How can we understand cultures whose languages, practices, traditions and mentalities differ so markedly from our own and which have thousands of years of history behind them? At the British Museum, a spirited attempt is currently being made to render 19th-century China more intelligible to visitors, like me, viewing it from afar in time and space. Well into the modern era, China was viewed as a topsy-turvy place of difference, all upside down and, like its books, back to front. ‘China’s Hidden Century’, which is on display until 8 October, presents a picture of the last 120 years of the Qing dynasty and aims to override notions that this was a period of stagnation and decline, of obdurate conservatism and anti-modernity. It shows that in this phase of its history, China was resilient, adaptable and changing.
It’s an enjoyable and stimulating exhibition, but it lacks the gut-punch effect of the British Museum’s 1996 ‘Mysteries of Ancient China’ exhibition, at the centre of which were the bronze and jade artefacts excavated from two pits at Sanxingdui in Sichuan province a decade earlier. The Sanxingdui items, which date from the 12th and 13th centuries BC, were shockingly weird, not least the two-metre-high bronze of a stylised man with enormous hands that was the exhibition’s centrepiece. They were like nothing we had ever seen from China before. Jessica Rawson curated that exhibition and one chapter in this fascinating book is devoted to patiently making sense of the materials found at Sanxingdui.
A distinguished art historian who spent twenty-seven years at the British Museum before taking up the wardenship of Merton College, Oxford, Rawson brings over five decades of experience and scholarship to her new book. Life and Afterlife in Ancient China places the excavated pits at Sanxingdui alongside eleven other