Buddhist art from China and South Asia features prominently in the British Museum’s reopened gallery.
After two years of refurbishment, the British Museum has reopened its longest gallery, devoted to China and South Asia. Artefacts are back on display in the listed mahogany cases, offering a chronological journey through the rich collections from Neolithic pottery to Ravi Shankar’s sitar.
A vast Ming dynasty mural (c.1424- 1468) from a Buddhist temple in Shanxi stands 4m tall at the end of the Chinese half of the gallery, which explores a range of other beliefs. Jades – particularly the bi (a circle with a central hole) and the cong (a tubular vessel with stylised faces) – had great ritual significance in the late Neolithic Liangzhu culture. They would be placed around the body in elite graves, perhaps to offer protection and indicate status. The forms of both the bi and the cong have lived on in Chinese cultural history: the bi inspired the reverse of the medals for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), which idealised the past, the cong was recreated as a celadon vase.
Believing that part of the soul lived on after death, people in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) buried their dead with earthenware models representing different aspects of life, such as games, guard dogs, architecture, and hunting lakes. Centuries later, processions of ceramic figures of people and animals would accompany the deceased in elite Tang tombs. The group at the British Museum includes mythical creatures, Buddhist guardians, officials, grooms, horses, and Bactrian camels, buried with Liu Tingxun in c.AD 728. They are decorated with the sancai (‘three colours’) glaze that is closely associated with Tang tomb figures, with their faces left unglazed to make their features and expressions – enhanced with paint – more visible.
A glazed earthenware model of a watchtower (c.AD 25-220), found in a Han burial.
Other ceramics give an intimate glimpse at the everyday lives of the population during various periods. Cosmetic boxes show the interest fashionable Song women had in their appearance, while 13th- and 14th-century ceramic pillows depicting scenes from popular zaju variety plays shed light on how people slept. Imperial tastes can be seen in ceramics too. Many emperors were great patrons and encouraged the arts, but Huizong (r. 1100-1126) took it further. As a poet, painter, and calligrapher, Emperor Huizong immersed himself in art, and during his reign production of Ru ware was at its height. Fewer than 90 examples of these ceramics are known to survive, so the exhibits at the British Museum offer a rare chance to see their delicate blue-grey glaze.
The other part of the gallery (with a view through to the refurbished room of sculpture from the Buddhist shrine at Amaravati) investigates South Asia. Here, the displays reveal a fascinating history of cultural exchange and varying beliefs. Roman coins, for instance, made their way to India thanks to trade. Some still bear a cut used to test the metal, and some were found alongside other treasured items. Influences from the Graeco-Roman world also appear in some decorative elements in architecture, like capitals.
There are many magnificent artefacts exploring Buddhism in India. The religion was introduced to China in the 1st century AD, but it was not the only export, as a small, portable figure of Karttikeya (son of the Hindu god Shiva) riding a peacock found in western China shows. Crafted between AD 700 and 800, the object reflects the extensive trade of goods and ideas between India and China in the first millennium AD.
Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia
Address: British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
Opening times: 10am-5.30pm Mon-Thur, Sat, Sun; 10am-8.30pm Fri
Images: The Trustees of the British Museum