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A Brief Analysis of Exploring Artifacts in China's National Museum of 'Ancient China Exhibition‘

By OGP Reporters / Members Contribute File Photos

Oh Good Party

The elegance of antiquity endures through the ages. Despite the passage of time, these precious artifacts remain as the finest witnesses. The legends of an era, whether flourishing or fading, unfold within the vivid pages of history, gradually passed down and intersecting, finally being preserved in the "Ancient China" gallery of the National Museum of China. What these treasures inscribe is not only the rise and fall of a dynasty but also the emotions of people throughout centuries. Collecting should not be solely for financial gain, but rather to witness and preserve a chapter of history that once shone brilliantly or a cultural tradition on the brink of vanishing, leaving behind a valuable spiritual heritage for future generations.

In the mystical land of the East, scenes from the stages of history continuously unfold, weaving together the colorful tapestry of ancient Chinese culture. As modern individuals, our in-depth exploration of this history often relies on extracting wisdom from those rare treasures and the stories associated with them.

The "Ancient China Exhibition" at the National Museum of China focuses on the dynastic changes and divides China's long history into eight periods: ancient times, the Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou dynasties, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the Qin and Han dynasties, the Three Kingdoms, Two Jin dynasties, and the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties, the Liao, Song, Xia, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, and the Ming and Qing dynasties. These eight sections vividly illustrate the developmental context of ancient China in various aspects such as politics, economy, culture, social life, and external relations, providing the audience with an immersive journey through the history of ancient China.

The National Museum of China boasts magnificent and grand architecture, with a total floor area of nearly 200,000 square meters, including five above-ground levels and two underground levels, housing 48 exhibition halls. It is one of the world's largest single-building museums. Its diverse and rich collection is truly awe-inspiring, encompassing various categories such as ancient artifacts, modern and contemporary artifacts, precious ancient books and manuscripts, artworks, and more, totaling over 1.4 million items. These precious artifacts bear witness to China's ancient history and its splendid cultural heritage.

1. Ancient Times

Museums have become sanctuaries that awaken human historical memories, and the ancient treasures and artifacts displayed within them reveal the treasures of culture and art that are preserved deep in history. Although the lifestyle of people in ancient times remains shrouded in mystery, the unearthed painted pottery is not only the essence of the emotions and thoughts of our ancestors but also a vivid testament to the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.

Painted pottery is a decorative technique for ceramics, created by using natural mineral pigments before firing the pottery. This decoration not only served as tools for prehistoric humans but also represented outstanding artistic creations of the prehistoric era. The simple yet exquisite painted pottery patterns, with vibrant colors, clever compositions, and rich content, vividly depict the scenes of life during that time.

The pottery unearthed from the Hemudu Culture site is one of the earliest examples of colored pottery culture in China, while the well-known Yangshao Culture represents the pinnacle of colored pottery culture. The designs on colored pottery encompass various themes, including animals, woven patterns, geometric shapes, and plant patterns, among others, such as the "narrow-mouthed pointed-bottom pottery bottle."

In the early Neolithic period, ancient ancestors had already begun using bright red color to embellish their artifacts. The use of red mineral pigments is widespread in the painted pottery excavated from the Yangshao and Dawenkou cultures. Although these red colors have faded over time, they still allow us to feel the reverence and awe of ancient people towards the most primitive aspects of life.

2. Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou Dynasties

Within the borders of China, the earliest bronze artifacts can be traced back to the Neolithic period. However, it wasn't until the Shang and Western Zhou periods that bronze artifacts began to flourish. Bronze artifacts also became important symbols of ancient Chinese cultural development. Most of these ancient bronze artifacts were made from alloys of pure copper, tin, and lead, displaying a lustrous greenish color. In ancient times, bronze artifacts were not just decorative items but also important ceremonial instruments known as "jijin," representing the social status and power of their users. Ancient people considered bronze artifacts as crucial mediums for communicating with deities. When casting bronze, artisans during the Shang dynasty would smear animal blood on the artifacts, symbolizing the continuity of life. The main techniques for crafting ancient bronze artifacts included the cire perdue (lost-wax) method, category method, and mixed-cast method. The development of bronze artifacts promoted advancements in craftsmanship and reflected progress in ancient technology.

Black-colored artifacts, austere and pure, stand in stark contrast to the colorful world, holding profound significance. The square wine vessel, known as "fangyi," was an instrument for wine in ancient China, particularly reaching its peak during the late Shang and mid-Western Zhou periods. Typical features of the fangyi included a rectangular body, a lid, an upright mouth, straight belly, and a ring-shaped base. The most important and representative of these is the "Houmuwu" bronze guang. In the context of bronze artifacts, a "guang" is defined as a vessel for liquor with an animal-shaped lid, a short spout at the front of the body, and a handle at the rear. The "Houmuwu" bronze guang is a unique bronze drinking vessel, typically found in higher-ranking tombs, prevalent in the late Shang period, and disappearing in the mid-to-late Western Zhou period. Its design is peculiar and mysterious, appearing to combine features of various animals, making it quite intriguing.

With a history of over 3,000 years, the ancient Sichuan region's ancestors created bronze masks of significant research value. The bronze masks unearthed from the Sanxingdui site have exaggerated forms, exquisite craftsmanship, and exceptionally high artistic value. Although the ancient state of Shu has disappeared with the passage of time, these bronze masks continue to shine with a unique artistic brilliance. The ancient Shu people worshiped spirits and practiced shamanism, harboring a deep longing for supernatural powers. These bronze masks may symbolize their pursuit of the mystical realm beyond.

3. Spring and Autumn, Warring States Periods

At the outset of the Spring and Autumn period, while bronze artifacts inherited the traditions of the Western Zhou dynasty, their forms gradually evolved towards being lightweight and practical, giving rise to many new objects. Simultaneously, the craftsmanship of bronze production became more refined. For example, the "gilded jade-inlaid glass silver belt hook," symbolizing social status, emerged during the decline of royal ceremonial vessels in the royal court of the Spring and Autumn period, replaced by objects crafted by various state lords and ministers. This reflected the decline of the royal court's power during that time, as the influence of state lords and ministers continued to grow.

The term "belt hook," an ancient and somewhat unfamiliar name, might lead many to think that it has faded into history. However, in reality, it has evolved into the belt buckle commonly seen by modern people today. In simple terms, a belt hook is an ornament used to fasten clothing, typically small in size and mainly used by men. In the highly hierarchical society of ancient times, the material, craftsmanship, and size and shape of belt hooks were all subject to strict hierarchical requirements, reflecting the social status of the owner. Particularly, the "gilded jade-inlaid glass silver belt hook" in the museum's collection, although relatively large in size, exhibits exquisite craftsmanship and is decorated with shallow relief carvings that are smooth and flowing.

Furthermore, during the Spring and Autumn period, the "zhong" (bell) and the "ding" (tripod) from the Western Zhou period both symbolized the authority of the ruling class and kingship. The phrase "zhong ming ding shi" aptly describes the social power structure of the time and vividly portrays the lavish lifestyle of the ancient elite.

4. Qin and Han Dynasties

As the slave society declined, the culture of painted pottery gradually faded away. However, during the Qin and Han periods, painted pottery exhibited a more passionate and unrestrained style, no longer confined to specific forms, as if it were the final swan song of pottery on the stage of history. Amid the fog of history, we occasionally discover a mysterious and elusive figure—the painted pottery figurine.

Brown often evokes associations with earth, nature, and simplicity, giving a sense of reliability and stability. The brown in the painted pottery figurines, while bright, is not flashy, maintaining a moderate sense of calm and restraint. The earthy tones of the northern land are always imbued with deep and rich qualities. The pottery figurines unearthed from the Yangjiawan Han tomb are of various forms, including infantry figurines, cavalry figurines, and chariot figurines, providing valuable material evidence for studying the formation of Han dynasty armies. For example, the "painted pottery infantry figurines" are vibrant in color but relatively similar in appearance. They differ from the diverse expressions seen in the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, which is related to the social status of the tomb's occupant. It is speculated that the tomb's occupant may have been the famous Han dynasty generals Zhou Bo or Zhou Yafu, hence the distinction from royal tombs.

The Western Han period inherited the romantic traditions of the Warring States period and developed its unique style, marking a flourishing period of ancient Chinese jade culture. The jade decorations of the Western Han period include cloud motifs, grain motifs, and swirl patterns, showcasing a rich array of creativity. For example, the "painted bronze goose-fish lamp" is a new environmentally friendly lamp created during the Han dynasty, featuring human, animal, and object-shaped designs. This bronze lamp is equipped with a hollow smoke passage, which draws the smoke produced by burning oil into the base of the lamp, ensuring clean indoor air.

5. Three Kingdoms, Two Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties

The history of painted bricks dates back to the late Warring States period and flourished during the periods of the Three Kingdoms, Two Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, achieving remarkable artistic achievements. As a unique artistic medium, painted bricks were closely related to the social, political, and cultural developments of the time. Their subjects encompassed a wide range of topics, including economic life, labor production, historical stories, and mythological legends. Painted bricks can be broadly categorized into four types: incised lines, relief lines, shallow bas-reliefs, and high bas-reliefs. Cinnabar, used in brick paintings, is one of the earliest mineral pigments.

Even as far back as the Shang and Zhou dynasties, we can discern traces of ancient celadon pottery. During that time, celadon exhibited characteristics of being predominantly green with a hint of yellow and slight variegation, but it already displayed a unique charm. By the time of the Three Kingdoms, Two Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, the production technology of celadon had seen significant improvements. A large number of finely crafted and cost-effective celadon wares replaced expensive lacquerware and heavy bronze vessels, becoming indispensable in people's daily lives. Among them, the "celadon tiger-shaped vessel" became one of the most common types. The term "tiger-shaped vessel" originated during the Warring States period and became popular during the Han and Two Jin periods. It was named after its resemblance to a tiger and is believed to have had two uses, one as a water container and the other as a food vessel.

The numerous artifacts we encounter symbolize beauty, but behind every historical story lies profound melancholy. The weighty passage of time can only sing a silent melody within the seams of these artifacts. They quietly observe this ever-changing world, and perhaps only these artifacts can accommodate our fleeting existence. Time has the power to bring everything back to its original tranquility. These artifacts, weathered by the years, bear witness to the abundance of the people and record the bygone events of the past. Perhaps only in this natural calmness can we deeply experience the souls crafted by these skilled artisans, which are truly works of art.

6. Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties

This is a dazzling era that spans the long course of history, recording a magnificent historical chapter. The city of Chang'an, after enduring the tests of time, witnessed the prosperity of its time, as well as the rise and fall of empires. All of this unfolded beneath the same sky, known as the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties era.

Yellow, the color of the earth, permeates the daily lives of ancient people. The golden radiance, brilliant through the ages, illuminates the grandeur of royal scenes. This precious golden glow rises from the earth, giving birth to a visually striking metallic hue. Gold represents power and wealth. As early as the Xia and Shang periods, ancient people began crafting gold artifacts with simple tools. Therefore, this precious luxurious color runs through the long history of Chinese civilization. Looking back at history, the development of gold jewelry gradually transitioned from early simplicity and abstraction to ornate complexity. The golden radiance continues to shimmer on these exquisite adornments, surpassing the splendors of the past. During the Sui dynasty, commercial trade among various states gradually intensified, and the ancient Silk Road reached its zenith during this period, laying a solid foundation for the later Tang dynasty's conquest of the Western Regions. Some scholars believe that the gold ornaments unearthed from the tomb of Li Jingxun evolved from the crowns and decorations of the Xianbei tribe and bear the influence of the Western Regions in their decorative style. The casting technique can be traced back to regions in Western Asia, making it a masterpiece of the fusion of Central Plains and Western Regions cultures. These surviving golden treasures, in the midst of a long and colorful history, embellish the timeless aspirations and opulence of our ancestors.

Camel figurines are not only symbols of an era but also symbols of the Silk Road. Although camels have now been replaced by modern transportation, their presence not only added an exotic touch to Chinese civilization but also brought the Tang Dynasty to its zenith in Chinese history. At the same time, camels, as intermediaries, introduced the traditional Han culture charm into the Western Regions, leading various regions to submit to the Tang Dynasty. During that era, the term "Hu people" referred to the ethnic minorities in the northwest regions of ancient China, encompassing various ethnic groups and states in Central Asia and West Asia. The Silk Road, connecting Chang'an to Central Asia, West Asia, and even Arabia, was a crucial channel for China's exchange and trade with the outside world. During the Tang Dynasty, this trade route thrived, with caravans coming and going continuously. The unearthed camel figurines vividly depict the realities of the Tang Dynasty.

White, the elusive beauty of purity, bathes one in a refreshing breeze. The origin of white porcelain can be traced back to the Northern Qi period, and it was not until the Tang Dynasty that white porcelain truly rivaled celadon. The emergence of white porcelain reveals the simplicity and elegance of pure white, free from extravagant patterns. For example, the "white porcelain tall-necked vase" possesses a color as pure as snow and as bright as silver, with a smooth glaze like jade, representing the highest level of white porcelain craftsmanship at the time. White porcelain may appear simple, as if it only requires the removal of the green color from celadon, but that fresh green comes from the most common iron element in nature, which artisans spent nearly a thousand years refining.

7. Liao, Song, Xia, Jin, and Yuan Dynasties

The era of Liao, Song, Xia, Jin, and Yuan was a time filled with trials and turmoil, where artifacts that endured the test of time gradually revealed their poignant beauty. Perhaps, in this world, apart from life itself, it's the fragments of history that make up the ancient and rugged tapestry of the mortal realm. Over a thousand years of change, cultural references from various dynasties have subtly merged into it, leaving faint traces, like the gentle melodies of the Tang and Song dynasties, captivating the heart and soul.

At some point, the cool blue and warm red ceased their rivalry, creating the precious and rare color, purple. Purple is a color filled with contradictions; it's a rare treasure that has been revered from ancient times to the present day. It's passionate yet deep, mysterious yet clear, embodying both nobility and romance. During the Northern Song period, a special glaze known as Jun glaze was born, which is a glaze color that contains copper elements in its formula, allowing it to produce such brilliant hues. Different shades of purple can be found in traditional Jun glaze ceramics, including rose purple, aubergine purple, grape purple, and more. However, creating Jun glaze ceramics is a highly challenging craft. Even with the same formula, the placement of the objects during firing and the temperature can have a significant impact on the glaze color. This has led people to praise it as "unrivaled Jun." On the "Jun kiln rose purple glazed flowerpot," the deep and intense purple exudes an aristocratic charm. Its seemingly casual creation, however, has captured the brilliance of the setting sun and remains vivid to this day. The interplay of the glaze's light resembles the clarity of gemstones, while the curves and motifs on the artifact exude the unique charm of the East.

"Yao" glaze emerged as a glaze color, heralding the birth of primitive porcelain. Early porcelain was mostly low-temperature glaze pottery, but during the Sui and Tang periods, two different firing methods—high-temperature and low-temperature—gradually developed. For instance, the "Ge kiln fish ear porcelain stove" was fired at a high temperature, and after cooling, it formed irregular cracks. The glaze is clear, and its luster is soft. The artifact's simple and elegant shape and unadorned glaze display the unique beauty of Ge kiln.

Brown, it seems to blend seamlessly with the earth, revealing a beauty that is subtle yet indispensable. Perhaps, because of its unassuming name, "brown glaze," it has been endowed with richer connotations and is often referred to as "soy sauce glaze." Soy sauce glaze contains iron elements and is fired at a high temperature. It thrived during the Eastern Han period. This glaze has always crossed the centuries with a low-key and restrained demeanor, continuing to this day. The "brown glaze carved flower flat bottle" has a delicate glaze, slightly thin walls, and is inlaid with two groups of brown glaze carved peony patterns on the front. Its design and carving style inherit from Han culture but also bear a distinct ethnic character.

The ancient concept of "blue" has incorporated the modern notion of "cyan." After the Tang Dynasty, blue gradually separated from cyan, becoming a deeper and more elegant color. The Mongols revered the azure blue, symbolizing the noblest color, as they considered cyan to represent the color of the Mongol wolf and white deer. Yuan Dynasty Jun kiln ceramics, represented by the "Jun kiln openwork vase," combine the upper part of a vase with a hollow base. The entire vase is coated in azure blue glaze, with a pair of fish ear-shaped decorations on all four sides.

8. Ming and Qing Dynasties

The glorious legend spanning thousands of miles, traversing the entire world. In this era of solemnity, dominance, and turmoil, countless imprints intertwine, marking the end of a millennia-long feudal dynasty.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, despite a gradual shift towards conservatism in culture, ornaments and artifacts became increasingly splendid and intense. Their patterns often exuded the complexity and grandeur of the court. These exquisite items were typically reserved for imperial use, given as gifts, or exchanged as diplomatic presents, making them rare in ordinary households. The history of cloisonné can be traced back to the Song Dynasty's "Records of the Lost Chronicles," which described a precious item made of copper with painted foreign figures on the surface. Over time, cloisonné flourished during the Ming and Qing periods, typically crafted in the imperial workshops for use by the royal family and nobility, radiating an air of dignity and nobility.

Cloisonné enamel is a masterful craft where copper wires are used to create intricate designs, then fused onto a copper base and coated with enamel glaze, which is fired to create the final piece. Its patterns often revolve around lotus themes, with a light blue glaze that conveys an air of stability, a smooth surface, and brilliant golden highlights. It's considered a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty cloisonné enamel. Brass was also used for currency during that time.

Yellow has historically symbolized imperial authority and noble lineage. Though its origins are disputed, it became an exclusive glaze color for the royal family from the Sui and Tang periods onwards. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, this color became one of the prohibited glaze colors for private production. The "Yellow-ground vase with dragon and phoenix design and poem," housed in the National Museum, boasts an elegant and precious form. With its tall neck and bulging belly, a bright and uniform glaze, intricate patterns of dragon and phoenix on the neck, and poetic verses by Du Fu from "Autumn Excursion," this vase captures the essence of its time.

Inside-painted snuff bottles represent the pinnacle of art during the Qing Dynasty. "Famille-rose snuff bottle with landscape design," painted on the exterior with a delicate famille-rose palette and delicate details, depicts landscapes and figures. The Qing Dynasty was known for its skilled craftsmen who could intricately paint scenes on the inside of small bottles.

Furthermore, gold lacquerware was prevalent during the Qing Dynasty and was known as "shanghui" in Japan. The "Black lacquerware with gold mountain and water design brush pot" was a gift from Japan to the Qing Dynasty. This exquisite pot has a straight cylindrical shape with ink-glazed exterior, deep as ink, adorned with golden depictions of mountain and water scenes. Ancient people regarded black with awe and reverence, seeing it as a symbol of mystery. The status of black waxed and waned with dynastic changes, but the weathered black always viewed the world with an objective eye.

As a collector, visiting museums with their invaluable exhibits is of utmost importance for learning and discerning the authenticity of ancient artifacts. By personally witnessing genuine historical relics, we can better identify and filter potential forgeries while gaining a deeper understanding of the development of ancient culture and art. Therefore, museums are irreplaceable resources for learning and researching, helping collectors to better comprehend and appreciate the precious aspects of ancient cultural heritage.

The elegance of antiquity endures through the ages. Despite the passage of time, these precious artifacts remain as the finest witnesses. The legends of an era, whether flourishing or fading, unfold within the vivid pages of history, gradually passed down and intersecting, finally being preserved in the "Ancient China" gallery of the National Museum of China. What these treasures inscribe is not only the rise and fall of a dynasty but also the emotions of people throughout centuries. Collecting should not be solely for financial gain, but rather to witness and preserve a chapter of history that once shone brilliantly or a cultural tradition on the brink of vanishing, leaving behind a valuable spiritual heritage for future generations.


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