Through the years: Capital Museum shows major archaeological discoveries in China

The Capital Museum is holding a show on major archaeological discoveries in China, Wang Kaihao reports.

Kicking off at the Capital Museum in Beijing on Thursday, International Museum Day was celebrated in the country with the exhibition Splendor and Beauty: The Archaeological Finds in Recent 20 Years in China.

The display combines 360 sets of artifacts from 49 institutions across the country, with most items never having travelled outside their home provinces.

They cover almost all archaeological events occupying media headlines in recent years, ranging from the discovery of the tomb of Marquis Haihun in Jiangxi province, nicknamed "China's Tutankhamun tomb" for its huge sum of nuggets, to the tomb of the notorious Emperor Yang from the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

"These important archaeological discoveries connect ancient Chinese cultures in history," says Long Xiaofei, a curator of the exhibition at the Capital Museum.

"However, we have to reach a balance between their academic significance and visibility," he adds. "Each piece has to be the best representative, not only for its historical time, but for people's admiration and the creation of beauty."

According to him, four sections are designed in the exhibition in time order.  The Paleolithic and Neolithic periods show the origin of Chinese people's aesthetics.

Ritualistic items from Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 21st century BC-256 BC), including bronze wares, jade and lacquer wares, reflect sharp changes in social structures and philosophies.

A 62-centimeter lei, a tall wine container, was unearthed from a marquis tomb in central Hubei province.

Dating back to the 10th century BC, this highlighted item shows a mixture of simple style of bronze ware and the romantic spirit of southern China at that time.

Another bronze ware in a rabbit shape, found in northern Shanxi province, is considered a masterpiece that puts abstract and realistic art forms together.

Social morals established on Confucianism and Taoism, harmony between human and nature, and romantic ideas are seen in the art pieces from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to the 10th century.

Items from the Song (960-1279) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties also show great improvement of economy and interactions between literati and grassroots aesthetics.

For example, some exhibited porcelain items from the Song Dynasty show state-of-the-art craftsmanship and the Chinese literati's simple but exquisite lifestyle.

Long explains that change of ancient aesthetics also conveys how the national and cultural identities of Chinese people were formed.

"Chinese archaeologists used to stay in ivory towers," says Zhao Gushan, deputy director of Art Exhibition China, which co-organises the event.

He points out some discoveries may be influential in professional circles, but easier channels are needed to better introduce them to the public.

"These cultural relics are star actors, and we are setting a screenplay to create a good performance," he says. "Beauty is subjective, and we want to leave the question to the visitors to have their own judgment."

Zhao says technology will be brought into this exhibition later to enable visitors turn their smartphones into voice navigators via an app.

Until this one, there had never been a national-level comprehensive exhibition to review the new archaeological findings since 1996, though such exhibitions had been held for three years in row by then. Only major annual exhibitions were held earlier.

However, with the urbanization in China since the mid-1990s, many historical relics have been accidentally unearthed at construction sites.

"That made archaeologists work around tight schedules and they didn't have the time to wait and review our fruitful achievements," says Zhao.

Though the exhibition aims to show archaeological achievements in the past 20 years, some exhibits are also from discoveries before 1996.

According to Guan Qiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, joint exhibitions will be a trend in Chinese museums to optimize allocation of resources as efforts of single institutions are limited.

"We'll lift the geographic and administrative restrictions to establish a sharing platform of museums in different places and encourage them to exchange their exhibits," he says. "This is a better way to expand influence among the public."

Key exhibits recommended by curators

A bronze drum decorated with three cavaliers was unearthed in southwestern Yunnan province in 1992.

The item, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), vividly presents the lives of ancient warriors and shows the combination of aesthetics and functionality.

Bronze drums symbolized noble power back then.

  • A model of the Ashoka Pagoda was unearthed in 2010 in an underground Buddhist temple in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province. Being decorated with gold, silver and 452 gems, the 1.17-meter-high artifact from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) is the largest Ashoka pagoda in China.
  • A gilded copper door knocker was unearthed in 2013 in the tomb of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) in Yangzhou, eastern Jiangsu province. As a funeral object, it belonged to the imperial palace, and is said to have expressed the emperor's wish to continue his daily life even after death.
  • A gold cup decorated with the head of chi, a sacred animal resembling the mythical dragon, was found in southwestern Guizhou province in 2014.

The item from the mid-13th century depicts a dynamic scene of the sacred animal flying between ocean and sky.

It is a representative gold ware of its time, and reflects a powerful regime in the area.

If you go

9 am to 5 pm, through Aug 27. Entrance until 4 pm (closed on Mondays). Exhibition Hall B, the first floor, Capital Museum, 16 Fuxingmenwai Avenue, Xicheng district, Beijing. 010-6339-3339. Entry ticket is free of charge, but online reservation is needed.