artists such as Tang Yin (1470–1524)—his Seeing off a Guest on a Mountain Path (Princeton University Art Museum)—defy classification into any one camp. Also evident are numerous individual and regional styles, which have elicited the comment that there were as many schools of painting as there were painters in the Ming. Into this mix stepped the scholar-artist Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who served as an official during the Wanli reign. Dong reasserted the reading of painted brushstrokes as calligraphic expression, and promoted the enlightened creation or "grand synthesis" (da cheng) of artistic style through the study of past masters. In order legitimate his own artistic achievements, Dong arbitrarily theorized that past painters belonged to one of two stylistic lineages: the expressive, understated brush styles of literati painters in the Southern School, and the descriptive, decorative tradition of professional artisans in the Northern School. More than a variation of the commonly held rivalry between the Zhe and Wu Schools, Dong positioned himself at the end of the Southern School as the true inheritor of a tradition of literati painters that included Dong Yuan (act. 937–976), Fan Kuan (d. after 1023), Mi Fu (1052–1107), the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, and the Wu School artists in the Ming.


During the early decades of the Ming, major calligraphers, including Song Ke (1327–1387), Shen Du (1357–1434), and Shen Can (1379–1453), were honored by the imperial court. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, imperial interest in calligraphy had waned, and it was among private individuals, not scholars engaged in government service, that a wide range of new trends in calligraphy emerged. Led by Shen Zhou (1427–1509), calligraphers in the city of Suzhou revived the styles of Northern Song masters. Shen Zhou based his own running script, marked by plump, rounded strokes written with a slightly trembling rush, on that of the Northern Song calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045–1105); Shen’s student Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) also followed this style.

Zhu Yunming (1461–1527), another Suzhou native, excelled at small standard script (xiaokai); but his greatest impact came from his experiments in wild-cursive (kuangcao). In handscrolls of poems written in this script, such as his transcription of two poems by Li Bo (701–762), "Arduous Road to Shu" and "Song of the Immortal" (Princeton University Art Museum), Zhu attacked the paper with such verve that some characters seem to explode into patterns of ink dots that evoke the turbulent emotions expressed by the verse. His friends attributed his affinity for this highly expressive calligraphy to his impetuous personality.

The theory and practice of calligraphy from the late Ming were dominated by Dong Qichang. A native of Songjiang prefecture, Dong disparaged the achievements of calligraphers in nearby Suzhou, and stressed the need to study works from the Eastern Jin and Tang dynasties. He advocated not close copying of these models, but probing analysis of what was most essential in their styles. Dong’s colophon dated 1609 to Wang Xizhi’s (303-361) Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Princeton University Art Museum), synthesizes the powerful, blocky standard script of the loyal official Yan Zhenqing (709–785) and the wild-cursive characters of the monk Huaisu (ca. 736–ca.799), both of the Tang dynasty.

A final generation of Ming calligraphers, several of whom lived to see the dynasty fall to the Manchus in 1644, explored highly idiosyncratic styles. Contemporary critics, as well as several of the calligraphers themselves, used the term qi, translatable as "unusual" or “strange,” to describe innovations in calligraphy of this period that departed radically from long-accepted norms of composition and brushwork. Wang Duo (1592–1652), who claimed that his style, though strange, was based on that of classical masters, dedicated much of his career as a calligrapher to copying works by Wang Xizhi, but his re-creation of these models completely reconfigures them. In his large hanging scroll Calligraphy after Wang Xizhi (Princeton University Art Museum), he combined the texts of two letters by Wang, rewriting the characters in sinuous cursive script and amplifying the original letters into works of monumental size. In spite of the seeming wildness of his writing, however, Wang Duo’s inventive personal style fulfills Dong Qichang’s dictum that calligraphy must not copy but transform past models.


White porcelain with underglaze blue designs reached the pinnacle of refinement in the Xuande reign period (1426–35). These porcelains were made at the Jingdezhen complex of kilns in Jiangxi province, which had become the largest center for ceramic production by the middle of the fifteenth century. Fine monochrome wares were produced along with blue and white wares for the palace as well as for both domestic and foreign markets. Export wares reached countries in Southeast Asia and reached Europe by the seventeenth century.

Ceramics were also produced at other regional kiln sites. At Dehua, Fujian province, a special white porcelain ware was produced along with sculptural figures. When this ware reached Europe in the seventeenth century it became fashionably known as "blanc-de-Chine." Ceramic sculptural figures decorated with "three-colors" sancai) glaze were produced in family workshops in Shanxi province. A fine example is a Guanyin sculpture (Princeton University Art Museum) bearing an inscription dated 1500 and signed by the craftsman Qiao Bin. Several other ceramic figures by the same Qiao family are also known in various collections.

Gardens and Architecture

In the Ming period, the relationship between buildings and gardens was redefined. Prior to the Ming, gardens were usually seen as attached to a dwelling, but by the late-Ming, buildings became structures placed in a garden; that is, buildings had now become subordinate to gardens. The garden became the center for social and cultural interaction and a magnet for art and patronage. This new model of the private garden was to have far-reaching influence.

Further Readings

Richard M. Barnhart, Painters of the Great Ming: The Imperial Court and the Zhe School (Hong Kong: Dallas Museum of Art, 1993).

James Cahill, The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, 1570–1644 (New York: Weatherhill, 1982).

James Cahill, Parting at the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty, 1368-1580 (New York: Weatherhill, 1978).

John Carswell, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain around the World (London: British Museum Press, 2000).

Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991).

Robert E. Harrist, Jr., and Wen C. Fong, et al., The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliott Collection (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999).

Wai-kam Ho, ed., The Century of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, 2 vols. (Kansas City: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 1992).

Frederick W. Mote, and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, vol. 7, pt. 1: The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

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Tang Yin
Seeing Off a Guest on a Mountain Path (Shan lu songke)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1505-1510
Ink on silk
118.0 x 61.0 cm.
Gift of DuBois Schanck Morris, Class of 1893