Recently I’ve been reading Perpetual Happiness by Shihi-Shan Henry Tsai, a biography of Zhu Di, who ruled the Ming dynasty as the Yongle emperor from 1403–1424 (more on this later). Formerly the Prince of Yan, the Yongle emperor usurped the throne from his nephew and moved the Ming capital from Nanjing to his personal power base at Beijing; in 1406 he began construction of what would become the Forbidden City.
This gold medallion, now in the Nanjing Municipal Museum, was buried in the tomb of Ma rui in 1627, during the reign of the Tianqi emperor (1621–1627).; it was discovered during a 1974 excavation near Nanjing. Mu Rui served as the Yongle emperor’s Vice Commissioner-in-Chief, but he was implicated in an attempted revolt. He died in prison in 1609. How did he obtain this plaque? In the forthcoming catalogue of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition of Ming court arts, He Li offers an explanation:
A court record may provide a clue. In 1408, the Yongle emperor held a banquet to celebrate a successful battle against Annam, in which Mu Sheng was the chief commander (see cat. no. 103). The emperor is said to have awarded to the guest of honor, Mu Sheng, items including the emperor’s own handwritten poem, a jade belt, and a golden plaque (Mingshi, chap. 126, p. 7397); the latter was most likely the surviving medallion here. With the commands possibly engraved by Sheng, it must have been passed down as a family heirloom to later generations. Unfortunately, two hundred years later, its orders were sullied by Mu Rui. Eighteen years after his death, the family was able to conduct Mu Rui’s funeral. By burying the prestigious medallion with him, they announced the end of the legendary name of Mu, which had once been glorified for its support of the Ming court.