Image: Bronze water vessel
Chris Carlson  /  AP
This bronze water vessel, which dates to 770 B.C., is in the "Treasures of Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture" exhibit at the Bowers Museum Santa Ana, Calif.
updated 2/20/2007 2:10:14 PM ET 2007-02-20T19:10:14

The bronze bowl seems unremarkable until you study it from above. Then, the shallow basin suddenly seems to teem with life: etchings of tiny tadpoles, turtles and fish wriggle across the bottom and up the sides, as if trapped in a real-life pond.

The bowl, which dates to 770 B.C. and was used in an ancient Chinese hand-washing ritual, is one of dozens of artifacts on loan from the famed Shanghai Museum for a six-month exhibit at the Bowers Museum. The show will trace 5,000 years of Chinese history when it opens Feb. 18 and marks the first time in two decades that the prestigious Chinese museum has opened its collection for use by a U.S. institution.

Seventy-seven objects guide visitors through the evolution of China’s history, from the simple pottery of the Neolithic cultures to the intricate miniature bamboo panoramas and colorful scrolls of the Qing Dynasty, which ended less than a century ago.

“This is a very comprehensive exhibit from one of the most famous Chinese institutions in the world,” said Peter C. Keller, president of the Bowers. “Each dynasty is known for something outstanding, and by choosing the iconic objects from each dynasty, you can tell the story of China.”

Securing “Treasures of Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture” was a coup for the Bowers, a small but growing institution in Orange County, about 35 miles south of Los Angeles. The opening coincides with the addition of two new wings there, one of which will remain dedicated to Chinese art after the Shanghai collection leaves on Aug. 19.

The show, which cost nearly $300,000 to bring to California, may travel to Houston as well, museum officials said.

Keller said the museum signed an agreement with Shanghai years ago but couldn’t host a show until now because of space constraints. He also said a recent program that sends Orange County teenagers to Shanghai to study art and teach English has cemented a bond between the two institutions.

The exhibit was worth the wait. The first thing guests see as they enter the hall is a 5,000-year-old earthenware pot from the earliest Neolithic cultures, followed by one of the oldest bronze bowls yet discovered in China and a tall, narrow cup with perforated legs that date to 1,800 B.C.

Next up in the chronological display are the opulent bronze food and wine vessels that were used only by the very powerful in religious ceremonies and feasts beginning in the Shang Dynasty, around 1,700 B.C.

These bronze objects were also placed in tombs, as were a large, laughing earthenware dog from the Han period and a mustard-colored earthenware camel from the short-lived Sui Dynasty. The camel, saddled up and loaded with goods, illustrates the growing importance of trade along the Silk Road by 500 A.D.

The gallery finishes off with a flourish: a Ming Dynasty scroll painting of courtly ladies playing what appears to be a prototype of modern-day golf and a series of bamboo-root carvings dotted with engravings of bats (considered good luck) and miniature scenes depicting a Daoist legend.

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A brittle oracle bone from the 11th century B.C. sits at the center of the exhibit, its primitive characters still visible on a yellowing flank. Rulers in the Shang Dynasty used the bones to divine the will of the gods and the ancestors by burning the back of the bone and then interpreting the way the engravings on the front corresponded to heat-formed cracks.

“People were very superstitious and they would like to have all the fortunetellers (around) before doing anything,” said Zhou Yan Qun, head of the Shanghai Museum’s Cultural Exchange Office. “They had a lot of ceremonies.”

Chen Kelun, deputy director and curator at the Shanghai Museum, said visitors to the Bowers can see how art preferences played out over thousands of years, and how technological advances often dictated those tastes.

“At the very beginning, you’ll see a very, small simple pot. That piece looks very simple, but actually it’s a very important mark for Chinese civilization: the beginning of the Bronze Age,” he said. “Then, the Han Dynasty starts to leave bronze behind. Each kind of art has its most prosperous time and then it will come down. That is the rule for all art.”

Anne Shih, a museum board member who helped secure the exhibit, hopes it will attract international attention and cement Bowers’ reputation as major stop for Chinese exhibits.

“You cannot realize the feeling. I am like a mother with a baby,” she said. “Everything is so gorgeous and when you look at this and you have a happy face, it makes my whole day.”

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