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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Art in the heat

Shanghai 上海 continues to be scorching. Yesterday (Friday) the mercury hit 40.6°C (105°F), and today the temperature felt very similar. Coming from the Sacramento valley, I'm used to 100-plus degree summers (it was around 105 when we were in Davis a few weeks ago), but that was a dry heat. Shanghai isn't dry; the humidity here is heavy, and after a just a few minutes walking outside, I find myself drenched in sweat. And, unfortunately, the spell of blue skies that greeted our arrival earlier this month has been replaced by what I expected the atmosphere to be like in China - the air quality index maintained by the US consulate here is now in the "unhealthy" category, and today was the first smoggy day since getting here 22 days ago. The worst is yet to come, of course, though people say Shanghai is nothing like Beijing 北京. Stay tuned...

So on days like this, when you don't want to stay home (especially when you're still by yourself) but you don't want to be out in the heat, humidity and pollution, indoor activities are the thing to do. And while you miss your little girl terribly and can't wait for her to come back from spending time with the Taiwanese side of the family, you know this is a rare chance to do something that would probably bore a seven year-old. And so I ventured out this morning, riding the Metro to People's Square station 人民广场站 (the busiest in all of China) so as to visit the Shanghai Museum 上海博物馆, the city's premier cultural attraction:

The design is supposedly based on a ding 鼎, a "an ancient Chinese vessel shape, a cauldron with legs, a lid and two facing handles", according to Wikipedia. The resemblance is there, but the impact of the building's design isn't enough to clearly mark it from all the other structures that dominate the Shanghai skyline. Still, the museum has five things going for it: 1.) admission is free; 2.) it's air-conditioned; 3.) non-flash photography is allowed; and 4.) most displays are captioned in English (rental audio guides are also available, though I preferred to discover things on my own). And 5.) the collection is interesting, and worth seeing. Following a long wait outside in the heat while the security check proceeded at its own leisurely pace, once indoors (and in the air-conditioning) I made my way to the first-floor gallery of bronzes. Many of the ornamental cooking and drinking implements, weapons and bells on display (none of them were meant for daily use, as far as my untrained eye could tell) were over 2000 years old. Though oxidization has deprived them of their original colors, they were still impressive. A few personal highlights:

An ox-shaped wine urn

Another drinking vessel, this one shaped like a dragon 

I'm not sure what this was, but it had tigers for handles and eight yaks on the lid. I remember it dated from the Han dynasty 汉朝.

From the bronze gallery, I walked to the other side of the floor to check out the sculpture gallery, consisting mainly of Buddhist religious figures, as well as this cute dog:

This was virtually the first time for me in Shanghai to see anything related to religion - unlike Taiwan, there are hardly any temples to be seen, at least in the areas of the city I've been to so far. Much of the statuary on display was similar in appearance, but a few stood out:

A couple of giant heads, dating from the Tang dynasty 唐朝

A pair of wooden figurines, looking almost coquettish

Next, I ventured to the second floor, pausing for an ice cream break in the cafe there. Suitably rested, it was time to see what the ceramics gallery had to offer the (un)discerning eye. Despite the chest-thumping about porcelain having been invented in China, this was one of the more interesting galleries. The tomb guardians were a popular sight...:

...though perhaps a little too popular:

In contrast to the multicolored creatures above, the Song 宋朝 and Ming 明朝 dynasty pots were much more restrained:

The highlight of the third floor for me was the painting gallery, especially as I decided to pass on the calligraphy and carved seal rooms:

Landscapes, unsurprisingly, made up the majority of the scroll paintings. It was hard to reconcile the idyllic natural scenes on display at the museum with the reality of modern-day China to be seen outside the museum.

Birds and Flowers in Spring  春禽花木图轴, by Bian Jingzhao 边景昭 (early 15th century)

How to view a vertical scroll painting (though a steadier gaze than what you see here is highly recommended). This one is called Sight-seeing of Autumn Mountain 秋山旅览图卷, done in the 16-century by Wen Boren 文伯仁 :

On to the fourth and top floor, and the gallery on China's minority peoples. There are 55 recognized minority groups in China, 54 on the mainland and "one" on Taiwan (more on that later). The wording on the introduction to the gallery might imply that they are all part of "China", but from the clothing, lacquerware and other items on display, it's clear that many of these peoples have cultures very distinct from the majority Han 汉族. It's also clear that at 93% of the population, the Han are obviously running the show, as the Tibetans and Uighurs could probably tell you. And considering the nature of my new line of work, this is probably all I should say on this matter. Enjoy some photos:

A suit made from salmon (as in the fish) made by the Hezhen people of northeast China

A rather intimidating mask from Tibet

Examples of lacquer 漆 made by the Yi (who also live in Vietnam and Thailand) on the top, and by the Dai below.

Anyone who has spent time on Taiwan might recognize these boats. Even if you haven't been to Lanyu (Orchid) Island 蘭嶼 (and I haven't), you've probably seen these traditional boats of the Tao people in tourist literature. Here's the interesting part: according to the caption at the Shanghai Museum, these fishing canoes were carved by the "Gaoshan" 高山族 people. Who are the Gaoshan? According to the Chinese government, the 14 aboriginal groups on Taiwan (as recognized by the Republic of China 中華民國 government) are all one minority grouping dubbed the "high mountain ethnic group". And, again, I probably should shut up at this point, and move on... the furniture gallery, the last exhibition room I checked out the museum (I passed on the jade gallery, which is also on the top floor). I'm not the biggest fan of Chinese furniture, having always found it to be too heavy to move and uncomfortable to sit on, opinions formed from first-hand experience living in Taiwan. As works of fine craftsmanship, however, the Ming and Qing  清朝 pieces were things to be admired:

And that was it for my morning and afternoon at the Shanghai Museum. The obvious comparison is with Taipei's 台北 National Palace Museum 故宮博物院, but I find the two buildings difficult to compare, and not for diplomatic reasons. The last time I visited the Gù​gōng​ Bó​wù​yuàn was in 2001/2002, and the museum has undergone a major revamping since then. Also, to be honest, I don't really know enough about Chinese art to judge one collection over the other (I'm a greater admirer of Japanese art), except to say the museum in Taipei has a much larger and broader collection. Suffice it to say, if you have any interest in the traditional arts and crafts of China and you find yourself in Taipei, you should visit the National Palace Museum. The same goes if you come to Shanghai - make some time to see the Shanghai Museum. Just be sure to get there in the morning so that you don't have to wait too long outside to get through the security check.

Lunch in the restaurant on the ground floor of the Shanghai Museum. A plate of shrimp, egg and rice, plus a can of Tsingtao Beer  青岛啤酒 was only 48 yuan ($7.80). The beer itself was only 10 yuan ($1.60).

South Xizang Road 西藏南路 ("Xizang" is the Mandarin name for Tibet). Note the air quality.

Had I not eaten lunch inside the museum, I could've found something to eat on Yunnan Road Food Street.


  1. hi Jim. someone told me that the "high mountain" people of Taiwan used to be ordinary lowland people until the Han refugees pushed them up into the mountains.

    btw, i'm dying to ask you a question (well i think i know the answer, but): did you enter China using a diplomatic passport?


    1. The first time I went to Taiwan (1999), I often heard "mountain people" being spoken when referring to the aborigines. However, I haven't heard it used in years, so I'm assuming it became pejorative and fell out of use.

      As for your question, we used our diplomatic passports when entering China. In fact, we got to use a special window at Passport control - one of the perks of the job, I suppose! We need to use the diplomatic passports whenever going into and out of China. For example, my wife and daughter are now in Taiwan. They used their diplomatic passports when leaving China, but their Taiwanese passports when arriving at Taoyuan. They'll do the opposite when they come back here next month.

  2. oic, so the entire family gets diplomatic passports! cool!

  3. Wow that salmon suit....there were some British Columbia native Indian groups who also had some salmon clothing too! Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver BC would have the artifact(s).

    1. I think I've seen similar clothing worn by the Ainu in Japan.