I hope you enjoyed the thrilling rise of the Hongwu Emperor as related in yesterday’s post. In accordance with the wishes of the editors who commissioned it, I left out the truly important parts—namely, how the Hongwu Emperor organized the Ming dynasty around Confucianist precepts, cunning agrarian reform, and above all—naked absolutism. I also left out the terrible end of Zhu Yuanzhe’s story arc: for the skills and guile which allowed the Hongwu Emperor to seize absolute power had a terrible shadow side. As an old man, he was seized by dreadful paranoia and employed vast armies of secret police, informers, and torturers to root out the imaginary plots which flowered on all sides of him. Hongwu killed hundreds of thousands of people by means of the most inventive and horrible tortures. Despite his astonishing feats, and despite the prosperity he brought to China, his name is permanently blackened by the depths of his cruelty (although Mao admired him).
It almost makes you wonder if leaders aren’t inherently flawed somehow: as though there is some fundamental problem with putting self-interested individuals in charge of our collective destiny.
But today’s post is not about leadership; it is about beautiful & delicate Chinese porcelain! It would be unthinkable to have a Ming Week which didn’t feature a fine Ming vase. Here is a Ming dynasty vessel from the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). The Jiajing emperor was a weakling and a fool who devoutly believed in all sorts of portent, rituals, astrology, and mystical claptrap. His courtiers and eunuchs used this to control him while they robbed the Empire to the brink of disaster. Infrastructure was neglected. Crooked courtiers ground the peasants down into crippling destitution. The social fabric unwound.
But what did the rich and powerful care when they lived in an era of such luxury? Porcelain of the Jiajing reign is particularly whimsical and otherworldly. This vase shows the “three friends” pine, bamboo, and plum growing together as emblems of wealth, happiness, and longevity. Each plant is twisted into an otherworldly logogram–a “shou” symbol. Here the plum blossoms forth out of a splendid stylized rock covered in lichen.
Look at the decorative elements! The waves, the scrolls, and the mystical vegetation which surround the three central plants all began as naturalistic forms—but by the time of the Jiajing era they have been transmuted into ethereal blue beauty. And yet the original forms are still there as well. It is hard to describe what gives this little ovoid vase its winsome charm, but the aesthetic effect is undeniable.