The Newsletter 70 Spring 2015

Hungry ghosts meet Ming bling: re-framing 50 years in the life of an empire

Anna Grasskamp

Three young women on leashes are sold for a pile of paper money, while in the background a wife is abandoned by her husband. This powerful image belongs to a set of 139 paintings made circa 1459 for the Baoning monastery in Youyu County, Shanxi, and used for the ritual appeasement of ‘hungry ghosts’, a euphemism for the restless souls of decedents involved in violent or immoral deeds. Another picture in the same series exhibits acrobats, athletes and performers, displaying their tattooed, spectacularly trained or otherwise extraordinarily shaped, modified or dressed up bodies for show. Through the inclusion of these impressive paintings the British Museum’s exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China finds a strong and memorable way of representing figures outside the glamorous and well-documented spaces of elite power.