There are several ways to get oriented this week: Four new exhibits at the Freer Gallery gingerly revise notions of ancient periods in Chinese history and display Japanese and Chinese lacquer, Japanese ceramics and their storage boxes and Islamic "Nastaliq" calligraphy. Meanwhile, the National Geographic Society dishes up modern China in color-photo blowups.
"Chinese Art of the Warring-States Period: Change and Continuity 480-222 B.C.," the major show opening Friday at the Freer, documents a time of conspicuous consumption. In the course of 21/2 centuries -- after Confucius, before the Great Wall -- the ancient Chinese feudal order collapsed and power shifted to a new class of landed noblemen with money but without aristocratic connections. The exhibit's 151 examples of jade ornaments, lacquerware and bronze vessels attest to a sensuous love of materials by artisans of the time. Wars raging among seven major states were good for business, judging by these opulent artifacts.
Jade disks, formerly associated with worship, became luxury items; garment hooks of gold inlaid with turquoise were for the nobleman who had everything. Metalwork was decorated with intricate gold and silver designs and colorful glass. A bronze wine decanter in the shape of a bird, dating to the fifth century B.C., is covered with references to nature and detailed abstractions as well. A fearsome dragon head, once mounted on a chariot pole, is overlaid with gold and studded with silver teeth and eyes with glass pupils. It's a prized piece from the fourth or fifth century. Despite the period's headlines, war wasn't picked up as a decorative theme.
The museum is reexamining its holdings in light of recent archeological finds. Director Thomas Lawton has uncovered a change in bronze decoration during the warring- states period, "from the zoomorphic to the geometric." In other words, animal masks gave way to abstract, patterned and symmetrical designs in later vessels.
Lacquer containers and furniture, ceramics and wooden storage boxes in the next rooms range from the Sung dynasty (960- 1279 A.D.) through the 19th century. The centerpiece, an early 17th-century chest inlaid with mother of pearl, gold and silver, shows extraordinary technical skill. The lacquer inro, tiny pill boxes that hang from a belt sash, would make quite a splash on the current fashion scene.
A dozen examples of Nastaliq calligraphy are also on view. The script of the sultans, it was considered the height of Muslim writing style and used in all imperial manuscripts around the turn of the 15th century.
The Freer reopens its meditative galleries on Friday as well. Japanese Buddhist art and screens, Chinese ceramics and paintings, Turkish ceramics, Korean art collections and James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room are back in business after being closed for a year and a half for work on the museum's ventilation system.
"Journey Into China," an exhibit of 54 photographs, is a dazzling come-on for the National Geographic Society's new $19.95 book on which it's based. The poster-size color enlargements are guaranteed crowd- pleasers: a rare glimpse of a panda in the wild, junks with quilted sails in Shanghai, cormorants on a fisherman's boat-pushing pole balanced on his shoulder, the Yangtze, the Great Wall, a Buddha with 42 limbs and a high-rise going up behind architecture of old China at Qingdao.
The photos are accompanied by folk art -- papercuts, fans, clay dolls, cloisonn,e, lacquerware, calligraphy and seal-making implements and bamboo boxes in the shapes of animals -- topped with kites, streamers and lanterns. CHINESE ART OF THE WARRING-STATES PERIOD -- At the Freer Gallery through February 15. JOURNEY INTO CHINA -- At the National Geographic Society, 17th and M streets NW, through December. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Children of Changchun, China, by Jim Brandenburg, Copyright (c) NGS; and "The Gentleman's Esteemed Bird", a bronze vessell c. 480-222 B.C. from the Freer Gallery