The Ming dynasty came into power on the wings of national feeling. China rallied her forces and expelled the foreign tyrants. Without doubt the nation cherished the illusion of rebuilding itself upon the model of the past, and the first emperors of the dynasty believed that the empire could be re-established upon an unshakable foundation. But the Ming dynasty, in reality, was but the heir and follower of Yüan. The latter itself had been only a connecting link. It had changed nothing, but had tended rather to absorb into the Chinese system the Northern barbarians, who up to that time had been foreigners. It had unwittingly achieved unity for China, despite itself and against its own inclination. In the administration of the empire, it had finished the program of conservation which the Sung dynasty, through impotence, had been unable to carry to completion.

The Ming dynasty inherited the work of the Mongols and consolidated it. It survived under their reign and under that of the Ch’ing rulers until the final disintegration, of which we have but recently seen the results. The peaceful ideals of the Ming dynasty, the marked predominance of Confucianism as a code of ethics, with certain modifications by Chu Hsi, combined to form an ensemble that was apparently perfect and which made it possible to have faith in the excellence of the principles laid down by the monarchy. Thus a school was formed which had its own philosophy, manners and ideals, all of them cold, stiff and without spontaneity. It was an over-perfect machine which went like clockwork. The world was judged with a narrow and somewhat stupid self-confidence. The ideal dwelt in the word of Confucian writings, divorced from their true meaning, and so badly interpreted that they ceased to be understood aright. The meticulous, bureaucratic and hieratic administration of the Tartars was a perfect system of government. The machine was still new and worked well, whence arose a false impression of permanence which added still further to the complacency of the conservative mind. An art was necessary to this China. She had it. It was academic painting.

Plate XIX

Ming Period. Collection of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Junior.

Side by side with this and yet apart, other influences were at work. Notwithstanding the prohibition of books on heterodox philosophies in schools, accompanied by the widespread decadence of Buddhism, and the complete downfall of Taoism owing to gross practices in popular magic, and despite the disdain of the official world, another element in China was preserving the spirit of the past, the restless spirit that craved novelty. In all probability its obscure workings did not appear immediately upon the surface, concealed as they were by the strictly prescribed screen of official China. They were sufficiently strong, however, to give rise to an art which differed essentially from academic art, and which numbered masters who were comparable with those of the past. In spite of adverse circumstances and the weight under which these movements were buried, they made themselves felt in violent upheavals. First let us draw a picture of the decadence of an art and later we shall return to activity and life.

Official painting in the Ming period rapidly stiffened into convention. To understand how it took shape, we must go back to the time of Hui Tsung and observe the method of recruiting talent in the Academy which he founded.

That painting was allied to philosophic and poetic thought is already known. It was always a refined diversion of poets and painters to unite in a quest for the beautiful. The poet wrote verses and the painter painted a picture suggesting, sometimes remotely, the thought enshrined in the poem. Such were the conditions upon which Hui Tsung instituted examinations, following which the doors of the Academy were open to the victor. He gave, for example, as subject for a competition a verse saying, “The bamboos envelop the inn beyond the bridge,” which suggested a landscape with flowing water, a rustic bridge thrown across the stream, a cluster of bamboos on the bank, a “winehouse” half hidden in the verdure. All the competitors, the records say, set to work drawing with minute care the inn which they made the essential feature of the picture. Only one implied its presence by showing, above a dense cluster of bamboos, the little banner which in China denotes the presence of a “winehouse.” Two verses of another poem in which allusion was made to the red flowers of spring were interpreted by the representation of a beautiful young girl dressed in red, leaning on a balustrade, for according to Chinese ideas, the thoughts of young men in spring turn there, as elsewhere, toward thoughts of love.

Plate XX

Ming Period. Collection of R. Petrucci.