We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.



“In music the passions enjoy themselves,” wrote Nietzsche, but ancient China’s musos didn’t agree. Though it’s true that the many Chinese paintings and sculptures of all-female orchestras denoted sensuality as well as elegance, the country’s music fundamentally represented temperance and order. That’s why the Freer Gallery of Art’s selection of 36 instruments, sculptures, and works on paper is titled “Virtue and Entertainment.” Music in pre-modern China was believed to align Heaven and Earth, embody good government, and “regulate human conduct.” The oldest known playable Chinese flute was made more than 8,000 years ago, and though this exhibition doesn’t include oldies quite that golden, it does feature a tuned bell from the fifth century B.C.E. There’s also a massive bronze drum—ceremonial, not playable—and two qins, the zitherlike instruments played by the refined polymaths known in English simply as “scholars.” From calligraphy to scroll paintings to stone panels from a sixth-century dignitary’s coffin stand, the objects collected here are remarkable simply for their beauty and grace. But they also reveal bits of classical Chinese culture and history, from the country’s longstanding regard for disciplined and methodical conduct to the effects of Silk Road commerce on the sounds heard at the route’s Eastern end. Lutes, harps, and dances from India and Persia infiltrated China at least 1,500 years ago, which means that centuries before the Red Guards systematically destroyed Western instruments, Chinese compositions were already world music. The show is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (to March 26; see City List for other dates) at the Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW. Free. (202) 633-4880. (Mark Jenkins)