Ming Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Chinese Arts and Culture.

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Jar with Carp Design (1522-66)
Indianapolis Museum of Art.
By unknown Ming ceramicist,
Under Jiajing Emperor (1521-67).
For China's oldest ceramic art,
see: Xianrendong Cave Pottery,
dating to 18,000 BCE.

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For specific movements,
see: History of Art.

Ming Dynasty Art (1368-1644)
History, Types and Characteristics


Decorative Arts and Crafts

Additional Resources

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (c.100-present)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)

Appreciating Plums (1598-1652)
By Chen Hongshou.
Guangdong Provincial Museum.
Ming Dynasty painting.


In 1368 native Chinese armies drove out the last supporters of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and established the Ming Dynasty. By comparison with the decline of Chinese art which occurred during the preceding period of Yuan Dynasty art, Ming rule introduced a period of cultural restoration and expansion, leading to a widespread renewal of traditional types of art, such as Chinese pottery (notably the blue and white Chinese porcelain), which exceeded even the standards set by Song Dynasty art (960-1279), as well as Chinese painting along with its cousin calligraphy. However, the new Ming regime - led by the militaristic Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (ruled 1368-98) - also introduced a system of cultural control by imposing certain styles in the arts. Ming painters working for the imperial court, for instance, were ordered to return to didactic and realistic modes of representational art, similar to the idiom promoted by the Imperial Painting Academy of the Southern Song (1127–1279). Like the Yuan Mongols, Ming Emperors chose Beijing as their capital, thus anchoring the regime in the Yellow River area, the birthplace of Chinese civilization. The Ming Dynasty lasted until 1644, when - following a series of fiscal problems, crop failures, floods, and epidemics - they were succeeded by the Manchus who ushered in the era of Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911). For the effect of Chinese Ming culture on its nearest neighbours, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards). For details of contemporaneous art produced in India, see: Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century).


Ming Architecture

By 1400, the Ming empire had become prosperous and stable, and Chinese architecture was among the first of the visual arts to benefit. Major construction projects included the building of the Forbidden City in Beijing (1406-1420); the 262-foot tall Buddhist "Porcelain Pagoda" or Bao'ensi (Temple of Gratitude) in Nanjing, built by some 100,000 labourers and craftsmen between 1412 and 1431, featuring walls made of white porcelain bricks and 72 doorways fitted with colour-glazed tiles; and a monumental restoration and extension of the Great Wall (begun 1449). In addition, architects were called upon to design and build numerous lavish tombs and temples, using precious materials and objects from all over China.

NOTE: For more articles on the art and culture of Asia, please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Ming Painting

Ming painting maintained the traditions of the earlier Southern Song painting academy, as well as those of the Yuan Dynasty: the Zhe School of painters (Zhejiang) pursued the descriptive, style of Song ink and wash painting, while the Wu School (Suzhou) school practised the more intense and expressive calligraphic idiom of Yuan scholar-painters. In the latter, each painting is built up from a series of brushstrokes, exactly expressing the personality and feelings of the artist, rather than merely his technical competence: an approach exemplified by the Ming scholar-artist Xu Wei (1521-93), in his ink drawing Bamboo (1540, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Museum), which illustrates his technique of broad, bold slashes of ink and loosely executed lines. It is Xu Wei's freedom of expression, coupled with his emotional relationship with his materials that gives him his reputation as the founder of modern Chinese painting. Other important Chinese painters of the Ming era included Ni Zan (1301-74) and Dong Qichang (1555-1640), as well as the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty, namely, Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Tang Yin (1470-1523), better known by his courtesy name Tang Bohu, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (1500-60). The most popular genre of painting was landscape painting - usually large-scale - along with flower-and-bird compositions, and narrative figure painting which allowed artists maximum scope to praise the new Ming rulers.

Ming Pottery

The Ming Dynasty has become world famous for the unique quality of its ceramic art: in particular, its cobalt blue and white porcelain, its sea-green celadon glazed stoneware, and its white porcelain sculpture (by artists like He Chaozong), all of which were exported around the world, mostly to Europe, the Middle East, Japan and South East Asia. The above image from the permanent collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art exemplifies the Ming technique of adding manganese to cobalt blue to produce a sharper line in underglaze decoration, which might otherwise blur with the glaze. The gold-coloured carp, aquatic vegetation and other motifs were painted on top of the glaze using enamel paints, and the overpainting was fired at a lower kiln temperature. The main Ming manufacturing centers for porcelain were the imperial kilns in southern China, notably at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province - a perfect site due to the abundance of minerals, such as petuntse (china stone) and kaolin (china clay), as well as ample wood to fuel the kilns. Jingdezhen was also noted for a type of hard white porcelain, developed from its Shufu ware, named after the two-character inscriptions which appeared on some pieces. Shufu may mean the pieces were ordered for the Ministry of Defense (Shumiyuan). Shufu items have a thick, slightly opaque, glaze, white in colour, with a faint blue-green tint. Another important site was Dehua in Fujian, which produced a white porcelain with ivory glaze. Most Ming celadon continued to be made at Longquan, in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, and in the eastern province of Suzhou.

Note: To see how Ming Dynasty culture fits into the overall evolution of arts and crafts in China, see: Ancient Pottery (from 18,000 BCE) and Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). To see how Ming Dynasty pottery fits into the evolution of ceramics, please see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).

Historically, the main pottery periods of the Ming Dynasty were the Yongle period (1402–24), the Xuande period (1425–35), the Chenghua period (1464–87), the Zhengde period (1505–21), the Jiajing period (1521–67) and the Wanli period (1572–1620). New types of Chinese Ming pottery developed, included: "Swatow ware," "sancai" (three-colour) ware, "chicken cups" (wine cups with chicken motifs), and Yixing ware. During all this time, the production, decoration and overglaze painting of porcelain and other ceramic ware was continually refined, often as a result of foreign influences. The development of blue-and-white ware and cloisonné enamelwork, for instance, occurred partly because of close contacts with the world of Islamic art, while other developments reflected West Asian influences.

Ming Decorative Arts and Crafts

Ming decorative art built upon the richly varied legacy of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, which embraced both traditional Chinese art and foreign styles. At the same time, new rules ensured that a uniform standard of craftsmanship was adhered to, in order to maintain quality and safeguard exports. The main applied arts developed under the Mings were: horn and ivory carving; goldsmithery, cloisonné, jewellery art, other forms of metalwork; jade carving; silks and textiles, and Chinese lacquerware.

Many of these crafts were pursued in cultural centres in the Jiangnan region, a fertile area south of the Yangtze River, where many useful raw materials were cultivated, while southern ports were active trading centres for imports of ivory and rhinoceros horn.

Ivories and rhinoceros horn were imported from India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. During the Ming Dynasty, ivory was used to create small figurines of the gods, while rhinoceros horn was made into a variety of cups, as well as various forms of sculpture - including decorative relief sculpture, to ornament chests and other domestic objects.

Goldsmithing also flourished: precious metals, minerals and gemstones were used in a host of different ways. For instance, an estimated 2.5 million ounces of silver were used in the decoration of the Buddhist "Porcelain Pagoda" in Nanjing - sadly destroyed in 1854 during the Taiping rebellion. In addition, the huge personal tombs of the Ming Emperors were filled with precious objects. In one such tomb, for example, belonging to Emperor Wanli (ruled 1572-1620), the emperor's sarcophagus was surrounded by a number of red and black lacquered cases consisting of 3,000 priceless items made out of gold and silver, as well as gemstones, pearls, porcelain, jade and silk.

For more about other Far Eastern cultures, see: Japanese Art as well as: India, Painting & Sculpture. For an example of the European fascination with Chinese decoration, see: Chinoiserie (17th/18th century).

• For more about porcelain and celadon under the Mings in China, see: Homepage.

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