Step 4 of 10
Although this side of the pipa remains unseen by the audience when the instrument is played by the musician, it has been suggested that it was placed on display when it was not played, allowing for a visual appreciation of the instrument as well. The delicate craftsmanship of the object and the luxurious materials used indicate that this instrument was a particularly expensive gift. It asserts the pipa’s status as a vital part of the Chinese musical repertoire within the very highest echelons of society and beyond.
Crafted from wood and ivory, this pipa is a material witness to cultural exchange connecting China with the rest of Eurasia. It refers to the maritime section of the historic Silk Road that connected China and other parts of the world (see the map, above). Such trade routes have flourished since the 2nd century BC. Although they had been interrupted several times since the Yuan Dynasty due to controls on smuggling, trade, and maritime disputes with China’s neighboring countries, they played an important role in maritime trade exchanges between East and West until the Qing Dynasty.
The establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 returned political stability and a prosperous urban economy to China. To proclaim the strong power of his empire and extend the empire's tributary system, the Yongle emperor (1360-1424), second ruler of the Ming, sent Zheng He, a high-ranking eunuch within the court, to commanded great voyages to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. This period of maritime exploration helped rekindle activity along the Maritime Silk Route, which bustled again as China imported rare materials from abroad, including hardwood and ivory. From the imperial palace to the ordinary family, ivory, in particular, became extremely popular in China because of its white color and smooth texture.
As ivory was imported into China in large quantities from Southeast Asia and Africa, the craft of ivory carving developed rapidly . By the late Ming, the southeastern coast of China and Jiangnan (the area around the lower Yangtze River) were home to a large number of craftsmen who made their living from ivory carving. In particular, Fuzhou and Zhangzhou on the southeast coast became centres of the ivory industry due to the development of maritime trade with Southeast Asia. According to local county records, merchants in Zhangzhou often carved imported ivory into immortal and religious figures for the burgeoning market.