China: A History in Objects 0500519706, 9780500519707

The history of China― brilliantly told and brought vividly to life through more than 6,000 years of artifacts and treasu

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China: A History in Objects
 0500519706, 9780500519707

Table of contents :
1. Early China, 5000-221 BC
1. Yangshao Neolithic pottery and stone tools
2. Majiayao and Qijia Neolithic pottery
3. Dawenkou and Longshan Neolithic pottery
4. Hongshan Neolithic jades
5. Liangzhu Neolithic ritual jades
6. Neolithic Shimao to Bronze Age Erlitou
7. Neolithic and later sculptures
Anyang: the last Shang capital
8. Shang ritual wine vessels
9. Shang ritual food vessels
10. Early writing
11. Zhou inscribed bronzes
12. Zhou horse and chariot fittings
Confucius: China’s greatest philosopher
13. Eastern Zhou weapons and ornaments
14. Making bronzes at Houma
15. Ornamenting bronze with contrasting inlays
16. Early glass-making
17. Northern nomads: Ordos and the steppe
18. Southern Chu and Yue states
2. Empires 221 BC-AD 960
Qin Shihuangdi: China’s first emperor
1. Han tombs
2. Glazed pottery models for burial
3. Han lacquer
4. The Admonitions Scroll
Mogao, near Dunhuang: caves of a thousand Buddhas
5. Buddhist stone carvings
6. Portable metalwork deities
7. Silk Road silks and embroidery
8. Buddhist paintings
9. Buddhist architecture
10. Tang tomb figures
11. Tang luxury goods
12. Tang mirrors
13. Ceramics for home and abroad
14. Tang glass
15. Liao luxury goods
3. Emperors, cholars and merchants, 960-1279
1. Tomb bricks
2. Luohan figures from Yixian
3. Devotional images of Guanyin
Kaifeng: northern capital
4. Ru and Zhanggongxiang wares
5. Early Jun wares
6. Ding food and wine vessels
7. Northern popular wares
Hangzhou: southern capital
8. Guan wares and their copies
9. Song narrative painting
10. Song mirrors
11. Perfume and cosmetics
12. Qingbai wine vessels
13. Tea drinking
14. Reinventing the past
15. Plum blossom motifs
Quanzhou: cosmopolitan port of Marco Polo
16. Export ceramics
4. Mongols and Ming, 1271-1644
1. Zaju opera and Cizhou ceramics
2. Porcelain from Jingdezhen
3. Yuan lacquer
4. Collecting antique paintings
5. Heavenly beings
6. Popular ceramics from Hebei and Shanxi
Zhu Di: the Yongle emperor
7. Ming money
8. Zhenwu, God of War
9. The Forbidden City
10. Gardening in the Forbidden City
11. Ming Buddhist temples
12. Gilt-bronze Buddhist sculpture
13. Buddhist ritual equipment
Ming tombs: mausoleum of the emperors
14. Ming cloisonné
15. Ming court porcelain
16. Gold, silver and gems for the Ming courts
17. Carved lacquer
18. Middle Eastern trade and court taste
19. Middle Eastern metalwork and Chinese porcelain
20. Trade in celadons with India
21. Chenghua ʻpalace bowls’
22. One Hundred Boys
Chinese gardens
23. Ming landscape paintings
24. The literate, illiterate and literary gods
25. Calligraphy
26. Romance of the Three Kingdoms
27. Ming inlaid lacquers with figures
28. Ming hardwood and lacquered furniture
29. Ming tomb furnishings
30. Ming architectural and temple ceramics
31. Archaistic Ming bronzes
32. Ming fashion for antique jades
33. Ming jade belts
34. Ivory carvings of immortals
35. Blue-and-white export porcelain
5. Qing: the last dynasty, 1644-1911
1. Orthodox Chinese paintings and the Four Wangs
2. Qing individualist painters
3. Romance of the Western Chamber
4. Painting with Daoist themes
Life in the Forbidden City
5. Qing imperial porcelain
6. Enamels on copper
7. Qing glass
8. Qing court lacquer
9. Qing cloisonné
10. Palace lighting
11. The Qing military
12. Qing women’s jewellery
13. Qianlong the collector
14. Qianlong seals and writing
15. Qing state ritual
16. Tibetan Buddhism and the Qing court
17. Flower symbolism and the four seasons
18. Coloured woodblock printing
Guangzhou: centre for direct trade with Europe
19. Trade with Europe
20. Tea trade
21. Armorial porcelains and individual clients
22. Copying European ceramics and prints
23. Clocks and watches made in Europe for China
24. Encounters
25. Plants and gardening
Dowager Empress Cixi
26. Wars and the end of an empire
6. Modern China, 1911-present
1. Ancestors and family life
2. New Year prints
Shanghai: China’s most fashionable city
3. Advertising and cartoons
4. Lu Xun
5. Art glorifying war
6. Images of hardship during the war years
Mao Zedong: founder of the People’s Republic of China
7. Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution
8. Chinese artists working outside mainland China
9. New ways of representing the natural world
10. Prints and paintings of changing China
11. Avant-garde language and landscape
12. New art, old forms
13. Modernist calligraphy
14. Modern embroidery
Selected bibliography

Citation preview


Thames & Hudson

The British


This highly original history of China is brilliantly told through more than 7,ooo years of artefacts and treasures, from the terracotta army in the tomb of the First Emperor to Ming ceramics, carved lacquerware and contemporary calligraphy. It traces the country's development from ancient civilization to global superpower, revealing a culture that is internationally connected and constantly reinterpreting its past. This. is a stimulating history of one of the world's most fascinating countries.


ISBN 978-0- 500-51970-7

~ Thames & Hudson

The British



II lllll 11111111111111111

780500 519707


This illustrated introduction to the history of China offers a fresh understanding of the country's progress from the Neolithic age to the present Told in six chapters arranged chronologically, through art, artefacts, people and places, and richly illustrated with expertly selected objects and artworks, it firmly connects today's China with its internationally engaged past. From the earliest archaeological relics and rituals, through the development of writing and state, to the advent of empire, the author charts China's transformation from ancient civilization into the world's most populous nation and influential economy, offering the reader a myriad of historical insights and cultural treasures along the way. This accessible book presents an eclectic mix of materials including the decorative arts, costume, jewellery and furniture-making, running through to the most recent flourishing of Chinese culture. It will stimulate, fascinate and inform anyone interested in one of the greatest and most influential nations of the modern world. With over 6oo illustrations

On the front: Porcelain plaque for furniture (detail), c. 1723-50, © The Trustees of the British Museum On the back, from left to right: Ritual wine jar with taotie design (detail), about 1200-1050 sc; Wang Dangling, The Void (detail), 2000 ; Carved red lacquer dish (detail), 1489; Blue and white flask with lychees (detail), 1403-24; Buddhist banner painting (detail), AD 800-900, all © The Trustees of the British Museum

Jessica Harrison-Hall is Head of the China Section, and Curator of Later China, Vietnam and the Sir Percival David Collection of Chinese ceramics at the British Museum, London. Her publications include

Ming: Art, People and Places (2014), Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (with Craig Clunas, 2014), Ming Ceramics (2001) and Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965-75 (2002).

The British Museum Please visit for more information about the Museum and its collecti on.

Thames & Hudson Please visit to find out about all our publications, including our latest releases. Printed in Italy


-0. Thames

& Hudson

The British






Early China


5000- 221 BC


22 I 3


Empires BC- AD


Emperors, scholars and merchants


960- 1279 4

Mongols and Ming


1271- 1644 5 the last dynasty


1644- 1911 6

Modern China 19u- present


Selected bibliography Credits

342 346 346




Introduction China is one of the world's oldest civilizations, but it is a myth that China is and always has been a homogenous state, with a single line connecting today's citizen in Beijing back to his or her ancestors living thousands of years ago. This is a thought that is still so strong in most people's minds that almost all general histories of China start with the Stone Age and travel through to the present day. There is something in China's long history and the vast scale of the land mass and population that perpetuates the notion

1. A horseshoe-shaped bend In the Yellow River, which here forms the boundary between the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxl In northern China. Downstream, the North China Plain Is covered In fertile loess known as yellow earth

that one can encapsulate the whole culture in a single exhibition or book. In many ways, this book follows in the tradition of looking at the entire swathe of Chinese history, but it differs in its acceptance that it cannot be fully comprehensive and because it principally uses objects - art and material culture - to tell the story. We look at China's history through the pottery and porcelain, jades and bronzes, paintings and calligraphy, textiles and decorative arts that survive, dividing the last seven thousand years of its much longer past into six distinct historical periods. China's history and geography are wonderfully rich and varied, yet it is neither as self-contained nor as isolated as is often thought. China's written past and its material culture show interactions with other states in every period, from the Neolithic to the present. Here we use the British Museum's collections to interpret that past.

Geography People have lived in the area we now call the People's Republic of China for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, Homo erectus or 'Peking man' scavenged there for food around five hundred thousand years ago, marking one of the earliest occupations of the Homo genus in China. And anyone who has tried to navigate China is soon overwhelmed by its sheer size; a few centimetres on a map can easily translate into hours in a plane or days on a train, and it is said that the glories of China are only matched by the time spent travelling around it. Understanding the long history, scale and diversity of China is nevertheless imperative. It is a millennias-old cliche but China truly is a world unto itself, with almost every imaginable landscape, and the sheer variety of China's climates, vistas and flora and fauna has naturally had the most profound impact on the people who have settled there. But how precisely do landscape and climate dictate culture? The peoples living around the Yellow River (1) in the north of China and those dwelling on the far side of the Yangtze River (2) to the south built very different worlds even in the Neolithic, but they were also far more connected than was once thought. The borders of the Chinese empire have ebbed and flowed, but the China we know today encompasses the lush steppe grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the deserts of Xinjiang, the yellow earth loess of the middle reaches of the Yellow River, and the terraced rice paddy fields south of the Yangtze River (6). The coastline is similarly extensive and varied, and even includes the tropical paradise of Hainan Island, with its coconut palm trees 6


2. The Yangtze River, known as Chang Jiang or 'Long River' In Chinese, and also as the Blue River or Fleuve Bleu In French, Is the longest river In Asia and flows from Slchuan to the East China Sea at Shanghai. This panoramic view shows the first bend of the river near Shlgu vlllage, not far from Lljlang, Yunnan

3. The Great Wall of China was built along the east to west borders of historical China. The First Emperor, Qin Shlhuangdl, Joined together and extended parts of much earner walls In the 3rd century ac, but the sections of the wall we most commonly see today, Including this one, were greatly renovated In the Ming era (1368- 1644)

and white sandy beaches. There are spectacularly beautiful mountains emerging from clouds, still lakes and dense jungles. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of China.

Language Learning to speak Chinese is becoming ever more popular. An increasing number of primary and secondary schools around the world have Mandarin clubs and the Chinese state-supported Confucius Institutes promote Chinese culture globally. As China's own economy prospers, the social effect will be felt of the elite educating their children in Western universities, and rising numbers of tourists will travel to Europe, Australia and America. A desire to

4. These reconstructed towers are at Jlayuguan, a crossing point at the far

communicate with this population wi ll hopefu lly increase the numbers of

western end of the Great Wall. The grasslands of the steppe lle behind the wall, framed by the snowcovered Qlllan Mountains in the far distance. The steppe runs from Hungary to northeastern Ch ina, passing through Russia and Central Asia. Nomadic lifestyles In the region have clashed with agrarian llvlng In China for much of Its history

for social, economic and political reasons outside China.

foreigners learning Chinese. So it is a language that is increasingly important Within China, the written Chinese language connects and bonds the nation, but it also ties its neighbours - Korea, Japan and Vietnam -

to each

other and to China through a shared historical written language. This language of the past resonates with people today. Certain characters such as the word for field - a square divided into quarters - are as recognizabl e today as they would have been to early Chinese scribes writing on oracle bones in 1200 sc. Reading oracle bones requires specialist knowledge, but writing from two thousand years ago is still understood by educated people today. It is an incredible thing to pick up a bamboo slip written by a Chinese soldier from that time and understand the gist of it. Spoken language can be incomprehensible if dialects are used, which is why the written script has always been so important as a way of connecting such a vast population across space and time. China tru ly has a common, historic language.

Relationship with the past In China, the past is not distant, but nearby. There is an almost intimate relationship with it that can be very different to Western ideas of 'history'. This has sometimes been seen as a slavish reverence of the past, overwhelming the ability to think creatively and find entirely new solutions. However, such criticism misses the point entirely. By recording and studying the past, even recreating ancient styles, China has built a metaphorical su perhighway that connects it to the present. The Chinese landscape itself can evoke these connections: when you gaze at the incredible scenery at Huang Shan you immediately think of classical Chinese paintings of lone pine trees and mountains disappearing into clouds (7). One aspect of China's relationship with the past is the reverence of ancestors. The involvement of ancestors in key moments of the calendar, often to celebrate important events, remains an important part of Chinese life today. The essential feature of the relationship is reciprocity - the living keep the dead alive through memory, and nourish them with victuals. The ancestors can then support the wishes of the living within the spirit realm. In the distant past, this reciprocation played a crucial part in political B Introduction



decision-making, such as the selection of an appropriate time to make war on enemies, and in information gathering, such as forecasting of the weather to enable a successful harvest. China's relationship with the past, however, goes further than the reverence of ancestors. In traditional dynastic China, the present established a link back into history through the study of ancient texts (learning them by heart), or by the copying of ancient paintings. Reconnecting with the past was a fundamental part of everyday life. And, of course, educated people owned and read books on antique objects and vessels, as well as ancient philosophy and history.

Power and belief: the emperor and the cosmos Central to China's connection with the past was the idea that the ruling emperor held the ancient Mandate of Heaven. Not only was he supreme ruler of China, Son of Heaven itself, but also surrounding countries paid tribute to him and acknowledged his absolute power in the region. Emperors controlled the living and, as the personification of the Pole Star, were ultimately in control of the entire universe. For more than two thousand years, a succession of different series of emperors (in effect, dynasties) ruled China; dynasties changed only when they had lost the approval of Heaven to rule. State rituals reinforced the emperor's importance to the cosmic order. These rituals were handed down from antiquity and thus represented continuity with the past. Some were so important that they were performed by the emperor himself, such as New Year services conducted at the Temple of Heaven, and those at the Imperial Ancestral Temples or when the emperor travelled to Mount Tai, near Jinan in Shandong province. Arranging the most auspicious timing and presentation of services was vital, so the emperor was assisted by ministers and a vast bureaucracy.

Centralized bureaucracy: balancing the civil and military The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (r. 220-210 BC), set up a standardized

5. Camels walking near the crescent-shaped lake, Yueyaquan, In Dunhuang, In China's northwestern Gansu province. Goods were traded across the deserts and Ideas exchanged In oasis cities

knowledge of these set texts and the ability to readapt their content and apply it to contemporary circumstances would ensure a successful scholar an official salary and security for his entire family. It would also connect him through shared experience to a vast network of similarly trained people.

Foreign contacts and integration

legal code and centralized bureaucracy. This administration was greatly

The idea that China has always been isolated and only built on an indigenous

expanded in the Han period (206 BC-AD 220), and from this point on,

culture is incorrect. Almost from the beginning, China has been multicultural,

throughout the entirety of the imperial era, a period spanning some

and it was connected to the outside world throughout history partly because

two thousand years, China's vast territories were administered by a well-

of commercial activities (5). For at least two thousand years, China has

organized bureaucracy involving both civil and military officials. The divisions

produced commodities for foreign consumption, initially textiles and then

that exist today between an official and a soldier lead us to think of these

ceramics and later tea. These were sold within the Indian Ocean and further

roles as being diametrically opposed, but in fact all educated elites in China

afield to Africa, and then later to the New World and to Europe.

aimed to balance their civil and military roles. To be the ideal man you needed to develop both wen (literary) and wu (military) skills. Bureaucrats were selected through a centralized examination system held at imperial, provincial and local levels. For these exams, candidates were

Connections through trade are not the whole picture. War has also brought enormous foreign influence into Chinese culture. Technology from the steppe (4), for example, transformed weapons in China in the Shang and Zhou periods. Through the millennia, China's armies have included

tested on their knowledge of the Four Books, Great Learning and Doctrine of

imported horses and foreigners, the latter either captured troops or men

the Mean (both from the Book of Rites), the Analects of Confucius and Book

whose knowledge of lands beyond the frontiers could be of enormous

of Mencius, and the Five Classics: these were the Book of Poetry (Shijing), the Book of History (Shujing), the Book of Changes (Yijing), the Record of Rites (Lij,), and the Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu). In-depth

importance in China's foreign wars.



In contrast with scholars and soldiers, the movement of monks and priests throughout China's history has been relatively little studied, but monks have Introduction


6. Terraced rice fields In Yunnan province In southwest China. Cultivation of rice as opposed to other cereal crops distinguishes northern and southern China 7. Huang Shan In Anhui province In winter. The spectacular landscape evokes trad itional Chinese Ink paintings

had a dramatic impact on Ch ina, from the introduction from India of Buddhism in the Han period to the spectacular services performed by Tibetan priests in the early Ming era. The Jesuits in the 1500s broug ht European science and phi losophy to the Chinese court. Similarly, the tribute system brought the imperial court into contact with diplomats from across the wider region. These missions came from Central As ia, South and Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea. Spectacu lar gifts were exchanged between the courts, including exotic animals such as giraffes, zebras, lions and elephants. People came too, including foreign women for the imperial harem and foreign cooks for the imperial kitchens.

Architecture, archaeology, objects and art A lthough, frustratingly, one can hardly do more than scratch the surface, it is nonetheless possible to try to understand Chinese culture through some of the material remains that have survived to this day. The Great Wall (3), the Grand Canal and the Forbidden City remind us of the scale of building projects in imperial China. Vast and remarkable transnational projects were achieved by taking advantage of what has always been an enormous population and the ability to mobilize it and its products through a well-organized bureaucracy. There are relatively few architectural remains for a country the size of the whole of Europe, but among the surviving buildings from the past are religious buildings, including the cave temples of Mogao and pagodas in Xi'an dating from the Tang dynasty; bridges from the Song era; libraries, temples, monasteries and gardens from the Ming period; and courtyard homes from the Oing epoch. Even more rewarding are the sites and finds that Chinese archaeologists have unearthed and continue to publish. There have been both famous discoveries, such as the terracotta army from the pits surrounding the First Emperor's tomb, and less well-known but equally important ones, such as Shimao, the largest Neolithic city discovered to date in China. As re latively little of China's 'above-ground' architecture survives, the underground palaces of t he regional Ming princes and the foundations of ancient palaces in Xi'an are even more treasured. China has always produced material goods on a vast scale and thanks to this industrial production from earliest times we are able to study Chinese history through the objects that have survived and the textual descriptions of those that have not. So, for example, thousands of blue-and-white porcelains from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province are still in existence, but not one of the rattan hats that the area was also famous for making survives. It is my great hope that the reader will take this introductory book and use it as a portal to the past, admiring the objects, textiles and paintings that illustrate it to guide them through some seven thousand years of Chinese history. China is especial ly important in the human story because of its unique status: simultaneously the world's oldest continuous civilization and potentially the greatest world power in the 21st century. 12




Early China 5000-221 BC

2. Bird's-eye view of the east gate at Shimao In Shaanxl, part of the largest Neolithic archaeological site discovered to date In China

The discovery at Zhoukoudian in northern China in the early 1920s of the skull, jawbone and teeth of an upright walking man (Homo erectus), who died some five hundred thousand years ago and who was soon nicknamed 'Peking Man', marks the early presence of the Homo genus in China. More recently, in 2004, broken pieces of cooking pots have been discovered in southern China dating back twenty thousand years, which makes them the oldest known pottery in the world. This discovery, at Yuchanyan Cave in Hunan province, moved the dating of East Asian civilization back by three thousand years. This chapter starts later but still covers a large span of time, beginning in about 5000 BC with the Neolithic Yangshao culture (1) and ending with the fall of the Eastern Zhou dynasty and the Unification of China under the First Emperor in 221 BC. Understanding China through its archaeology is the main theme of this chapter (2). Over the past century, an enormous number of tombs (3) and dwelling sites have been discovered and the details of their extensive contents published. From these excavations and from surviving texts, which begin to be written in a form of recognizable Chinese in about 1200 BC on oracle bones (4) and bronze vessels found in the late Shang capital, Anyang (see pp. 34-35), we can reconstruct the way

3. Bronze ritual vessels for wine uncovered by archaeologists In 2012 at Shlgushan cemetery on the banks of the Wei River near Baojl In Shaanxl

1. Pottery head Looking into the eyes of this six-thousand-year-old image of a man, we can try to imagine what life along the Yellow River was like at that time. Images like this sometimes formed part of the neck of a large jar, with the figure's body emerging from the sides of the vessel. This example was excavated at Beishouling near Baoji in Shaanxi. Yangshao culture, C.

5000-3000 BC

Height 7.3 cm, width 9 cm Beishouling Museum, Baoji, Shaanxi


Early China (5000-221 sc)

in which Chinese people lived in the ancient past. From the earliest times, we see the importance of working jade (5) in China and stone tools and pottery are also widespread. Through these and other finds that survive from the Neolithic period, we can interpret a complicated series of early communities that were not as isolated as previously believed. Their dates overlap and sometimes more than one culture developed into a new phase. Each Neolithic culture had its own characteristics and geographical territory, and because China is so vast they flourished in areas equivalent in size to modern European countries. Without written records, we can know little of the precise nature of Neolithic belief, although a sculpture of a goddess with a life-size face was excavated at the Hongshan site of the Niuheliang goddess temple and is believed to have been at the centre of a matriarchal cult. In the Bronze Age and beyond, gods were rarely represented through sculpture until Buddhism was introduced to China from India in the 1st century AD, together with its iconography. Instead, 'higher beings' were communicated with through rituals conducted 17

6. Bronze head with gold mask from Guanghan This bronze sculpture was part of a remarkable find at Guaghan in Sichauan. Its angular head features bulging eyes, a prominent nose and large eyebrows. Fitted over the sculpture is a gold mask. The extensive use of gold at Guanghan was a practice adopted later by the Zhou kings, in

response to contact with

states outside their realm. C. 1200 BC

Sanxingdut in Guanghan, Sichuan Height 42.5 cm Sanxingdui Museum

7. Tiger, phoenix and dragon luo silk gauze embroidery Eastern Zhou dynasty,

from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600- c. ro46 BC) onwards, using cast bronze vessels. These vessels were ritualized containers for drinking, pouring and storing wine, and for containing foods. Dead relatives were worshipped using vessel sets, some of which were passed on through burial to ancestors who would continue to use them, interceding in the spirit world on behalf of the living. This system of using bronze vessels continued throughout the Zhou period. Commodities including the metals used in bronze production were transported thousands of kilometres across China, and people living in the Shang and Zhou must have been aware of distant communities (6) through the movement of goods and the threat of warfare. The production of high-quality luxury goods has been a characteristic of Chinese life from the Neolithic era. One of the finest products was woven silk, prepared by unravelling threads from silk moth cocoons (7). China feels connected to its ancient past through the continuous occupation of the same physical territory, ongoing archaeological excavation and what is essentially the same written language. Such vast, fertile territory has historically supported a large population and spawned a highly documented and regulated hierarchical society. Industrial production on a massive scale was possible from earliest times because of the large number of people available as a workforce and the bureaucratic division of tasks that could be performed 18

Early China (5000-221 BC)

4. Oracle bone

C. 480-222 BC

This oracle bone, a turtle plastron

Tomb 1, Mashan, Jiangling, Hubei

showing the earliest form of

Height 29.5 cm, width 21 cm

Chinese writing, was used

Jingzhou Museum

for divination. Texts recorded communications between the

carefully stored away in specially

8. Horse and chariot burial pit at the XlongJlazhong tomb Olli'