There will be many surprises in the first large-scale show dedicated to a little-explored Chinese golden age from 600 years ago, including the world's first encyclopaedia and a form of imperial mini-golf. And then there's the question: how did the giraffes get there? The giraffes in the Forbidden City were from Africa and presented as gifts to the emperor, explained Professor Craig Clunas , co-curator of what promises to be an autumn blockbuster at the British Museum . One was a present from the Sultan of Bengal - evidence showing how well-connected China was in the first half of the 15th century. The exhibition will explore a Ming dynasty golden age between 1400 and 1450 when the capital was established in Beijing and China's borders were fixed as they are today. It was a time when China became a superpower, said co-curator Jessica Harrison-Hall . "This is a period in which the bureaucrats trump the military - an incredibly important period relatively unknown outside the country." Clunas said when he first started studying Ming China 40 years ago, the story was one of a closed, static country. The truth could not be more different, he said. Not only was it a great age of exploration - with trade routes to Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean - but the Chinese were open to foreign influence, with a multicultural imperial court where you might easily bump into an Iranian astronomer, a Vietnamese architect or a Japanese weapons expert. The first Ming emperor used his 26 sons to secure rivers and borders by creating regional courts. These have been excavated and the London show will focus on finds from three princely tombs in Sichuan , Shandong and Hubei . It will include the sword of the Yongle emperor, known as "the warrior"; the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, "the bureaucrat"; and the paintings of the Xuande emperor, "the aesthete". Images of the emperor playing what looks like mini-golf and a soldier keeping a football in the air will fascinate, though the museum probably won't enter the debate over who invented the sports, particularly golf. There will be loans from 10 Chinese institutions and 21 international lenders, with exhibits including costumes, jewellery, furniture and art coming together for a once-only show. The British Library will lend eight volumes of the world's first encyclopaedia, a vast set made for the emperor. The show will follow the museum's big Viking show that opens in March. * Ming: 50 years that changed China will take place from 18 Sept 2014 to 5 Jan 2015 Captions: A ceramic shrine and, left, a tomb guard on display Photograph: Dan Kitwood/ Getty
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