USC Pacific Asia Museum Must-see exhibit: ‘Royal Taste’

Until June 26, Pasadenans have a rare opportunity to see exquisite treasures from the Ming Dynasty China at the USC Pacific Asia Museum’s exhibit “Royal Taste: The Art of Princely Courts in 15th Century China.” The exhibit opened February 26 and runs until June 26 and is a ticketed event, the first in my memory at the USC PAM.


PAM director Christina Yu Yu was able to work with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL and the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, China to bring the exhibit here although it was originally scheduled to only be in the Florida venue. The USC PAM space for the exhibit was planned in a matter of months which is last-minute for an established art museum. Because of the quality of the items and the value of the gold and jewels, security had to be increased and the cost will hopefully be covered by the extra cost. The exhibit explores the lifestyles and religious practices in the early and mid-Ming period of China (1368-1644) outside of the capital city with 150 works of art, including intricately fabricated fragile gold jewelry made with emeralds, rubies and sapphires that a eunuch general gathered from outside of China. In addition, pieces from the permanent collection of PAM and a local collector have been included to augment the Hubei Museum collection. Some of the gold is such high carat that it is extremely soft and fragile and thus can be easily crushed. Some of the items clearly show being deformed by pressure.

Ming means “bright” and thus it was the “Empire of Great Brightness,” when the native Chinese finally had overthrown the Mongolian regime that Kublai Khan established, known as the Yuan period (1271-1368). The exhibit is divided into three sections: Personals treasures, lifestyles of the nobility and religious and philosophical articles tied to Buddhism and Daoism. The exhibit is divided into three sections: Personals treasures, lifestyles of the nobility and religious and philosophical articles tied to Buddhism and Daoism.

According to curator, Yeonsoo Chee, during the Ming Dynasty members of the royal family were sent to different provinces for two reasons: To represent the royal power and wealth through patronage of the arts and to remove princes who might threaten life and eventual rule of the heir apparent. Ming Dynasty emperors gave about 60 princes fiefs in different areas and the regional courts held political power and financial privileges for generations.

Forty of the pieces come from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (d. 1441) in Zhongxiang City. Flooding in the region increased the difficulty of the excavation and may account for some of the missing gemstones. His tomb as well as the tombs of a few other princes were excavated in 2001 and the excavations are considered the most important Ming archeological finds in the last 50 years according to Chee, enriching knowledge about the princes living outside the capital.

One of the treasures on display is a gold spoon and gold chopsticks and gold and silver vessels. The most beautiful pieces come from the tombs of Prince Zhuang and his wife Lady Wei. Chee noted that during the Ming Dynasty, sumptuary laws defined who could use certain types of objects amongst the aristocracy. For example, Prince Zhuang brought a gold ewer from the capital but the sumptuary laws dictated that his wife, who was of a lower social status, could not have a gold ewer, but she could have a similar silver one. Of course, Chee also said that we can’t possibly know if the prince allowed his wife to use his gold items. One hopes he did.

Some pieces reflect religious concepts of esoteric Buddhism and Daoism.  Other items on display include scrolls, jade objects, articles of clothing and wood and bronze statues. Students of medicine, particularly Chinese traditional practices will be delighted to view the educational acupuncture statue.

“Royal Taste: The Art of Princeley Courts in 15th Century Chinese” continues until June 26 at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 449-2742 or visit General admission is $10. Students and seniors are $7. Second Sundays of each month are free.

Royal Taste General Public Pricing

  • Adult: $18
  • Students & Seniors: $15
  • USC Students, Faculty & Staff: $8
  • Children 12 and under: Free




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