China gave us silk, gunpowder and porcelain. (Not forgetting tea.) But, as the British Museum's 'Gilded Dragons' exhibition shows, the Chinese were skilled goldsmiths too. Heather Neill reports on a dazzling display.
How well do we know China? We know about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the struggle for democracy - who could forget the photograph of the lone student confronting a line of tanks? We were reminded last week, during the visit of President Jiang Zemin, of China's alleged human rights abuses and its occupation of Tibet. But what of earlier periods? And what of the arts?
The history of China remains a mystery to many of us in the West. We have only fragments and images to go on. We have admired Jung Chang's account of the last few generations in Wild Swans; we have marvelled at photographs of the Great Wall taken from space; we know about the discovery of silk, the invention of gunpowder, of paper and print and of porcelain - "china" as we choose to call it - and of the origins of our tea-drinking habit ("char" is a Chinese word). We are intrigued by the Chinese zodiac. And, of course, by dragons.
Carol Michaelson, curator of the spectacular "Gilded Dragons" exhibition at the British Museum, explains that, for the Chinese, dragons are not hostile, fire-breathing creatures but venerated bringers of rain.
There are several examples in the exhibition, including some of the 12 pure gold ones, each only four centimetres long, which were discovered inside a gilded silver pot. The pot, which also contained a handful of gemstones, including sapphires and rubies, was part of a hoard buried during the Tang dynasty (ad 618-906), probably to preserve it in times of upheaval, and rediscovered only in 1970. Like all the objects in the exhibition it comes from Shaanxi province, in inland northern China, which has part of the Great Wall running through it and is one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation.
The focus of the exhibition is the importance of gold and silver in the fashioning of precious objects during the Tang dynasty. Until then, imperial families had expressed their wealth and power mainly in jade and bronze, although there are a few exquisite earlier objects on show, some from as early as the eighth century bc. These include three intricately carved belt hooks excavated in 1992. From very early times, men wore girdles to hold up their trousers, and belts and belt ornaments continued to be an important expression of wealth and status into later periods.
There are several other, later examples, often in jade, some inlaid with precious stones. To the untutored eye, much of the jade in the exhibition looks surprisingly pale, sometimes even creamy white or mottled, Stilton-like. Carol Michaelson explains that there are two closely related jade stones, one greener than the other.
The equivalent status symbol for women was the hairpin, and there are a number of dainty, often very simple, hair ornaments on show, made from silver, gold or jade.
Many of the exhibits have been discovered, in tombs or hastily buried hoards, within the last few decades. Among the most memorable of these is the vast terracotta army buried with the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, of the Qin dynasty (221-206 bc) in Shaanxi prov-ince and excavated in 1977. It is represented here by a fierce-looking, bigger-than-life-size general and a kneeling cross-bowman. Other sculpted pieces include 12 wise-looking, zodiacal pottery animals with human bodies from the Tang dynasty.
The Silk Route had begun to open up China to Western influence and trade in the Han dynasty, during the first century bc. By the time of the Tang dynasty, the capital of Shaanxi province, Chang'an (now Xi'an), was a cosmopolitan city with 4,000 foreigners; some of them are represented here, with beards and big noses. There is also an early gilded bronze horse, one-third life-size, of a breed quite unlike the squat native horses. Such an animal would have been highly prized, and was no doubt acquired in exchange for bolts of silk.
One of the last cases contains an iron casket containing other caskets of silver gilt, crystal and jade. The Buddha's "true" finger bone was said to reside within the innermost jade container. Three other decoy casket sets were found close by in a temple excavated in 1987. Buddhism was an imported religion, but others existed peacefully side by side during the Tang dynasty, something salutary to remember in the light of modern conditions in China.
* A free teachers' evening on November 11 between 6 and 8pm, includes entry to the exhibition, gallery talks, dim sum, music and dancing as well as a 'TES' Learnfree demonstration. A two-hour INSET session, restricted to 30 people, on Chinese history and art, will take place earlier the same day. Pre-booked tickets only: 020 7323 85118854 * The British Museum education department has produced a free resource pack for teachers with suggestions for using the exhibition in key stage 3 history, art, technology and literacy. It also contains maps, historical information and translations of Chinese poems. Selections from the pack may be found on the 'TES' Learnfree website: www.learnfree.co.uk 'Gilded Dragons: buried treasures from China's golden ages' is sponsored by Prudential and 'The Times' Soldier of fortune: the larger-than-life Qin dynasty general who was excavated along with a vast terracotta army in 1977