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A fine piece of old China

The pick of treasures from recent Oriental finds are on show at the British Museum, with many turning archaeological theory on its head. Jane Norrie unravels the mysteries.

A magnificent bronze bell set suspended across the British Museum's entrance sets the scene for a spectacular exhibition on the mysteries of ancient China.

Priceless artefacts in jade, bronze, ceramic, gold, silver, ivory and turquoise - this is a show that stuns with astonishing riches, ingenious designs and sophisticated technology. More than this, the accompanying information panels evoke not only the everyday lives of the people who created them but also their spiritual and intellectual preoccupations.

Over the past 20 years, significant archaeological discoveries have been made in the Orient, many of which feature in this exhibition. There are some 200 objects on view, including the 36 bronze bells above the entrance which date from around 500 BC. Nearly all have come from the tombs of royal or noble families. Among them is one of the famous soldiers from the Terracotta Army whose excavation in 1974 caused such a stir. But this exhibition goes beyond the Army to the origins of ancient Chinese civilisation.

Different cultures are seen developing, some at the same time, some successively, from Neolithic times until the Second Century AD, when China was unified under its first emperor. In a refreshing way the panels - and to a greater extent the catalogue - attempt to open up expert archaeological thinking for lay visitors. They tell how the new discoveries have altered previous ideas about early religious practices, and how some of the objects and their functions, just like Stonehenge in this country, remain obscure. Hence the "mysteries" of the exhibition's title. This approach makes the exhibition more vibrant as it brings the on-going process of archeaological and historical investigation to life.

The exhibition has been divided into three sections. The first, Unknown China, contains ceramics and jades from the Neolithic period when the practice of burying goods alongside the dead had already begun. Dominating the display is an awesome life-size bronze figure found at Guanghan in Sichuan. Here, in 1986, archaeologists discovered two huge pits stuffed with broken and burned bronzes in the shape of human heads, with masks, fragments of gold and elephant tusks. This revelatory find turned previous archaeological thinking on its head, as this culture was entirely new. Religious cults had been thought to centre round mythic animals or abstract motifs; figurative images, depicting gods, priests or kings, were a radical departure. Whether the objects had been thrown into the pits during a religious ceremony or as the result of some crisis, is one of the tantalising mysteries of the show.

The second section, The Early Dynasties, deals with the Shang people who established themselves on the Yellow River in northern China about the same time as the people of Guanghan were burying their bronzes in the west. Nearly all the objects here came from the tomb of the Lady Fu Hao - particularly prized by archaeologists because it was found intact in 1976 without evidence of any looting.

A series of sumptuous bronze vessels, including a beautifully balanced three-legged jue for pouring wine, testifies to the Shang belief that their dead ancestors had to be humoured with ritual banquets of wine and food. These departed elders were also consulted on everyday decisions by their successors who heated the bones of an ox or turtle then "read" the cracks that appear-ed. Both questions and answers were written down on the bones in a script that is still recognisable as the source of Chinese script today. Two such oracle bones are on display with inscriptions that deal with boar hunting.

The Shang were followed by the Zhou (pronounced "jo") who were evidently organised into a series of highly developed urban centres, each able to supply sophisticated gifts for its most important citizens. The ceremonial vessels here are weightier than those of the Shang and ornamented with spiralling dragons. There are also examples of textiles, lacquered chests and musical instruments. Many of the items come from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, including a particularly mysterious "Imaginary Bird" which may have held a drum, or more fancifully carried his spirit heavenwards. Huge numbers of horses and chariots were also buried, apparently to denote their owner's rank in society. Bronze vessels have taken over from bones as a source of inscriptions and came to be used as texts or documents with inscriptions recording gifts or grants of land.

Imperial China, the third section of the exhibition, moves on to 221 BC when China was unified under its first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. His short, sharp and brutal regime marked a turning point in Chinese history, laying the foundations for the continuation of the Empire.

The Emperor was particularly preoccupied with what happened to him in the hereafter - 700,000 men were conscripted to build his vast burial complex. Part of their unenviable task was to construct the Terracotta Army with its 7,500-plus life-size soldiers.

Concepts of the afterlife changed over the years. By the time of the Han dynasty, which ran from 206 BC to AD 220, people were imagining distant states of paradise and the prospect of immortality. The shining jade suit of Prince Liu Sheng - one of the most spectacular exhibits - illustrates this. In Neolithic times small jade discs were placed on the dead: The body of Prince Liu Sheng who died in the second century BC was encased by 2,498 pieces of jade sewn together with gold thread.

This last section of the exhibition provides more of an insight into everyday life. There is a superb clay model of a manor house with its series of inner apartments and replica figures are engaged in activities like archery; entertainers grin and grimace over a story; a solid farmer displays his spade (in the Confucian ideal society, farmers came near the top, merchants near the bottom). Pictures on bricks show happy consumers of alcohol.

The exhibition is so full of resonant objects that the catalogue becomes an indispensable source of information about their uses and the lives of the people who made them. This must be a good sign for teachers who are looking for different ways to use the displays.

John Reeve, head of education at the British Museum, says it is an easy exhibition to approach, even for those who know next to nothing about China. It has applications for many different curriculum areas, including the obvious history (see last week's History Extra). Its wealth of amazing shapes, materials and decorative design makes it a must for art students. Music also played a significant part in ancient Chinese culture (see Music and The Arts Extra, centre page pullout).

The exhibition's resource pack includes a valuable background guide to the displays, backed up with maps and booklets on history, art and music. To help language development, the notes on the origins of Chinese writing are accompanied by a set of expressive poems, plus a workshop on storytelling. The displays would also provide useful material for religious studies, something the education department can help with. It is expected school parties will also be able to visit the permanent Chinese collection in the Hotung Gallery where guides are available.

The British Museum, Great Russel Street, London WC1B 3DG. Tel: 0171 636 1555.

The Mysteries of Ancient China runs until January 5 next year with the following events for students. Special half-day practical workshops designed to promote creativity have been organised with the Chinese Cultural Centre and will be led by experts. These include: * Calligraphy. A demonstration of the earliest form of writing in China with pictographs of animals and masks. Brushes, ink and paper will be provided.

* Story telling. The story teller will use mime, dance and gesture and invite participation.

* Music and Dance. A demonstration of ancient musical instruments and traditional dance. Children are encouraged to play with the instruments and learn basic dance steps. Ends with a show in music and dance in costume. Similar workshops will also run at half-term.

* Teachers' in-service training evenings at 4pm on September 25 and October 16 include exhibition visit: Pounds 5.

* TES readers' evenings on September 23 and October 15 include a lecture by Dr Oliver Moore, the curator, and take place from 6.30-8.30pm. Cost: Pounds 8.50 each, including private view of the exhibition.

* Booking forms, with vouchers for half-price admission to the exhibition appear in this issue of The TES (TES2, page 8) and The THES (page 12).

* A conference on the exhibition will take place at the British Museum from December 6-8. Cost Pounds 65.

* To book visits and workshops phone the education service, 0171 323 8511 or fax 0171 323 8855.

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