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    Chinese Gold
by Christopher French
Jade coiled dragon
Hongshan culture
ca. 4700-2920 BC
Bronze owl-shaped zun vessel
Late Shang period
ca. 1200 BC
Painted pottery ping flask
Yangshao culture
ca. 5000-3000 BC
Bronze two-sided mask
Shang period
ca. 1300-1100 BC
Bronze human head with gold leaf
Shang period
ca. 1300-1100 BC
Bronze cranelike figure with deer antlers
Warring States period
before ca. 433 BC
Painted lacquer coffin
Warring States period
ca. 316 BC
"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China," Sept. 19, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 20565.

What to make of over 200 artifacts which span six millennia and purport to shorthand nothing less than the formation of the Chinese nation?

"The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology" coaxes a lot of history from tomb furnishings. Almost all of this art was recently recovered from the grave of some king, noble or warlord, so the exhibition's subtext is necessarily about the rituals of mortality. The ancient Chinese buried many functional and decorative objects with their dead, in an effort to ease the passage of their deceased. They also buried the necessary servants, treasured courtesans and devoted retainers to make sure there was always someone to pour tea in the afterlife. What we see here are the serving utensils but not the servants -- in other words, only part of what the tombs contained.

"The Golden Age" is full of beautiful things. It makes the ancient Chinese look like the ultimate materialists. Each object in the show is presented as art, whether functional in nature or conceived of as decorative.

Another component of the story is how these recent discoveries have occasioned a rethinking of the origins of the Chinese nation-state. Here the action is in the explanatory wall texts, and it is a compelling story, although, because so much history is being covered, it takes on a serial character. The Shang dynasty replaces the Xia; it is in turn replaced by the Zhou, with each dynasty represented by the contents of one or two spectacular tombs (the Sanji tomb for the Warring States Period, or the famous Lintong tomb for the Qin).

So as viewers gaze upon a succession of greatest hits from this or that tomb, they may become drunk on the sheer opulence presented by such an ostentatious assemblage of gifts to the dearly departed -- but that is precisely the curatorial point. The mysterious foundation of early Chinese art is presented via a vast array of subtly differing tripods and four-legged vessels -- guis, jiaos and jues; dings and zuns; fangjias and fangdings. They take some getting used to, both because their forms are often so similar to the untrained eye, and because they are so strikingly different from the cooking or presentation vessels of other early cultures.

Despite these difficulties, this is a fascinating show. Beginning with the earliest artifacts, China is revealed as a blending of distinct cultures. The Neolithic ceramic jade implements and the bronze culture that supplanted it will warm the heart of any adherent of one-world cultural theory. The preoccupation with abstract geometric patterns, common to Zuni or Mimbres pottery, can be found here, as well as the ferocious, monumental figures typical of Aztec or Mayan culture.

One major difference between China and the Americas lies in the choice of medium. By the Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BC) artisans had gained such skill in fine mold-casting bronze that their take on serving vessels seems endowed with what we might call a sculptor's sensibility.

Some of the finest surviving Shang bronze vessels were for preparing or serving wine. When the Zhou overthrew the Shang in a reforming purge, one of their aims, ironically, was to eliminate weaknesses such as overindulgence in alcohol. With the Zhou dynasty, we are introduced to unusual pendants and shrouds of jade, agate and faience. The striking grace of a jade and hardstone face covering sidesteps any argument about craft versus art. Similarly, the ethereal, oddly refined cranelike figure with deer antlers manifests the atavistic nature of pre-Confucian China: it is the embodiment of animism in bronze.

As the Zhou disintegrated into the competing eastern and western empires of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), esthetic ideas multiplied. About this time lacquerware makes its first appearance, and the introduction of these objects as funereal tributes became the ultimate expression of vast wealth, since lacquer costs much more than bronze to produce.

The squabbling of the Warring states period ended with the Qin, the prototype for imperial China. Emperor Liu Sheng consolidated the Qin centralization early in the Han era, and the highlights of the show were rescued from his tomb, including the terra-cotta warriors famously discovered in 1974. The curators suggest that the profusion of these symbolic substitutions for sacrificial humans came as a result of Confucius' condemnation of the practice of live burial as "wasteful."

The terra-cotta substitutions allowed the emperors to greatly expand the scope and scale of their burial piles. Liu Sheng was not interred with one symbolic general to enhance his afterlife status; he was buried with an army of 6,000, including horses and chariots. Nine terra-cotta representatives of this army clearly reinforce the veneration accorded Liu Sheng. That he was considered god on earth is made manifest by his burial shroud. A jade shroud sewn with gold wire (ca. 113 BC) predates the birth of our major cultural marker, Christ, by over a century, yet the fetishization accorded Liu's body is as eloquent here as in any Christian reliquary.

Buddhism is introduced as a theme only toward the end of the exhibition, and the painted stone figures and gold and silver objects recovered from the Famen Monastery restore the more familiar raiments of Chinese cultural history. By the close of the exhibition, the representative artifacts from the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) appear positively modern and utterly recognizable in their clear, refined lines and expressive characterizations.

I repeatedly caught myself choosing to view each item in "The Golden Age" in terms of art or archeology, and it began to seem like the ultimate postmodern exercise. In this sense, the show is much closer to the NGA's scattershot "Circa 1492" than to the tightly focused "Edo: Art of Japan." Like the art of Fred Wilson, "The Golden Age" is valuable precisely for revealing how museums choose to arrange and present historical objects. Full of curiously compelling artifacts, dressed in the monochrome shades peculiar to the long-buried, it does not tell the story of early China -- far from it. On the other hand, the story it does present is, in several important ways, quite contemporary.

"The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology" subsequently appears at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Feb. 13-May 7, 2000, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, June 17-Sept. 11, 2000.

CHRISTOPHER FRENCH is Artnet Magazine's Washington correspondent.