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China's Latest Greatest-Hits Collection

The Bowers Museum builds on its Far East link with a show of over 250 treasures from the Nanjing Museum

June 02, 2002|SCARLET CHENG

One blockbuster success deserves another, and the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana is hoping that its newest exhibition from China will rival that of "The Secret World of the Forbidden City" mounted two years ago. That show pulled in 250,000 visitors during its seven-month stay--twice the usual number of visitors to the Bowers in a year.

"We found a tremendous amount of interest sparked by the Forbidden City exhibit," museum President Peter Keller says, "and that was just a small window of the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911]. The Chinese have such a tremendously rich history going back to the Neolithic."

So now there's "Symbols of Power: Masterpieces From the Nanjing Museum," culled from 440,000 objects in China's second largest museum. This is the Nanjing Museum's first foray in the Americas--it has sent a limited number of shows to parts of Asia and Europe. It is also its largest loan--more than 250 objects--inside or outside China.

Like the Forbidden City exhibition, "Symbols of Power" offers a capsule version of Chinese cultural history, a greatest-hits sampler. It encompasses 5,000 years of artifacts and artworks--from terra cotta figurines to embroideries, jade to bronze, lacquerware to porcelain, paintings to crafted curiosities.

Nanjing is a city of 5.3 million that lies inland from Shanghai on the Yangtze River. Its name means "southern capital" (Beijing means "northern capital"). The museum, founded in 1933, is best known for its strong archeology department, with objects excavated from areas in Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang provinces that are especially rich in tomb sites. About half of the material in the Bowers exhibition comes from such excavations.

The rest represents another important Nanjing holding, the contents of 2,200 crates of treasures accumulated by the imperial court, primarily during the Qing Dynasty. The crates were among 20,000 packed up at the National Palace Museum in Beijing in the 1930s, at the start of the Sino-Japanese War.

Moved around the country to avoid damage or confiscation during that war and the civil war that followed, some of the crates ended up in Taiwan in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek and his followers. Among the crates left behind, 15,000 went to Beijing, and 2,200 remained in Nanjing.

In December, The Times reported that the Palace Museum in Beijing claimed ownership of the Nanjing crates and their contents. Officials there were demanding that the material be returned to them. According to Li Minchang, one of three Nanjing curators who have come to Santa Ana to install the "Symbols of Power" exhibition, that controversy was recently settled. The central government, he said, had asserted control over the material; some pieces may be moved to the Palace Museum in Beijing, but most of the objects will remain in Nanjing.

Officially, Xu Huping, director of the Nanjing Museum, is curator of the Bowers show, but Anne Shih, a member of the Bowers' board, traveled to China to work with Xu, taking an active hand in suggesting works to be lent."Mrs. Shih was very persuasive," says Li, as he leads a visitor on a tour through the galleries where the show is being installed.

Among the palace material, a map and a set of devotional Buddhist figurines have pride of place in the exhibition. The map is a copy of an original made by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest who lived in China from 1583 to 1610. The map must have been a revelation to the Chinese, who, unlike contemporary European powers, were not known for maritime exploration. Only two copies of this map remain (the other is in a museum in Liaoning Province), and this one, in color on six paper panels, was made by Imperial Palace eunuchs in 1608.

"To flatter the emperor," Li says, "Ricci put China in the center of the map."

In the first gallery, one Buddha and 49 bodhisattvas and other figures are arranged by size and type. Made of gilt bronze, they date to the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial occupants of the Forbidden City. The Qings were Manchus, an ethnic group from northwest China, and they favored Buddhism with a Tibetan turn, which is apparent in the specific deities represented and in details of poses and facial features.

"They're not really a set," says Li, an archeologist by training.

"They were from different altars in the Imperial Palace" in Beijing, says Ling Bo, Nanjing Museum's director of collections who's also in Santa Ana to set up the exhibition. In Nanjing, the figures have never been on public display.

One section of the exhibition is devoted to archeological finds, chief among them a complete jade shroud from a royal or noble tomb that dates to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). One of only a dozen or so in existence, the shroud is made of more than 200 jade tiles, perforated on the corners and held together by silver wire.

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