You’ve never seen anything so ancient Chinese like this in Tokyo


Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum is currently hosting one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Chinese artifacts that has ever been held in Japan. “China: Crossroads of Culture” is an incredible amalgam of treasures and art objects from the entire first millennium of Chinese history, beginning with pieces from the Eastern Han dynasty (25-200 A.D.) and concluding with an amazing array of items from the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.).

Intellectual developments

Half of this impressive exhibition consists of Chinese National Treasures, and its more than 360 pieces include gold and silver objects, terracotta and wooden figurines, jade, glassware, textiles, wall paintings and Buddhist sculptures.

Incorporating a wealth of recent archaeological finds, the exhibition is also a representation of the latest intellectual developments in the analysis of Chinese culture and art history. Its impetus is to delineate the immense and, until recently, underestimated influence of Silk Road trade on Chinese culture, and to trace the mix of cultural influences that resulted from the repeated incursions of invaders since the Eastern Han dynasty.

The subtitle of the exhibition, “Crossroads of Culture,” reflects the various sources of influence that culminated with China’s so-called “golden age” of art, the Tang dynasty. The first room in the exhibition, devoted to Han culture, displays artifacts of the Eastern Han dynasty, including a remarkable fortified watchtower made of green glazed pottery, impressive for its scale and detailed execution.

Standing 2 meters tall, with five stories, it is a burial object (mingqi) from a tomb excavated in 1990 in Fucheng, Hebei Province. Such funerary objects were meant to ensure prosperity and protection for the tomb’s occupant in the afterlife as well as serving asa display of the wealth and status that he held in his lifetime. In this case, the tomb was built for a man who was probably a powerful landlord. Watchtowers, such as this one, were placed along the northern borders of the Han Empire to protect against incursions by the Xianbei nomadic tribes.

The tower itself provides clues to the architectural style of the Han dynasty, since no wood structures survive from this period. Its design and construction reflect its raw strength, with an elaborate structure including a gabled entrance gate, flanked by giant doors with door-knockers, which resembles the faces of monsters. Composed of a series of pavilions stacked in pagoda fashion, each level has a railed porch with impressive tile roofs supported by an elaborate bracketing system.

The imagery incorporated into the architecture tells the story of the watchtower and its owner. While it cannot be assumed that this mingqi is an actual reproduction of the original watchtower, it is likely a fairly accurate facsimile. So, as with an architectural model, we can imagine a building that was imposing in scale and would have towered over the landscape.

Immense gongs

The immense gongs on the top level, when struck, could likely be heard from miles away. Each window is flanked by shields and crossbows, symbols of military might. Guards stand ready at the windows at each level, with their hands resting on the window sills. The overall impression is one of impenetrability, making it appropriate as a symbol of power.

Many of the items on display reveal the mixing of various cultures in ancient China and the contributions that accompanied cross-cultural contact. One item that bares witness to this is a splendid Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.) stone sarcophagus.

Discovered in 1999 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province (a region in northwestern China), it was built for an official named Yu Hong, who served the Chinese government as a provincial governor. The luxurious coffin is noted for its decorative reliefs carved in marble and painted in gold, red and brown pigments. The reliefs include an extravagant banquet scene in which the deceased and his wife celebrate with a procession, hunt animals and dance.

The pictorial style used in the panels is typically Chinese, the themes and settings — hunters and fighters on camelback and on elephants, animals fighting, and practices such as wine-making — indicate a combination of features that suggest Arabian, Persian, Indian, Turkish, Iranian and Roman origins.

Yu Hong’s was a Sogdian, which was an ancient tribe of people who spoke an eastern Iranian language and inhabited Central Asia, and this reinforces our understanding of the mixed cultural milieu within which he operated. Chinese silk had gained popularity in Rome by the first century B.C., and the route of the silk trade from China passed through important outposts and commercial centers including Sogdiana.

Importing many works of art in trade for its silk, China drew on the artistic traditions of surrounding Silk Road cultures. Following the introduction of these Western motifs to China, local artisans were inspired to innovate. As a result, the artwork of Yu Hong’s sarcophagus reveals a dynamic quality.

Guardian beasts

In the final section of the exhibition, which displays Tang dynasty art, there are various tomb figures, including guardian beasts, warriors, civil officials and court ladies. These figures represent the skilled craftsmanship of Tang dynasty sculptors. Tomb art reached its zenith in this period, and the mortuary sculptures reveal both the lavish living conditions of aristocracy of the time, as well as the influence of international styles on their lives.

One of the most exquisite pieces in the exhibit is a figurine of a lovely court lady, excavated from the tomb of Gen. Zhang Xiong and his wife, Lady Qu, in Xinjiang Province. The figure is made of wood and clay, and is wearing an elegant woven silk costume. Her silk blouse is decorated with a pearl roundel motif (a pearl-shaped circle enclosing a pattern), the origins of which can be traced to Sassanian Persia.

The woman’s features speak of her breeding and sophistication. Her forehead has been decorated with makeup in a beautiful fuadian, or flower motif. She has fake dimples painted on both sides of her mouth to add charm, and her temples are painted with red rouge, a style in vogue with wealthy Tang women.

The placement of this figurine in the tomb of Lady Qu is an example of the continuation of the mingqi tradition in symbolically providing material goods to accompany the deceased in the afterlife.

The enormous time span that this exhibition encompasses could be overwhelming given its scope, yet the “China: Crossroads of Culture” exhibition succeeds in condensing the complex historical and geopolitical makeup of China in the first millennium, and conveys the breadth of innovation which took place in China as its leaders, aristocrats and artisans incorporated elements of the diverse cultural traditions of the kingdoms and empires that lined the Silk Road. It is well worth a visit to experience firsthand the richness of the milieu from which Tang culture sprang.

China: Crossroads of Culture is showing at the Mori Art Museum from July 2nd (Sat) to Sept. 4th (Sun) from 10:00 a.m.-10:00p.m. (Tuesdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.)

Tickets are 1,500 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for high school, college and university students and 500 yen for children. Tickets are also valid for “Follow Me! Chinese Art at the Threshold of the New Millennium.”

Ticket giveaway

The Mori Art Museum has provided five pairs of free admission tickets for readers of The Japan Times. Interested parties should send an e-mail with “China Exhibitions” as the subject to making sure to include their name, address and telephone number.