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New light on an ancient culture

Jane Norrie previews the British Museum's 'Mysteries of Ancient China' exhibition.

Schools can enjoy a rare opportunity to view some of the finest archeological discoveries of the past two decades when the British Museum launches its new autumn exhibition, Mysteries of Ancient China, next week.

Majestic, bizarre, beautiful, mostly unearthed from royal and noble tombs, the objects themselves have a powerful visual impact, they provide startling new evidence about the way the early Chinese lived and thought. And there is a bonus: the wall texts let you in on the fascinating detective work that accompanies excavations, showing how ideas about early peoples are reached then revised in the light of new evidence.

For those who are not Chinese experts, John Reeve, the head of education, assures me the display is extremely accessible. The resource pack should also prove valuable including not only exhibition notes but a useful historical background giving details of early civilisations from 5000BC to 220AD - from early nomadic times to the immense wealth and urban sophistication of the Han dynasty.

This was a time when many momentous but familiar events took place. China was unified under one emperor, had built the Great Wall and developed extensive trading contacts including the silk route. Confucius had spread his harmonious philosophy; writing, papermaking and printing were established and the rule of the mandarin scholars begun.

To provide easy ways into the exhibition for young historians (at key stage 2), star objects and personalities have been identified. One example, perhaps the most dramatic, is an enlarged bronze standing figure found in a Guanghan pit in 1986. Elongated and with macabre stylised features, it stands seven-foot tall on a dragon plinth, but whether it represents a priest, god or king is not known. The Guanghan finds, nevertheless, have revolutionised previous thinking by revealing the existence of a hitherto unknown culture and, in the process, disproving the idea that Chinese civilisation developed along a linear progression.

One of the star personalities of the show is the Lady Fu Hao whose name is likely to become as famous as that of Tutankhamun. Belonging to the Shang dynasty, her tomb is exceptional in that it was never looted by later generations and was discovered with 2,000 items intact, all intended for her use in the afterlife. Sixteen attendants were also sacrificed with her.

The objects ranged from cowry shells to cooking pots, from decorative hairpins to gruesome weapons. Among them were 200 superb bronze vessels demonstrating that by the first century BC the Shang were already using mass production methods. Again, old ideas have to be revised, with the splendour of the Lady's tomb challenging the theory that women took a back seat in ancient China.

Six outstanding exhibits have been starred in this way and give a snapshot of the lives of the elite. The picture is rounded off by architectural models and replica figures showing more details of everyday life. As burial practices changed, replicas rather than real objects were placed in tombs. (Fortunately by the time of the first Emperor the 7,500 soldiers in his army were made from terracotta.) There is, for example, an elaborate model of a manor house with a party in swing showing the separate quarters of the owners and their servants. In addition there are figures of ordinary people such as a farmer and miller at work together with the storytellers who entertained them.

For key stage 3 students the resource pack indicates themes ranging from Cities and Government and from Trade and Transport to Writing and Warfare. Background reading for these topics is suggested.

John Reeve wants school groups to also visit the permanent Chinese display in the Hotung Gallery where the material complements the loan display. The origins of Chinese writing on oracle bones, for instance, are treated in the loan exhibition and can be followed up in the Hotung Gallery with a display on early paper making and printing.

The resource pack also includes topics for discussion with older students. What, for instance, triggered Chinese culture and how has it been sustained for so long? In this respect comparisons can be made with the nearby Greek and Egyptian galleries. For those who are interested in the process of archaeology itself and in the competing claims of primary and secondary evidence, this exhibition is a must.

Mysteries of Ancient China, September 13 to January 5, at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. Events include half-day workshops on song and dance, calligraphy and storytelling, and Inset days on September 25 and October 16 at 4pm. The TES is organising readers' evenings on September 23 and October 15, Pounds 8.50; THES and BM Conference December 6 to 8. Admission to the exhibition is half price (Pounds 2.50) on production of a coupon from The TES (see advertisement in next week's TES) Resource packs, special offers for TES readers. Booking and details: 0171 323 85118854. Fax: 0171 323 8855

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