Find out all about the wonderful animals, both real and imaginary, represented on objects in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China.
Dragons were associated with water, so if an object was painted with dragons it was supposed to protect against fire. Robes with five-clawed dragons were the preserve of the emperor. Empresses and the nobility wore robes with Ming dragons.
This stunning cloisonné jar and cover was made for the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–1435). The jar is decorated with magnificent five-clawed dragons, which were symbolic of the emperor.
This gold vessel is also incised with five-clawed dragons and decorated in semi-precious stones in raised settings.
Lions have a protective function in China and were placed in pairs outside many Buddhist temples and official buildings.
This multi-coloured glazed tile comes from the Great Monastery of Filial Gratitude (Da Baoensi), which was built between 1412 and 1431 in Nanjing, and was acknowledged as an important site by the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor (r. 1368–1398). This tile formed part of a door frame of the monastery’s nine-storey octagonal pagoda, the centrepiece of the temple.
Draw lions in the Great Court as part of The Big Draw, which this year is a #Ming50Years family day on Sun 26 Oct.
Horses were vital for the Ming army as mounted archers were probably more important than firearms at this period. Equestrian art was very popular in the early Ming period at court, whether showing hunting, polo-playing or portraits of military horses.
This scroll depicts the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–1435) with his eunuchs within the Eastern Park, next to the imperial palace, watching and taking part in palace sports based on military training exercises. This third scene shows the emperor observing five riders playing polo. The players have to hit the ball through a hole in a screen decorated with four polo players and a rider holding a flag. Polo was used by the cavalry to demonstrate their horsemanship.
Elephants became extinct in China’s south-west in the early 15th century, retreating into what is now Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Elephants were gifted to the Ming emperors by Burmese and Vietnamese rulers.
This multi-coloured glazed tile comes from the same monastery door frame as the lion tile above.
Giraffes are not native to China, but one did arrive in the Ming court 600 years ago.
On 20 September 1414, the Sultan of Bengal sent a giraffe as tribute to the Yongle emperor of China. The animal arrived at the Ming court to great acclaim and was thoroughly documented in words and images, like in this hanging scroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The giraffe was interpreted at court as the qilin, a mythical beast supposedly seen only when a sage ruler was on the throne. Many exotic animals were sent as tribute to the Ming court from lands visited by the imperial fleet and its admiral Zheng He.
You can also use these animals to inspire your jewellery designs and giant handscroll painting this half-term in free drop-in activities from 27 Oct – 31 Oct.
Gold ewer with semi-precious stones. Gold with engraved design; semi-precious stones. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Nanjing or Beijing. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the John T. Morris Fund, 1950. © Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Lion tile. Earthenware, moulded and sculpted with lead-fluxed glazes. Yongle to Xuande periods, 1412–1431. Nanjing. © Nanjing Municipal Museum.
Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor watching polo. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum.
Elephant tile. Earthenware, moulded and sculpted with lead-fluxed glazes. Yongle to Xuande periods, 1412–1431. Nanjing. © Nanjing Municipal Museum.