The Power and Glory of China’s Ming Dynasty

Herbst Theatre, San Francisco

In 1368, a military genius born a peasant reunited China and drove the once-invincible Mongol cavalry back to the homeland of Genghis Khan. The Hongwu emperor revitalized the world’s largest economy yet eschewed both military and commercial adventurism. But his half-Mongol son, the Yongle emperor, rebuilt the Mongol capital at Beijing and lavished resources on vast fleets led by the Muslim eunuch Zheng He. Decades before Columbus sailed, maritime power extended Ming military and diplomatic influence to Southeast Asia, India and East Africa. Trade flourished, spurred by Ming productivity, the unquenchable European thirst for porcelain, and the vast silver reserves of Mexico and Peru. Ming urban culture transmuted that silver into a blossoming of arts, crafts, literature, and drama that rivaled the cultural riches of the Renaissance. By 1644, desperation among the rural poor, declining fiscal control, and a renewed challenge from the north brought down the Ming dynasty, leaving the less exuberant Qing regime to warily fend off ever-increasing European maritime power and arrogance.

In collaboration with the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley.

Friday, February 10, 2012, 7:30 to 10:00 pm

Welcome and Overview of Program. Moderator, Wen-hsin Yeh (Director, Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley)

Melody of Chinaperformers Yangqin Zhao and Gangqin Zhao of San Francisco perform on the Yangqin and Guzheng.

Ming China and the Larger WorldTimothy Brook (Chinese History, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia). The Ming founder came to power by defeating the Mongol occupation and declaring that he would restore China to its original character as a village society. That he failed was not for want of trying. But the world had changed since the Song dynasty, and the Ming had to change with it. There would be no return to arcadia when goods could be traded, trade routes followed, and money made. His son Yongle would be more aggressive in casting the Ming as a maritime power, famously sending his Muslim eunuch Zheng He on diplomatic excursions into the Indian Ocean. But the bigger story is that Chinese, slowly but surely, were discovering profitable links with economies elsewhere. The flood of trade was unstoppable, fueling a prosperity that Chinese had not known for centuries and drawing Europeans around the world in unprecedented numbers. A global economy was on the horizon.

Art and Visual Culture at the Ming Court. Michael Knight (Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, SF). Great changes occurred in court arts during the 276 years of the Ming dynasty. In the early decades of the dynasty, the main concerns were building an appropriate imperial capital and demonstrating the legitimacy of the emperor. By the end of the dynasty some estimates place the number of members of the imperial family as high as 60,000; each member both a drain on state resources and a potential consumer of art. Throughout the dynasty, a vast array of objects was required to serve the needs of the court; these ranged from the simplest bowl for serving rice to items used in the most elaborate court rituals. This lecture provides an overview of the function of art at the Ming court in four sections: the court environment at the primary capital of Beijing and the secondary capital at Nanjing; daily life and entertainment at court; visual symbols of hierarchy and rank; and court religion.

Saturday, February 11, 2012, 10:00 am to noon and 1:30 to 4:00 pm

Welcome. Wen-hsin Yeh, Moderator

Manifesting Heaven’s Mandate: the Yongle Emperor’s Fight for Legitimacy. Sarah Schneewind (History, UC San Diego). The Ming founder passed over his fourth son, Zhu Di, for the succession, choosing instead a peaceable grandson likely to change the violent tenor of his own reign. But Zhu Di usurped his nephew’s throne in a bloody civil war and alienated the allegiance of the most respected literati men. His power, as the Yongle emperor, was not in question, but throughout his reign, he strove in numerous and dramatic ways to assert his legitimacy to the broad public, within the framework of the venerable Mandate of Heaven ideology. The dramatic pre-Columbian sea voyages led by the Muslim eunuch Zheng He were part of that effort. While his successors ended the voyages, Yongle’s legitimation strategies affected the Ming path forward, and the way historians have understood the Ming period.

Late Ming DramaSophie Volpp. The late Ming (roughly 1570-1644) ushered in the golden age of the Chinese literary drama, when a gentleman might be expected to have some skill as a playwright. Literati composed plays in unprecedented numbers and owned private acting troupes, often coaching the actors themselves. The stage so dominated the cultural sensibility of the period that theatricality came to occupy an important ideological niche in diverse genres of cultural production. This lecture focuses on the particular quality of relations among literati and actors in the privileged and precarious world of the late Ming. The Peach Blossom Fan (1698) is not a late-Ming play, but we include it here not only because it dramatizes the fall of the Ming but because it provides a fully-realized incarnation of the concerns regarding theatricality that are so dominant in late-Ming drama.

Lunch. Theatre closes from noon to 1 pm. Program resumes at 1:30 pm

Late Ming Drama:  The Peony Pavilion in PerformanceSheila Melvin. Late Ming drama has had a renaissance in China and Taiwan after the revival in 2004-05 of Tang Xianzu’s Peony Pavilion(Mudan ting) in a “Youth edition” by producer Pai Hsien-yung performed at China’s top universities (and UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall). Kunqu –the style of opera–had been a dying art with an aging audience of cognoscenti. Pai Hsien-yung’s production revived it with a production that featured vivid staging on lavish sets and starred young actors with rigorous training. Kunqu became popular among younger audiences, and a host of Ming plays were revived. Most recently, small-scale chamber opera has become fashionable, in response to the block-buster productions of the kunqurevival. This presentation considers Pai Hsien-yung’s production of Peony Pavilion against the backdrop of two East-West collaborations: Chen Shizheng’s 1999 Lincoln Center production, which showcased traditional Chinese popular arts, and Peter Sellars’s 1998 experimental version, which featured music by experimental composer Tan Dun, best known for his score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The Ming in Retrospect. Lynn Struve (History, Indiana University). Members of the educated social stratum who faced the collapse of the “Great Ming” were filled with conflicted feelings about the impending demise. On one hand, they were acutely aware of the dynasty’s numerous present problems, which typically signaled the end of Heaven’s patience with any Chinese ruling order. On the other, the two fatal challenges to the dynasty’s existence—insurrections of commoners and invasions by “barbarians”—brought directly to mind the principal reasons why the Ming founder, Taizu, had never ceased to be revered as a great dynastic progenitor. Ironically, many placed blame for the dynasty’s difficulties on the emperor who actually had brought the Ming to the pinnacle of its geopolitical greatness, the third emperor Chengzu. He increasingly was seen to have marred the dynasty’s cosmic moral legitimacy in his fratricidal usurpation of the throne—a violation that was being finally paid for in the seventeenth century.

Panel Discussion with all Presenters and written questions from the Audience.

A native of Toronto, Timothy Brook earned degrees from University of Toronto and Harvard and taught at both. He has held appointments at University of Alberta, Stanford, University of British Columbia, and Oxford University. At UBC he also holds the Republic of China Chair in UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. He is an honorary professor of East China Normal University, Shanghai, and holds an honorary doctorate from University of Warwick. He has published five books on the Ming dynasty, two on China in the 20th century, and one on global history. He has also edited nine volumes. For The Confusions of Pleasure (1998), he received the Levenson Prize from the Association for Asian Studies and the Garneau Medal from the Canadian Historical Association. Vermeer’s Hat (2008) was awarded the Lynton Prize in History by Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation of Harvard. Death by a Thousand Cuts (2008) was given the Ferguson Prize by the Canadian Historical Association. Brook edits the six-volume History of Imperial China (Harvard); his volume is The Troubled Empire (2010). Translations of his books have appeared in a dozen languages.

Michael Knight serves as the Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum of SF. Prior to coming to the Asian Art Museum in 1996, Dr. Knight spent 15 years at the Seattle Art Museum with his final posting as the Foster Foundation Associate Curator of Asian Art. He also taught for four years at the University of Washington where he was Affiliate Assistant Professor of Chinese Art. Michael received his PhD in Chinese Art History, Master of Philosophy and Master of Arts from Columbia University and his Bachelor of Arts from Willamette University. He is curator or co-curator of many exhibitions, including Shanghai: Art of the City (2010), Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty (2008), Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century (2008)The Elegant Gathering: the Yeh Family Collection (2006), and The Monumental Landscapes of Li Huayi (2004).

Sheila Melvin is a writer and consultant who specializes in China. A regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune, primarily on the arts in China, she has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The San Jose Mercury News, The Wilson Quarterly, and other publications. She is co-author, with her husband Jindong Cai, ofRhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese, which was short-listed for the Saroyan Prize in 2005, and the author of The Little Red Book of China Business. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she taught English in Taipei while studying Chinese and was a student at Shanghai’s Fudan University in the tumultuous spring of 1989. She has an honors MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and received the school’s A. Doak Barnett Award for Excellence in China Studies.

Sarah Schneewind (Associate Professor of History, UC San Diego) specializes in the Ming era (1368-1644), which juxtaposed autocracy to commercial prosperity and cultural creativity. She is also interested in Chinese-European intellectual, cultural, and technological exchange from Ming times through the nineteenth century. Her scholarly work explores how people dealt with imperial power, how state power negotiated with society, and how historical texts were constructed and read in political context. She is writing a study of the biographies of an early Ming scholar-official executed for corruption and honored as an incorrupt official, Fang Keqin; and is researching the institution of shrines to living men. Her degrees are from Cornell (BA), Yale (MA), and Columbia University (PhD), and she is Past-President of the Society for Ming Studies. Major publications include A Tale of Two Melons: Emperor and Subject in Ming China (2006); Long Live the Emperor! The Uses of the Ming Founder across Six Centuries of East Asian History (2008); and Community Schools and the State in Ming China (2006).

Lynn Struve is Professor Emerita of History, Indiana University (PhD, University of Michigan). Her interests are the political, intellectual, and cultural history of seventeenth century China, and in comparing Chinese phenomena of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries with contemporaneous phenomena elsewhere. Research has focused on the fall of the Ming dynasty and the early rule of China by the Manchu-Qing dynasty, particularly on personal records left by people then, which vividly reveal the subjective consciousness of members of the literate social stratum as their world fell into turmoil. Other, related specializations are Ming and Qing historiography, late-imperial trends in Neo-Confucianism and classical scholarship, and psychological aspects of autobiographical expression in the Ming-Qing era. She has held grants from American Council of Learned Societies, Fulbright Foundation, and the Committee for Scholarly Research in the PRC. Publications include The Southern Ming, 1644-1662 (1984); Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm: China in Tigers’ Jaws (1993); The Ming-Qing Conflict, 1619-1683: A Historiography and Source Guide (1998); (ed.) The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time (2004); (ed.) Time, Temporality, and Imperial Transition: East Asia from Ming to Qing (2005).

Sophie Volpp is Associate Professor, East Asian Languages & Cultures (Chinese), UC Berkeley, in the Chinese Program and Comparative Literature (Ph.D., East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard, 1995). She specializes in Chinese literature of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Research interests include the history of performance, gender theory, the history of sexuality, and the representation of material culture. Her forthcoming book Worldly Stage (Harvard) concerns the ideological niche occupied by the theater in seventeenth-century China. Her current research examines the depiction of material objects in late-imperial literature, focusing on the relation between the representation of objects and the representation of the self.

Wen-Hsin Yeh is Walter and Elise Haas Chair Professor in Asian Studies and Richard H. and Laurie C. Morrison Chair in History, UC Berkeley. She is also an Honorary Professor of History at Peking University. As Director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, Yeh fosters inter-disciplinary and cross-regional research situated in both historical and contemporary East Asia. A leading authority on twentieth-century Chinese history, Yeh is author or editor of eleven books and numerous articles examining aspects of Republican history, Chinese modernity, the origins of communism and related subjects. Her most recent publication, Shanghai Splendor (2007) is an urban history of Shanghai that considers the nature of Chinese capitalism and middle-class society in a century of contestation between colonial power and nationalistic mobilization.

Gangqin Zhao, a member of Chinese Musicians’ Association, finished her study in the Music Department of Nanjing Normal University in 1987. She was named one of 10 Best Musicians by the university in 1990. She was an instructor of guzheng in the Nanjing Children Music and Dance School for years before she immigrated to the US in the late 1990s. She has performed internationally and is the director of Chinese Arts & Music Center in San Francisco. Her students competed in the 2010 International World Cup Chinese Instruments Competition where they won Gold Medals.

Yangqin Zhao is Artistic Director, Melody of China. A member of Chinese Musicians’ Association and the Chinese Nationalities Orchestra Society, Zhao graduated with Honors in Music at Nanjing Normal University and headed the faculty of Instrumental Music there. She won the highest award by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the People’s Republic of China in 1982 and first prize at the Jiangsu Provincial Arts Festival in 1987 and 1991. She appeared in Who’s Who in Young Chinese and The Chinese Musicians Yearbook in 1990. She has performed in Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Germany. In 1996, she was invited as one of seven greatest musicians on the yangqin for the Tanz & Folk Fest Rudolstadt in Germany. Zhao represented China and the US playing the Chinese hammered dulcimer at the International Santur Festival in Iran in 2003. She has performed with the Shanghai Chinese and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, The Woman Philharmonic, and the SF Symphony.

Presented with support from Grants for the Arts/SF Hotel Tax fund; George and Judy Marcus Family Foundation; Bank of the West; Stanford Humanities Center; UC Berkeley Institute for East Asian Studies, USF Center for the Pacific Rim; Marines Memorial Theatre; Asian Art Museum, and individual donors.