National Museum’s £80m makeover to open with exhibition of Far East treasures

Priceless porcelain artefacts from the Far East will be put on permanent display.
Priceless porcelain artefacts from the Far East will be put on permanent display.
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If you asked people to come up with examples of East Asian decorative art, chances are ‘Ming porcelain’ would be at the top of most lists.

And with good reason: the 276 year-long Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was the period when Chinese porcelain became an internationally recognised object of desire in the West, and the very name ‘china’ becoming synonymous with ‘porcelain’. To this day, the finest examples continue to change hands for eye-watering sums of money.

But, as Exploring East Asia, a new permanent gallery opening on 8 February in the National Museum of Scotland, will show, that is only a part of the story. The three major cultures of East Asia – China, Japan and Korea – are represented in the gallery through over 500 objects spanning more than 3,000 years of history, ranging from paintings and sculpture to costume, armour and weapons.

For all that they are three very different cultures with their own distinct histories and identities, China, Japan and Korea do share many aspects of culture and technological innovation. Throughout their long history, people in the region have transformed its rich natural resources into high-quality products, sought after at home and abroad, including silk, lacquer and, of course, porcelain.

Dr Qin Cao, curator of Chinese collections at National Museums Scotland, explains: “The importance of ceramics in Chinese culture is difficult to overstate. Ceramic technology was used in the casting of bronze as far back as about 1600BC and there was a continuous process of development and innovation, from earthenware and stoneware to porcelain. So, when you look at Ming porcelain, there’s a sense in which you are looking at the result of thousands of years of continuous practice.”

The finest goods — many made of jade, silk, lacquer and porcelain — were crafted in specialist workshops for the emperor and the court, and were long utilised as symbols of status and power. They carry a rich visual language through the combined use of motifs, colours and styles. Examples from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties can be seen in the new gallery. One highlight is a ruyi, meaning ‘as you wish’, a decorative ornament derived from Buddhist ceremonial sceptres, carved from a large piece of high-quality jade.

The material on display in Exploring East Asia includes plenty of prized porcelain, but also demonstrates vividly that there was excellence in many other artistic fields, as Dr Cao explains.

“When you say ‘Ming’, people in Europe think ‘Ming vase’, which is a little strange when you consider that you’re talking about a dynasty covering nearly three centuries. We will show porcelain from the period but actually one of our most significant Ming-era objects is a rice measure. That sounds quite mundane but this vessel stands out for its motif and the quality of its red lacquer work. The five-clawed dragons depicted symbolise imperial power, and it’s possible this vessel was used by emperors to make ritual offerings in ceremonies asking for the blessings of heaven for the empire.”

China had been exporting materials, products and ideas for centuries around Asia and the Middle East, but the Ming period represents the first significant contacts between China and the emergent European colonial powers of the West. As domestic production expanded massively, so too did the export trade in Chinese porcelain and other products, particularly into the Qing period. One of the more surprising examples of this has a Scottish connection; a porcelain punch bowl made in China in 1746-1747 which carries a depiction of the Battle of Culloden and portrait medallions of the Duke of Cumberland.

The Qing dynasty fell in 1911, marking the end of dynastic imperial rule. By 1949 Mao Zedong led the People’s Republic of China. From the 1950s, a vast range of art was produced to promote the revolutionary communist ideology of the new China, including a great deal of porcelain. Built on long-established practices combined with Soviet influences, these propagandist artworks developed their own distinct and visually striking styles. National Museums Scotland acquired a significant collection of examples with the support of Art Fund in 2015, and a selection of these will be on display. Since the late 1970s, economic and political reforms have taken place alongside the emergence of innovative approaches to art which draw inspiration from past and present, and from outside China.

The influence of Chinese porcelain by this time was worldwide. However, the technology had spread much earlier through East Asia. Chinese artistic traditions have inspired makers in Japan since the 6th century.

Dr Rosina Buckland, Senior Curator, East and Central Asia at National Museums Scotland said: “Some of the most famous Japanese potters of the late 19th century drew on their studies of classic Chinese wares to develop in new directions. They employed bright monochrome glazes, boldly contrasting traditional motifs and inscriptions as decoration. When ceramic production in China was disrupted due to civil unrest, Japan even exported Chinese-style pieces to the continent.”

Examples abound in which Chinese influence can be seen across materials and forms. Seifū Yohei III was the third in a long line of potters. Such lineages were not necessarily a family line: artists in Japan commonly adopted an ‘art name’, which could be passed on to a younger apprentice. The Seifū Yohei lineage, founded in Kyoto in 1844, is one of the most renowned working in ceramics. Work from all five is shown in the gallery, but Seifū Yohei III enjoyed particular success, being awarded the accolade of Imperial Household Artist in 1893. His striking piece, a red baluster vase of porcelain features blue dragon roundels, a clear Chinese motif. A 19th century painting on silk, splendidly titled “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup”, is a collaboration by eight artists of the Maruyama-Shijō school is based on an 8th century Chinese poem which parodies the Eight Daoist Immortals.

Inspiration in Korea was also often drawn from Chinese techniques and decoration, though artists developed new approaches. High quality, finely crafted objects reflected an individual’s status and refinement in Korean society and ceramics were highly prized. The principle types were green celadon stoneware, which developed into a distinctly Korean approach using inlaid slip decoration, and porcelain. Porcelain was first produced in Korea in the 15th century, when government-sponsored kilns made impressive pieces to be sent as tribute to the Chinese court. Korean porcelain is distinguished by its warmer tone and a generally simpler aesthetic, with plain forms and a restrained use of colour. Pure white vessels were highly valued but auspicious motifs in underglaze blue were also popular, especially those associated with long life, such as dragons, turtles and cranes.

More contemporary pieces show how these rich and varied influences are carried forward into the 21st century. Examples include a 2012 bowl by Taiwanese artist Li Tsun-Jen which follows the iconic Ming style of thin blue and white porcelain. Korean Glass 15, an attempt in glass and bone china to create a ‘perfect Asian-looking vase’, made here in Edinburgh by Leith-based Korean artist Choi Keeryong just last year.

There is beauty and skill in abundance throughout the collections going on display next month, but also a perhaps timely glimpse into the human history of three rich and distinct but closely linked cultures.

Exploring East Asia opens on 8 February at the National Museum of Scotland alongside Ancient Egypt Rediscovered and Art of Ceramics. Together, the three new, permanent galleries mark the conclusion of the 15-year, £80-million transformation of the Museum’s Victorian building. Visit www.nms.ac.uk/seethewholestory for details.