Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ancient China at the British Museum

Three years ago, the British Museum put on a fascinating exhibit containing several artifacts on loan from Khartoum's National Museum and detailing the rich, long and complex cultural history of Africa's largest country. It should be mentioned that the accompanying forum involved one Professor Wendy James, Sudan expert, anthropologist and mother to Amiable Dunce. The following year, the Museum opened an exhibition devoted to the objects of the ancient Persian Empire, which I wrote about at the time on Dcat's blog (I did go, and it was incredible). Next month, the British Museum will offer up its latest installment in its apparent series of exhibitions about dodgy nations with overlooked and extraordinary histories: The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army opens on September 13.

The exhibition contains a fractional selection of pieces unearthed from the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century (perhaps the most important ever). Shi Huangdi is credited with the unification of the lands that have since made up China (the name, in fact, descends from him). Such a task unsurprisingly involved many years of brutal expansion and violent control and resulted in an immense power which is reflected in the size and magnificence of his resting place. It is a vast and only partially explored underground city inhabited by treasure and artworks including over eight thousand lifesize terracotta soldiers and dancers, twenty of which have made the trip to London. They are so large that the doors of the museum's delightful Reading Room had to be removed.

My knowledge of ancient Chinese history has largely been gleaned from the work of Larry Gonick, and I doubt that many can claim much more. The exhibition will be undoubtedly enlightening for the many tens of thousands who visit. The story of China's birth will be understood, however, through knowledge of the current state, its increasing global power and the continuing atrocious treatment of its citizens. In the next year, as the momentum of the Beijing Olympics increases interest in and scrutiny of the Chinese state, we can expect growing efforts by the Chinese government to improve its image in the eyes of the world. This exhibition, which could not happen without at the very least the permission of the Chinese state authority, must be read in that context. The same, indeed, can be said for the previous collaborations by the British Museum with Iran and Sudan. Does this mean that one of Britain's greatest cultural institutions has become a mouthpiece for the propaganda of despicable regimes? I don't think so. For a start, it would be a lunatic director who would turn turn down, or even not seek out, the opportunity to display some of the rarest, most exquisite treasures of global history. While politics may dabble in cultural exchange, politics should not stop it. These exhibitions represent more than political gestures, but the cooperation of British curators, archaeologists and scholars with their perhaps relatively isolated counterparts, and not to mention the rich, once-in-a-lifetime experience open to any who wish to stop by.

Scanning the programme of events accompanying the exhibition, it is clear that this will not be a myopic affair, sheltered from the contemporary context. It will be delicately handled, to be sure, like the ancient objects themselves, and primarily a cultural and artistic exploration, but it seems quite conscious of the reality of modern China. Lectures include an examination of Mao Zedongs' own Mausoleum, and a discussion which directly addresses the historical and contemporary 'rise of China.' While these terracotta soldiers may be the new Pandas for the Chinese state, they certainly represent a coup for the British Museum and for the rest of us. Not to be missed.

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