The Great Haul of China

The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology

A tangible benefit of the thaw in Sino-American relations is "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology," an extraordinary show that arrives in the U.S. after seven years of intense diplomatic negotiations. It spans 6,000 years of history and is the largest exhibition of Chinese art to be shown in this country in 50 years. The hefty 584-page catalog that accompanies the show -- with contributions from 23 scholars -- is an immense undertaking in itself and attests to the scope of an endeavor that is already altering perceptions of early Chinese history.

Landing the exhibition is a coup for the Asian Art Museum and a rare opportunity for the Bay Area to view some 240 artifacts from the prodigiously artistic and diverse ancient cultures that flourished in the China of antiquity. The installation -- which takes up the entire first floor of the museum and is divided into 20 sections, each exploring a specific archaeological site or culture -- is as much about the painstaking process of excavation and archaeological practice as it is an illumination of ancient Chinese civilization. Beginning with Neolithic China (5000-2001 B.C.E.), the exhibit is organized so that visitors progress chronologically through history.

Like the Egyptians, the Chinese created some of their most spectacular artwork to keep the dead company; nearly all these treasures were discovered in the burial chambers of illustrious personages. The tomb of one minor lord housed 10 metric tons of bronze objects, while the burial precinct of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.) contained a vast necropolis with an underground army of more than 7,000 life-size terra-cotta statues of officers, soldiers, archers, charioteers, and horses. Included in the collection of antiquities from Bronze Age China (about 2000-771 B.C.E.) -- a period during which writing emerged: the largest continuous bell chime of the period, comprised of 26 bronzed bells, each weighing from 6 to 336 pounds; a stunning bronzed human head with a gold leaf mask; and a mysterious 8-foot-tall figure with a masklike face and oversized hands, which might have held the 60 elephant tusks discovered nearby. What's on display here is more mysterious, exotic, and otherworldly than any sci-fi epic at the local multiplex and an indirect reminder, if one were necessary, that America is indeed the new kid on the block.

"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology" opens Saturday and is on display through Sept. 11 at the Asian Art Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F. Admission is free-$13 ($6 beyond regular museum admission); call 379-8801.

 
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