A country’s plastic arts reveal much about its development as a civilization and the preoccupations of its people throughout history. This is the underlying theme that informs the National Museum of History’s exhibit of antiquities from China.
The museum has selected more than 400 objects from its permanent collection of 56,000 to mount The Museum’s Collection of Huaxia Artifacts (館藏華夏文物展), which is located on the third floor. Neolithic pottery, Shang Dynasty bronze ritual vessels and Tang Dynasty clay figurines share space with porcelain plates from the Sung and Ming dynasties and silver ingots from the Qing Dynasty. Every six months some of the items on display are replaced with other pieces from the permanent collection.
Detailed introductions in Chinese and English along with maps, chronological tables and a documentary of excavation sites add depth to the exhibit. The recent addition of two interactive touch-screen monitors provides further information about the objects on display. The exhibit focuses mostly on ceramics and bronze ware to emphasize the functional purpose of the earlier objects and the ritualized use of the later ones.
The section titled Prehistoric Painted Pottery displays pottery from the Neolithic period that was excavated from burial sites along the Yangtze River. It consists of earthenware bowls, ewers and tall vases and suggests a practical rather than ceremonial use for the artifacts. The fine craftsmanship of these vessels is enhanced by decorative geometric and stylized designs.
The practical function of pottery during the Neolithic period gave way to the ritual use of vessels made from bronze during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, a transition that is amply demonstrated in The Glory of Bronze Ware Culture. The objects featured in this section would have been placed in temples and palaces and were used for various types of worship, banquets and rituals.
The earlier stylized motifs here become more detailed in form through the use of relief. According to this section’s introduction, the inscriptions on the side of the bronze ceremonial objects relate to a complex variety of social affairs such as land exchange deeds, clan symbols, decrees, dowries, conflicts and disputes.
The combination of the practical and the ritualistic found in the section on Shang Dynasty bronze ware provides an interesting transition to the funerary figurines and sculptures found in the section titled Pottery Sculpture.
The rapid social and economic changes occurring during the Qin and Han dynasties influenced the funerary practices of its people — the most famous, of course, being the terra-cotta warriors, discovered in 1974 near the city of Xian. The development of a special kind of glaze pottery allowed for the creation of molded ceramics — everything from farm animals to domestic scenes such as kitchens or mills — that could be buried with the deceased. As funerary practices and ancestor worship became a ritualized part of daily life, this section implies, the sculptural creations of artisans become more refined.
The otherworldly preoccupations of the exhibit’s earlier bronze and ceramic works give way to detailed sculptural renderings of officials, warriors and the marketplace in the Tang Dynasty Artifacts section.
Here, a Rabelaisian admixture of figurines depicting marketplace characters such as acrobats, musicians and farmers stand alongside large molded statues of nobles