Ming dynasty 1368–1644
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
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
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
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
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).