The British Museum has declared that a period of the Ming dynasty – the first half of the 15th century – was ’50 years that changed China’. There have been a number of transformative half-centuries in this country’s history (not least, the one we are in now) but this was certainly a golden age for trade, diplomacy and art – from the most fragile porcelain to monumental architecture.
Many of what are now Beijing’s most famous tourist attractions were built during the Ming (literally: ‘brilliant’) dynasty including the Forbidden City, which served as the imperial palace for nearly 500 years, and today’s most visited sections of The Great Wall, like Badaling. The Ming were prolific builders of walls, and cities like Xi’an and Pingyao still remain fortified by their handiwork.
Half-way between Beijing and The Great Wall is the resting place of over a dozen Ming emperors with an avenue of stone statues, colonnaded halls and imperial burial chambers.
Back in the capital, the Temple of Heaven is another outstanding Ming monument. Espousing symmetry and symbolism, it is a three-tiered wooden structure that stands 125-foot high but uses not a single nail.
Be aware that if you make a trip to China before the British Museum exhibition ends, there will be some empty cabinets in China’s museums. The Forbidden City’s Palace Museum has loaned some impressive calligraphy scrolls; from the Capital Museum in Beijing is a jade belt plaque and gold jewellery; there are candlesticks and paintings from the Shanghai Museum.
Some of China’s excellent – and undersung – regional museums have also loaned items to the exhibition, although few tourists venture to provincial cities like Jinan or Wuhan.