"THE ARTS of China" at the Sackler Gallery is a subtle, meditative exhibition of Chinese masterworks from the neolithic period to the 20th century. This is certainly not a show to breeze through in a hurry. Rather, it's a show to linger over quietly, and as the objects move forward through time, you'll be absorbed by the slow evolution of form and the transforming power of age.

Most of the 228 objects in the exhibition were chosen from the 1,000 works in the Sackler's permanent collection, with the addition of some new acquisitions and loans. Dominating the show are 56 bronze vessels. Producing bronzes was a rather expensive, involved process, so these food and wine containers were status symbols for people of substance, and were used primarily in rituals. As the exhibition progresses chronologically, there is evidence of the bronzeworks making their way into secular use. Many of the vessels are like puzzles, hiding animal shapes -- birds and dragons predominate -- within their intricately geometric ornamentation.

Over the centuries, these bronzes have gained a beauty their creators most likely never considered. With their mottle of vivid verdigris, they've aged in an exquisite way that expensive interior decorators are killing themselves trying to replicate.

The curators have chosen 108 ancient jade pieces, and the pure lines and sophisticated ornamentation evident in the earliest of these jade objects, simple blades and ornaments, seem all the more remarkable when you realize that the stone was worked with such relatively primitive grinding devices as pumice and bamboo tools. Especially intriguing are ritual disks from the 14th to 12th century B.C. Since the Cultural Revolution, there's been an influx of information from the Chinese archaelogical sites, but these mysterious serrated rings, which look like the Cuisinart Blades of the Gods, still have archaeologists and curators baffled about their actual function.

A single chamber represents the distinctive art inspired by Chinese Buddhism, showcasing a monolithic sandstone stela adorned with hundreds of carved images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas.

Later periods of Chinese artwork are represented as well, with a roomful of lacquer and jadework, the most enchanting of which is a translucent dish of palest green jade. A tiny fish appears shadow-like at the center of the dish, a playful rhyming of the Chinese symbol for fish with the word for "abundance."

THE ARTS OF CHINA -- Continuing indefinitely at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Metro: Smithsonian.