The hidden soul of harmony

The new `Mysteries of Ancient China' exhibition at the British Museum reveals an aesthetic perfectly balanced between strength and delicacy. By Bryan Robertson
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The Independent Culture
The magnificent and totally engrossing new exhibition of ancient Chinese art and artefacts at the British Museum, "Mysteries of Ancient China", is an unmissable, more tightly focused and quite radical extension of the broad-ranging survey, "The Genius of China", held at the Royal Academy in 1974. Since then, important archaeological discoveries in China, notably in 1986 from the burial pits in Guanghan county, south-west China, have released many beautiful and sometimes genuinely mysterious objects in bronze, jade, other kinds of stone, wood and ceramic. These are included with often startling effect in the show now at the British Museum.

Spaciously installed with great style and intelligence by the show's designer, Graham Simpson, we find a concise, medium-sized exhibition, not over-large, chronologically set out in a sequence of semi-dark rooms in which these lovely survivors from a remote past are splendidly revealed in tactful but often dramatic lighting. This is an elegantly presented show in which the aesthetic and formal integrity of each object, alone or in association with other, similar works, is scrupulously respected. There are no concessions to theatrical tricks, although the ensemble has a very real glamour of its own. On Saturday with big, happily intent crowds milling around, there was no difficulty in getting to see each exhibit, with plenty of time to study the very useful basic texts on the walls, at intervals, and on labels.

The art and the artefacts on view begin in the Neolithic period circa 4500 BC to c 2000 BC, move on to the Great Dynasties of Shang, 1500-1050 BC, Western Zhou, 1050-771 BC, and Eastern Zhou, 770-221 BC, and culminate in the Dynasties of Imperial China, the empires of the Qin, 221-206 BC, and the Han, 206 BC-AD 220. Almost everything in the exhibition has emerged from the thousands of years BC. Practically all the works on view have been excavated from tombs, since the ruling families and individuals of those remote and still mysterious periods BC were always buried with functional and ceremonial objects of all kinds to accompany them, including weapons and chariots, on their journey to other spiritual worlds.

To differentiate between art and artefacts here is meaningless because the Chinese have always seemed incapable of making functional objects which are not also works of art. From the beginning, the Chinese creative intelligence appears to have held the polarities of strength and delicacy in perfect decorative balance. The animating drive is a complete rapport with nature, with all living things and forms, and a sensual ease with concepts of spirituality and the universe.

You can see this aesthetic balance majestically at work in the great bronze vessels for offering wine or food from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. These have always seemed to me to be among the greatest works of art ever made: their simple, alert, poised forms have the compressed strength of a clenched fist and yet the handles, legs and lips have a sturdy, flowing sensuality - yes, flowing; these miraculous bronzes imply through sheer compacted energy a sense of momentarily arrested or potential movement.

These ritual vessels are also comforting to behold because, with the ceramic bowls, candelabra and other household objects on show, they convey some idea of the domestic and ceremonial life of an ancient, wealthy and powerful elite that was traditionally buried with deliberately ostentatious displays of grand household objects. The mysteries begin when you contemplate the large and fierce, semi-abstracted Bird's Head, c 1200-1000 BC in greenish bronze "with traces of pigment with pronounced, hooked beak" discovered in 1986 in a burial pit in Guanghan county - an aggressively taut and predatory image of unknown purpose. In Dr Jessica Rawson's exemplary catalogue we learn that "we have no way of knowing what the bird signified ... from the existence of the large bronze trees decorated with birds, we can infer that such birds played an important part in the ceremonial and religious worlds of the peoples of the area. Perhaps the birds represent gods, or were spirits who protected particular groups of people, or were elements in the landscape of a spiritual realm. For the use of trees in a precious metal, namely bronze, seems to imply a wish to depict some sort of non- material world outside the usual one of humans ..."

An amazing painted ceramic Lamp in the Form of a Tree, late Eastern Han period, second century AD, shows us a tree growing from a mountain, with the liveliest modellings of humans, cicadas, hares, stags, pigs, dogs, monkeys, tigers and winged dragons. A Money Tree of roughly the same period sprouts from a stone mound, the tree itself wrought in the most delicate bronze spirals which contain embedded coins for ceremonial purposes, as well as mythical animals and birds. Both these objects seem charged with mystery still, although the tall Phallus-like object in red ceramic from the Neolithic period that confronts you on arrival at the show has a mystery of its own that defies the scholars. "Phallus worship" is pure conjecture; but the object itself, tall, tapering towards the top, with a fierce collar of sinister-looking "protective" spikes, has, needless to say, a very strong presence.

It is an extraordinary experience to move through this exhibition and to pass from the highly sophisticated abstraction of the early bronzes and ceramics to the delightfully poetic and sometimes robustly erotic scenes depicted on a number of ceramic bricks decorated in relief. A scene showing acrobats and horse-drawn chariots has all the delicacy and refinement that we normally associate with Greek or early Mediterranean art; an "erotic scene" showing three naked men and a naked woman enjoying themselves by a tree strikes a refreshingly bucolic note.

One of the grand centrepieces of the show is the intricately contrived jade burial suit of Prince Liu Sheng of the second century BC from the Han period. The suit consists of 2,498 small plaques sewn together with knots of gold wire. The suit is an amazing concoction in its technical virtuosity, but either through age or lack of polish the jade stones seem pallid and lustreless; this exhibit is fascinating but unlike anything else in the show retains a strictly funereal identity.

The English have always loved and appreciated Chinese art; we have produced a few pioneering scholars and created some fine collections, notably in the field of ceramics. Joseph Needham's great and still progressing multi- volumed Science and Civilisation in China is still the most remarkable work of original cultural research of my lifetime but, in recent years, most of us have been only too concerned with the mysteries of modern China and its putative relationships with Russia, with the rest of Europe, and with the United States. It is a treat to experience again in this show the unique beauty and composure of Chinese art and to know from the excavations that have yielded such treasures that the Chinese genius for research and scholarship is still just as strong as the traditional Chinese passion for history.

n `Mysteries of Ancient China' is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 5 Jan 1997. Advance booking: 0171-420 0000