Wherever I go, I always visit the museum, operating off the assumption that a people’s hand-picked selection of interesting objects are always worth seeing. Provincial or national – I love them all. The Shanghai Museum, unsurprisingly, is a particularly worthy entrant. Most pleasantly? It’s free.
The Shanghai Museum is situated near the People’s Park area of the city, and is built in an aggressively modernist but not unpleasant building, with pinkish brick and a large circular arch over the top of it. You won’t miss it unless you are very stupid.
The downside of a free museum is that everybody wants to go, and there always seems to be a considerable line to get in, which is slowed down by the required security check. You do not have to check your bags, and cameras are permitted, which is a nice touch. I’d suggest coming here on a weekday to avoid spending an hour waiting in line in the sun with a lot of other sweaty, mildly exasperated people.
Split into four floors, the museum has a particularly interesting selection of ancient artifacts that were found in the vicinity of Shanghai, proving China’s authority as one of the oldest cultures on the planet.
There are also bronzes, including bells and some immense drums, a wide selection of Chinese landscape painting, a display encompassing China’s ethnic minorities and their traditional outfits, and even a display of ancient coins. Signage usually has some English translation.
Here are some photos of the things I liked best in the museum, in no particular order whatsoever:
A clay statue of a dog from the Eastern Han tradition, likely dating from between AD 25 to 220. This charmingly realistic beast hails from an interesting tradition of dog art, crafted to guard the tombs of the dead – many of whom, presumably, were particularly fond of their pets. Dogs were divided into watch dogs, hunting dogs, and dogs for eating, per the Liji (Book of Rites) from the era,
A Tang Dynasty lion sculpture, likely from between A.D. 618 and 907. Like most of the lovely objects here, it was likely a tomb decoration. More information was not forthcoming from the museum, but you can read more about the Tang tradition of funeral statuary here.
I’ve always been particularly taken by ancient Chinese metalworking, which is intricate, exotic, and far more impressive than its contemporary works in the Western world. This cowrie-container with eight yaks on top likely hails from the Western Han, from 206 BC to AD 8. Cowrie shells are thought to have begun to be used as currency during the Shang Dynasty, around the 16th to 11th century BC, and continued to be used as such up until the Ming and Yuan dynasties in some regions of China. This proves that these shells have value beyond adorning the necks of annoying people from California.
This is a pair of spectacular gold hairpins in the shape of shrimp from the Ming Dynasty, unearthed at the site of what is now the Huili Middle School in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. The Internet Oracle reveals very little about this dig beneath a middle school in the heart of Shanghai, but I’d definitely like to hear the story. Regardless, I wish this kind of thing was back in style, although I also know I’d lose them within five minutes if I owned them.
This rather Byzantine-looking Buddha relief is from the rather short-lived Northern Qi Dynasty, which ruled between 550 and 577 AD, and was the successor state of the Eastern Wei Dynasty. Buddhism is thought to have arrived in China during the Han Dynasty, and by the time of the Northern Qi, it had many well-matured customs within China proper.
Much art of the era demonstrates a distinct influence from the styles practiced in Western Asia, indicating considerable cultural exchange. I’ve recently been very interested in the Buddhist art of Afghanistan, and it’s interesting to see how these traditions spread across Asia and picked up influences from the Greek art brought over as early as the time of Alexander the Great.
These are processional figures from the Ming Dynasty tomb of Pan Yongzheng, who was buried in the current environs of Shanghai. (He is NOT the Western Qing Emperor – I can tell you were getting confused). I would like to tell you more about him, but I am encountering the existential limits of Googling for Chinese historical information in English.
This painting is entitled “Peasant, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum,” and was painted by Hua Yan in the Qing Dynasty – sometime during his lifespan of 1682 to 1756. A native of Shanghang in Fujian province, he relocated to the art centers of Hangzhou and Yangzhou as he aged – becoming one of the famous “Eight Eccentrics.”
We should all aspire to become a big-e Eccentric in our twilight years. On an additional note, I’ve always thought the Chinese were better at painting birds than anybody else.
This ox-shaped zun (wine vessel) hails from the Late Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, from the early 6th century to 476 BC. It’s a stint in Chinese history particularly known for impressive, stylized bronzes, which I’ve always been partial to. On a related note: plowing through Chinese history again in an effort to add some context to all the nice museum pieces I see.