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Object Analysis of Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, a Painting From the Ming Dynasty, China

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This handscroll is one of two similar compositions attributed to Xie Huan that document a gathering of nine scholar-officials in Beijing on April 6, 1437. The original composition, prepared for the party's host, Yang Rong (1371–1440), who is depicted wearing a red robe in the first group of seated figures, is now in the Zhenjiang Municipal Museum. This painting, probably made for the senior guest, Yang Shiqi (1365–1444), who is seated in a blue robe next to Yang Rong, is a condensed version executed by one of Xie Huan's associates. In spite of the apparent informality of the subject, the painting is carefully crafted to emphasize the power, prestige, and cultivation of the officials. The men's substantial robes and formal poses underscore the dignity of their positions, and their political ranks are distinguished by their placement in the composition. Those of the greatest status, Yang Shiqi and Yang Rong, are at the center of the composition; guests of lower rank are closer to the periphery of the scroll. The antiques and scholarly paraphernalia surrounding the men suggest their literary accomplishments and aesthetic discernment.

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In Ming painting, the traditions of both the Southern Song painting academy and the Yuan (1271–1368) scholar-artist were developed further. While the Zhe (Zhejiang Province) School of painters carried on the descriptive, ink-wash style of the Southern Song with great technical virtuosity, the Wu (Suzhou) school explored the expressive calligraphic styles of Yuan scholar-painters emphasizing restraint and self-cultivation. In Ming scholar-painting, as in calligraphy, each form is built up of a recognized set of brushstrokes, yet the execution of these forms is, each time, a unique personal performance. Valuing the presence of personality in a work over mere technical skill, the Ming scholar-painter aimed for mastery of performance rather than laborious craftsmanship. Early Ming decorative arts inherited the richly eclectic legacy of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, which included both regional Chinese traditions and foreign influences. For example, the fourteenth-century development of blue-and-white ware and cloisonné enamelware arose, at least in part, in response to lively trade with the Islamic world, and many Ming examples continued to reflect strong West Asian influences

A special court-based Bureau of Design ensured that a uniform standard of decoration was established for imperial production in ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and lacquer.

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This further contributed to worsening the scarcity of silver. This had severe consequences on the dynasty because paying taxes was impossible considering that silver was the main medium of exchange. People started to hoard the little silver they possessed. This caused an increase in the exchange rate of copper and silver. The exchange rate adversely affected farmers because they sold their produce in copper and paid their taxes in silver (Huang, 1981). They had to buy silver with the copper they earned in order to pay taxes. Natural disasters were another cause of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. Famines were frequent in the dynasty due to the cold and dry weather of the region (Hansen, 1997). Other natural calamities include flooding during the rainy season. The effects of natural calamities was augmented by poor irrigation projects, tax increase that overburdened the people, military desertions, and unsuccessful projects that were started to control flooding (Roberts, 1999).

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Obviously, in spite of the apparent informality of the subject, the painting is carefully crafted to emphasize the power, prestige, and cultivation of the officials

The men's substantial robes and formal poses underscore the dignity of their positions, and their political ranks are distinguished by their placement in the composition. Those of the greatest status, Yang Shiqi and Yang Rong, are at the center of the composition; guests of lower rank are closer to the periphery of the scroll. The antiques and scholarly paraphernalia surrounding the men suggest their literary accomplishments and aesthetic discernment.

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Erey, P. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press.

Hansen, V. (1997). The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Cengage Learning.

Huang, R. (1981). 1857, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New York: Yale University Press.

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