Ming: A Powerful Dynasty on Display
Did you ever notice the special exhibition last year in the British Museum – ‘Ming, 50 years that changed China’? Do you know the Ming dynasty and its history? As the introduction of the exhibition stated, “the fifty years between 1400 and 1450 saw China’s Ming dynasty establish Beijing as the capital and build the world-famous Forbidden City…China was a global superpower thoroughly connected with the outside world. Official missions led by Zheng He journeyed as far as East Africa, India and Arabia.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ming was a powerful dynasty with an extensive influence upon the world as a whole at that time.
The exhibition certainly offers a good lens for looking at China and ancient Chinese history from a western perspective. Walking through the exquisite collections of paintings and antique items, you might be in awe at the empire’s might and stupendous wealth, as even Christopher Columbus was when he got to the land.
However, some dissatisfied voices come out as well about this exhibition as well as the way it presented Chinese history. The reviewer said, “Ming: 50 Years That Changed China claims in its title to tell the story of a revolutionary age, a seismic shift, a transformation. Did the first half-century of the Ming dynasty really turn China upside-down? It certainly introduced one of modern China’s most famous landmarks, the Forbidden City in Beijing, which was originally built in this time. Yet the exhibition provides no historical context that makes sense of its bold claims for the Ming age. It doesn’t even try to sketch the preceding era out of which this epoch was forged.” This review pointed out some items which illustrated the dynasty’s conservative rather than revolutionary features and expressed doubt about the word “change” in the title which was a less appropriate phrase to describe Ming history than its suggestion of “timeless harmony.”
So, what is the real image of Ming in history? In fact, Ming was the last dynasty embedded in Han culture and ruled by Han rulers as well; the last one diachronically in ancient Chinese history, the Qing dynasty, which is better known in the west, was founded by the Manchu, a minority group in the north of China. Ming art valued and inherited a great deal from the civilizations of the past; in a broader sense, it shaped a kind of renewed continuity in Han culture. Apart from its considerable wealth, fine arts, technological inventions, and amazing state-sponsored voyages overseas, Ming also produced numerous great figures in the military, philosophy, arts and even geographical research, including some excellent emperors. In this regard, I would recommend a book called “明朝那些事儿” (Stories of the Ming Dynasty) which is now a very popular modern account of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Actually, it might be more plausible to call it a novel or review, because you can easily figure out the voice of the author here and there in this nine-volume yet rather attractive book. The author, 当年明月 (his pen name, with the literal meaning of Bright Moon Of That Time), depicted the whole dynasty in an interesting way with many humorous remarks of his own on almost every event or figure he described. Interestingly, the author himself is not a professional historian but a civil servant. Yet his great interest and good job on exploring Ming history have made his book a bestseller for a long time in mainland China. I will give more details in forthcoming posts.
Different voices can be traced in describing history. Perhaps the most common genre is romance according to Hayden White (1973), where the historical narrative is evolutionary or progressive, culminating in some form of transcendence. However, it’s not a bad idea to approach the same history from diverse perspectives. As Bright Moon Of That Time, the author, writes at the end of his book, “What is success? Success is to live your life in your own way.” Maybe this also applies to history and historians.