Review: China – visions through the ages

3 mins read

China: visions through the ages
Lisa C Niziolek, Deborah A Bekken, and Gary M Feinman (eds)
University of Chicago Press, $45
ISBN 978-0226385372

People across China’s vast and diverse landscape have long been creating works in a range of materials, such as bronze, jade, porcelain, and paint, and the results of their handiwork can be seen in many museums in China and across the globe. Chicago’s Field Museum, for example, has some 350 objects spanning the millennia on display in the five galleries of their Cyrus Tang Hall, and this impressive new publication has been put together by the curators who look after and research those objects. It is a ‘companion book’ to the displays.

The first thing to point out is that ‘companion book’ does not simply mean ‘catalogue’. While artefacts – in this case, predominantly those of the Field Museum – provide a useful staring point and excellent material for illustrating arguments, the book goes beyond discussions of the objects, and instead focuses on broader themes in Chinese archaeology that follow the five main subject areas of the exhibits. The result is a range of detailed but accessible essays covering almost all aspects of civilisation in China, from shadow theatre to maritime trade, and key archaeological sites.

Zhoukoudian is one of China’s most important sites. It was here, a cave system near Beijing, that the skull of a new hominin – Homo erectus pekinensis, or Peking Man as it is more commonly called – was found in 1929. The discovery offered the world the eagerly awaited evidence for the missing link in the evolution of living humans. Stone tools were also unearthed in the cave, and these are similar to others found in Chinese Palaeolithic sites, suggesting some continuity rather than outside influences.

As well as early tools, China: visions through the ages discusses the origins of agriculture and the Neolithic roots of Chinese civilisational traditions, with a handy table showing the different cultures active at different points across the sprawling land. Research into the Hemudu culture (beginning 5000 BC) has shown that early communities in the Lower Yangtze River region had sophisticated systems of architecture and technology, and a varied diet. Ongoing excavations at the Hemudu site Tianloushan (which lies below the water table, providing good conditions for the survival of the settlement’s wooden posts and walls) have recovered thousands of ancient rice grains preserved by charring, as well as probable evidence for the management of peaches, foxnuts, and water chestnuts – crops that are important in China’s economy today. As for animals, dogs were the earliest to be domesticated in the country, with the oldest finds dating to about 10,000 BC.

Much of the material in the book stems from investigations in the 20th century, from the milestone excavation at the Shang Dynasty site of Anyang in 1928-1937 onwards. This was the first campaign organised by the new Academia Sinica, and established the importance of archaeological fieldwork in modern China. As well as the latest research, there are some fascinating examples of ‘old’ archaeology. Ornate bronze vessels were highly prized objects in ancient China, and one Eastern Han stone carving shows a bronze ding vessel being discovered in the Si river and (unsuccessfully) hauled out with rope. Although this stone does not illustrate the actual retrieval of the object, it is a common motif of the period, and shows an interest in earlier antiquity within the ancient world.

Bronzes come in all shapes and sizes, and many have inscriptions, but older than these writings in metal are some 200,000 Shang oracle bones. These date to about 1200-1050 BC and were used in divination, by writing on a piece of turtle shell or ox bone and assessing the cracks that appear when heat is applied. In the surviving fragments, we can see a king’s desire to have a son or to get rid of a troubling toothache. Some of the bones have been written on again when the outcome of the event was known, so we too can find out what fate had in store for these people.

One interesting feature of China: visions through the ages is that, as it has its roots in a curatorial department, it offers some insights into museum practices, such as acquisitions and personal opinions about different artefacts, changing standards and expectations of labels and displays, and techniques available to conservators. With this museum-based dimension, and splendid images of sites and artefacts, the book is a multi-faceted and comprehensive guide to China’s past and how we view it.

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