Tag Archive: Shanghai Museum


Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

The Shanghai Museum is so expansive that it’s not to be taken in and a drive-by visit… or to be done justice by a single blogpost.

This second and final Museum post visits its dazzling collection of Chinese porcelain, and the intricately decorated costumes of China’s national minorities.

 

Porcelain plate on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain plate on display in the Shanghai Museum.

 

PORCELAIN GALLERY

Porcelain was invented in China around two thousand years ago.  It’s made by firing clay mixtures to create a light but strong ceramic which lends itself to decorative art.

This early porcelain, known as celadon, was jade green to bluish in color.  Within a couple of centuries, the technique had been refined to produce a translucent porcelain.

Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

During the European Middle Ages, the popularity of tea drinking in China spurred the production of porcelain tea ware.   This, in turn, increased exports via the northern Silk Road and the southern Chama Road.  Porcelain vessels were highly valued in the Muslim world.

Porcelain figurine on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain figurine on display in the Shanghai Museum.

 

It is also during this period that harder, white porcelain was introduced.

 

A Muslim visitor wrote at the time that, “They have in China a very fine clay with which they make vases which are as transparent as glass; water is seen through them. ”

 

 

Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain vase on display in the Shanghai Museum.

The quality of kaolin deposits around the southeastern town of Jingdezhen made its porcelain most highly prized.

Around the turn of the first millennium, Jingdezhen was designated as the imperial production center, a role which it retained for nearly 900 years.

It was here that blue porcelain was first produced by adding cobalt.   This blue and white porcelain was highly prized in the Muslim world.

By the 1400’s, technical innovation made possible the addition of manganese, which prevented cobalt from bleeding and distorting fine artwork during kiln firing.

 

Porcelain plate on display in the Shanghai Museum.

Porcelain plate on display in the Shanghai Museum.

 

White porcelain remained in use for ritualistic and religious purposes, and by the 1600’s seafaring merchants were bringing it to Europe, where the French called it “blanc de Chine.”

When the Dutch auctioned thousands of Ming porcelain pieces captured from Portuguese cargo ships, it ignited a porcelain mania in Europe.  These pieces were so highly prized that they became known as “white gold.”  Wealthy Europeans and Americans began ordering personalized porcelain art featuring designs including portraits and coats of arms.

Although Europeans had learned to make porcelain by the 1700’s, Chinese porcelain remained recognized for its higher quality and relatively lower cost.

 

MINORITIES GALLERY

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

The museum also houses the Minorities Gallery, where traditional costumes in a diverse array of designs and colors are on display.

 

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

 

While more than 90% of the nation’s population are Han Chinese, China officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities.

 

They are concentrated largely – although not exclusively – in the west and north, and include Mongol, Turkic, and Tibetan peoples.  Many of these are readily distinguishable from each other  by their facial features.

 

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Ethnic minorities are represented in China’s national Congress as well in local government.

The Chinese  Constitution not only guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups, but charges the government with promoting their economic and cultural development.

 

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

 

The result is a sort of affirmative action marked by preferential economic development aid, preferred access to higher education, and an exemption from the 35-year old “one-child” restriction.

 

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Costume on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Some minorities even live in “ethnic autonomous areas” which guarantee freedom to use their languages and maintain their cultural and social customs.

 

Shoulder bag on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

Shoulder bag on display in the Minorities Gallery, Shanghai Museum.

 

While the Museum exhibition includes, textiles, embroideries, metal and lacquer wares, sculpture, pottery, vessels plaited from cane and bamboo, and wooden masks, it’s the costumes which tug at the visitor most compellingly.

 

Next up:  “Human Faces Of Shanghai”

 

See my earlier posts from “21 Days In China”:

 

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Shanghai Museum exterior

Shanghai Museum exterior

The Shanghai Museum’s stunning collection presents an intimate picture of Chinese culture and history that makes it a great introduction to China for the first time visitor.

 

The museum has gathered together more than a million ancient art objects including bronzes, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, jade, coins, furniture.

It is also home to the Minority Nationalities gallery.

 

Shanghai Museum atrium interior

Shanghai Museum atrium interior

This museum is so vast and engaging that it takes no less than a full day to fully absorb its exhibits.

 

I’m not an aficionado of home furnishings or jewelry, but for my shorter visit I singled out furniture, jade, porcelain and the Minorities Gallery on the grounds that they would afford greater insight into the daily lives of ancient Chinese.

 

FURNITURE GALLERY

The Chinese were already producing intricately engraved and painted furniture as early as 1500 BCE.

 

Secretary, Shanghai Museum

Secretary, Shanghai Museum

Its style is characterized by the use of thick lacquer finishes, detailed engravings, and paintings.

Some of the features now widely regarded as Chinese began appearing more prominently around the start of the European Middle Ages.

 

Chair with carved back, Shanghai Museum

Chair with carved back, Shanghai Museum

 

By the beginning of the second millennium, chairs, benches, and stools were in common throughout Chinese society.

 

The newest and most complex designs were reserved for  use by officials and the upper classes.

 

Decorative panel, Shanghai Museum

Decorative panel, Shanghai Museum

 

It’s an interesting bit of trivia that the Chinese introduced the folding stool, adapting it from designs of nomadic tribes to the North and West who valued them for their collapsability and light weight.

 

Carved chair and bas-relief panel, Shanghai Museum.

Carved chair and bas-relief panel, Shanghai Museum.

 

 

When the Chinese ban on imports was first lifted in the 1800’s, larger quantities and varieties of woods began to flood in from other parts of Asia.

 

These denser woods lent themselves to works marked by even finer detail and more elaborate joinery.

 

Decorative panel, Shanghai Museum

Decorative panel, Shanghai Museum

 

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

JADE GALLERY

 

 

The Chinese began to carve jade as early as 3500 BCE.

 

Simple ornaments with bead, button, and tubular shapes are among the earliest known jade artifacts.

 

 

 

 

 

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

 

Many gemstones were considered by the Chinese to have properties for detecting and neutralizing poison.

Jade has been traditionally considered to have particularly strong powers.

 

Jade brooch, Shanghai Museum

Jade brooch, Shanghai Museum

 

 

 

Similar beliefs were widely shared by people in the pre-Hispanic Americas and in Renaissance Europe.

Aristocrats of the Han Dynasty  were buried in jade suits intended to preserve the body from decay.

Jade was also used for adze heads, knives, and other weapons which required delicate shaping and finishing.

Ceremonial blades began to appear in China during the European Middle Ages.

 

 

 

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

Jade carving, Shanghai Museum

 

 

By the dawn of the first millennium, new metal-working technologies produced finer tools which made it possible to carve jade into more delicate decorative objects.

 

There are actually two types of jade.  Jadeite has about the same hardness as quartz.  Nephrite is slightly softer, but is more resistant to breakage than jadeite.

 

 

 

 

Jade brooch, Shanghai Museum

Jade brooch, Shanghai Museum

Nephrite appears as creamy white in color, as well as in a range of green colors.  The white variety – known in China as “mutton fat” jade – was the most highly prized until early in the nineteenth century, when the jadeite variety became more popular.

 

Jadeite displays more color variations, including blue, lavender-mauve, pink, and green.  Translucent emerald-green jadeite is the most sought-after variety.

 

 

Jade scultpure miniature, Shanghai Museum

Jade scultpure miniature, Shanghai Museum

 

In the nineteenth century, a vivid green jade from Burma known as Kingfisher Jade became the preferred gemstone among China’s rulers and imperial scholars.  Much of the jade carved in China today is still mined in northern Burma.

See more of the Shanghai Museum in my next post.

 

The Shanghai Museum is centrally located within the sprawling People’s Park.  Both sit on the site of the former Shanghai Race Club organized by and for Europeans living in the foreign concessions.  They’re readily accessible by Metro lines, city busses, and Big Bus Tours.

P.S. – Like many other foreign tourist attractions and upscale hotels, restrooms in the Shanghai Museum have Western-style commodes that distinguish them from the squat-over-a-hole variety of toilet usually found in older and more local venues.  Be forewarned.

 

See these earlier posts from “21 Days In China”