The gold items from the imperial treasury of the Ming dynasty, more precisely, from the Wanli period (1573–1620), are great masterpieces of gold crafts, and they show the sophisticated taste as well as the economic power of the famous rulers. Jewellery, tableware, and other items of artistic merit show the social position of their owners, while depictions of dragons with five claws and phoenixes reveal connections with the imperial family. These items rarely leave China and can be seen in Slovenia for the first time.
The Dong Bo Zhai Collection
The exhibition presents 145 gold objects from the Dong Bo Zhai Collection, a private collection of the founder of the Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts. The gold objects from the reign of the Wanli emperor (1573–1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) represent imperial gold-working in all its splendour. Most were made in 1601 in the imperial workshops of the Yinzuoju, the Jewellery Service responsible for the production of jewellery and gold ware, and are believed to have originated from a single tomb.
The most exquisite among the exhibits are those made in the filigree technique, which had been fairly rarely employed in gold-working of the earlier Ming period. Their very precise craftsmanship indicates a high social standing of the owners, while the depictions of five-clawed dragons and phoenixes reveal connections with the imperial family. The objects may thus have belonged to the imperial court or were made and offered to a member of the imperial family. In addition to imperial gold, the Dong Bo Zhai Collection comprises bronze vessels dating from the periods prior to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), ancient statues of Buddha, Tibetan Buddhist relics and stamped jinzhuan bricks, which were made in the imperial brickworks for exclusive use in the Forbidden City in Beijing and other imperial buildings during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The gold of ancient China
In ancient China, the aesthetic trends respected the supremacy of spiritually in the artistic expression. They formed part of a value system in which social standing and prestige were primarily associated with jade and bronze, symbols of incorruptibility and power, to a lesser degree with gold (jin) and silver (yin). Initially, the term jin was used to refer to metal in general and only later acquired the meaning it bears today – gold. This shows that supremacy of spirituality notwithstanding, there was a keen interest in precious materials, a correspondence between form and material, and the aesthetic pleasures to be gained from admiring and handling exquisitely made objects.
It is only under the influence of the northern nomadic tribes that the Chinese began appreciating gold as a metal of prestige. From the 6th century BC onwards, gold began to symbolise ostentatious wealth.
The Ming dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398) established the Ming dynasty in 1368 and named himself Hongwu (emperor from 1368 to 1398). He ruled over the largest, richest and most densely populated empire of its day. The capital was first in Nanjing. In 1421, the third Ming emperor, Yongle (1403–1424), moved it to Beijing where a new imperial palace was constructed named the Forbidden City.
Ming – meaning ‘bright, shiny’ in Chinese – was a suitable name for a dynasty whose 276 years of rule were marked by stability, economic strength and an efflorescence of the arts, culture, exploration and technology. China was transformed from a purely agrarian to an increasingly mercantile empire. Prosperity increased the size of its population, from an estimated 65 million inhabitants when the dynasty was established to 175 million when it ended, but also enriched the social classes of merchants and businessmen.
Gold under the Ming dynasty was renowned, together with jade and silk, as the most precious of materials and also an important symbol of wealth and social standing. Gold ware remained the privilege of the emperor and the imperial family, as required by sumptuary laws.These laws, however, were gradually being disregarded. Well-to-do women began wearing gold and pearl headdress and wealthy individuals imitated court art and had goldsmiths summoned to their homes to work to order.
At the same time there were some milieus in China, committed to the Confucian ideal that ‘a learned man never amasses gold and gems’ and that ‘honesty and truth are his treasures’, in which precious vessels were considered vulgarly ostentatious.
The Wanli emperor
The period of the late Ming (from the mid-16th century to its decline) was marked by weak emperors, passivity, poor administration, decadence and corruption. The first years of Wanli’s rule (1563–1620) were a time of prosperity for the state, at least until it was run by the head imperial official Zhang Juhzeng. When this political father of the emperor died, however, the eunuchs regained control and the emperor lost interest in governing. The state soon fell into financial difficulties, primarily because of Wanli’s great investments in constructions and sumptuous ceremonies, as well as lavishing prominent members of his family with expensive gifts. In spite of this, the overseas trading and the influx of money from Japan and Spanish America still enabled great prosperity in some parts of the empire.
His mausoleum, also called the Dingling (Tomb of Tranquillity), was the burial place for himself, the Empress Xiao Duanxian and the Concubine Xiaojing. It has been discovered intact and is the only tomb opened during modern excavations; these took place between 1956 and 1958. The mausoleum’s construction began in 1584 and ended in 1590, when the emperor is reported to have held a reception there. The 87.34 m long and 47.28 m wide underground palace, covering a surface of 1195 m2, cost the emperor a sum equal to two years of tax revenues from the whole empire.
The contents of the tomb revealed the artistic excellence of the imperial gold-working, the splendour and luxury of which could hardly be imagined previously. The tomb held 2648 items, of which 289 were of gold and 271 of silver, and included four precious empress crowns. All the goods are meticulously crafted and lavishly decorated with precious stones, and represent exotic luxuries highly prized among the nobility.
Text: Daša Pavlovič; photographs: Wang Wei Chang, Henry Westheim Photography, The Picture Art Collection.