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Indepth Arts News:

"The Golden Age of Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China"
2000-02-13 until 2000-05-07
Museum of Fine Art, Houston
Houston, TX, USA United States of America

More than 200 wondrous objects tell the story of ancient China in The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from The People's Republic of China, one of the most important surveys of art and archaeology ever lent by China. This major exhibition is of such magnitude that it will fill all of the main-level galleries in the MFAH's Law Building. It features many of China's most important archaeological discoveries, most of which have been excavated in the last 25 years. In fact, the 'golden age' of Chinese archaeology is occurring right now - recent and ongoing excavations are uncovering objects of great beauty and often staggering size, and the discovery of these objects is rewriting the history of Chinese art and culture. For more than 1,000 years, scholars believed that cultural development radiated from a single region - the Yellow River valley in northern China. However, these recent archaeological finds indicate that very different cultures evolved simultaneously in various regions throughout China.

Most of the items in the exhibition, which covers the Neolithic Period through the Liang dynasty (5000 b.c. to a.d. 923), were discovered in elaborate tombs and in pits - probably used for ritual sacrifice because many of the objects were burned before they were buried. Upon the exhibition's premiere at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Washington Post reviewer Paul Richard called the works of art shiveringly fabulous and emphasized the silent, dreadful vastnesses of time that these objects carry with them. It's that awesome continuity that one remembers most after walking through this show, he commented.

The exhibition is organized in four sections related to different eras: the late prehistoric period; the Bronze Age; Chu and other cultures; and early Imperial China. Within each section, the objects are organized by cultures to show how an art like jade carving, for example, differs from culture to culture.

The first section, 'Late Prehistoric China' (c. 5000-2000 b.c.), traces the development of painted pottery and jade ornaments created by several cultures. Excavated from various sites in the Yellow River valley, the Yangzi River valley to the south, as well as the remote region of northeast China, these objects provide insights into both daily life and ritual in early China. Included are painted pottery vessels with pictographs, an early precursor of Chinese writing. Finds from this period lend credence to the existence of the 'Jade Age,' a period referred to in historical narratives written during the Han dynasty. Until the archaeological discoveries were made, such references were considered to be myth. In the last few decades, tombs in the Yangzi river basin have yielded more than 3,000 carved jade objects.

'Bronze Age China' (c. 2000-771 b.c.), the second section, showcases the discovery and complete mastery of bronze casting in China. Among the works are stylized human figures, including one impressive figure that stands nearly nine feet tall (illustrated on page 8). This work is considered the single most remarkable Chinese archaeological find of the last decade. The people of southwestern China are the only Bronze Age society known to have produced large-scale sculptures representing humans. The sculptures were found in large sacrificial pits that also contained 60 elephant tusks, more than 50 life-size bronze heads, and 20 bronze masks. Also presented in this section are ornate bronze vessels from the tomb of Fu Hao, a consort to the Shang dynasty king. Such vessels were used for ritual offerings of food and wine to honor ancestors and then were buried with the deceased.

The third section, 'Chu and Other Cultures' (c. 770-221 b.c.), examines five and a half centuries when the arts flourished. Represented by lavish bronzes, rich textiles, flamboyant lacquerware, and gold and silver objects, this epoch has been called the period of 'one hundred flowers blooming.' Among the outstanding works is a magnificent set of 26 elaborately decorated bronze bells. This section also features hand-embroidered silk textiles with remarkably vivid colors, even though they are more than 2,000 years old. The fragments of silk shrouds and burial costumes from the tomb of a Chu noblewoman reveal that silk weaving was a highly developed art in Chu domains. Chu lacquerware in the exhibition includes a picnic chest with dishes, flasks, and a tray, and a coffin decorated with serpentine dragons and phoenix-like birds. A text from the first century b.c. reports that lacquerware then cost 10 times more than bronze because of the complex process of coating objects with resin from the lac tree.

The final section of the exhibition, 'Early Imperial China' (221 b.c.-a.d. 923), illustrates the political and cultural unification of China. This section features the renowned, life-size soldiers and horses made of terra-cotta that were found in the extensive tomb complex of ancient China's first emperor, Shihuangdi (reigned 246-210 b.c.). Shihuangdi unified China and created its first centralized government. The first emperor's massive burial complex, which is still only partially excavated, reflects his ambitions and accomplishments - more than 7,000 life-size terra-cotta figures are entombed in three large pits. These warriors are believed to have been interred as substitutes for sacrificial victims, a practice from earlier times. This section also includes two jade burial shrouds that illustrate how similar belief systems had spread throughout China by the Han dynasty (207 b.c.-a.d. 220). Made within 10 years of each other but more than 2,000 miles apart, the shrouds demonstrate that shared beliefs regarding funerary customs linked distant areas of China. During this period, Buddhism spread across China. Buddhist sculptures with much of their original paint and gilding are included here, as is an elegant pair of painted marble reliefs depicting women musicians and attendants.

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