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“The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated

Discoveries From the

People’s Republic of China”

At the National Gallery of Art to Jan. 2, 2000

According to some creationists, the earth was formed about 4,000 years before the birth of Jesus. There are objects in “The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People’s Republic of China” that are nearly 1,000 years older than that.

History has a way of mocking ideology, and nowhere is this more true than in China. Thirty years ago, the Cultural Revolution took on the daunting task of destroying the country’s past. It failed, of course, but without even realizing the full scope of its project. Even as Maoist youth cadres rounded up intellectuals and historians, archaeologists were discovering another past, one China barely knew it had. Just a bit of that history is on display now, filling nearly a dozen galleries on two upper floors of the National Gallery’s East Building, but it’s still more than can be absorbed in one visit.

Chinese archaeologists’ biggest—quite literally—post-1967 discovery is the full-scale-sculpture army from the tomb complex of Shihuangdi, the emperor who first unified much of what we now know as China in the third century B.C.E. The exhibition includes only five of these so-called terra-cotta warriors (plus a set of chariot horses), but they’re enough to suggest the enormousness of the project. About 8,000 soldiers and steeds have been discovered, and though the figures were mass-produced—the parts were made in molds, then assembled—they have individual detailing. It’s a triumph of mass-produced art Andy Warhol’s factory couldn’t rival two millennia later.

It’s hard to top the terra-cotta army’s archaeological charisma, but the show’s most significant objects may be ones that are much smaller—and much older. The clay pots that begin the exhibition are evidence of civilizations so ancient that they have led some scholars to argue that such artifacts, as Zhang Zhongpei puts it in an essay in the show’s massive catalog, “raise the likelihood that the Asian continent constitutes a locus for the origin of man” (in other words, that all human life didn’t disperse from Africa—which is the dominant anthropological position today). These and other recently discovered pieces have rewritten China’s prehistory, demonstrating a regional diversity that was previously unknown and putting flesh on the rumors of two previously prehistoric dynasties.

Although they were mentioned in ancient texts, the Xia (22nd-17th centuries B.C.E.) and Shang (17th-11th centuries B.C.E.) cultures were widely considered to be legendary, much like Troy before its 19th-century unearthing. What’s been found in China in the last 50 years is the equivalent of a dozen Troys, stretching from north of Beijing all the way to Guangzhou, China’s southernmost major city (not including that ambiguous new addition, Hong Kong). The advancement and diversity of these various coexistent cultures undermine two theories held by some old-fashioned archaeologists: that civilization sauntered into China from the West, and that it percolated outward from the Beijing region.

Ironically, the terra-cotta warriors were discovered in 1976, the year the Gang of Four was arrested. These mute 2,000-year-old sentinels are not likely to warm a Marxist’s heart. Like so many exhibitions of ancient art, “The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology” consists heavily of ritual objects from the tombs of the rich and powerful. Some of these pieces may have been buried to protect them from invaders, but most were made expressly to be entombed. Such artifacts have little to say about the lives of commoners, except that many of them dedicated their lives to making things to glorify their overlords in the next life. All this elaborately carved jade—and jade is so hard that archaeologists aren’t even sure how the older pieces were incised—is a testament to skilled workers, but the finished objects sing the praises of only the rulers for whom they were made.

Among the most remarkable tomb pieces are two jade shrouds constructed to shelter the bodies of dead nobles, one sewn with gold wire and the other with silk thread. Aside from displaying their sheer exotic opulence, the point of showing these two similar pieces is to establish that wealth and sophisticated craft were not centralized: Both are from the second century B.C.E., but they were excavated from sites 1,000 miles apart. They also testify that these cultures produced much of their wealth only to bury it in tribute to despots.

Still, some of the older objects show the beginnings not just of tyranny but of Chinese civilization itself. The inscriptions on a large urn may be rudimentary pictographs that trace the Chinese written language back 5,000 years. A jade coiled dragon that’s almost as old shows the origin of the mythical beast in the union of two commonplace animals: the snake and the pig. Like other aboriginal peoples, the prehistoric Chinese viewed the everyday world with apprehensive wonder.

Chinese art is known for austerity, but that’s hardly the prevailing mode of this exhibition, even if many of the pieces were long ago stripped of their gold, silver, and gemstone ornaments by tomb robbers. The earlier ceramic and bronze objects give evidence of a shamanistic culture, and their decorative motifs are sensually spiraling, whether in one or three dimensions. (A striking example of the latter is a fifth-century-B.C.E. bronze drum stand that’s an orgy of coiling dragon, snake, and antler forms.) A boldly stylized two-sided bronze mask (circa 1300-1000 B.C.E.) looks more like what we associate with African or Amerindian rather than Chinese art.

Chinese styles changed with the arrival of Buddhism in the first century B.C.E., but China also changed Buddhism. Buddha the teacher became Buddha the saint, with shrines built to hold such dubious objects of veneration as one of his finger bones. The final rooms of the exhibition hold several Buddhist objects, including rare examples of painted sculpture on which the paint is largely intact. But they also contain other examples of influences that arrived via the Silk Road from the West (meaning south and central Asia): a set of 12 ceramic figurines depicting the animals of the zodiac and statues of five hunters on horseback that include two women. (The riders were sculpted before the introduction of footbinding and other customs designed to literally hobble aristocratic women.) This is where the China that Westerners know begins—and where the exhibition ends.

“The Golden Age of Archaeology” can be seen simply as a bunch of great stuff, a collection of objects that dazzle on their own terms. (Because of the antiquity and inexplicability of many of the pieces, though, the show lacks the vulgarity of some of those “treasure house” displays that redefined American art museums as purveyors of interior-decoration porn.) But the exhibition is also beguilingly mysterious. This is early China in a barely digested form, shown in what—compared with the millennia these pieces were underground—amounts to mere seconds after their excavation. Mao might not have appreciated the irony, but the show demonstrates that discovering the past can be just as exhilarating as destroying it. CP