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A Fascinating Journey Through the Wanli Year of Ming Dynasty - The Ming Thirteen Tombs Exhibition

By OGP Reporters / Members Contribute File Photos


Oh Good Party

During the Wanli period, China experienced both early prosperity and later stagnation, marked by political, social, and cultural contradictions and controversies. While politics gradually declined during Emperor Wanli's reign, society, economy, and culture saw a starkly different trajectory. The flourishing of a market economy and the rise of humanistic values greatly contributed to the prosperity of late Ming culture and the arts. The political volatility and prosperous market economy gave rise to a flourishing society and a culturally diverse era.


"The Year of Wanli - The Ming Thirteen Tombs Exhibition" is a significant event jointly organized by the Minhang Museum and the Ming Tombs Museum. Through the exhibition of over a hundred sets of artifacts, it vividly portrays the splendid scenes and grandeur of the Ming Dynasty during the Wanli reign, showcasing the ceremonial system, palace life, socio-economic aspects, artistic culture, and cross-cultural exchanges between China and the outside world.


Zhu Yijun (1563-1620), historically known as Emperor Wanli, was the 13th emperor of the Ming Dynasty and the third son of Emperor Muzong Zhu Zaihao. Ascending the throne at the age of 10, he ruled for an impressive 48 years until his passing in 1620. His reign title was "Wanli," and his temple name was "Shenzong," with the posthumous title "Fantian He Dao Zhe Sun Dun Jian Guang Wen Zhang Wu An Ren Zhi Xiao Xian Huangdi." His life was marked by contradictions as he, with the assistance of Zhang Juzheng, led the Ming Dynasty to unprecedented economic prosperity, even witnessing the nascent stages of capitalism. However, he was also known for extravagant spending and excessive taxation.


Located at the eastern foot of Dajuyu Mountain in Beijing, the Dingling Tomb is one of the Ming Tombs, serving as the final resting place for Emperor Wanli and his empress. Dingling Tomb holds the distinction of being the longest and most costly royal tomb constructed during the entire Ming Dynasty and is the only Ming imperial tomb to have undergone archaeological excavation. The tomb is known for its incredibly luxurious burial items.


During the Wanli period, China experienced both early prosperity and later stagnation, marked by political, social, and cultural contradictions and controversies. While politics gradually declined during Emperor Wanli's reign, society, economy, and culture saw a starkly different trajectory. The flourishing of a market economy and the rise of humanistic values greatly contributed to the prosperity of late Ming culture and the arts. The political volatility and prosperous market economy gave rise to a flourishing society and a culturally diverse era.


At the exhibition, visitors can explore the history, social life, and cultural arts of the Wanli era through the lens of Emperor Wanli's life story. The exhibition features a remarkable collection of precious artifacts, including the Gold-winged Official Hat, Golden Goblet, Dulu Belt, Twelve Dragons and Nine Phoenixes Crown, Yellow Embroidered Silk Twelve Chapters of Auspicious Longevity Robe, Openwork Gold-Plated Tray and Jade Bowl, Blue-and-White Plum Vases, Silver-Gilt Yunlong Engraved Spittoon, and Cat's Eye Stone Gold Hairpin, totaling 116 valuable items. The exhibition is divided into two main parts: "Ming Splendor" and "Radiating to All Nations." It utilizes the physical presence of Ming emperor and empress crowns, accompanying Ming artifacts, court items, blue-and-white porcelain paintings, gold and silver currency, and more to recreate the concepts of "eternal ceremony" and "vivid representation of the deceased" of the Wanli dynasty. It showcases the exquisite craftsmanship of the imperial court and the grandeur of royal demeanor while highlighting the diversity and outstanding achievements of late Ming society and culture. It also emphasizes the fusion, collision, and trade of Chinese and foreign cultures against the backdrop of the Age of Exploration.


Here are some of the must-see treasures:


1. Golden Winged Shàn Crown


The Golden Winged Shàn Crown is a traditional imperial headpiece that originated during the reign of Emperor Taizong in the Tang Dynasty. This type of headwear was worn by emperors. It is characterized by its upward-folded corners, resembling the Chinese character "善" (shàn), hence the name "翼善" (yìshàn). The exhibited Golden Winged Shàn Crown is a replica worn by Emperor Shenzong Zhu Yijun of the Ming Dynasty. It was meticulously handcrafted using 852 strands of 0.2-millimeter-thick gold wire. The gold wires are evenly spaced, creating a delicate and lightweight appearance, akin to fine gauze. The manufacturing process involves wire drawing, accumulation, stacking, and welding, among other intricate techniques. The crown's structure is complex, the craftsmanship is exquisite, and the perforations are symmetrically aligned, leaving no visible traces of joints. The dragon carvings on the crown are lifelike, exuding a powerful and majestic aura. This Golden Winged Shàn Crown showcases the pinnacle of gold and silver craftsmanship during the Ming Dynasty and is the only surviving imperial gold crown in China, making it exceptionally precious.


2. Golden Goblet


The Golden Goblet is a valuable ceremonial object used by emperors and high-ranking officials, symbolizing their status. Among the archaeological findings at the Dingling Tomb, four Golden Goblets were unearthed, and this is one of them. Its craftsmanship is exceptionally fine, with the goblet's three legs, column, handle, and body crafted separately and then meticulously welded together. At the center, a tree-stump-shaped column stands upright, with three sides carved into the shape of vases, each holding a floral arrangement inset with precious gems. The outer wall of the goblet features intricate relief carvings of two dragons playing with pearls, along with patterns of sea waves, cliffs, and flowing clouds, typical decorations found on royal and noble artifacts of the time. The upper parts of the goblet's three legs and two columns are adorned with rubies, while the peony branches inserted into the vases are not only embedded with rubies and sapphires but also decorated with treasures like gold and silver ingots, coral, and rhinoceros horn. The craftsmanship is exceptionally refined, showcasing the pinnacle of Ming Dynasty goldsmithing. This Golden Goblet vividly demonstrates the maturity and precision of Ming Dynasty goldwork, making it a work of exquisite artistry.


3. The Grand Loop Sash (Da Lu Dai)


The Grand Loop Sash is a sash that belonged to Emperor Shenzong Zhu Yijun of the Ming Dynasty. Sashes were essential accessories in Ming Dynasty attire, worn by individuals ranging from the emperor to royal nobles and civil and military officials, with different styles for various ranks and positions. This particular Grand Loop Sash is renowned for its precious materials and exquisite adornments. It is believed to have been worn by Emperor Wanli on significant occasions, possibly evolving from the traditional jade sash of the Ming Dynasty. The arrangement and quantity of gemstone inlays on the Grand Loop Sash also adhere to Ming Dynasty clothing regulations and meticulous crafting standards. According to excavation reports, this sash is adorned with 20 emeralds and 91 pomegranate seed rubies. To date, only one sash of this style has been discovered, making it exceptionally valuable.


4. The Crown of Twelve Dragons and Nine Phoenixes (Shi Er Long Jiu Feng Guan)


The Crown of Twelve Dragons and Nine Phoenixes was originally worn by Empress Xiaojing, the wife of Emperor Wanli. Following her passing, she was reinterred in the Dingling Tomb ten years later, accompanied by items befitting her status. This dragon and phoenix crown is a part of the empress's ceremonial attire, worn during enthronement ceremonies, ancestral temple visits, and court gatherings. The upper part of the crown is broad and slightly flattened, constructed using lacquer-coated bamboo, featuring a golden rim with openings on both sides for inserting hairpins. The crown is adorned with twelve lifelike dragons and nine phoenixes, crafted from flower threads. Some of the dragons soar with raised heads, some stand upright on all fours, some walk, and some gallop, each displaying distinct postures. The phoenixes are adorned with green feathers, appearing as if they are soaring with outstretched wings, creating a vivid and realistic portrayal.


5. The White Jade "Shou" Character Inlaid with Gemstones Gold Hairpin


This white jade gold hairpin is inlaid with a "寿" (shòu) character-shaped gemstone and originally belonged to Empress Xiaoduan. The top of the hairpin is meticulously crafted, featuring peach-shaped and cloud-shaped gold mounts, as well as a "寿" character-shaped mount. These mounts are decorated with peach-shaped and cloud-shaped ornaments made from white jade, red jade, and green jade. In the center, there is a white jade "寿" character-shaped ornament.


6. Openwork Gold Lid and Gold Stand Jade Bowl


This exquisite piece is a collaborative masterpiece of gold and jade craftsmanship. The jade bowl is meticulously crafted from white jade, displaying fine texture and crystal-clear transparency, completely flawless. The lid of the jade bowl is adorned with a beautifully designed gold cover featuring intricate openwork cloud patterns. It is decorated with depictions of flying dragons chasing pearls, with a lotus-shaped finial at the top, and inset with a red ruby. These dragon motifs are dynamic and elegant, appearing as if they are leaping through the air. Beneath the bowl, there is a golden stand with a concave center, designed to secure the bowl's base. The interior walls of the stand feature neatly arranged patterns of eight sets of cloud motifs, and the bottom displays a sandy texture with carvings of two dragons chasing pearls and additional cloud patterns. Inside the central bowl stand, there are also intricate cloud carvings, while the exterior of the stand is adorned with continuous relief-style cloud patterns encircling its circumference.


7. Yellow Silk Embroidered Twelve Chapter Blessings and Longevity Robe (Gun Fu)


The ceremonial robe, known as "gunfu," was the highest-ranking attire worn by Ming Dynasty emperors during significant religious ceremonies, including rites for worshipping Heaven and Earth, ancestral temples, and coronation ceremonies. According to records in the "Da Ming Hui Dian," the "gunfu" robe consists of two parts, an upper robe and a lower skirt, adorned with twelve auspicious symbols, such as the sun, moon, and stars, and is complemented by specific headwear and accessories. In addition to the upper and lower robe style "gunfu," there was another robe-style "gunfu" during the Ming Dynasty, which also featured the twelve auspicious symbols but differed in the accompanying headwear, substituting the traditional crown with the "yishan guan."


This yellow brocade robe with the twelve auspicious symbols of longevity and good fortune belongs to the robe-style "gunfu" category and was once worn by Emperor Wanli.


This set of attire consists of the large front panel, small front panel, and back panel, each of which is independent and not connected. The interior of the robe is made of yellow silk fabric, with an additional layer of lining material sandwiched between the outer and inner layers, crafted from various fabrics like silk, gauze, and satin. Different parts of the robe, such as the cuffs, hemline, and left armpit, are decorated with satin.


As for the patterns, the robe is adorned with auspicious symbols on both the front and back sides. The front features the characters for longevity, auspicious clouds, and bats, while the robe's circumference displays three groups of dragons in the front and two groups of dragons on the left and right sides. The shoulders are embellished with suns, moons, and auspicious insects, while the upper back exhibits stars and mountain ranges, and the lower back on both sides showcases patterns such as sacrificial vessels, aquatic plants, flames, and grains. Below the dragon groups, there is a background depicting the Shoushan Mountains and Fuhai, surrounded by eight auspicious symbols, fireballs, and flowing clouds. The dragon bodies are meticulously woven with gold threads, set against a golden background, with the character for "longevity" embroidered in gold thread. It is documented that this robe was crafted by brocade artisans over a span of 13 years, utilizing over 50,000 meters of gold threads and more than 6,000 peacock feathers, among other precious materials. The robe is adorned with 12 dragons, twelve auspicious symbols, 279 "ten thousand" characters, 256 "longevity" characters, 301 bats, and 271 "auspicious" symbols, resulting in a magnificent and resplendent piece.


8. Blue and White Plum Vase


A plum vase is a distinctive type of vase characterized by its small mouth, short neck, broad shoulders, tucked belly, and a circular foot at the base. It is named after its small mouth, which is suitable for inserting plum branches, hence the name "plum vase." In the archaeological findings at the Ming Tombs, a total of eight blue and white plum vases were unearthed. This particular plum vase was placed around the coffins of the emperor and empress, symbolizing the auspicious meaning of "peace in all directions, stability on all sides."


9. Blue and White Five-Colored Plum Blossom Bowl


This blue and white five-colored bowl is a masterpiece from the Jingdezhen kiln. Overall, this porcelain bowl takes on the unique shape of a five-petaled plum blossom, with an exceptionally well-proportioned form. The porcelain body is exquisitely crafted, and the glaze radiates a bright luster. The interior of the bowl's rim is adorned with a lively brocade pattern, depicting water plants and swimming shrimp. The exterior showcases a graceful pattern of falling flowers and flowing water. Both the inner and outer walls of the bowl adopt a panoramic layout. The inner wall portrays swimming shrimp and lakeside geese, while the outer wall presents a magnificent scene of ocean waves, running deer, blossoming plum flowers, soaring bats, and the Qian trigram symbol, symbolizing happiness, wealth, and auspiciousness. The pattern layout is intricate, and the colors are rich and vibrant. At the central concave base on the exterior, the phrase "Made in the Wanli Year of the Great Ming Dynasty" is inscribed in blue and white using vertical script and adorned with double circles.


10. Blue and White Figural Plate


The porcelain plate exhibits an exceptionally refined body with exquisite blue and white patterns throughout. The external wall showcases a unique design of branch-and-fruit patterns, while the internal wall features a lively pattern of dragons playing with pearls and delicate cloud and phoenix motifs. The surface of the porcelain plate depicts a captivating historical story, illustrating a scene from the story "Xiao He's Pursuit of Han Xin Under the Moon." You can clearly see Han Xin waiting by the riverbank for a ferry, surrounded by graceful willow trees, drifting boats, and misty clouds. In the distance, Xiao He is galloping on horseback, racing toward him. The composition is remarkably clever, and the painting technique is highly exquisite. At the central concave base on the plate's exterior, the phrase "Made in the Wanli Year of the Great Ming Dynasty" is inscribed in blue and white using vertical script and decorated with double circles.


During the Wanli era, China's porcelain trade entered a new era. The gradual opening of overseas markets allowed Chinese porcelain to be continuously shipped worldwide. Portuguese and Dutch merchant ships brought these exquisite ceramics to Europe, where they were warmly welcomed and eagerly collected by European society. These porcelain items became some of the most sought-after handicrafts in Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, and other regions. In 2007, a Ming Dynasty shipwreck named the "Nan'ao No. 1" was fortuitously discovered. This discovery was not an isolated event but represented a typical foreign trade merchant ship from the Longqing to the mid-Wanli period. This historical moment preserved a wealth of porcelain items, which were not only masterpieces of Ming Dynasty technology and cultural art but also valuable physical evidence of cultural and trade exchanges along the Maritime Silk Road.


In addition to the prosperity of the commodity economy, the late Ming Dynasty also witnessed a flourishing cultural scene and achieved remarkable accomplishments, exuding tremendous cultural charm. In fields such as literature, drama, astronomy, and calendrical systems, the Ming Dynasty experienced a creative and vibrant period. It is worth noting that Emperor Wanli actively encouraged the compilation and commercial publication of official texts. These daily-use books rapidly spread, covering essential knowledge needed in various aspects of daily life, including agriculture, medicine, diet, housing, calendrical systems, meteorology, and more. These books were not only carefully selected from traditional texts but also gathered folk wisdom, colloquial language, and a wealth of illustrations and text, catering to the needs of readers from different social strata.


In the Ming Dynasty, Chinese opera entered a splendid golden age, becoming an important phase in the history of Chinese opera. This period inherited the traditions of Yuan Dynasty variety dramas, and theater played a significant role in the lives of urban residents. In the middle to late Ming Dynasty, with the prosperity of urban economies, Chinese opera experienced a new wave of development. Masterpieces like Tang Xianzu's "The Peony Pavilion" emerged, injecting new vitality into the art of opera. Additionally, Ming Dynasty saw a thriving literary scene, with the creation of numerous long-form episodic novels based on history, mysterious stories, and urban life.


The exhibition continues the Minhang Museum's consistent approach to visual presentations. In the exhibition's prologue hall, visitors can enjoy a panoramic dynamic projection of "Kunyu Wanguo Quantu," using Matteo Ricci's world map as a narrative backdrop to construct lifelike animated images. This approach facilitates a transcendent comparison and connection between the world of the same period and the Ming Wanli era. In the "Treasures of the World" exhibition area, focused on the display of the blue-and-white porcelain plum blossom-shaped basin, the design incorporates video presentations. Through intriguing combinations and dynamic performances of the details of the artifact's patterns, visitors can savor the elegant and delicate, yet ethereal and refined artistic style and aesthetic characteristics of Ming Dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. In the "Imperial Envoys" exhibition area, featuring content inspired by Emperor Wanli's expeditions and travels, such as "The Imperial Escort" and "The Imperial Arrival," an immersive art scroll of the Ming Dynasty is created. It vividly reenacts the grand and majestic scenes of royal nobility traveling during the Ming Wanli period.



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