Ritual remains of an unknown people

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
'Though their names and deeds are unknown, their art and skill is dramatically evident in the bronzes and jades coming to London.' Jessica Rawson introduces the 'Mysteries of Ancient China'

An exhibition at the British Museum from September will bring to London some of the finest Chinese archaeological discoveries of the past two decades. The show will be a unique opportunity to see fine early ceramics, bronzes and jades, which otherwise reside in different provinces and would never normally be seen together in sequence. These exceptional pieces are also rarely on display in their own homes and could not be caught there even by the most assiduous traveller on a very extensive tour of China. The 200 or more objects range in date from 4500bc to aD 200.

The discoveries have revealed a hitherto unknown China. Excavation of neolithic sites have taken China's history back to 6000bc. Moreover, jade carvings and small ceramic sculptures from the later neolithic period, 3000-200bc, show ancient China to have comprised a diverse and highly sophisticated mosaic of societies. There is no single source of Chinese culture; it has many sources. Even the Bronze Age, which scholars thought to be well known from both early texts and archaeological discoveries, has produced great surprises.

Perhaps the single most extraordinary find has been the discovery of two sacrificial pits in south-western China, dating to about 1200bc. In them was a confusion of elephant tusks, human-like heads in bronze, and gold and jade ornaments. Most astonishing of all was a full-size human figure cast in bronze. This remarkable figure is one of the outstanding pieces in the exhibition. Nothing like this culture has been known before in China, or indeed anywhere else. The pit probably represents a ritual destruction of the images and offering of a completely unknown people. Though their names and deeds are unknown, their art and skill is dramatically evident in the bronzes and jades coming to London.

But not all is strange or unconnected to the present day. Even these very ancient artefacts show up the continuities evident in all societies, but especially in China. Incised characters on oracle bones, again from about 1200bc, are the direct ancestors of present-day Chinese characters. China is the only country in the world where the writing of before 1000bc is still in use (with some changes in writing forms) today.

The Chinese interest in food and nourishment, which is ever present here and now, dominated the most ancient rituals of all: the offerings of ceremonial banquets to the ancestors. Bronze ritual vessels used by a great queen, Fu Hao, also from about 1200 bc, will be included in the exhibition. Later models in ceramic from tombs of about 100 bc display the wooden architecture that is so typical of the Chinese landscape, even in today's rapidly modernising land. And the jesters and acrobats that now come to European cities at Christmas time also appear among the tomb models of about the time of the Roman Empire.

We have such a clear and precise picture, both of Chinese daily life and of some of their most profound beliefs, because the Chinese believed that life after death perpetuated all the features of the present life. Magnificent Chinese tombs were equipped with all the most treasured and important possessions of the ancient rulers - bronze ritual vessels, jade sceptres, lacquer boxes and fine silk clothes (also included in the exhibition). After about 500bc, replicas began to replace some of the real objects of life and gradually models were introduced. In part such a development made it possible to enlarge the picture of the afterlife represented in the tomb. It would have been impossible to bury the whole of the army of the First Emperor of China, in 221bc, but it was possible to bury it in replica. One of these pottery warriors is coming to London.

But this immense tomb also included real animals and real people. So obsessed with the afterlife were the great rulers that they sought to preserve their bodies with fine jade suits. Although a jade suit was included in the last great Chinese exhibition, none of our current schoolchildren or students saw it; this time the jade suite of Prince Lin Shang is coming - in 1973-74 the suit of his wife, Don Wan, came to the Royal Academy.

Not only does the exhibition introduce the extraordinary and the everyday, it shows above all the great skill of the Chinese at all periods in making exquisite objects in difficult and intractable materials. Silk is such a fine fabric that it needs a highly complex loom; Chinese bronze-casting is extremely elaborate in the techniques needed to create the highly intricate vessels, weapons and ornaments the ancient rulers desired; jade carving turns this luminous but extremely tough stone into fine, paper-thin sceptres and extraordinary suits. The Chinese have always shone in western eyes for their great skill in all these techniques - this exhibition will show where these skills began.

At a time when the achievements of ancient and modern China will be ever more present in the world as a whole, "Mysteries of Ancient China" will open a unique path to exploring the different strands that have contributed to China's evolution.

"Mysteries of Ancient China" is at the British Museum from September 13 to January 5 1997 Dr Jessica Rawson is warden of Merton College, Oxford

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