To celebrate the opening of our new gallery of China and South Asia, eight of our curators have each picked a key object on display.
A journey through China and South Asia in eight objects
The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia has now reopened to the public after a major refurbishment. At 115 metres, this magnificent space is the longest gallery in the British Museum. Its narrative now brings the stories of China and South Asia right up to the present, with new acquisitions of contemporary works. For the first time, paintings and textiles are included in presenting these enormously important areas of the world. Our curators have highlighted eight objects from this remarkable new space.
Carved lacquer ewers
Commissioned by the Qing dynasty court, this pair of beautifully carved red lacquer jugs, decorated with dragons, was used to serve Tibetan butter tea. The tubular form of these vessels is found in both copper and wood in Tibet, as is the feature of a makara (mythical creature) biting the base of the spout.
Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of China Section
This steatite stamp seal with carved bull and inscription was found in the 1850s in the town of Harappa in Pakistan and played a part in the discovery of the Indus Valley civilisation, one of the earliest urban societies. Indus seals were probably used in trade and administration, and are usually carved with animals and a short inscription. The script has not yet been deciphered.
Daniela de Simone, Tabor Foundation Research Assistant
Sculpture of the god Shiva
The god Shiva, dancing within a ring of flame, here marks both the beginning and the end of each cosmic cycle. This legend of Shiva is especially recorded at the temple of Chidambaram in the Tamil country of southern India. The lost-wax techniques of sculpture production were honed to the greatest perfection in the Chola period (8th–13th century AD).
Richard Blurton, Head, South and Southeast Asia Section
The goddess Sarasvati
Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, is worshipped by Hindus and Jains. In this sculpture from a Jain temple in Rajasthan, she holds a palm-leaf manuscript and a rosary in her left hands, and may have held a stringed musical instrument and a lotus flower in her right hands (now broken). Her mount is the goose. She is surrounded by enlightened Jain teachers called tirthankaras (‘ford makers’), celestial beings and donor figures.
Sushma Jansari, Curator: Asian Ethnographic and South Asia Collections
This box is a fine example of 16th-century inlaid lacquer. This type of pictorial design became increasingly intricate, partly due to the widespread availability of woodblock prints which provided artisans with clear references. The scene depicts a group of scholars, identified by their elaborate robes and caps, and attendants scattered across an architectural setting, enjoying recreational pursuits such as painting, calligraphy and zither playing.
Wenyuan Xin, Project Curator: China and South Asia
Bronze bells such as this, with a flat bottom rim and a loop knob (often elaborated in dragon shapes), are called bo in Chinese texts. They were used together with other varieties of bells to form a chime set to produce music essential for court life and rituals. All bells in China were cast with an elliptical section and some of them can produce two notes when struck at the mid-point of the bottom rim or at the bottom corner. This bo bell was made at the Houma foundry in present-day Shanxi province around 600–400 BC. At Houma, patterns on bells and other ritual bronzes were made by using pattern blocks, allowing mass production of objects with complex yet identical surface decorations.
Yi Chen, Curator: Early Chinese Collections
At first sight, Yang Yongliang’s prints appear like Song dynasty (AD 960–1279) idyllic landscapes, painted in ink and in traditional fan format. By digitally manipulating photographic images, however, Yang substitutes trees with telegraph poles and mountains with clusters of skyscrapers, commenting on the rapid transformation of cities and landscapes in present-day China.
Mary Ginsberg, Research Associate: Asia
In this contemporary installation by Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969), postage stamps from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India depict Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976). He was a Muslim revolutionary poet active during the Indian independence movement. Nazrul has been commemorated and claimed by all three nations at different times. His poetry transcends territorial boundaries in its celebration of humanity against oppressive authority and its promotion of Hindu-Muslim fraternity.
Imma Ramos, Curator: South Asia
The renovation of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia was generously funded by the Sir Joseph Hotung Charitable Settlement.