China: Journey to the East

Supported by BP, a China Now legacy project

British Museum announces major touring exhibition on Chinese history and culture.
Starting at Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery 24 January – 19 April 2009 and then
at 5 other venues

250 years ago, the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. From the very beginning the Museum has always sought to make its collection as accessible as possible to a world public. Continuing this tradition, China: Journey to the East, supported by BP a China now legacy project, is a unique touring exhibition of over 100 objects from the British Museum’s collection, which offers visitors the chance to experience one of the world's most important and influential civilisations. The exhibition will tour to six venues across the country and is the largest UK loan of Chinese material the British Museum has yet undertaken. China has been a major influence on many parts of the world, including Britain, where Chinese Diaspora communities form a vital part of the country’s history.

China has always played a central part in the Museum’s collection. The exhibition will feature objects from Sir Hans Sloane’s founding collection as well as objects which have never been seen outside the Museum. 3,000 years of Chinese history and culture are explored through five themes that will resonate with audiences of all kinds:

  1. Play and performance
  2. Technology
  3. Belief and festivals
  4. Food and drink
  5. Language and writing

The exhibition presents key enduring Chinese inventions such as the abacus (the world’s first calculator) the compass, and silk and porcelain manufacture. Objects will provide insight into the three main Chinese belief systems: Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and will shed light on the colourful Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and the important Mid-Autumn Festival.

Finally, the exhibition will investigate the development of China's writing system and its development as an art form through objects that range from an ancient oracle bone to an example of calligraphy written by Mao Zedong.

Object highlights include:

  • A rare roof tile in the form of Guan Yu riding his horse. Guan Yu was a great general and hero, who was later deified and worshipped. Made in north China, Ming dynasty between AD 1490 and 1620
  • Extraordinary 1300 year old jam tarts in the form of food offerings. Xinjiang, China, Tang Dynasty AD 725–775
  • A beautiful stoneware incense burner modelled in high relief with a dragon and phoenix. China, Ming dynasty AD 1491
  • Wonderfully detailed shadow puppets made of donkey hide in the form of a sedan chair with sedan carriers. Hubei province, China, circa AD 1850–1950
  • Abacus made of wood with porcelain beads decorated with dragons and metal rods. Made in Taiwan by Qian Haosun, AD 1984

Along with loan material from the British Museum, the partner museum will incorporate parts of their own Chinese collections to complement the exhibition. Handling collections will allow visitors to experience the displays through sights and sounds, touch and smell. Visitors will have fun learning about 2,000 years of play in China, from Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 221) models of figures playing board games to shadow puppets from the 20th century. Other displays will explore Chinese traditions of eating and drinking and provisions for the afterlife. The public programme at each venue will include performances of shadow puppetry with puppets specially commissioned in China.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: "China's history is one the world needs to know, now more than ever. Through the loan of important objects from the British Museum's collections and complementary items from regional sources, this exhibition will give UK audiences an insight into China's cultural achievements over 3000 years, promoting the teaching of China at all levels across the curriculum."

Kate Brindley, Director of Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery said "We are delighted that Bristol visitors will have the opportunity to learn about Chinese culture through these stunning items from the British Museum. China is important to us in Bristol, not only because of the city's resident and student Chinese populations, but because we are twinned with Guangzhou, one of China's foremost manufacturing and trading cities."

For further information please contact Katrina Whenham on 020 7323 8583 or kwhenham@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk   

Notes to editors:

  • Schools’ programme - A free China: Journey to the East exhibition teacher’s pack is available for use with your visit. Download this special resource at www.britishmuseum.org/journeyeast  
  • British Museum websites written for Key Stage 2 and 3 teachers which contain background information and activity ideas can be found at www.ancientchina.co.uk and www.earlyimperialchina.co.uk
  • The tour is organised through the British Museum’s Partnership UK scheme. Following Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery, 24 January – 19 April 2009 the exhibition can be seen at: 
    The Herbert, Coventry: 2 May – 19 July 2009
    Willis Museum, Basingstoke: 1 August – 24 December 2009
    Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens: 29 January – 9 May 2010
    York Art Gallery: 22 May – 15 August 2010
    Manchester Museum: 25 September 2010 – 26 June 2011
  • This is the second in a series of British Museum travelling exhibitions, working with UK partners to offer students, teachers and families around the country the chance to encounter real objects from the major civilisations in world history.
    Visit www.greeks.hampshire.org.uk to find out about Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, the first touring exhibition in this series.
  • China: Journey to the East is supported by BP a China Now legacy project. Further support is provided through the DCMS/DCFS National/Regional Education Partnerships Programme
    2008–9.
  • BP is the British Museum’s largest and most longstanding corporate sponsor, supporting the Museum on an annual basis since 1998. Most recently, BP supported Hadrian: Empire and Conflict and The Chinese New Year at the British Museum.
  • To coincide with the beginning of the touring exhibition there will be a new China related display at the British Museum: Treasures from Shanghai: Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Jades (29 January – 27 March 2009), showing sixty spectacular Chinese jades and bronzes lent by the Shanghai Museum, which holds one of the finest collections of this material in the world. Gallery 2, admission free