Treasures from Shanghai:
Ancient Chinese bronzes and jades

30 January – 27 March 2009
Room 2
Admission free

Jades and bronzes have been treasured for centuries as the essential objects for ritual and burial and thus associated with spirits and ancestors. Both were also of political significance, being awarded to nobles for exceptional service and subsequently collected for both their beauty and associations. On loan from the Shanghai Museum, this display of sixty spectacular Chinese jades and bronzes, with a few Neolithic ceramics from the area of Shanghai will provide an opportunity to enjoy some of the very best of the many masterpieces of ancient China.

Jade has been central to China's culture from the Neolithic period; for thousands of years it has been beautifully worked into mysterious ritual implements - large imposing discs and symbolic translucent weapons. Jade 'carving' is a laborious and slow process, as jade cannot be cut with steel or any other metal but must be ground with gritty sand. Jade objects are therefore highly prized and have always been used as emblems of power and as potent messengers to the spirit world. The Neolithic jades on display from the Shanghai Museum are astonishing, particularly those that feature fine line designs of strange human-like figures, birds and monsters with large teeth.

The highpoint of bronze casting came during the Shang (1500–1050BC) and Zhou (1050–221BC) dynasties. This was also an era of the rise and development of Chinese urban cities. With the economic progress, ritual evolved gradually from belief and became systemized. As the embodiment of ritual, bronze culture thus became the symbol of the civilization of early urban cities. The Shang is the earliest dynasty for which we have archaeological remains and historical texts. Shang rulers believed that if they properly venerated their ancestors these would intercede in the spirit world on their behalf and assist in resolving their worldly difficulties and ensure prosperity. The act of making food and wine offerings in spectacular bronze containers was a major part of respect for the ancestors. These bronzes are extraordinary achievements with elaborate shapes and intriguing ornament.

During the long Zhou period (from their conquest of the Shang in 1050 BC to the succession of the Qin in 221BC) several regional cultures developed across the landmass of present-day China. Many different peoples in this vast area gave their own twist to the strong bronze tradition, deploying bronze vessels, weapons and even chariots similar to those of the central Zhou state. Vessels were often flamboyant, inlaid or featuring long inscriptions recording major political or military events. A sudden Ritual Reform in 850BC saw a change in ritual practice, with much larger and imposing vessels now favoured. By the time of the Qin unification of the many separate states in 221 BC, ritual vessels no longer played the central role that they had assumed for so many centuries, although bronze remained highly valued for many other purposes including incense burners, lamps and highly decorated belt ornaments and weapons.

Guest curator of the exhibition Professor Dame Jessica Rawson said: "Shanghai Museum houses one of the world's greatest collections of Chinese Art. This exhibition brings to London pieces of superlative quality rarely seen outside China itself."

Exhibition co-organised by the Shanghai Museum and the British Museum with the guidance of the Chinese Embassy in the UK. Sponsored by the Information Office of Shanghai Municipal People's Government, Foreign Affairs Office of Shanghai Municipal People's Government and Bureau of China World Expo Coordination.

The exhibition forms part of Shanghai Week.

For further information or images please contact Communications on 020 7323 8522 / 8583 or communications@britishmuseum.org

Notes to editors:

  • Treasures from Shanghai: Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Jades, edited by Jessica Rawson is published by British Museum Press, priced £16.99
  • The exhibition Treasures from Shanghai: Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Jades is part of Shanghai Week 2009 which includes a series of events in London from 29 January. Shanghai Week aims to raise awareness of the city’s heritage and its preparation for the World Expo which takes place in 2010. For details of Shanghai Week visit www.visitlondon.com/China
  • Shanghai Week is organised by:
    Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the UK
    Shanghai Municipal People's Government
    Mayor of London