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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 13681398). 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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Cloisonné jar, decorated with dragons and imperial mark. China, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435.

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.

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Eric Thake (1904–1982), An Opera House in every home. Print, 1972.

Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House provoked fierce public controversy in the 1960s as much over the escalating cost of its construction as the innovative brilliance of its domed sail-like halls. Now recognised the world over as a magnificent architectural icon jutting into Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House finally opened in 1973. In his Christmas card for 1972 Thake cheekily anticipates the long awaited opening with his domestic version of the grand architectural statement. Crockery stacked in a drying rack forms the shape of the Sydney Opera House, with water from the kitchen sink adjacent. The small housefly resting on one of the stacked plates adds an unmistakably Australian touch.

Text from Stephen Coppel’s Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas.

In China, jade has been a material of the highest value since ancient times, particularly for its colour, texture, toughness and tactile qualities. The English term jade (yu) is the name used to embrace two minerals, nephrite and jadeite. Jadeite, found in Burma, was unknown to China before the 18th century. Nephrite is today found in Chinese Central Asia in the province of Xinjiang. Both of these minerals are particularly hard to work.

This jade pendant set was made to be suspended from a prince’s belt, hanging almost to the floor. It created a pleasant, tinkling sound as the wearer moved. This set may include jades worked before the Ming period as Chinese aristocrats sometimes remodelled ancient jewellery.

These jade plaques were sewn onto a leather belt belonging to Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411–1441). White jade is highly prized in China and the gold details were expensive. Craftsmen in the imperial palace used the finest white jade imported from Hetian in Xinjiang province to create the belt. Imperial princes wore such belts as a symbol of prestige and power. Several layers of robes enhanced the princes’ stature, and the weight of their costumes and jewellery was substantial. 

This jade cup carved from nephrite may have been made in a provincial Central Asian jade-carving workshop, perhaps Samarkand. Ulugh Beg, mentioned in the inscription on this cup, was the Timurid ruler of Samarkand (modern-day Uzbekistan) from 1407 to 1447. The Ming emperor sent jade gifts to him in 1445. A Ming ambassador to the Timurid Empire made three diplomatic trips to Herat in modern-day Afghanistan between 1414 and 1420. He was responsible for carrying letters from the Yongle emperor to the ruler Shāhrukh. The Ming court sought horses and military intelligence, while the Timurids wanted luxury goods. Exchanges of embassies helped ease tensions between the two states.

See these exquisite jade pieces and many more amazing objects in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed ChinaBook now >

You can also explore more jade objects in the Museum’s gallery of Chinese jade (Room 33b).

Jade pendant set. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1424–1435. Hubei Provincial Museum, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411–1441) and Lady Wei (d. 1451).

Jade belt and gold hook. Nanjing or Beijing, dated 1424. Hubei Provincial Museum, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411–1441) and Lady Wei (d. 1451).

Jade cup with silver repair, 1420–1449. Ottoman silver repair, 1600–1800. Samarkand. British Museum. Purchased from the Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund.

China’s Golden Week takes place every year around the start of October, based around the National Day celebrations. In 2014 Golden Week was between 1 & 7 October.

During China’s Ming dynasty, the imperial court controlled the manufacture of gold objects, and the use of gold was restricted to the imperial family and high officials.

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Court goldsmiths produced this thinly beaten gold headdress, which imitates a larger bead-decorated leather crown. Chinese aristocrats wore their long hair swept up and tied into buns. This headdress fitted over the piled hair and was secured by a gold pin that went through the side holes horizontally.

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This gold pillow end is one of a pair. They were made for an imperial family member, and are decorated with two gold dragons and a flaming pearl among clouds. Both are pierced around the edge to be attached to a textile pillow. They are worked in relief with incised detail and openwork, and inlaid with semi-precious stones imported from countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka.

Wearing gold jewellery was limited to the elite and was highly regulated by laws in the early Ming period. This jewellery belonged to Lady Wei and would have looked striking against her high-piled, black hair. 

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See these exquisite gold pieces and many more amazing objects in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China. Book now>

Gold head ornament. Nanjing or Beijing. Ming dynasty, c. 1400–1450.

One of a pair of gold pillow ends, decorated with two dragons and worked in relief with chased detail and openwork. Gold, rubies, turquoise and other precious and semi-precious stones, Beijing or Nanjing, Xuande era, 1426-1435.

Gold jewellery with precious and semi-precious stones. Yinzuoju (‘the Jewellery Service’), Nanjing or Beijing. Ming dynasty, c. 1424–1441. Hubei Provincial Museum, excavated from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411–1441) and Lady Wei (d. 1451).

Make your own mummy! (For kids of all ages)

To explain the mummification process, here’s a guide to mummifying an orange.

Things you will need…

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  • An orange
  • Enough cooking salt to fill ½ of your orange
  • Enough bicarbonate of soda to fill ½ of your orange
  • A small roll of crepe bandage
  • A knife and teaspoon
  • Cloves
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Two bowls
  • Kitchen paper or toilet roll

Method

1. Make a slit in the skin of your orange, from the top to the bottom. You may want to ask an adult to help.

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2. With your teaspoon, scoop out the inside of the orange. Do this over your bowl – it can get a bit messy!

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3. When you have removed all of the orange’s insides, stuff it with kitchen paper to absorb any left over juice. Do this until the inside of your orange is dry and then remove the paper.

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4. Next, sprinkle a spoonful of cinnamon and a few cloves into your orange.

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5. In another bowl mix the salt and bicarbonate of soda together. Spoon this mixture into the orange until it is full up.

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6. Now it’s time to wrap your mummy! Make sure the slit is pushed together and then start to wrap the bandage around the orange.

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7. When your orange is completely covered with bandages, cut the bandage leaving enough spare to make a knot to secure it. If this is too tricky you can use a safety pin to keep the end of the bandage in place.

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8. Your mummy needs to be kept in a warm, dry place, such as an airing cupboard. It can take some time for mummification to work and so it may be a while before you see any results. Check your orange every few weeks to see what it looks like. You will notice that it shrinks and the skin will become a darker colour – just like a real mummy! Keep us updated with your mummy’s progress!

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Thanks to our friends at Young Archaeologists’ Club for letting us share this fun activity!

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You can also come and visit our exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, which will bring you face to face with eight real mummies from ancient Egypt and Sudan. Book now >

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Charles Townley (1737–1805) was born into a wealthy Catholic family and educated abroad. In 1768, after ten years of improving his country estate, Townley set off on the first of three Grand Tours to Italy. He soon became an enthusiastic collector of antiquities.

Returning to England, Townley bought a fine house in Park Street in Westminster and filled it with his collection of classical sculpture. Many grand people visited Park Street to admire his collection of antiquities, which became the talk of London.

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This watercolour is one of a pair which show the Townley Collection arranged in his house at 7 Park Street, Westminster.

In the centre of this view of the sculptures displayed in the dining room, a young lady sketches, seated at the base of the famous Discobolus (discus-thrower) discovered at Tivoli, Italy in 1791. 

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Townley became a Trustee of the British Museum in 1791, and on his death the Museum acquired his famous collection by an Act of Parliament. This was the Museum’s first major acquisition of classical sculpture.

Find out more about Townley and the British Museum with these objects.

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Lacquer is unique to East Asia. It was first used in China thousands of years ago, and has long been valued for its decorative and protective effects.

Lacquer is the toxic sap from the Chinese lacquer tree. The sap is filtered and heated so it is no longer poisonous, then applied in layers onto a wooden core covered with textile. Red lacquer is coloured with cinnabar. Each layer of varnish takes 24 hours to dry, and elaborately carved objects require 100 layers. After carving, the edges of the design are polished.

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This carved red lacquer table was created for the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–1435). It is the largest surviving piece of lacquer furniture made in the imperial lacquer factory in Beijing. On the top, it has a five-clawed dragon and phoenix on a ground of lotuses with ornamental rocks. The dragon symbolises the emperor and the phoenix the empress.

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Red lacquer was also carved to create boxes and dishes. Paintings from the period show eunuchs carrying boxes and dishes like this for imperial picnics. They were also used to present gifts of food. This dish shows a scene of scholars entertaining their friends with food, music and games.

See these pieces of exquisite lacquer ware alongside many other spectacular objects in our exhibition #Ming50Years

Book your tickets now >

Images from top:

Carved red lacquer box carved with narcissi and epidendra. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403–1424.

Carved red lacquer table on a wooden core, gilded-bronze drawer handles and mounts. Beijing, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Red lacquer dish with figures in landscape, flowers of four seasons, and inscription. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403–1424.

Cloisonné is an enamelling technique for decorating metalwork. Metal wire cells (cloisons in French) are added to create the design. Coloured glass rods are melted and dripped into the cells, then fired. When the object cools and the glass shrinks, gaps in the design are filled in and the object is re-fired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally, the work is polished and the metal wires gilded (covered in gold).

Ming emperors encouraged developments in craft technology through patronage. They ordered brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. According to two inscriptions under the rim of this jar, it was made under the supervision of eunuchs in the ‘Directorate for Imperial Accoutrements’ for the Xuande emperor (r. 1425–1435).

See this spectacular jar and other fascinating objects in #Ming50Years – open now until 5 Jan 2015.

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 mythical beast, the qilin, 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 see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, until 5 Jan 2015.
Be one of the first to see these stunning objects from museums across China and the world in this highly acclaimed exhibition.
★★★★★ ‘magnificent’ The Telegraph
★★★★ ‘spectacular’ The Times 

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 mythical beast, the qilin, 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 see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, until 5 Jan 2015.

Be one of the first to see these stunning objects from museums across China and the world in this highly acclaimed exhibition.

★★★★★ ‘magnificent’ The Telegraph

★★★★ ‘spectacular’ The Times