Emperors, Scholars and Temples: Tastemakers of China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties

Gallery 222, August 12, 2016 to July 2017

Brilliant porcelains, temples in mist-shrouded landscapes, a scholar in his studio, elegant ladies decked out in fine silks — these are some of the images conjured up by the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties, the period when the arts of China reached full maturity. The primary driving forces behind this artistic creativity were three distinct yet interconnected cultural milieus: the imperial court, the scholar or literati class and Buddhism. Drawing on rarely seen pieces from the Nelson-Atkins’ own collection, Emperors, Scholars, and Temples: Tastemakers of China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties, explores how these arbiters of taste molded Chinese culture.

The emperors ruled from the Forbidden City in Beijing, the largest pre-modern architectural complex in the world. During Ming and Qing, the palace would have bustled with officials wearing robes emblazoned with large badges denoting their rank and court ladies with exquisite headdresses incorporating a variety of materials such as jade, amber, pearls and kingfisher feathers. Sumptuous banquets were served using huge numbers of specially commissioned porcelains — often employing technical breakthroughs to produce new decorative effects (fig. 1). The emperors were avid collectors and patrons of painters; the exhibition includes a handscroll by the court artist Jin Tingbiao (d. 1767) depicting Six Worthies of the Bamboo Stream, which Laurence Sickman, the museum’s first curator of Asian art, purchased directly from the last emperor, Puyi (1906-1967), after he had been expelled from the palace.

Whereas the court style epitomized luxury and opulence, the scholar or literati class developed a culture that ran in some respects counter to the court. The literati were not merely bookworms; they were poets, calligraphers, painters, musicians and collectors. Elegance and understatement were key aesthetic qualities and in painting, personal style and expressive brushwork rather than realism were the touchstones of artistic worth. A painting by Gao Fenghan (1683 – 1749) epitomizes this aesthetic. Ostensibly depicting the Five Sacred Peaks, distortions of scale make them look more like garden rocks. Part of the quirkiness of the painting may be due to Gao’s medical condition, when after losing the use of his right arm, he took up painting with his left. Perhaps the most remarkable painting in the exhibition is the handscroll by Gong Xian (1619 – 1911), who became a recluse after the fall of the Ming dynasty. Executed totally in monochrome, the handscroll depicts a river landscape with steep cliffs, the occasional pavilion, but no humans (fig. 2). It is a desolate vision, perhaps reflecting the artist’s sense of alienation under the new dynasty. Gong Xian’s short brushstrokes and dotting uncannily anticipate the pointillism of Paul Signac or Georges Seurat.

Like European collectors from the Renaissance onwards, Chinese scholars collected antiquities, but their focus was very different: Instead of sculpture, they favored ancient bronze ritual vessels, such as the ding tripod, a vessel used for offering food to ancestors during the Shang dynasty (16th century – ca. 1046 BCE). Even cakes of lamp oil soot, whose practical purpose was for use as ink, were collectibles, and one in the exhibition inscribed with a date of 1620 has survived to the present.

Buddhism, which had entered China in the first century of the Common Era, became the inspiration for a huge production of religious art. Often, Buddhist temples were located in remote scenic spots, but they were also common in cities. One of the earliest Ming temples in Beijing is Zhihuasi, from which comes the celebrated nine-dragon coffered ceiling in our Chinese Temple Gallery. Alas, it is fixed in situ, so we were unfortunately unable to transfer it to this exhibition, but a monumental temple roof ornament in the exhibition gives some idea of the magnificence of Buddhist temple architecture (fig. 3). Temples were the depositories for sutras (religious texts) and the exhibition includes fine examples of their silk covers. One of the most fascinating aspects of the early Ming court is its interaction with Tibetan Buddhism. The Yongle Emperor (r. 1402 – 1424) was a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and showered gifts upon one of its leaders, Deshin Shepka. The exhibition includes a lacquer sutra cover inlaid in gold with the Eight Treasures, and an exquisite embroidered silk tangka (Tibetan Buddhist devotional image) that were probably among the gifts.

–Colin Mackenzie, Senior Curator, Chinese Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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