Treasures from China’s rich tapestry of cultures

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

“China” has always been something of a simplification. This is because it is an idea that has been used to encapsulate a vast heterogeneous portion of the World’s population. With current relations with Japan tense, the idea of China as a monolithic giant with a single purpose, bringing its weight to bear on a tiny territorial dispute, is indeed a frightening one. But, as demonstrated by the recent anti-Japanese riots, which afflicted some areas while bypassing others, China is and always has been a diverse patchwork. This is also the message of the latest exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum.

“China: Grandeur of the Dynasties” is unlucky in its timing. With reports of Chinese mobs vandalizing anything Japanese fresh in the public’s mind, there could well be a backlash here. But, given how crowded exhibitions of Chinese historical relics and artifacts normally are, this might turn out to be a blessing for those visitors who choose to visit.

With 168 items, including pottery, sculpture, metalwork, jade and the obligatory member of Emperor Shi Huang’s terra cotta army, there is plenty to see. Also, it is never more important to understand our neighbors than when relations are at low ebb.

The thesis is also interesting. According to the curator, Nobuyuki Matsumoto, Director of Curatorial Planning at the TNM, the exhibition’s keyword is “pluralism.” The show intends to highlight the variety in Chinese culture and history by focusing on interesting counterpoints within the conventional historical framework of consecutive dynasties.

“The dynastic periods are merely intended for political history,” Matsumoto tells the Japan Times. “When we consider cultural history, in some cases the culture has changed dramatically between the start and end of the same dynasty. It is necessary to use the most obvious division in the history of politics to explain the events of history, but this is not necessarily consistent with the perspective of cultural history.”

Cultural history in these cases tends to be represented by those items that have best survived the ravages of time and been lucky enough to encounter an archaeologist’s trowel. This usually means grave items, such as the bronze mirror with bird-and-flower design in mother-of-pearl from the tomb of the Tang Dynasty Princess Li Chui, or else things casually thrown away or lost in the normal course of life. This process itself, naturally enough, puts its own spin on history.

One of the quaintest pieces at the exhibition gives you a sense of how this principle of random survival works. It is a small headless bronze figure from the Shu Kingdom (c. 1046 B.C.-c. 316 B.C.), in the Upper Yangtze Valley. What is so odd about this piece is that it has an aesthetic completeness. Rather than a gap, the hole in the upper part, where the head should be, seems like a kind of sentient eye, unwittingly giving the piece a unique, almost extra-terrestrial character. The more mundane explanation, however, is that the hole was probably used to attach a head of some sort, possibly of a different material, which has simply disappeared.

Thanks to recent excavations, there has been an enormous increase in the amount of relics from the Shu Kingdom, including ritual jade objects and gold masks. These have been given a prominent place in the exhibition, allowing Matsumoto to use the Shu Kingdom as an effective counterpoint to the Xia and Yin Dynasties, states from the central plains of the Yellow River area that usually dominate exhibitions focusing on the beginnings of Chinese civilization. This allows the exhibition to emphasize the plurality of Chinese culture at the very start.

Other sections of the exhibition explore more interesting oppositions, such as that between Confucianism and animist mysticism, or between North and South, centre and periphery, and civilized and “barbarian.” The message of plurality is even reflected in the chronological cut-off point of the exhibition, which is the rather confused period from the 10th to 12th centuries, when the rival Liao and Song dynasties faced each other in an uneasy stalemate.

“Stopping at the Song and Liao dynasties may give an incomplete impression to some people,” says Matsumoto. “However, the primary purpose of this exhibition is to look at the diversity of Chinese culture. We actually thought that we could achieve the goal of the exhibition more clearly by stopping at the Song and Liao period.”

Any exhibition on this scale that is entirely sourced from Chinese museums can only proceed with the express cooperation of the Chinese government, so it is a natural assumption that the Chinese government must have had some interest in the show’s message, especially in view of comments made last year by President Hu Jintao, which suggested China was becoming much more aware of issues of soft power. But Matsumoto is keen to downplay this aspect.

“When the exhibition was planned, I assembled the content in terms of a purely cultural history, without taking into account any of the particular problems regarding current political relations,” he recalls. “A number of exhibitions of Chinese cultural relics have been held in Japan, so the image of Chinese culture has tended to become somewhat fixed. We wanted to break this down somehow. Also, by configuring the exhibition along the lines of a two-by-two arrangement, we thought we could present a more multi-faceted view of Chinese culture.”

One of the fascinating points about the show is that, although it presents Chinese history as a process of political and cultural plurality, the Chinese government happily supported it. This is surprising because it seems out of kilter with the centralizing ethos of the Communist regime, which has earned a reputation for “Sinicizing” non-Chinese areas, such as Tibet and Sinkiang, through modernization, erosion of traditions, and encouraging an influx of Han Chinese.

“From the earliest stages we sought the consultation and cooperation of the Chinese in the planning,” Matsumoto points out. “Full consideration was taken of China’s position as a multi-ethnic nation. From the moment we introduced the concept of ‘pluralism,’ no one asked us to change the contents. On the contrary, the contents of the original plan were consistent with the policy of the current Chinese government.”

This seems an odd fit with a state that occasionally takes a heavy-handed approach in potential breakaway regions and projects an appearance of monolithic unity abroad. The key to this paradox is that the Chinese government is aware that over-centralization at home is counterproductive, and instead it conceptualizes Chinese unity as a “symphony of peoples and histories” that recognizes the contribution of the peripheral peoples as well as the majority Han Chinese.

This strategy was evident in two other big Chinese exhibitions held in Tokyo this year: “200 Selected Masterpieces from the Palace Museum Beijing,” also at the TNM, and “The Splendor of the Khitan Dynasty,” which recently closed at the University Art Museum, Tokyo. The first focused mainly on the Manchu Qing Dynasty that conquered China in the 17th century, and the second on the Khitan, a Mongolian people who ruled in the North during the Liao Dynasty from the 10th to 12th centuries. Both groups were non-Han Chinese peoples who played an integral part in Chinese history.

One of the main lessons to be derived from Chinese history is the destructiveness of extreme militarism and over-centralization. This was the mistake that China’s first great dynasty, the Qin made. Under the megalomaniac leadership of Shi Huang they succeeded in uniting most of China, but their harsh, inflexible rule meant that their power ended in a rebellion that ushered in the softer, more devolved rule of the Han Dynasty.

The saber-rattling nature of the Qin is represented here by the terra cotta warrior, a deadly-looking crossbow, and a servile, kneeling figure. These contrast with the elegant dignity of the Han Dynasty items, including a gilt bronze censor on a high stand that exudes an atmosphere of urbane sophistication as it once did when it sweetened the air with its perfume.

The present Chinese government’s endorsement of historical pluralism suggests they are taking more inspiration from the Han than the Qin in their internal relations. Let us hope that they can extend a similar pragmatism to their external relations, most notably with important neighbors like Japan. In such a case exhibitions like this could expect a flood of visitors.

“China: Grandeur of the Dynasties”at the Tokyo National Museum runs till Dec. 24; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon.; admission is ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.tnm.jp.