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Ming Glazed Terracotta Sculptural Tile From a Temple Roof - H.1023
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 24.25" (61.6cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Style: Ming Dynasty
Medium: Glazed Terracotta

Upon leading a victorious rebellion against the foreign Mongul rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang seized control of China and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368. As emperor, he founded his capital at Nanjing and adopted the name Hongwu as his reign title. Hongwu, literally meaning “vast military,” reflects the increased prestige of the army during the Ming Dynasty. Due to the very realistic threat still posed by the Mongols, Hongwu realized that a strong military was essential to Chinese prosperity. Thus, the orthodox Confucian view that the military was an inferior class to be ruled over by an elite class of scholars was reconsidered. During the Ming Dynasty, China proper was reunited after centuries of foreign incursion and occupation. Ming troops controlled Manchuria, and the Korean Yi Dynasty respected the authority of the Ming rulers, at least nominally.

Like the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Hongwu was extremely suspicious of the educated courtiers that advised him and, fearful that they might attempt to overthrow him, he successfully consolidated control of all aspect of government. The strict authoritarian control Hongwu wielded over the affairs of the country was due in part to the centralized system of government he inherited from the Monguls and largely kept intact. However, Hongwu replaced the Mongul bureaucrats who had ruled the country for nearly a century with native Chinese administrators. He also reinstituted the Confucian examination system that tested would-be civic officials on their knowledge of literature and philosophy. Unlike the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), which received most of its taxes from mercantile commerce, the Ming economy was based primarily on agriculture, reflecting both the peasant roots of its founder as well as the Confucian belief that trade was ignoble and parasitic.

Culturally, the greatest innovation of the Ming Dynasty was the introduction of the novel. Developed from the folk tales of traditional storytellers, these works were transcribed in the everyday vernacular language of the people. Advances in printmaking and the increasing population of urban dwellers largely contributed to the success of these books. Architecturally, the most famous monument of the Ming Dynasty is surely the complex of temples and palaces known as the Forbidden City that was constructed in Beijing after the third ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle, moved the capital there. Today, the Forbidden Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the vast nation.

Glazed tiles are today considered one of the hallmarks of classical Chinese architecture. However, despite their popularity in modern times, they were relatively scarce until after the end of the T’ang Dynasty. Even then, during the Song and Yuan Dynasties, they were still infrequently used. It was not until the rise of the Ming Dynasty that glazed tiles became a popular decorative devise extensively employed in temples, altars, imperials palaces, and gardens. Beijing became the center of glazed architectural tile production during the Ming period, and colorfully decorated pagodas began to sprout up around this region.

This gorgeous tile features a warrior riding atop a dragon covered in a brilliant blue glaze. It is known that such glazed works were most frequently employed on the roofs and along the doorways of imperial or sacred structures. Judging from the shape of the base, it is almost certain that this large sculptural tile was originally employed along the curved roof of a Ming Dynasty temple or pagoda. One can imagine a structure elaborately decorated with such tiles prominently displayed along the corners of the sloping roof. Holes in the warriors hands reveal that he would have likely once held a pair of weapons, perhaps swords or spears, fabricated from wood that have deteriorated over the centuries. The dragon, however, appears more like a horse, reinforcing the Chinese belief that dragons were related to horses. While the body is remarkably equine, the head is clearly more mythological in nature. Clouds swirl below the body of the dragon, implying that this warrior is riding over the heavens, perched high atop the temple roof. When we imagine the entire temple structure covered in such tiles, from the walls to the roof, the glory of Ming Dynasty China becomes apparent. - (H.1023)

 

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