Not since the King Tut show has Washington been offered works of ancient art as shiveringly fabulous as those in "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People's Republic of China," which goes on view Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, and is, as was the pharaoh's show, a glimpse into the tomb.
Gold gleams in the shadows, and snakes as swift as flames swarm over its bronzes, and bold, shape-shifting spirits, whose eyes are always on us, whose names we do not know, stare out of its ivories, its turquoises and jades, and nothing here is trivial, and everything is old.
In car-honking America, where early Beanie Babies are valued as antiques, these objects carry with them the silent, dreadful weight of vastnesses of time.
The Chinese show begins more than 6,000 years ago, centuries before the building of the pyramids at Giza. The most amazing object in it--an uncanny standing figure almost nine feet tall whose enormous hands once wrapped around the tusk of a huge elephant--was cast of molten bronze in the period of the Trojan Wars, which means it is as old as the shield of Achilles. The newest of the grave goods shown--a charming all-girl orchestra in painted stone relief--was already old when our millennium began.
Washington museum-goers may think they know China from the porcelains and hand scrolls at the Sackler and Freer galleries, but we do not know this China.
When President Nixon flew to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao, no one living did. As part of detente, China sent to Washington "The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China." When that show opened here in 1974, two-thirds of the objects in the present exhibition--the gold seal of Emperor Wen, the Tuskman of Sanxingdui, the lacquered inner coffin of the Marquis Yi, and Emperor Shihuangdi's terra-cotta army--were still buried.
Gravediggers have been plundering China's past for centuries, but recent years have proved a golden age for scientific archaeology there.
The new discoveries surveyed here rewrite China's past.
When the 7,000-strong army-for-the-afterlife of Emperor Shihuangdi was unearthed in his necropolis in 1976, everybody recognized those charioteers and archers and foot soldiers and generals as the oldest life-size statues in all of Chinese art. But everyone was wrong.
The army was interred in 210 B.C. The Tuskman of Sanxingdui is more than 1,000 years older. He was buried with his soldiers (their heads of bronze, not fired clay, were sometimes sheathed in gold) circa 1,300 B.C. Beside him was a metal mask, smiling and ferocious and as big as a large kettledrum. The Tuskman and his masks are utterly enigmatic. There is nothing else quite like them in all of Chinese art.
Not so very long ago, the Xia and the Shang, legendary dynasties of the distant past, were regarded by most scholars as pleasing, misty fantasies, as sweetly insubstantial as Camelot or Shangri-La. Not anymore. A small turquoise plaque made 3,800 years ago by the culture known as Erlitou is now thought to be a Xia piece. And the exhibit's catalogue suggests that the Tuskman and his gold-leafed troops are works of the Late Shang. Both legendary dynasties have proved real after all.
Long-accepted patterns of Chinese cultural dispersal have also been undone by the grave goods at the gallery. It used to be accepted that China's material culture--like the orders of her emperors and those of Chairman Mao--had radiated outward from the center to the provinces like ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond. But no one thinks so now.
That very different Chinese cultures rose at different times in far-flung regions of the country--from Xin'gan in the south to Jianping in Mongolia, from Datong in the west to Linqu near the Yellow Sea--is demonstrated clearly by the recently found objects in this grave-by-grave display.
Their spirits vary greatly. Some, like the serpent drum stand of Marquis Yi of Zeng--its snakes have trunks, like elephants, and ram's horns, too--are ceaseless in their writhings. Others, such as the elegantly conical bronze cup from Fufeng, are imperious in their calm. Sometimes nearby tombs provide very different objects. Sometimes things most similar have been found far apart.
Consider, for example, the exhibition's two full shrouds of jade.
Both of those sewn-together suits of stony armor--with their head coverings and face coverings and trousers, jackets, shoes and gloves--once held kingly corpses. One shroud, unearthed in Lingshan in 1968, held the body of Liu Sheng; the other, from Guangzhou, discovered in 1983, enclosed the corpse of King Zhao Mo. Both men spent fortunes to defeat corrupting death.
Liu Sheng's headrest is of gilded bronze. Zhao Mo's pillow was a bag of pearls. But nothing in their graves was as costly as their jade.
Jade is magical. The Chinese have long known that. Other stones are soft or grainy or opaque. Jade isn't. Pure, translucent and hard, jade, though born of earth, has the colors of the living, of skin or springtime foliage, and seems immune to death.
The two jade-suited rulers died roughly 2,200 years ago, but in far-distant kingdoms. Roadless wastes, mountains and fast-flowing rivers separated their burial sites. Lingshan and Guangzhou are 1,000 miles apart.
Potbellied Liu Shen was buried with his consort. She was equally well clad. Romantics may recall that her jade suit was shown here in the Chinese exhibition of 1974. That the loving couple, or at least their shrouds, have taken separate trips to Washington more than 2,000 years after they were buried is sort of sweet and sort of strange.
Sweet is not a word that fits much in this show. Its artifacts intimidate. They do not soothe the eye; they're too arcane, too abstract. Like the objects of the Maya and Aztecs--other "hydraulic civilizations" that depended on mass labor--they were intended to intimidate.
The countless Chinese working folk whose faded, stirring spirits whisper in this show--the bronze-casters and jade-drillers and charioteers and chefs, the trainers of the elephants, the sewers of the king's kingfisher-feather coverlets, the diggers of the pits--were not seeking their own pleasures. Their brief and busy lives were lived within the grip of a terrifying power, both muscular and magical, that could not be explained, that had to be obeyed. One sees that omnipresent power in their art.
That power has a face. They have given it an image--of a blankly staring pair of ceaselessly observant, not-quite-human eyes that float out by themselves. Their glance appears for the first time here in a 6,000-year-old Banpu pot and incessantly thereafter. Sometimes they're in a pig's face--or a tiger's or a person's or a dragon's or an owl's. That visage, called the taotie, is seen throughout the show--ever present, always changing and endlessly the same.
The taotie is a constant in ancient Chinese art. So, too, is the upward, heaven-seeking spike--the mountain peak, the antler, the incense plume, the flame.
Its image appears first in the exhibit, pointing upward at the sun and moon, incised on the surface of a 6,300-year-old Neolithic pot, and it keeps recurring. That heap of snakes suggests it. So, too, do the antlers that sprout out of a statue of a tall bronze crane. So, too, does the rocky peak that, indicating Heaven, rises from a censer from the 2nd-century B.C. tomb of Liu Sheng.
Among the newest objects shown is a miniature pagoda made of gilded bronze in the 8th century A.D. Excavated in 1987, it once held a holy relic, a finger bone of the Buddha. The form of that pagoda, like the steeple staff above it, keeps leading the eye upward--until at last it reaches that same sun-and-moon-and flame sign that had already been a common sight 5,000 years before.
It's that awesome continuity that one remembers most after walking through this show. All these objects, large and small, these jade shrouds and gold dishes, these phoenixes and statues, blank eyes and bronze bells somehow come together, as if by agreement, in one harmonious and jagged, spiky and continuous flowing stream.
"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology" has been beautifully installed by the gallery's design staff, Mark Leithauser in charge, and beautifully lit, too, by the gallery's Gordon Anson. The show, arranged in cooperation with China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage and Art Exhibitions, was co-organized by the gallery and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and curated by Xiaoneng Yang of that Kansas City institution. The Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities provided an indemnity, the Henry Luce Foundation funded the research, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation helped pay for the catalogue. Eastman Kodak sponsored the exhibition here.
It is good that it's on view next door to the Capitol. American politicians intent on chiding China ought to see it. Perhaps they'll understand why China, immense China, pays them slight attention. Our country, though a great one, seems a sort of pipsqueak, a new kid of a nation when viewed against the immensity of history, and the immensity of Chinaness, revealed by this show.
"The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China" will travel to Houston and San Francisco after closing in the National Gallery's East Building on Jan. 2.
CAPTION: A bronze and turquoise plaque, on display at the National Gallery of Art.
CAPTION: One of the treasures featured is a jade shroud sewn with gold wire from the Western Han Dynasty, above. Such shrouds once held kings' corpses. Right, a bronze figure from the Shang Dynasty.
CAPTION: A bronze two-sided mask from the Shang Dynasty, 1200-1050 B.C.
CAPTION: Nuggets from "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology," clockwise from left: A bronze cranelike figure with antlers from the Warring States Period; a painted marble relief of musicians from the Later Liang Dynasty; and a jade pei ornament with dragon and bird openwork from the Western Han Dynasty.