Art Guide

Treasures from a Lost Civilization:
Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan

Seattle Art Museum, May 10 - August 12, 2001

By Matthew Kangas

KangasThe Seattle Art Museum's blockbuster show, "Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan," showcases a Bronze Age civilization, forgotten in time, that has caused historians to revise the history of China. The exhibition dramatically dispels the myth that the Sichuan Province in the southwest was less culturally developed than the rest of China.

According to SAM's Chinese art curator, Jay Xu, the show is a "revelation. The art is spectacular by any definition. It is also some of the strangest art known anywhere in Asia."

When the ancient city near Sanxingdui was uncovered in 1986, Chinese authorities were amazed by the find. While excavations of other parts of China had already revealed cultures where a wealthy elite could afford elaborate tombs, the history of the ancient peoples of Sichuan was largely a blank; the new discoveries revealed surprisingly elaborate tombs proving that a wealthy elite once existed in this region too. Sichuan turns out to have been the site of a remarkably advanced culture with local particularities of style, commerce, wealth and comparative religious sophistication.

The comment that China's "past and present are the same" helps explain both the slowness of change there and the religious reverence for one's prior planetary inhabitants. Perhaps establishing a cult of sacrificial ritual or turning political predecessors into a pantheon of gods, the pre-imperial people in Sichuan needed all the spiritual help they could get because of constant regional warfare and frequent flooding. However, as this beautiful and scholarly exhibit proves, outside influences on decorative sword blades and the like were equaled by incredibly intricate local bronze casting techniques that probably later emanated beyond Sichuan to Central Asia.

Human-like Head, bronze, Late Shang, ca 1200 bc, 20.3"h x 9.2"w. Sanxingdui Museum, People's Republic of China. Photo: Jian Cong

Bird Head, bronze, Late Shang, ca 1200 bc, 77.2"l x 15.3"w x 15.9"h. Sanxingdui Museum, People's Republic of China. Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Lei with Elephant-shaped Handles, bronze, Western Zhou, 10th - 8th century bc, 27.3"h x 8.6"d. Sichuan Provincial Museum, People's Republic of China. Photo: Paul Macapia.

Jay Xu, Chinese Art Curator for SAM

Long before then, Sichuan existed remotely with its people inhabiting cliff dwellings as well as steep river valleys, often inaccessible even to neighboring areas. Bronze-age Sichuan had an unprecedented sculptural tradition of great artistic strength that makes the whole era seem much more socially complex than experts had previously guessed.

"After the 1986 excavations," Xu continued, "we must change our view of ancient China to one based on multiple regional civilizations -- we suspected this before but these discoveries really nail it down. Ancient Sichuan's situation was definitely related to its topography. Surrounded by mountains, it attained a qualified isolation but, at the same time, the presence of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers kept some communication open."

Viewers must enter a hushed mental world in order to visually unravel the minutely incised carvings and to imaginatively reconstruct the bit-molded and piece-welded bronze work on the vessels and animal heads. The unusual faces, the relief carvings and the weapon shapes have few other precedents in ancient China and may represent a local flowering both of funerary and sacrificial art. Apparently, the people who made such objects were absolutely unique and quite a lively bunch. As the carved brick reliefs show, there was an extraordinary range of pictorial decoration relating to storytelling and scenes of everyday life including breastfeeding, human copulation and even gang rape.

Another scholar has observed how Chinese religions began as earth-based and local in character and eventually became celestially based, centralized and imperial. This latter aspect was seen in Seattle's last Chinese blockbuster show, "Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China," at Seattle Center in 1988.

"Treasures from a Lost Civilization" is rewarding in different ways: deepening and complicating our image of China as a single monolithic civilization; making us marvel at the technical and decorative masterpieces from settlements begun around 1200 bcàand even earlier. It also reminds us of how China's periodic contact with foreign influences reflected the processes that occurred within the vast Chinese land mass, especially before the Han dynasty "unified" China in 206 BC.

But still, it was primitive compared to the stasis of late imperial splendor in Beijing and elsewhere. Part of the show spotlights knife and sword blades. Concentrate also on the golden sword sheath, the delicate and beautiful ceramic effigies and tile designs, and on the bizarre bronze heads, some of which are covered in gold foil with vermilion smeared on their lips. "These are the most dramatic parts of the show," Xu adds.

The seated bronze and ceramic figures look remarkably like Maya or native American figures, so this will be the perfect opportunity for amateur anthropologists to bring up that old question, Was there a land or effective sea link between ancient China and Mesoamerica? Some of the Sichuan vessels‚ interlocking geometric patterning looks awfully similar, so who knows? There are also extremely simple blue-green and dark-green jade bracelets, along with some disks carved of pale gray limestone and marble.

By 300 B.C., things got much fancier -- dragons, ram's heads, lizards, tigers -- and the tombs contained lots of imported art, too, some of it possibly war booty. Gradually, though, the earthy primitiveness of 1000 years before was replaced with something more imperial looking. As with "Son of Heaven," there is a set of bronze bell chimes. Much more intriguing, there is a communication cut into clay of an undecipherable script, one not completely Chinese-style ideogram, nor exactly alphabet, not read from left to right nor, as expected, from right to left. Despite the advances in understanding ancient Sichuan since the 1986 discoveries, many questions, like this writing puzzle, remain. "Treasures from a Lost Civilization," asks such questions, with beautiful objects posing possible answers.

Xu concluded, "The strong visual appeal is truly amazing. And thanks to the scholarship in the catalog essays, we can now rewrite the history of ancient Sichuan and, then, rethink the whole picture of ancient China in general using a regional approach. In that sense, it is a breakthrough show."

The Seattle Art Museum initiated and organized this exhibition in collaboration with the Department of Cultural Affairs of Sichuan Province of the People's Republic of China. The Boeing Company is the exhibition sponsor. For once we get to see a major touring art survey exhibition before New Yorkers. And we owe it all not only to Jay Xu but also to SAM Director Mimi Gardner Gates, a noted authority on Chinese art. After it leaves here, the exhibit goes on to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Don't miss "Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan."

MATTHEW KANGAS, frequent contributor to Art Guide Northwest, was named honorary research advisor to the Aesthetic Education Laboratory of Shanghai Teachers University in 1992. He has also written about contemporary installation art from Taiwan. Copyright © 2001 by Matthew Kangas

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