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Today I am a superman, touring an entire civilisation in two hours and finishing it all off with a review. Forty minutes in and I’m not feeling so good. I might be overdoing it. I’ve overestimated the size of my brain and it now seems too small to accommodate a world so vast, all in one go.

I’m working my way through “Ming: The Golden Empire,” the latest exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Two swallows may not a summer make, but this is the second exhibition about Chinese art to appear on Chambers Street in under a month (Tychy reviewed the first, the Poster Art of Modern China, here). Both are showcasing exhibits which have sailed all the way from China. The propaganda posters are on loan from Yang Peiming’s museum in Shanghai; the artefacts in the NMS exhibition have been donated by Nanjing Museum and they include Chinese National Treasures.

Imagine recapping the history of Europe in two hours. You’d have five minutes to inspect the Renaissance and maybe a moment for Voltaire. This analogy is not actually exact: the Ming dynasty represents only a 276 year helping of Chinese history (1368–1644). Moreover, when compared to Europe’s extravaganza of wars and revolutions in the same period, China seems to be strangely uneventful. Depending on your politics, this was either impeccably civilised or (let’s slam on the sotto voce) somewhat dull. The Ming dynasty seems to scarcely qualify as an absolute monarchy, just as the last twenty years of economic growth in China have supplied the old one-party state with an unfortunate, irritating credibility.

There was a single Ming monarch rather than a sprawl of jumped-up, bickering houses and dynasties. Europe’s religious wars never got started in Ming China. Instead of inheriting their aristocratic status, most of the Chinese elite had to literally pass an exam to be in power. This was not a meritocracy: in practical terms, you had to be rich already to study for the imperial examination, and the lower classes were explicitly barred from being candidates. Yet making the elite fight for power in a public exam, rather than on the battlefield, provided an enduring guarantee of social stability.

The downside of this tactic, however, was that officialdom emerged as an arbiter of virtue and taste. The supremacy of the regime’s bureaucracy is bizarrely indicated by the late fourteenth century bricks which were manufactured for Nanjing’s defensive walls. Each brick is stamped with the names of the worker who had made it and the worker’s supervisor, so that they could be identified in case a particular brick proved defective. That is, if you could retrieve a defective brick from beneath the guardhouse that it had brought down.

Several of the artists whose work features in this exhibition had failed the imperial examination and their consolation prize was typically a life of drunken freedom. Ming culture was often enriched by those who it had officially repulsed. This is reflected in the entries from the album “Portraits of Eminent Men of Zhejiang Province.” Early in the exhibition we encounter a series of jocular-looking scholars who had all passed the examination at its highest level to become jinshi. The portraits are fresh and vivid, but the layout of the series, with each scholar’s head apparently placed against the same grey headrest, creates the impression of mugshots which are as formulaic as Nanjing’s bricks. Later in the exhibition, we encounter an image from the same series of the artist Xu Wei, who had failed the examination. Exiled from the other eminents, he looks rueful rather than jocular, but we have a greater sense of his personal independence (or his loneliness). The headrest is missing.

Perhaps the most awesome artefacts in this exhibition are the four examples of imperial examination papers. Alas, unable to make head nor tail of them, I cannot tell whether they are the exam papers or the candidates’ submissions. Their length suggests that they are answers, but I am unnerved by the neatness of each character on their pages. When I had sat exams as a student, I was worried that my frantically scribbled essays would be illegible to anybody who tried to mark them. On the spot, I concoct some theory about Chinese civilisation being so stable and sensible because the handwriting of its elite was so neat. Later in the exhibition I encounter a passage of “wild-cursive” calligraphy by Zhu Yunming, who had failed the (national) imperial examination and apparently practised joined-up handwriting as a revenge upon the whole system. My handwriting theory is over for good, however, when I find out that the imperial examination had lasted for three days rather than the three hours of my university experience. The imperial hopefuls were imprisoned in tiny cubicles, laboriously replicating the characters which they had painstakingly memorised.

The misfortune of this exhibition is that many of its priceless artefacts look like tableware from the British Victorian period. Once our own civilisation had mastered porcelain, we churned out vases and dishes for our middle class which today look no different from the treasures of the Ming emperors. “Dish with a sweet white glaze” represents the nadir of this exhibition – it could be any dish, made in any country, within the last two hundred years. The zenith is undoubtedly the tiny gold statues, as clear as drops of dew, which are so fresh that they do not seem to have aged an instant since their Ming days. There is a gold cicada on a jade leaf and beetle-sized cherubs with lotus flowers.

A cause of special interest is the late fourteenth century paper banknote: an inky grey document, about the height of a modern novel, which I had assumed might have been one of the first examples of paper money. I later learned that by the fourteenth century these notes had been established as a concept for centuries. Marco Polo would take the idea back to Europe with him.

The exhibition ends with the last Ming emperor dangling from a tree, having voluntarily lynched himself after peasant turmoil overran the Forbidden City in 1644. The intellectual conformity which had been produced along with the educated elite was now preventing the regime from adapting to popular demands. It is a minor but regrettable oversight that this exhibition does not recount how these artefacts have travelled all the way from the Ming dynasty to today. Whilst some of the jewellery and figurines have been evidently preserved within tombs, a number of the more venerable paintings have been kept in existence, somewhere or other, whilst dynasties rose and fell.

Did these scrolls have doting owners who had them snugly rolled up in archives and attics? Some of the dishes and fish vats are no doubt still dreaming of the Ming dynasty, but sleepers tell no tales. If you could only rub them so that their history sprang out fully-formed, like a genie. Many of them are still centuries away.

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