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"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China"

Andrew K. Y. Leung
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
National Gallery
Washington, DC

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"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China" opened in the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., on 19 September 1999. Organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, with the cooperation of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and Art Exhibitions in the People's Republic of China, this exhibition is an impressive overview that provides the American public with a rare opportunity to view the results of many important archaeological discoveries in China during this century. The show is divided chronologically into four sections: Late Prehistoric China (c. 5000-2000 BC), the Bronze Age (c. 2000-771 BC), Chu and Other Cultures (c. 770-221 BC), and Early Imperial China (221 BC-AD 924). Within each section, the exhibits are further arranged by their respective sites and regional traditions. The majority of the artifacts on display are newly discovered. Many have never traveled to the United States before.

Since the 1970s, Chinese archaeology has made tremendous strides and has greatly increased our knowledge of China's past. The many discoveries during the last twenty-five years have drastically altered our perception of the early development of Chinese culture. The term "golden age" in the title of the exhibition, therefore, refers in fact to this highly fruitful period of archaeological activity, not to the fabulous finds themselves.

The show opens with artifacts from various Neolithic regional traditions. Materials more familiar to the Western viewer include painted pottery of the Yangshao culture from the northwest, jades and pottery of the Hongshan culture from the Northeast, and white jades of the Liangzhu culture from the South. In stark contrast to the geometric designs of the Yangshao pots, a unique gang urn from Linru depicts realistic images showing a bird holding a fish in its bill and an axe. Another urn from the Dawenkou culture contains a mysterious sign that may be a form of early writing. This section ends with a more unusual group of painted pottery from the site of Taosi in southern Shanxi, an offshoot of the Longshan culture in Shandong. The marvelous designs on these vessels appear to foretell the design principle for Chinese decorative arts in Shang (ca. 1600-1045 BC) and later periods.

The Bronze Age section of the show is dominated by the fabulous bronze vessels and related materials from Anyang, Dayangzhou, and Sanxingdui. It is not possible to elaborate on the impact of the Dayangzhou and Sanxingdui findings on Shang archaeology here. It has become quite clear, however, that Anyang should no longer be seen as the center of Shang culture. In fact, the findings from the sites of Dayangzhou and Sanxingdui prove that Shang civilization is more diverse and complex than previously thought. Equally intriguing are three pots from Dadianzi, an early Shang site in Inner Mongolia. The painted decoration on these vessels should make specialists rethink the origin of decorative motifs on early Shang bronzes. The exhibition also includes a number of objects from Erlitou, a site that some scholars believe to be from a period of Chinese civilization whose existence has yet to be proven, the so-called preceding Xia dynasty (ca. 21st-16th c. BC). The Western Zhou period (1045-771 BC) is represented by objects recovered from sites such as Shijiazhuang, Zhuangbai, and the tombs at Tianma-Qucun. Among these finds, the largest and heaviest Western Zhou bronze vessel (226 kilograms) ever found in China and the jade ornaments recovered from the tombs of the lords of Jin are perhaps the most outstanding.

In the last two parts of the exhibition, Western viewers enter more familiar ground. The section on the Chu period (?-223 BC) features some of the finest bronzes and lacquers from the Eastern Zhou period (770-256 BC). A good number of these remarkable artifacts were recovered from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at Leigudun. Other attractions from the same historical period include the set of twenty-six bells from Xiasi, textiles from Mashan, the painted lacquer coffin and other artifacts from Baoshan, and artifacts from Tomb 1 at Tianxingguan.

Many of the most recognizable Chinese artifacts on display are in the last part of the exhibition. Objects such as the terracotta figures from the mausoleum of Qin Shihuangdi (r. 221-209 BC) and the jade suit of Liu Sheng from Mancheng (Western Han, 202 BC-AD 203) are without doubt the most well-known examples of Chinese art. Besides these "blockbuster" pieces, the show also include a second jade suit belonging to the King of Nanyue from Xianggang, three Northern Dynasties (386-581) Buddhist sculptures from Qingzhou, and some of the finest Tang (618-907) metalwork from the Famen Temple. Although less well-known, the two painted marble reliefs of female musicians from the tomb of Wang Chuzhi at Xiyanchuan from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) are certainly great examples of stone relief works from China.

However, the impact of the show weakens with this last section, almost becoming anti-climatic. This is partly due to the number and variety of objects on display. Works with a status equal to the earlier materials are the previously mentioned jade suits as well as the artifacts from Famen Temple and from Qingzhou. The rest are ordinary -- tomb figurines and similar works -- that do not contribute significantly to the scholarship of the field.

To this reviewer, the present exhibition provides a great service in assembling these extraordinary works of art under one roof. Every artifact in this show is the best representative example of its respective genre. Furthermore, the objects on display are borrowed from thirty-seven different museums and institutions in China. Even if one were willing to travel to China in order to glimpse these artifacts, it would be impossible to view them in one place. This is thus a rare treat for every American museum-goer.

Equally importantly, this exhibition successfully demonstrates the progress of Chinese archaeology. Many long-accepted beliefs concerning the development of Chinese civilization have now been overturned, especially in the first two sections of the show, the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. With the new discoveries that must come in the future, it will not be surprising if we see new theories regarding the origin of Chinese civilization arise.

After closing at the National Gallery on 2 January 2000, the show travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (13 February to 7 May), then to San Francisco.

Click here to purchase the exhibition catalogue Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China.


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