Art under the Ming Dynasty

Learning Objective

  • Describe some of the artwork characteristic of the Ming dynasty

Key Points

  • One major innovation during the Ming period was the vernacular novel, written in a form of Chinese readable to an audience much larger than the elite literati and incorporating themes outside the norms of Confucian court styles.
  • Informal essays, travel writing, and private newspapers also thrived during the Ming period.
  • During the Ming, classical forms of painting continued, and new schools of painting flourished.
  • Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting due to the high prices they charged for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art.
  • The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains, which were sought around the world, and gave rise to many scammers and imitators.



A visual art related to writing; the design and execution of lettering with a broad-tip brush, among other writing instruments.


The native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national, or standard variety of the language.

Literature and Poetry

Short fiction had been popular in China as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907), and the works of contemporaneous Ming authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, but the most striking literary development during the Ming period was the vernacular novel. While the gentry elite were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of classical Chinese, those with rudimentary educations—such as women in educated families, merchants, and shop clerks—became a large potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed vernacular Chinese. Literati scholars edited or developed major Chinese novels into mature form in this period, such as Water Margin and Journey to the West. Jin Ping Mei, published in 1610, though it incorporated earlier material, exemplifies the trend toward independent composition and concern with psychology. In the later years of the dynasty, Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu innovated with vernacular short fiction. Theater scripts were equally imaginative. The most famous script, The Peony Pavilion, was written by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), and had its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.

Informal essay and travel writing was another highlight of Ming literature. Xu Xiake (1587–1641), a travel literature author, published his Travel Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything from local geography to mineralogy. In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for individualism, as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian court politics. Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical compromises that were inseparable from the career of a scholar-official. This anti-official sentiment in Yuan’s travel literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the Song dynasty poet and official Su Shi (1037–1101). Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers, Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623), were the founders of the Gong’an School of letters. This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei. Yet even the gentry and scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love stories that arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate.

The first reference to the publishing of private newspapers in Beijing was in 1582; by 1638 the Beijing Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable type printing. The new literary field of the moral guide to business ethics was developed during the late Ming period for the readership of the merchant class.


Famous painters included Ni Zan and Dong Qichang, as well as the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, and Qiu Ying. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting due to the high prices they charged for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art. The artist Qiu Ying was once paid 100 oz of silver to paint a long hand-scroll for the eightieth birthday celebration of the mother of a wealthy patron. Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career, and others who were full-time painters.

The painting techniques that were invented and developed before the Ming period became classical during it. More colors were used in painting during the Ming dynasty; seal brown became much more widely used, and even over-used. Many new painting skills and techniques were innovated and developed; calligraphy was much more closely and perfectly combined with the art of painting. Chinese painting reached another climax in the mid- and late-Ming. Painting was derived in a broad scale, many new schools were born, and many outstanding masters emerged.


Chen Hongshou painting from the Ming period. Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou (1598–1652); small leaf album paintings like this one first became popular in the Song dynasty.


The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains. The major production centers for porcelain were the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province. The Dehua porcelain factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the 16th century. Individual potters also became known, such as He Chaozong, who became famous in the early 17th century for his style of white porcelain sculpture. The ceramic trade thrived in Asia; Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic exports were sent to Europe, while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia.

Carved designs in lacquerware and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework. The writing materials in a scholar’s private study, including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal.

Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered on these items of refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even underground scammers who themselves made imitations and false attributions. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci, while staying in Nanjing, wrote that Chinese scam artists were ingenious at making forgeries and thus huge profits. However, there were guides to help the wary new connoisseurs; Liu Tong (d. 1637) wrote a book printed in 1635 that told his readers how to spot fake and authentic pieces of art. He revealed that a Xuande-era (1426–1435) bronzework could be authenticated by judging its sheen; porcelain wares from the Yongle era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness.


Ming pottery. Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.