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At the Museums: Ancient Chinese Treasures Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

[image] A tenth-century painted marble relief of female musicians is among the highlights of The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. (Hebei Provincial Cultural Relics Institute, Shijiazjuang) [LARGER IMAGE]

When a detachment of the People's Liberation Army happened upon the 2,500-year-old tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, a petty ruler during the Warring States Period (482-221 B.C.), it heralded a new age for Chinese archaeology. Discovered in September 1977 near the city of Suizou in Hubei Province, the four-chambered burial contained the remains of the marquis and 21 sacrificed women, perhaps wives, concubines, or musicians; chariots, weapons, and armor; and the largest cache of ancient musical instruments ever found--zithers, flutes, panpipes, drums, chime stones, and a set of 64 cast-bronze bells, the largest weighing more than 400 pounds (an estimated three tons of bronze had been used in the bells' manufacture). With a range of more than five octaves, each with 12 semitones, the bells' tonal range has been likened to that of a modern piano.

Today, these instruments, along with 36 bronze bells from an adjacent tomb and a host of other well-known Chinese objects dating from the Zhou through early Qing dynasties (ca. 500 B.C.-A.D. 1700), are on view in Music in the Age of Confucius at the Sackler Museum in Washington, D.C., through September 17.

The instruments found in the tomb of the Marquis Yi had been buried in two separate groups according to their tonality and social function. Those placed in the tomb's largest chamber, which included the 64 bronze bells and a lithophone composed of 41 chime stones, were used for somber ritual music such as that performed at periodic ancestral ceremonies, while those placed in the Marquis' coffin chamber, such as the panpipes and zithers, were more likely played for lighter entertainment, perhaps folk music that accompanied singers and dancers.

"While the existence of two such parallel yet distinct forms of music in the Chinese court is well-known from the writings of the fifth-century B.C. philosopher Confucius," says exhibition curator, Jenny So, "until recently, very little was known about how this music may have actually sounded. Inscriptions on the instruments themselves have provided a wealth of information on how they were to be played and the names of the notes they sounded."

According to Lothar von Falkenhausen of the University of California at Los Angeles, the number and composition of instruments placed in a ruler's tomb were determined by the deceased's rank. Moreover, he says, during the half millennium B.C. prior to the unification of China under its first emperor Qin Shi Huang-di in 221 B.C., each state had its own pitch standard and style of musical notation.

Music in the Age of Confucius, which opens with a short film made during the excavation of the Marquis Yi's tomb, is displayed on two floors; the instruments divided into two groups just as they had been in the ruler's tomb. An informative audio tour, narrated by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, guides the visitor through the exhibition; a catalog, written by six scholars, provides extensive background information on ancient Chinese music, instruments and their methods of manufacture, and role of music in Bronze Age court life.

Still more ancient Chinese instruments can be seen in The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston until May 7. The blockbuster exhibition brings together more than 200 masterworks dating from 5000 B.C. to the tenth century A.D.--sculpture, textiles, and decorative items made of clay, stone, bamboo, ivory, lacquer, gold, silver, and bronze--many unearthed during the past 25 years.

Among significant excavations represented in the exhibition are those undertaken during the 1970s and 1980s at 6,000-year-old Hongshan sites in Liaoning Province, which yielded exquisite jade carvings and painted pottery, most found in stone-lined tombs, and at the Shang Dynasty (1200-1045 B.C.) site of Huayuanzhuang near Anyang in Henan Province, where a cache of 21 inscribed oracle bones was discovered in 1971.

As both the show and its accompanying catalog are clear to point out, Chinese civilization did not develop from a single root in the Yellow River Valley as was previously thought nor did it progress in a linear fashion. Rather elements of it evolved independently throughout China, eventually coalescing into what we know as Chinese culture.

In addition to chronicling the development of Chinese civilization, the exhibition charts significant changes in Chinese archaeology itself from its beginnings in the nineteenth century, through its practice within the confines of Marxist ideology, imposed during the Cultural Revolution, to modern excavations and the recent proliferation of departments of archaeology throughout China. The exhibition opens at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum on June 17.

Equestrian enthusiasts will delight in Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History which opens May 1 at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky. The exhibition features more than 300 objects that illustrate the use of the horse in warfare, leisure activities, and sport from the Western Zhou through the Qing dynasties (1027 B.C.-A.D. 1911). It also focuses on the horse's critical role in the unification of China under Qin Shi Huang-di in the third century B.C. and its subsequent use in defending the country against nomadic tribes to the north and west.

* Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America