Creativity in Small Packages / by Jeannine Cook

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A meiping (plum vase) jar from the Zhengtong emperor’s reign (1435-1449) features a copper red underglaze, a colour effect so difficult to achieve that it was considered especially suitable for elite use. (Image curtesy of the Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

A meiping (plum vase) jar from the Zhengtong emperor’s reign (1435-1449) features a copper red underglaze, a colour effect so difficult to achieve that it was considered especially suitable for elite use. (Image curtesy of the Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Seeing an exhibition from the Nanjing Museum about the Ming period in China is guaranteed to be fascinating ahead of time.  Indeed, the Caixa Foundation exhibition, "Ming: the Golden Empire", now in Palma de Mallorca after visiting Holland, Germany, Edinburgh, and Barcelona, offers a wide range of objects to tell one of the splendours of the Ming period.

Ming period, Official kiln. Blue and white porcelain vase with flower design (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum / Nomad Exhibitions

Ming period, Official kiln. Blue and white porcelain vase with flower design (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum / Nomad Exhibitions

Amongst the wonderful silks and ceramics, porcelains and cloisonné, portraits and scrolls, there were other smaller pieces that remain with me days later. Remember, the Ming period(1368-1644)  was hugely important in the history of China: the first emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, known as Hongwu or "Vastly Martial", ousted the Mongols and forged a great and increasingly wealthy empire, protected by a million soldiers and a navy that eventually sailed as far as the East African coast. Upon his death, subsequent emperors oversaw a vast expansion of wealth, learning, communications and economic activity both within China and overseas, with the imperial court a powerful force. The third emperor, Yongle ("Eternal Happiness") moved the capital from Nanjing in 1402 to Peking, generating a huge new building project and enhancing the importance of traditional values and learning. Currency, based on South American silver, circulated, creating a new merchant class. New towns rose to house the swelling population. Consumerism increased, thus encouraging the creativity of artists and craftsmen throughout China.  Whereas before, for instance, the wondrous porcelain production of vessels, plates, dishes, etc. had mainly been destined for the imperial court, they now became much more widely acquired. Architecture,sculpture, painting, calligraphy - all the arts flourished as artists created pieces for temples, palaces and homes.

Early Ming jar, its lid in form of a lotus leaf. Vessels of thisyellow-gold were reserved for the Imperial court. (Image courtesy of the Nanjing Museum)

Early Ming jar, its lid in form of a lotus leaf. Vessels of thisyellow-gold were reserved for the Imperial court. (Image courtesy of the Nanjing Museum)

Shen Zou, Fishing during autumn. (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Shen Zou, Fishing during autumn. (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

However, my vivid memories of these many objects, which had taken six years to select, are of the more diminutive and the amazingly skilful, for it is always harder to work small. My first delight was a small middle period Ming plate, perhaps five inches in diameter, of a solemn small heron hunched on a lotus leaf, its flower arching over him. (Alas, I can find no illustration of this - so often, this happens.) Apparently the Chinese for heron and for lotus allowed for a play on words with the ultimate meaning of wishing good luck and success; the lucky recipient of this gift was probably going to sit the life-defining civil service examination.

I turned the corner to the next vitrine and there, I was riveted by perhaps the smallest object in the whole exhibition: a minute, exquisite wrought gold cicada, perched on a small, totally plain and luminous white jade leaf. Apparently it could well have been a funeral piece as cicadas were frequently placed in the dead person's mouth at burial. Its still beauty, with the contrast between the warm glowing gold and the cooler translucence of the jade, was remarkable.

Ming period, Gold Cicada on a Jade Leaf (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Ming period, Gold Cicada on a Jade Leaf (Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Another wonder, again diminutive, was a bamboo sculpture from the 12th-13th century, a fisherman crouching over his fishing pot.  Once more, the creativity shown in such a small piece transcended time.

Bamboo carving of a Fisherman with his basket, Ming period(Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Bamboo carving of a Fisherman with his basket, Ming period(Image courtesy of Nanjing Museum/Nomad Exhibitions)

Such marvels remind us all, and especially artists, that it does not matter what the scale of one's work. It is the passion, the power, the energy and the skill that all matter.  They are the ingredients that carry and reach out to other people across time.