Sunday, March 04, 2012

racing through the culture

Fellow blogger Babs commented recently: "It appears to me that you saw China from a political perspective and not an aesthetic one."

She hit on a point that is perhaps my sole criticism of my China trip.  Our tours were weighted toward a presentation of China's place in the past and in the future.  An emphasis that made me wonder if the bargain price on this trip was subsidized by the Chinese government.

I love seeing the detailed culture of the countries I visit.  That almost always means spending time in museums.  Lots of time.

On this trip, we whizzed by several museums.  One of the greatest, of course is the Chinese National Museum on Tiananmen Square.  We had no more time than to snap a quick photograph of the exterior.

The only museum that we visited was the beautiful contemporary Shanghai Museum.  As beautiful inside as it is outside.

As beautiful as the building is, its collections are breath-taking.  And I mean that literally.  Not in the Joe Biden way.

There are ten permanent galleries: bronze, sculpture, ceramics, jade, paintings, calligraphy, seals, currency, furniture, and minority arts and crafts -- all spread over three well-designed floors.

It was like being offered a month's worth of gourmet dining.  Our guide then told us we had just over one hour to see the museum.  One hour to see an ancient culture.

She then offered to, at least, give us a specialized tour of the bronze gallery.  Her tour was helpful, but we could only see each bronze for a few seconds. 

I then did what I hate to do in museums.  I put on my culture vulture sneakers and raced through each floor trying to see as much as I could.  Here are a few pickings.

Bronze cauldrons were very common in China.  Just as they were in Europe and the Middle East-- and for the same purpose: cooking and storage.  Some of the pieces we saw were nearly 4000 years old.

This is the museum's prize piece.  Not because there is anything unusual about the construction or decoration.  It is an artistic piece, but not particularly unusual.

It is what is inside that makes it unique.  There are two prayers in Chinese characters.  This is the earliest use of Chinese characters currently known to archaeologists.  It gives anthropologists some evidence on the age of written Chinese and how it developed.

The sculpture gallery had a small collection of stone and wooden sculptures.  I really liked this equestrian piece.  It contains that unique combination of realism and expressionism that gives Chinese art its vitality.  The sculptor's ability to capture the essence of the horse makes the piece compelling.  At least, to me.

I headed upstairs to the minority arts and crafts gallery.  A vast majority of people in China are ethnically Han Chinese.  Over 90%.  But there are at least 55 recognized minority groups.

The minorities gallery includes masks, boats, and clothing from the various groups.  There was something that drew me to the clothing for a minority in southern China.

The label used the term "salmon" in describing the clothes. I thought that was odd because the clothes were distinctly yellow, not pink.  Then I saw it.  The texture of the clothing.

If you look closely you can see scales.  The clothes are made from leather of salmon skins.  Pretty unique, I thought.  It set me wondering if other tribes throughout the world use fish skins in a similar manner.

I have never been big on furniture as an art form.  But the museum has an interesting exhibit juxtaposing Chinese furniture from the two dynasties that were the height of furniture as art.

The first is the Ming Dynasty with its simple lines -- almost Danish Modern.

And then there is the other extreme.  The Qing Dynasty with its heavy Victorianesque pieces.  The type of furniture that tends to show up in American Chinese restaurants.

You might get some idea by those descriptions which style I prefer.

There was also a collection of Nuo Opera masks.  This one caught my fancy.  I seem to see him from time to time in my writings.

I wish I could have stayed longer in each of the galleries.  But the gallery that contained the most fascinating pieces was the jade gallery.  Some of the finest jade I have seen.  Including these jade pieces from a funerary mask.  The pieces are about 3500 years old.  It almost makes you want to be Indiana Jones.

But no visit to a Chinese museum would be complete without at least one classic vase.  Or two.  So, here they are.

Babs, I am sorry that this is the best I could do.  After doing my culture race, I am convinced I could spend a week in this museum.  Or at least a day in each gallery.  And learning would be easy.  The exhibits are fully described both in Chinese and English.

One of the most difficult things in learning a new culture is learning the various eras and how each cultural piece relates to each time period.  But that takes time.

And, on this trip, we spent far more time in establishments selling silk, pottery, medicine, jade, and pearls than we did in learning about the history behind them.

I suspect that was not exactly an accident.


Kathe said...

Steve, I have been considering a trip to China. With what tour company did you travel?

Kwallelno said...

The jade mask is about as good as it gets, a piece on at least three levels. There has to be a good story behind something composed like it is in the photo.

Steve Cotton said...

SmarTours. There was something nice about hearing the guide say: "All Smart people over here."

Steve Cotton said...

And I wish we had had enough time in the museum to get all of the details.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

Steve, you did good with limited time and worn out sneakers!  Thanks.

Steve Cotton said...

 The time we spent in sales rooms for silk, jade, medicine, pearls, and pottery could have been far better spent in this museum.  Even so, it was an amazing visit.  And, to think, many of the artifacts could have ended up destroyed by the Red Guard.