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Exhibitions/ China

China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D.

October 12, 2004–January 23, 2005

Exhibition Overview

Chinese civilization underwent a major transformation during the period spanning the turn of the third century (Late Han dynasty) to the mid-eighth century (High Tang dynasty) as a result of the massive immigration of people from Northern Asia into China and extensive trade contacts with all parts of Asia. This landmark exhibition tells the story of Chinese art and culture during this formative period, focusing especially on East–West crosscultural interchange. Comprising some three hundred objects—the majority of them recent archaeological finds—this is one of the largest exhibitions ever to come out of mainland China. While most of the objects are Chinese works of art, the exhibition also presents gold artifacts of the nomadic peoples from Mongolia, who entered North China after the collapse of the Han dynasty, and luxury articles of glass and precious metals imported from western and Central Asia during the fourth to sixth centuries. Some of the most famous early Chinese Buddhist sculptures are also on view, as well as a spectacular assemblage of works in every medium from the Tang period, interpreted as the culmination of several centuries of cultural exchange and adaptation.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by The Starr Foundation.

Additional support for education programs has been provided by The Freeman Foundation.

Support for the catalogue has also been provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition is organized into seven sections, the first of which focuses on objects from the later years of the Han dynasty, demonstrating both the splendor of the imperial order and the underlying causes for the eventual dissolution of the empire. Central in this section are a set of fourteen bronze cavalry and charioteer figures, arranged in the formation of an official procession. Also on view are a group of luxury objects—including a jade stem cup in the form of a Roman glass goblet and gold ornaments with stone inlay, reflecting the influence of long-distance trade—and the reconstruction in pottery of a large estate, including models of a watchtower, a house with courtyard, animal pens, and a wellhead.

The rest of the exhibition is organized chronologically and geographically, with each section featuring a geographical region as the political and cultural center for a particular historical period. Covering the second through the fourth century, the second section brings together archaeological finds from sites in North China associated with the tribes collectively known as the Xianbei. One of those tribes, the Tuoba Xianbei, became rulers of all of North China during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). On view are examples of the "animal-style" art of the Xianbei, including a gold plaque in the shape of a fanciful animal, dated to the second to third century. Early efforts by the Xianbei to emulate the arts of central China, as their inexorable southward migration took them to the border of China just north of the Great Wall, resulted in works such as Two Warriors, a pair of vibrant fifth-century earthenware sculptures.

The third section of the exhibition focuses on the region of Datong in Shanxi Province, where the Tuoba Xianbei established their first Wei-dynasty capital in China. Objects such as pottery funerary figures—based on Chinese models but in a distinctly northern style—are shown, along with works imported from Central and western Asia (examples of metalwork with Hellenistic and Persian forms and motifs) and locally manufactured objects showing western influences. Two early Buddhist sculptures dating from the late fifth century introduce Buddhist art into the exhibition.

The fourth section, a corollary to the previous section, consists of objects found in Xinjiang (Chinese Central Asia) and Gansu Province, tracing artistic exchanges that took place along the Silk Roads from the fourth to the sixth century. Early Buddhist art is represented by a four-sided stele dated 501, and a display of the eclectic art of Central Asia features textiles such as a seventh-century silk fragment with a design of a figure and camel enclosed within a roundel.

Objects found in areas of China south of the Yangxi River, where native Chinese culture was dominant but not unaffected by foreign influences arriving by land and sea, comprises the exhibition's fifth section. Pictorial bricks—large compositions of figures in landscapes that are impressed on brick walls—are on display, along with ceramic figures and vessels, and imported objects in glass, gold, and silver. Two ink-on-paper rubbings, each nearly eight feet in length, of stamped-brick murals excavated from tombs near Nanjing, illustrate both the style of early figure painting and the lifestyle of the upper classes in the Southern Dynasties (420–589).

The arts of the metropolitan areas in and around Luoyang, the final capital of the Northern Wei through most of the first half of the sixth century, is the focus of the sixth section. It was in the Luoyang area at this time that a grand synthesis in the visual arts took place, combining native Chinese traditions with those from northern and Central Asia. The strikingly new representational art, at once strong and refined, took root in both the religious and secular art of the period. Examples on view include a set of ten earthenware figures from the Northern Wei dynasty and a graceful standing Buddha from the Northern Qi dynasty (550–577), which is one of several superlative Buddhist sculptures in the exhibition from this period.

During the sixth century, luxury articles from western and Central Asia continued to be imported into China. These objects, often combining Hellenistic and Persian motifs and forms, represent an early international style in the arts. Highlights of such objects include a tall, fifth- or sixth-century gilt-silver ewer in a Persian form that is decorated with Hellenistic motifs.

The final section of the exhibition centers on Chang'an, the capital of the Sui (581–619) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. Here the new artistic tradition, fostered under the Northern Wei dynasty in its final years in the Luoyang area, flowered. These galleries display murals of the early Tang period, luxury silks, porcelain vessels, pottery and stone figures, and Buddhist sculptures in bronze and stone, as well as objects in gold, silver, jade, and semiprecious stones. Highlights include a large stone sculpture of a seated Vairocana Buddha, dating from the late seventh to the early eighth century, an earthenware sculpture of a girl resting on a camel, a silver six-lobed plate decorated with a mythical winged animal, and an eight-lobed silver cup made of silver and showing scenes of hunting interspersed with those of women engaged in various activities, including playing with children. Objects from the Turfan area in Chinese Central Asia, dating from the late seventh or early eighth century, when Turfan was part of the Tang empire, include a spectacular tomb guardian with a human head and a small female figure of wood and clay with pigments, dressed in silks with patterns woven to scale and representing high fashion in both dress and makeup in the early Tang period.