Soul in a Jar

National Museum of China

The National Museum of China, on Tiananmen, may be the world’s biggest museum. Or just the hardest to get into (5 security checks), and the emptiest –cases are installed half a room apart. To accommodate crowds, or isn’t there enough treasure? Reopened, post -renovation, it’s China telling its cultural story.Anchor exhibit: Contributions to civilization, Neolithic through the Qing dynasty (1911). Now it’s also hosting the ‘First Beijing International Design Triennial’–favorite curatorial category: “Rethinking Bamboo.” (The irony of the cultural ambitiousness is that in a museum full of Chinese, it’s me whom the tv crew approaches for a comment…politely declined.)

The narrative starts 5,000 years ago with decorative jade (knives, burial necklaces, pots), ivory and bronze. And several cong tubes—also called zhung or tsung (I had to look it up: symbol of heaven) –looking remarkably like a new Beijing apartment complex.

Cong (zhung or tsung), symbol of heaven & earth--the only photo I could find.

An ability to control flood damage made China’s first dynastic leader—the original technocrat. From whom regional dynasties emerged, & trade (food, crafts). Soon it’s rising wealth, annexation, and a quick millennia later, unification—embodied in gorgeous carved, sculpted, filigreed bronze trunks, vessels and tools. By 1600 BC, complex jade phoenix-and-dragon burial amulets, and bronze pots teeming with teeny dressed figurines 3” high marching around the edges with rams, wearing almost microscopic hats and jewelry, playing teeny instruments. And “Soul Jars,” or hunping.

By the year 100, scrolls and printing. By 500, silk brocade — and Buddha, in ceramics, paintings, precious metals.

Chinglish has been made fun of well enough elsewhere (actually that’s mostly from Japan). Given its ambitions, I wish the museum’s texts were lit. Peking Man’s predecessor, Yuanmou Man, lived 1.7 million years ago, but where, I don’t know (map, key weren’t translated). There’s nowhere to sit and contemplate (Anna, my Italian professor friend, said it’s because sitting is bourgeois).

Intriguing finish: At the museum’s Bulgari jewelry exhibit, of insanely over-the-top jewelry spanning 80 years of opulence and sapphires the size of oranges, crowds of young people, bent over the cases, focus intensely, some composing ing photos with huge cameras. Art students? Aspiring designers? Nouveau riche?

Says Anna’s husband Frank: People planning to copy them.

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