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HOME : Chinese Art : Ming Dynasty : Ming Glazed Terracotta Sculptural Tile of a Dragon's Head
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Ming Glazed Terracotta Sculptural Tile of a Dragon's Head - H.1046
Origin: China
Circa: 1368 AD to 1644 AD
Dimensions: 24.25" (61.6cm) high x 20.5" (52.1cm) depth
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Glazed Terracotta

Location: United States
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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 Joseon 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 Forbidded Palace remains one of the hallmarks of traditional Chinese architecture and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the vast nation.

This glazed sculpture of a dragon’s head dates from the Ming Dynasty. Such a work would have been used as a decorative element on the roof or entryway of a palace or temple structure. The Ming Dynasty especially is noted for its colorfully glazed architectural sculptures. With open mouth, sharp fangs, and beady eyes, this dragon’s head was clearly meant to frighten away any potential evildoers, be they human or otherworldly, which might try to infiltrate the building it once adorned. Considering that both the concave back of the work and inside of the dragon’s mouth have been left unglazed, we can presume that these are the areas where the work was attached to the structure. The general shape of the work, as well as the fact that the top is glazed, implies that it once stood at an intersection of support beams. The work would rest easily between vertical beams while a horizontal beam may have been inserted into the hole in the mouth. A gateway or doorframe comes to mind. Along the dragon’s forehead, in between the eyes, a dedicatory text has been inscribed, detailing the date, location, and patron who commissioned the work. 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.1046)


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