Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 19, 2022
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Shanghai boon

Why China's slickest city is parading its antiquities

In the Shanghai Museum's Hall of National Minorities, I was transfixed by the single most exotic costume I've ever seen. Magically tailored by the Hezhen people of northern China, it was a jacket and trousers made of salmon skin. It was extraordinarily handsome, I thought, although plainly recognizable as the skin of a fish. The unsettling aspect was, that my mouth was watering. Lightly grilled and sprinkled with sea salt, this was a garment I could eat right off the rack.

This remarkable exhibit was one of 120,000 fantastical relics in the Shanghai Museum, which is easily the brightest museum in all of China and one of the best on the planet. As Canadian travellers rev up for the big events of the next few years -- the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and Shanghai's Expo 2010, the first "A" class Expo of the century -- this museum is one for the list.

Shanghai isn't especially noted for museums: outsiders are more inclined to take one glance at its newly glamorous skyline and think Manhattan-on-the-Huangpu. Welcome to the Big Lychee, city of skyscraping architectural wonders, neon kicklines, glittering temples of consumerism and resurgent sensuality. Shanghai is more than ready to strut its stuff on the world stage.

Yet there are some wonderfully idiosyncratic museums here. The museum-lover might amble among the millennia for days in the Children's Museum, the Shanghai Historical Museum and so on. Each trumpets its own little piece of China's 5000 years of history.

Not only that, there are two dozen private museums open to the public. They invite you into an eccentric territory of individual passions from Beijing opera costumes and Mao badges (30,000 of them) to the ancient caskets diligently accumulated by a coffin-loving individual named Fang Binghai.

A Brush with the Ancients
But if you have time for just one museum, it has to be this one. It's one of a kind in China. Its exterior reflects the venerable Chinese notion of a square earth beneath a round heaven. Its direction is the arts. Its vast galleries, 12,000 square metres of floor space, are dedicated to bronzes, pottery, porcelain, painting, sculpture, jade and Minority Nationalities. There's nothing musty or fusty about it. Built in 1996, its design and lighting are state-of-the-art, while a sophisticated interactive audio guide takes you through it.

"The 'Shanghai' can be misleading," Director Chen Xiejun tells me, "because everything here is a national treasure. We draw on 6000 years of history in the Shanghai region. I don't mean 6000 years of existence. I mean 6000 years of culture and civilization. Our bronzes, cera¬°mics, painting and calligraphy are the best in the world."

"We're reaching out to everyone," says Mr. Chen. "We get one million visitors a year. Visiting heads-of-state find us compelling. France's Jacques Chirac postponed a flight and visited twice. We wanted the blind to understand what we have, so we invited them to come and touch the exhibits."

In addition to presenting its incredible legacy to a rapt public, the museum is responsible for archeological exploration in the Shanghai area, overseeing 27 different sites dating back to the Neolithic age. So far, it's unearthed 10,000 cultural relics from 500 tombs.

Wondering if my head will explode with information overload, I stubbornly attempted to see everything in a day. Happily, Chen and his curators have opted for quality, not quantity. These are galleries designed not to overwhelm, but to inform and delight.

Each is arranged chronologically, so it's easy to follow historical threads. Fine-tuned lighting underscores the nuances of every piece. Photography is permitted, although not with flash. These rooms have beguiling histories to impart to the ignorant Westerner. For once, I was in no danger of dozing off in a museum.

I began with the Bronze Gallery because it's the most important hall in the museum. The bronzes, the enduring symbol of ancient Chinese civilization, date back as far as 4000 years. They were used as offerings to ancestors, and as food and wine containers at what must have been some amazingly sumptuous banquets.

Most of these artifacts had been buried with nobles in their tombs, all the fixings for an afterlife picnic. An 18th-century BCE wine cup is a reminder that China had a sophisticated and artistic civilization when London and Paris were boondocks inhabited by barbarians. A massive zun or wine vessel, a mere 3300 years old, decorated with an ox head and animal mask, is simply astounding in its beauty.

Jaded Visitors
One of the museum's most priceless artifacts is a 200-kilogram stewpot from a noble house. There are exquisite bronze bells from the ninth century BCE, I noted a fourth century BCE steamer for which chefs of my acquaintance might kill. The dragon and phoenix themes traverse the centuries.

The Ancient Jade Gallery is a crowd-magnet, packed with visitors from Buddhist monks to aww-shucks American tour groups. Here is 6000 years of history captured in jade, the eternal symbol of wealth and power. A Neolithic jade proves eerily reminiscent of the Aztec figures of Mexico. I was awash in ritual weapons, figurines, statues, vessels, bracelets and hair ornaments, and my head was spinning.

The Sculpture Gallery has a temple-like grandeur, in red, gold and black, with lotus-flower display panels and wall cases designed as Buddhist niches. From the seventh to 10th centuries CE, the Tang Dynasty turned out work of incredible finesse, and its statuary reveals an affinity for well-fed ladies. A Tang plumper still turns more than a few heads. A beautiful 10th-century frieze depicting two musicians and a dancer is utterly captivating.

The buddhas are the soul of the gallery, beginning with a sixth-century stele of a thousand small buddhas. There are lean, ethereal buddhas and rotund grinning buddhas, buddhas in clay and in stone and in bronze and even a female buddha.

National Pride
The Minority Nationalities' Art Gallery is the contemporary gallery, with most of its works of art -- costumes, batiks, embroidery, carpets, jewellery, copperwork, pottery, carvings, furniture -- coming from the late 20th century.

It was my immediate favourite because I'd just come from journeying among the Yi, Bai, Naxi, Bouyei, Miao and Dong Minorities of Yunnan and Guizhou. It speaks volumes about China's great multicultural adventure.

I was reminded again how diverse, rich and accomplished these cultures are. The exhibits represent 50 Minority groups. They include the Uygurs of westerly Xinjiang resplendent in satin and velvet and wool; the incomparable Miao in their horned silver headdresses, kilos of jewellery and motifs of butterflies, from whom the Miao believe they're descended; Tibetans festooned in coral and turquoise; and the Tunpa of Guizhou in their wooden opera masks.

I finished with a spin through the museum's gift shop. It's more like a department store, only with the emphasis on the exacting reproduction of museum pieces. The inventory, mercifully free of kitschy chinoiserie, includes not only the usual T-shirts and carrying bags, but scroll paintings, replicated bronzes, sculpture, jade figurines and Tibetan jewellery.

For about $180, I fell for a replica of an 11th-century jue or bronze wine cup from the Western Zhou dynasty, widely regarded as the artistic zenith of Chinese bronze-casting. The goblet comes balanced on three blade-like legs. It has an animal head on the handle, a phoenix pattern on its body and two odd-looking posts on top. The posts were to restrain the drinker from draining his cup.

How oddly time flies in a place that's filled with time. Suddenly it was closing and I hadn't even come near the 8000 years of Chinese ceramics and signature porcelains, or the paintings whose lighting system automatically brightens as you approach. Or the classical Chinese furniture, elegant from the Ming and overbearing from the Qing. I cursed my paltry time, forced to recall again the venerable Chinese admonition about "smelling the flowers from horseback."

Clutching my treasure under my arm, I departed the Museum thinking about something Director Chen had mentioned earlier, about how the museum has organized exhibitions and art shows in Asia, Europe and the US, and how much he'd like to collaborate on an exhibition for Canada.

This was a great idea. We Canadians might get to see the salmon-skin suit. Who knows? Out on the Bay of Fundy, where fish farming is big business, it could trigger a whole new growth industry. Now about our new line of salmon-skin lingerie...?


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