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Saturday, Dec. 2, 2000


Treasures of ancient China

Until the 16th century, when the first Europeans reached these shores, China had, for over 1,000 years, been the sole foreign influence on the development of Japanese culture. Some of this influence had been refracted through Korea, but Korea itself was in a position similar to Japan's: a recipient of overwhelming influence from its giant neighbor.

Buddhism and bureaucracy, Confucianism and kanji, along with countless otherarts and came to Japan from China. Recognizing this vast cultural debt is one way to improve relations between the two countries.

It was with this in mind that the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi worked hard to bring the extensive exhibition of Chinese treasures now at the Tokyo National Museum to the Japanese public.

Most of the items in the show are recent discoveries from the aggressive archaeological programs conducted during the past 30 years. Some items have barely made it out of the earth; others are already well known, like the terra-cotta soldiers from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di.

An outstanding example is the sixth-century standing bodhisattva item that greets visitors as they enter. Recently discovered in Shandong Province, it has a realism and balance reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture. This is no surprise, since the source of Buddhist art, the Gandhara style in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, was heavily influenced by the Greek Bactrian kingdom that flourished in that area after the conquests of Alexander.

More direct Indian influences are seen in the standing Buddha which has a round face and eyes sunk in contemplation, two elements typical of the Gupta style. The "body-conscious" way in which the garment clings to the lines of the body also reveals an Indian influence.

Another standing Buddha from the same period reveals a Maurya influence, with the folds and creases represented as ridged ripples emanating from the figure's navel.

These figures, always serene, contrast with the dynamism of the guardian king from the eighth century, found in Sichuan. This item from the mighty Tang Dynasty that reunited China after a period of chaos is sadly missing several appendages, but still manages to convey a feeling of power and tension through its rippling muscles and torsion.

A small masterpiece in this section is the marble seated Buddha with attendants, dated to the sixth century, found in Hebei Province. Showing Buddha and several of his followers seated under a pair of entwined trees, the intricacy of the design is truly masterful, and the piece is full of fascinating detail, such as the playful figures on the back, revealing a sense of humor that balances the more devout feelings expressed at the front.

Most of the pieces in this section are from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, an extremely turbulent time in Chinese history, equivalent to the Dark Ages in Europe. Perhaps worldly suffering helped to strengthen the impetus toward the world-denying religion of Buddhism.

This, the opening section of the exhibition, effectively covers the iconography of the apostolic period of Buddhism in China. From there, however, the show turns to China's origins, with pottery and utensils from the Yangshao, Longshan and other Neolithic cultures. The painted pottery dating back 5,000 years shows a high standard of technique, and foreshadows designs seen in China's earliest dynastic art, especially the amazing, intricate bronzes of the Shang Dynasty.

The inscribed cow bones and turtle shells used for divination are China's oldest written records; deciphering them is a field in itself, and the dates and questions on them cast light on government priorities and practices at the dawn of history.

Some of the most remarkable bronzes recently unearthed come from outside the area believed to have been under Shang political control. The bronze heads and masks, such as No. 57, which still preserves its gold leaf face, date from the 13th to 11th century B.C. in the kingdom of Shu in what is now Sichuan. The fantastic, exaggerated features are difficult to interpret, but very different from the abstract, stylized Shang bronzes, where the human form is rarely represented.

The parade of bronzes and other, more precious metalwork shows the progress of Chinese technique and taste over two millennia, down to the Tang Dynasty.

Jade was a material prized since earliest times. It was believed to have miraculous preservative effects, and two of the most astonishing exhibits are the jade shrouds, each made up of over 2000 separate tiles of the precious material sewn together with gold wire or silk thread. Relics of the Han Dynasty, these shrouds are designed to encase every part of the body in a futile attempt to protect it from decay. As part of the process there are also some jade plugs used to plug each orifice of the body.

The most spectacular exhibit, however, is connected to the dynasty from which the country's name is derived, the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). These are the figures from the famous terra-cotta army, unearthed from the grave of Qin Shi Huang Di, the military and administrative genius who united the country after centuries of warfare, centralized the administration, and carried out construction of the Great Wall.

Displayed here we have a charioteer, four horses and four other figures of proud military bearing, bristling with an energy that belies their 22-century internment. Life-sized and lifelike, these figures, from an estimated army of 60,000, were meant to accompany the great emperor to the other world and ensure his supreme power in the afterlife. This is nothing less than an army to invade Heaven!

This exhibition reminds us that China is a country whose rulers have always done things on the grandest scale. Nothing makes this more evident to ordinary Tokyoites than the lavishness of this wonderful exhibition.

Treasures of Ancient China, until Dec. 17 at the Tokyo National Museum, (03) 3272-8600), in Ueno Park. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). Admission 1,300 yen, students 900 yen, children 400 yen.

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