The establishment of the Ming dynasty in 1368 marks the return of native rule over all of China for the first time in centuries. An interest in cultural restoration characterizes the first part of the dynasty, when the court sets the style for ceramics, lacquers, textiles, painting, and other arts. The delicate porcelain bodies and elegant underglaze cobalt blue decorations on imperial wares made for the Xuande (r. 1426–35) and Zhenghua (r. 1465–87) emperors are among the most famous blue-and-white wares in ceramic history. Painters, working at the court, or professionally, or as a means of self-cultivation, derive inspiration from earlier traditions found in the Northern Song (960–1127), Southern Song (1127–1279), and Yuan (1271–1368) periods.
In the sixteenth century, the development of massive manufacturing industries, such as those for porcelains and textiles, spurs great prosperity and the rise of a more educated populace, particularly in southern China. New regional centers arise in response to the private patronage of arts by wealthy officials and merchants in cities such as Nanjing and Suzhou. The widespread printing of books and the development of new types of painting and less formal designs in the decorative arts reflect these economic and cultural changes.
The reign of the authoritative and expansionist Yongle emperor is marked by five massive expeditions against the Mongols to the north, as well as campaigns in Vietnam. It is also a period of artistic flowering noted for elegant porcelains and textiles, and for the production of numerous Buddhist icons for use at the court and as gifts to Tibet.
Muslim Grand Eunuch Zheng He (1371–1435) leads seven grand naval expeditions, some totaling 300 ships and 27,000 sailors, reaching India and Persia in the first four expeditions and Africa in the last three. His concerns are primarily diplomatic, seeking to establish ties with other nations. However, exotic products and animals, such as giraffes, rhinoceroses, and lions, are also brought back to China.
Construction begins on the Forbidden City, an imperial complex at the heart of Beijing, which will remain the home to China’s emperors until 1912. Orientation of the complex and the surrounding city follows a rigid north-south axis, and all of the most important buildings face south in the traditional manner. The Yongle emperor first uses the Forbidden City in 1420.
A selection of Confucian texts known as the Great Compendium of the Philosophy of Human Nature is published. In conjunction with the Great Compendium of the Five Classics and Four Books of 1415, it serves as the standard for all scholarship, particularly that needed to pass the imperial examination that led to coveted roles in the government bureaucracy.
Over 100,000 artisans are employed in the capital city of Beijing serving the needs of the court for metalwork, textiles, lacquers, and other luxuries.
The Temple of Heaven is built. It is the site for an important rite, held at the winter solstice, in which the emperor reports on the state of the nation to the heaven and pays it homage. Enlarged during the reign of the Jiajing emperor (1522–1566), the temple is last used in 1915 by Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), president of the short-lived Chinese Republic.
The reign of the Xuande emperor is marked by active patronage of the arts. He replaces the early informal manner of administering court painters with a more rigorous system in which they are appointed duty at the Renzhi Hall. The latter, due to its visibility, is known informally as the Huayuan, or Painting Academy. An imperial foundry for the production of fine bronze and copper vessels is also established, as is the system of marking ceramics with reign dates to indicate their period of production.
Suzhou in Jiangsu Province and other cities in the southeast are flourishing economic and cultural centers. Wealthy families living in elegant garden homes amass important collections of paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, and other antiquities and provide support to professional painters and other craftsmen. In addition, Suzhou is the home to scholar-amateur artists such as Shen Zhou (1427–1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), who are noted for their calligraphic ink paintings of landscapes, flowers, and figures. They and their circle are often categorized as the Wu School after the ancient name for the city.
Arts also flourish during the reign of the Zhenghua emperor, himself a proficient painter. Known as doucai (contrasting colors), porcelain decorated with images outlined first in cobalt blue under the glaze and colored with enamels over the glaze reaches its peak of development. Luxury textiles are produced in large quantities in the southern cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou.
The life of Wang Shouren (also Yangming), one of the most important intellectuals of the Ming dynasty, noted for his idealistic and intuitive approach to moral cultivation. Earlier Neo-Confucian thinkers stressed the acquisition of certain types of knowledge as the basis of self-development. Wang’s “teaching of the mind,” or xinxue, system argues that knowledge is innate, immediately apprehensible, and can be acquired in many pursuits.
Mongol incursions into northern China help spur the addition of extensions to the “Great Wall.” This work continues until the end of the Ming dynasty in 1644.
A Portuguese ship reaches the Pearl River estuary, carrying the first Europeans to reach China by sea.
Dong Qichang, the most influential painter-theorist of the seventeenth century, leads a group of artists working near modern-day Shanghai in a movement of landscape painting emphasizing expressive brushwork rather than technical proficiency in representation. Dong and his followers seek to revitalize the understanding and recreation of the work of past masters. His categorization of earlier painters influences Chinese art history for centuries.
The Journey to the West (Xiyouji), a novel based on the journey to India of the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (ca. 602–664), a monkey, and other companions from 629 to 645, is published. This is one of several popular novels from the period, when growth in woodblock printing made illustrated books widely available. These include dictionaries and agricultural and technical treatises, as well as scripts for plays and other entertaining manuscripts.
Kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province produce blue-and white wares and other ceramics in great numbers for domestic use and export. This year alone sees the production of 96,500 small pieces, 56,600 large pieces, and 21,600 sacrificial vessels. Two hundred sixty Chinese plates and bowls dating from 1500 onward are preserved as ceiling decorations in the porcelain room in the Santos Palace in Lisbon. More extensive collections, including wares from earlier periods, are found in the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul and the Ardebil Shrine in Tehran.
Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1522–1610) arrives in Macao. He is one of the most famous of the Catholic missionaries who live in many parts of China in the late sixteenth century. Ricci lives in Beijing from 1600 to his death in 1610 and is instrumental in introducing Western scientific knowledge to the court.
“China, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eac (October 2002)