Enter the dragon

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Jane Norrie on opportunities to explore Chinese art and music at the British Museum.

What has the head of a camel, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, the long whis-kers of a cat, can make itself as small as a silkworm or so big it can overshadow the world? The answer is a dragon which the Chinese perceived as inhabiting every lake and cloud and symbolising life-giving water. To young Britons the dragon may represent the "otherness" of China and an entree into the fascinating visual world portrayed in the exhibition Mysteries of Ancient China at the British Museum.

Full of bold, beautiful and often unaccustomed forms and designs, this exhibition cannot fail to act as a potent stimulus offering art teachers a diversity of approaches. Happily it fits in with the current emphasis on exploring non-European art. For primary children John Reeve, head of education, suggests the theme of animals as a way of exploring the displays. Animal motifs figure prominently in ancient Chinese mythology and the display abounds with weird and wonderful creatures.

Truly unusual exhibits include a gnomic insect-like creature carved from a root and a tall imaginary bird resembling a crane with antlers. Bird, fish and beast motifs writhe over lots of ritual vessels, energising the object, providing a pleasing decoration or telling a story. Line can be seen taking a walk, or used to outline a narrative.

A second suggested motif is the human figure studied either on its own or with masks. Of all the amazing artefacts on view here the elongated Standing Figure and the Mask with Ornamented Forehead from the Guanghan culture probably make the most powerful impact. To what extent do the distortion and stylisation of these objects contribute to their power? Can comparisons be made with 20th-century European sculpture? These are the kind of questions older students might usefully discuss.

There is a wealth of different materials in the displays - bronze and jade, which the Chinese particularly revered, and also ceramic, gold, silver, ivory, lacquer and turquoise which was used extensively as an inlay. Witness the very fine Ivory Vessel from the Shang section of the display. Whether abstract or representational, many designs and patterns are highly sophisticated, showing an imaginative and ingenious eye for detail. Bronze casting, in particular, was highly developed so that much of the exhibition acts as a tribute to the technology of the time - another topic which can be explored with the education department. For teachers wishing to follow up the visit with practical work in school, the resource pack has a booklet on art activities for key stages 2-4. Included are instructions on making a paper dragon or clay tiles, lino-printing or designing a poster.

Who went to the afterlife in 433BC accompanied by 21 young women musicians who played stone chimes, drums, pipes, and zithers? The answer is the Marquis Yi. The magnificent Bell Set which greets you at the entrance to the exhibition was also found near his tomb and symbolises the importance attached to music in ancient China. The bells were struck in two places each producing a different note and today, nearly 2,500 years later, they can still be used to play music. Confucius believed that music encouraged a sense of inner harmony and the 12 notes of the tone system were thought to represent one of the basic patterns of the cosmos: consequently music was mandatory at all ceremonial settings - signifying the condition of the world and the authority of the ruler.

The exhibition also includes a model orchestra made up of two singers and four musicians. One is a drummer, two others play the zither and the fourth has a mouth organ. Further models of Entertainers complete with drums show how stories were both spoken and sung.

Teachers of art and music may be specially interested in the workshops which have been arranged between the education department and the Chinese Cultural Centre. These will take the form of half-day sessions in calligraphy, song and dance and storytelling and will all be led by Chinese specialists with the intention of stimulating pupils' own creativity.

The calligraphy session will feature early script: a demonstration of the earliest form of writing in China with pictographs of animals and masks. Brushes, ink and paper will be provided. In the storytelling workshop, the story teller will use mime, dance and gesture and invite participation.

The demonstration of ancient musical instruments and traditional dance will encourage children to participate. It ends with a show of music and dance in costume.

Exhibition runs until January 5; workshops through October and November; Inset evenings September 25 and October 16; TES readers' evenings September 23 and October 15, Pounds 8.50, see entry form on page 8; half-price entry to exhibition at Pounds 2.50, see coupon on page 8; teachers' pack: 6 with 1 discount for TES readers. School visits, workshops and Inset, 0171 323 85118854. Teachers' evening October 4 for London Association for Art and Design in Education, non-members Pounds 5. Tickets: 257 Devonshire Road, London SE23 3NS

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