The MERCILESS MING! Unspeakably Cruel. Concubines by the Thousand. China's Ming Dynasty Was the Most Debauched in History. and Yet They Produced the Sublime Art Now on Show at the British Museum

Daily Mail (London), September 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

The MERCILESS MING! Unspeakably Cruel. Concubines by the Thousand. China's Ming Dynasty Was the Most Debauched in History. and Yet They Produced the Sublime Art Now on Show at the British Museum


Byline: David Leafe

ON THE night they were destined to die, the beautiful young concubines were treated to one final meal in the opulent dining hall of the Forbidden City.

As its name suggests, access to this vast palace was denied to the ordinary residents of Beijing, but rumours had reached the outside world of the delicacies enjoyed at the imperial table.

Alongside such prized canapes as the ovaries of white horses, it was said that deep-fried sparrows and the sauteed sex organs of male donkeys were served.

However, the guests of honour on this particular occasion were unlikely to have been feeling hungry. The 30 girls were favourites of the Ming emperor Yongle. Following his death in the summer of 1424, they had been handed the blood-red square of silk dreaded by every member of the royal harem. It signified they had been chosen to demonstrate their eternal fidelity to Yongle by following him to his grave.

A visiting envoy noted how these wretched victims were led wailing to a grand hall, where they were made to stand on wooden beds before hanging themselves from silken nooses that were dangling above them.

The sight of their frail corpses swaying in the cool night breeze must have been pitiful indeed. But it's a measure of the cruelty of the Ming rulers that these poor creatures might have been considered almost fortunate in having this particular method of 'suicide' chosen for them.

The deaths of other emperors were followed by concubines being forced to set themselves on fire or be buried alive in their master's tomb.

Such barbarity presents a very different picture of Ming rule to the one being portrayed in a spectacular new exhibition opening today at the British Museum.

Though the Ming dynasty exerted its tyranny over China for almost 300 years -- between 1368 and 1644 -- the exhibition focuses on 1400 to 1450, described as a 'golden age' when China produced some of the most beautiful objects and paintings ever made.

The Ming empire became a global superpower during this time: undertaking major sea expeditions years ahead of Christopher Columbus and producing books before Britain even had a printing press.

THE dynasty's astonishing achievements are a matter of record, but we should not forget that it was founded on bloodshed and foundered because of the depraved excesses of its emperors.

A clue to this darker side can be gleaned from one of the exhibition's highlights, an exquisite blue and white Ming vase, which will tour other museums across Britain.

This 15th-century treasure was produced in Jingdezhen, a southeastern metropolis which was the porcelain capital of China.

A French missionary who visited Jingdezhen described a city with 3,000 kilns that fired day and night and filled the evening sky with a bewitching orange glow. But there was nothing delightful about life for workers in the factories below.

To keep up with the emperors' demands for Jingdezhen porcelain -- prized for being 'as thin as paper, as bright as a mirror and as sound as a bell' -- the eunuchs who ran the imperial kiln forced workers to toil ever longer in unbearably hot conditions, resulting in deaths from exhaustion.

Eventually there were riots; as a form of ultimate protest, a potter named Dong Bing reportedly threw himself into a kiln.

Given the imperial taste for brutality, it seems far more likely he was hurled into the inferno by furious overseers.

No one dared suggest such a possibility because they would have been put to death, too -- and the Ming emperors were highly inventive in maximising the pain and suffering of those who crossed them.

China had long used the sanction of 'nine familial exterminations', by which the offender and nine categories of his relatives -- including his parents, grandparents children and siblings -- were killed. However, even this was not enough for the first Ming emperor, Hongwu. …

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