With the collapse of Mongol rule in 1368, the Han people were free to once again assert their dominance in China. The Ming dynasty was thus a period during which Chinese culture was celebrated and developed in order to recapture the glories of the Song and Tang. This new-found enthusiasm for a Chinese culture was coupled with unprecedented influences, both from without and within.
The first sustained contacts with European nations occurred during this time. Indeed, in their respective regions, European and Chinese cultures were on an essentially even footing when it came to technological and social developments. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the missionary ethic of Christian churches lead to many more foreigners coming to China than went to lands to the West.
Within China, block-printing was becoming more and more common, to the extent that literacy and systematic knowledge was available to anyone with even a modest income. A growing focus on the civil service examinations further diluted the privileged status of the literati; the landed gentry were under attack by a rising class of wealthy merchants and legions of well-read young men. In sum, the Ming Dynasty was a time of both taking stock and of new directions.
One of the most contentious philosophical questions of the Ming was to do with the status of the traditional lore and regulations that made up Confucianism. Although Su Shi and Zhu Xi had argued vehemently for a redefinition of Confucian rituals that could account for the differences in practice that separated the Song from the Warring States or Han, the Ming saw this open questioning of tradition taken yet further. At the core of Neo-Confucianism was still a serious and unflinching adherence to the words and philosophies of the Sages. What was different, however, was an insistence that the wisdom contained in these words was accessible to anyone with the capacity to read and understand them. Such a claim was supplemented by a desire to interpret the classics in ways that had not been done before. Neo-Confucianism might be seen as an attempt to historicize the classics; to understand the ways in which they did or did not align with current practice and knowledge, and to revise and compromise where necessary. Of course, this movement encountered no small amount of disagreement at court. As a direct challenge to the assumed superiority of those of noble birth, Neo-Confucianism would have quickly been stamped out in any earlier dynasty. The political climate of the Ming was such, however, that the Neo-Confucian school took firm root and would impact Confucian practice ever since.
While previous dynasties had surely experienced significant sponsorship of the arts in the Imperial courts and elite society, the Ming was a period of theoretical consolidation. Dong Qichang in particular took the lead in arguing for definitive ‘schools’ of painting and calligraphy. He attempted to separate the Northern and Southern schools, arguing for the supremacy of the Southern over the Northern.
These labels are misleading: they have very little to do with regional style, but instead rely on the Chan Buddhist division between the ideals of ‘sudden’ versus ‘gradual’ enlightenment. According to Dong Qichang’s scheme, the ‘sudden’ direct apprehension and development of past style was preferable to rote training and slavish copying. In essence, we may view this argument as an attempt to insulate the literati tradition from the influence of a burgeoning commercial arts industry. The educated amateur was positioned as the arbiter of style.