China’s Hidden Century @ the British Museum

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm popularised the idea of the ‘long nineteenth century’ in European history, the notion that starting the nineteenth century sharply at 1800 and ending it at 1900 were inadequate; you had to start at 1789 with the outbreak of the French Revolution to understand everything which followed, and you had to continue the era on until 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War, which marked the true end of the century and all its assumptions.

The curators of this sumptuous, fascinating and beautifully designed exhibition at the British Museum have done something similar to Chinese history, extending their definition of China’s long nineteenth century, China’s hidden century, to start in 1796 and to end in 1912.

The dates

Why start at 1796? Because that’s the year a new emperor came to the throne, the Qianlong Emperor. It didn’t mark the start of a new dynasty; the Qianlong Emperor was the fourth in the well-established Qing dynasty which had started in 1644. But the start of his reign arguably marked a high tide mark of China’s power and confidence. In that year the empire contained over 300 million souls, an estimated third of humanity, and the total territory ruled by the emperor exceeded the area of Europe.

This map from his reign is a political map in the sense that it doesn’t strive for geographical accuracy but marks places by importance. So it’s amusing to learn that Europe is shown as a small border area at the top left and that Britain is one of the tiny insignificant islands indicated by white-lined blobs off the blue coast at the very top left.

Complete Map of All Under Heaven Unified by the Great Qing, China, about 1800 © The British Library

Why end the period in 1912? Because that’s the year when, following the revolution of 1911, the last Qing emperor, the Xuantong Emperor, commonly known as Puyi, was forced to abdicate, bringing to an end over 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Why the ‘hidden’ century? Because the long century between these two dates has conventionally been seen by Western historians as an era of steady decline, a sunset period after the artistic glories of the 17th and 18th centuries, leading inexorably down to the empire’s final collapse at the start of the 20th century. The curators’ aim is to question and reverse this preconception, to rehabilitate China’s long nineteenth century.

Nineteenth century wars

When describing the nineteenth century in China, Western historians all too often focus on the series of wars which China fought and consistently lost, notably the two Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860), the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864), the Sino-Franco War (1884 to 1885), the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 to 1895), the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901).

But despite these various disaster, in China, like everywhere else, people continued to live and love, marry, have families, make homes, work or run businesses, hustle for money or places in the bureaucracy, buy clothes and furniture and toys and household implements, shop and cook and eat, wear fine clothes and jewellery, write letters and contracts and wills and poems, decorate and draw and paint beautiful things.

And that is what this exhibition is about. Wars and emperors are covered, but what it’s really about is Chinese social history, about uncovering the lives and lifestyles of the widest possible range of Chinese people – a people steeped in tradition and religion and rituals and business and art – through a dazzling collection of objects.

Jacket with border of steam ships 1860 to 1900 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains 300 objects brought from over 30 lenders, public and private, around the world. It’s taken four years to assemble and involved over 100 scholars from 14 countries. The result is not only the exhibition and the typically sumptuous catalogue which accompanies it, but a related book by a team of scholars which details the lives of 100 Chinese citizens chosen from all across ‘China’s Hidden Century’.

Seven rooms

The exhibition has been organised into seven rooms, each addressing an aspect of Chinese life, being:

  1. Introduction
  2. Court
  3. Military
  4. Artists
  5. Urban life
  6. Global China
  7. Reformers and revolutionaries

Representative figures

Each room also features one particular individual who typifies or epitomises the theme under consideration. There are an unknown woman courtier; an empress; a soldier; an artist; a businessman’s wife; a merchant; and revolutionary poet.

In a lovely piece of design these personages are threaded through the show’s iconography by shadows, life-sized outlines of these fugitive figures from history. The Museum commissioned the London College of Fashion to create silhouettes of these figures, which are projected on delicate white fabric or gauze hangings throughout the beautifully laid-out show.

In fact the first thing you see when you enter the Sainsbury Wing where the exhibition is being held is an opaque screen with life-size silhouettes of 7 mysterious figures cast on it. These shadowy figures, from a distant country, from a vanished past, will hover over and guide the visitor through their treasure and marvels.

Shadows of the past – screen designed by the London College of fashion in ‘China’s Hidden Century’ @ the British Museum

1. Introduction – women’s voices

The map (above), a bilingual document in both Manchu (language of the ruling dynasty) and Chinese (language of the majority Han people), and an imperially commissioned dictionary indicate some of the scope and scale of the multilingual, multi-ethnic empire at the exhibition’s start point. But the most significant object here is a portrait of an unknown woman.

Portrait of an unknown Manchu woman by an unknown artist © The Trustees of the British Museum

As Chairman Mao said a century later, ‘Women hold up half the sky’, but women’s lives were very circumscribed in traditional China. As well as bringing the story of a neglected century into the light, the exhibition is very committed to giving women’s stories and women’s experiences their due. This picture of an unknown woman from the Qing court sets the tone or announces this intent.

Accompanying the picture is a 1-minute audio of her imagined thoughts and feelings, read in both English and Chinese. All of the seven figures have an audioscript like this, in which they describe their lives and experiences.

On a more specific level, if you look very closely you can see that she has three earrings in each earlobe, something Manchu women did to as a marker of their ethnicity i.e. belonging to the ruling caste. Ethnicity was important. The introductory section also contains a map of Peking, which was sharply divided by ethnicity. The imperial palace complex and immediate environs were reserved for Manchus. Han residents lived to the south in the walled part of the city. Foreign diplomats and business people were confined to a quarter in the north-east.

2. The court

Six emperors ruled in succession between 1796 and 1912 and a lovely scroll on the wall gives their names and dates and a one-phrase description. They were:

1. Underestimated emperor: The Jiaqing emperor (ruled 1796 to 1820)

2. Emperor forced to open China: The Daoguang emperor (1821 to 1850)

3. Witness of Qing decline: The Xianfeng emperor (1851 to 1861)

[Power behind the throne: Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 to 1908)]

4. Puppet emperor: The Tongzhi emperor (1862 to 1874)

5. Reforming emperor: The Guangxu emperor (1875 to 1908)

6. Last emperor: The Xuantong emperor (Puyi) (1908 to 1912)

The last three of these came to the throne and their reigns were dominated by the great power behind the throne, the Empress Dowager Cixi, the de facto ruler of China from 1861 to 1908: her son became the Tongzhi emperor and her nephew ruled as the Guangxu emperor.

Cixi is centre stage here, the Representative Figure, a life-sized silhouette of her caught on a hanging gauze, while all around her are clothes and objects indicating the luxury of the imperial court. As with all the other representative figures, there’s an audio playing of some of the Empress Dowager’s words, in this case an amusingly immodest claim:

“I have often thought that I am the cleverest woman that ever lived… I have heard much about Queen Victoria…her life was not half as eventful as mine.”

Empress Dowager Cixi’s robe (about 1880 to 1908) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Objects include a sumptuous imperial blue gown (above). This features a swooping phoenix amid lush chrysanthemums and wide sleeve bands and is a gorgeous combination of Manchu, Chinese and Japanese motifs, in purple, gold and turquoise. The Empress Dowager’s wardrobe contained hundreds of such dazzling items, which she would accessorise with grandiose, jewelled headpieces, some of which are on display.

But there’s also an abundance of other objects, from the sublime to the ridiculous. At the everyday life end of the scale there’s a collection of snuff boxes. Before 1860 snuff-taking was the preserve of high-status bannermen, government officials and wealthy merchants; after 1860 these stylish little boxes became more widespread as fashionable male accessories.

The most impressive display is of a huge monumental hanging. Dramatic textiles such as this are thought to have served as backdrops for operatic performances but originally derived from hangings for religious festivals or banners in ritual processions. In the centre of this one is a theatrical warrior figure with a yak hair beard and padded-out face. The colours and method of depicting the figures is similar to woodblock printed images of popular deities. In front of it is an elaborate theatrical costume.

Monumental hanging made from silk and metallic thread embroidery on plain-weave wool with animal fibres (nineteenth century) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There are thumb-rings used by Manchu archers and cavalrymen, an informal robe made for the Guangxu emperor, ritual vessels used as part of state religion, the portrait of a Daoist priest and a Buddhist figure (Buddhism was an important component of the Qing court’s belief system, with Mongolian and Tibetan lamas (teachers) and monks conducting services at court). There’s a woman’s court vest and robe and a photo of court women wearing such clothes. There’s hairpins and fingernail guards; glassware and lacquerware. In short, a wealth of beautiful evocative objects.

Most incongruous objects is the pair of enormous, highly decorated cloisonné vases which were a diplomatic gift from the last Qing emperor Xuantong (also called Puyi) to King George V and Queen Mary for their coronation in June 1911.

Two Chinese vases, cloisonné enamel on copper with carved wooden stands (1908 to 1911) Lent by His Majesty The King

Photography

Something that’s always puzzled me about Chinese art from this period is the odd dysjunction between traditional forms and styles and hyper-realistic faces. The curators explain it was the advent of photography. Western photography, as it developed and spread throughout the nineteenth century, strongly influenced non-Western artistic traditions and in China led to a fashion for hyper-realistic faces, derived from photos, but embedded in traditional clothes, in traditional scroll format, with traditional writing still written on the painting – something we see striking examples of later in the show.

Film

Moving pictures were first publicly presented in 1895 and quickly spread as the technology developed at lightning pace. In an alcove to one side there’s rare, silent black and white film of a dancer, Yu Rongling, daughter of a Qing diplomat, who studied traditional dance in Japan, then, when her father was posted to Paris, studied Western dance and with the dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. She returned to China in 1903 and was asked to perform for the empress. This rare footage of her performing a sword dance is from 1926, after the exhibition’s time limit, but indicating the kind of performance which would have been staged for the last emperors. She is also, of course, part of the exhibition’s foregrounding of women’s achievements.

3. The military

As mentioned foreign and domestic wars ravaged Qing China throughout the 1800s. Civil conflicts including the White Lotus Insurrection (1796 to about 1806), the Xinjiang wars (1820s and 1860s) and the ruinous Taiping Civil War (1851 to 1864), and then wars with imperialist powers such as the two Opium Wars with Britain (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860), the Sino-French War (1884 to 1885), the Sino-Japanese War (1894 to 1895) and the Boxer War (1899 to 1901).

This section is dominated by the impressive figure of a bannerman. We see an impressive soldier’s uniform from mid-century and hear an audio of General Mingliang (1735 to 1822), spoken in Manchu and English, recounting his life and experiences. What is a bannerman?

Bannermen were elite hereditary soldiers who commanded divisions called the Eight Banners, identified by eight coloured flags. They were mostly Manchus, Mongols and some Chinese whose ancestors fought against the Ming dynasty in 1644. Most bannermen lived in the region around Beijing. In provincial garrisons they lived apart from the local population, often in walled sections of major cities. Bannermen were paid a state salary and enjoyed preferential treatment under the law and in the national and regional exam system, success in which led to a government post.

Installation view of ‘China’s Hidden Century’ @ the British Museum, showing Qing army uniform, shield, musket and banner

Illustrating the role of the Chinese army during the long nineteenth century are an album recording the postings of an unknown military official; the diary of Wanyan Linqing, a Manchu bannerman and high-ranking official which contains lovely ink line drawings by contemporary artists. There’s examples of military uniforms and flags along with images of weapons such as double swords, trident, swallowtail shaped shield, infantry archery, sword with shield, long spear, long sword with curved blade and muskets.

From a naval perspective there’s a map of China’s coastline indicating islands, reefs and sandbars. Most poignantly or pointedly of all, there’s a physical copy of the actual Treaty of Nanjing which ended the First Opium War, signed on 29 August 1842. It was the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ which were imposed on the weak Qing Dynasty by arrogant Westerners and, as such, the source of burning resentment for over a century. Its provisions forcibly opened up coastal cities like Shanghai to European and American merchants.

The First Opium War

In the early 1800s, ships began smuggling opium (an illegal narcotic) from British India into south China. As opium consumption increased, the Daoguang emperor banned the trade. The British surrendered 20,283 chests of British-owned opium, promising compensation to the merchants concerned. Lin Zexu, the emperor’s special commissioner, confiscated and destroyed it all. The British government sent a fleet of ships to recoup compensation of lost opium profits.

By the treaty the Qing were ordered to pay an indemnity of $21 million over three years and relinquish Hong Kong to the British. There is absolutely nothing to redeem Britain’s bullying, extortionate and immoral behaviour. In ironic counterpoint to Britain’s bullying, there’s a delicate portrait of Queen Victoria made in 1842 by an unknown artist looking as if opium wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

The Second Opium War

Britain began the Second Opium War to force China to legalise the opium trade and to secure profits from it. The 1858 Treaty of Tianjin opened 11 further ports to Western trade. In 1859, the Qing military defeated an Anglo-French fleet sent to Beijing to ratify the treaty. In 1860, more Anglo-French forces marched on Beijing. They looted the Summer Palace, home to the emperor. Prince Gong, the emperor’s brother, signed the Convention of Beijing, bringing the war to an end. Reformers subsequently began to strengthen and modernise Qing rule.

So the British burned the emperor’s summer palace to the ground as punishment for disobeying our imperial commands. Apparently, the brick and stone ruins have been left to become the defining symbol of European violence against 19th-century China. (Other areas of the site have been built on to form parts of the campuses of Peking University and Tsinghua University.) There are some sad relics from the palace on display, namely a couple of broken glazed turquoise architectural tiles.

The Taiping rebellion

One of the weirdest but at the same time most destructive conflicts in human history. Schoolteacher Hong Xiuquan (1814 to 1864), a small town schoolmaster exposed to Christian teachings through a missionary pamphlet, had a nervous breakdown as a result of which he became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ!

He appointed himself ‘Heavenly King’, first emperor of the new dynasty of Taiping. Mind-bogglingly he attracted hosts of followers, amassed an army and by the late 1850s his ’empire’, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, occupied much of China. With about 200 million people under its control, the Taiping had its own rulers, officials, civil service exams, calendar, currency and laws.

Qing dynasty forces fought back and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. Amazingly, it resulted in an estimated 20 million dead, making it the deadliest conflict in human history. Western mercenaries fought on both sides. Foreigners protected their interests by supplying both the Qing and Taiping with weapons.

Relics or indicators of this vast catastrophe include an embroidered jacket from the Taiping court, a portrait of Hong, a notice to be placed on European’s homes sparing them from Taiping violence, Taiping coins and a seal, a hand-written letter from Hong and a copy of the Taiping Bible which was amended to insert Jesus Christ’s brother.

The Taiping made Nanjing their capital in 1853, fortifying the former Ming capital with an outer wall. This was where they made their last stand in summer 1864, surrounded and under siege by the Hunan army led by Zeng Guofan – as depicted in this contemporary woodcut.

The defeat of the Taiping, Nanjing, about 1864 © SOAS University of London

4. Artists

Despite the disruption and huge death toll of China’s nineteenth century wars, life for most people carried on, with many people prepared to pay for luxury objects and works of art. The century saw continued production of China’s classic media and genres, landscape paintings, fans and albums and there are rare and beautiful examples here.

But the century saw the slow steady introduction of western techniques such as lithography, which was combined with traditional woodblock printing design. Cheaper printing technology allowed cheaper magazines and newspapers to be produced such as the weekly pictorial magazine, Dianshizhai huabao, on display here – which included western style images and spread a new Western aesthetic. New artistic and literary groups were set up. Artist Ren Xiong was a member of this new generation and is represented by this fine painting of his patron’s wife.

Autumn shadow in Liangxi (Wuxi) by Ren Xiong (1840 to 1857) © Michael Yun-Wen Shih Collection

There are examples of works by other artists from the period including Xugu, Sun Mingqiu, practitioner of bapo art, as well as some beautiful examples of traditional calligraphy by Yi Bingshou and Huo Ziye.

The commonest and most impactful form of art was mass-produced religious art, especially images of gods and goddesses depicted in woodblock prints and there are striking examples here, notably a painting representing the Daoist goddess Magu, protector of women.

Women’s art tended to be exchanged within closed networks and so tends to be under-represented in modern collections. The exhibition tries to redress this by displaying works by Cao Zhenxiu and Ma Quan.

Album of Insects and Flowers by Ju Lian (1865) Lent by the Metropolitan Museum

5. Everyday urban life

This feels like the biggest and fullest room and, insofar as the exhibition’s aim is to show the continuity of everyday life during the period, is arguably at the core of its mission.

By the 1850s China’s population had reached a staggering 450 million. Average life expectancy was just forty years but despite this cities grew rapidly as people migrated from war-torn areas. A growing body of entrepreneurs developed businesses using new technologies and materials. Handicrafts were industrialised and commercialised. Wealthy people’s homes and fashion reflected these political, cultural, technological and environmental changes. Newspapers and magazines showed their readers middle class lifestyles to aspire to.

Installation view of the urban life room in ‘China’s Hidden Century’ @ the British Museum

This room is packed with stuff, with objects from everyday life, life on the street, ordinary people’s lifestyles. There’s a baker’s shop sign, a cook’s jacket and trousers, a picture of a weaver. There’s a great portrait of an itinerant dentist holding strings of teeth dangling from her advertising placard.

There’s carved portraits of gods, side-fastening jackets in eye-catching colours, brightly coloured leggings, silk and leather shoes, a child’s jacket and hat, examples of men’s fashion. There’s winter wear, a woman’s sleeveless jacket, an amazing hood decorated with dragons, detachable collars of different shapes and sizes, elaborate head dresses for wear on special occasions. Loads and loads of things.

Elaborate headdress with peacock and bee motifs (1800 to 1900) Lent by the Teresa Coleman Collection

There are everyday objects and tools, including sewing tools such as needles and thimbles, sleevebands and accessories. Earmuffs. Hair extensions. A mahjong set and objects from games and sports, cricket cages and a shuttlecock, glove puppets and marionettes. Traditional musical instruments such as a pipa (pear-shaped lute) and a dizi (transverse flute). A charming set of miniature furniture as for a doll’s house.

I didn’t know whether to be charmed or appalled when I learned that bannermen in Beijing often kept pigeons, releasing them into the sky twice a day to watch them fly and listen to the music created through their whistles. There are depictions of theatre and opera indicating popular and middle-class entertainments, a woodblock showing a troupe of jugglers, a watercolour depicting a wealthy merchant from Hangzhou surrounded by his courtesans.

There’s a bizarre-looking water-proof cape made entirely from stalks of straw for a street worker, farmer or fisherman. Conservators have painstakingly restored it to its former strangeness.

The Representative Person here is Madame Li. She was a Buddhist and married to Lu Xifu who ran a successful business in the Foshan area near Guangzhou (Canton). She and her husband are represented by ancestral portraits painted in the new realistic style inspired by photography and commissioned by their nephews. In their business success, in their bourgeois self-image, in their family piety, in their easy incorporation of Western styles into a traditional format, they epitomise the later Chinese nineteenth century. Like all the other representative figures, Madame Li has a one-minute audio describing her life, in English and Chinese.

Portraits of Lu Xifu and his wife, Mrs Lu by an unknown artist (about 1876) framed hanging scroll with ink, colours and gilding on paper. Lent by the Royal Ontario Museum

6. Global Qing

We’ve seen how foreigners triggered war with Qing China and how foreign styles influenced some artists. This section looks at the increasingly international nature of trade and the cosmopolitan nature of the objects being traded.

Until the 1840s, Guangzhou (Canton) was the only place in China where trade with Europe and the USA was legal and where foreigners could live and work. The Treaty of Nanjing of 1842 forced the government to open up more ports to foreign trade, which became known as ‘treaty ports’, most successful of which was to become Hong Kong.

With trade came new materials, styles and technologies. In the second half of the century modern technology revolutionised industry and changed people’s lives. Inventions such as electricity and the new postal system transformed the way people worked and communicated.

So this room contains a painting of the waterfront at Guangzhou; a portrait of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a Bombay-born Parsi merchant and philanthropist who made a fortune trading with Qing China in commodities including opium; a portrait by a Qing artist named Lamqua of a British East India Company Midshipman; a book belonging to Silas Aaron Hardoon, once one of the richest men in Asia who made his pile in Shanghai selling opium, renting out properties and investing in the new stock exchange.

Luxury objects include a cream silk parasol with multicoloured knotted tassels; a carved ivory basket with handles carved like dragons; a beautiful painting of crabs done by a local Guangzhou artist; luxury objects such as a fan, a lacquer bracelet and a gaming chest.

There’s a set of ‘reverse glass paintings’ and a treaty port silver punch set made from ‘export silver’ and consisting of a punchbowl, six beakers, a sugar bowl and tongs. tongs. It has applied dragons, the initials of its British owner, John Penniall, and the date 1905.

Treaty port silver punch set, Shanghai (1905) © Trustees of the British Museum 2023

There’s a folding screen which was exhibited at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris; a fashionable round fan with a map of the Eastern and Western hemispheres, a fan portraying the Tianjin incident.

It’s an old curiosity shop, a rummage sale, an Antiques Roadshow of all kinds of accoutrements and impedimenta. There’s a beautiful silk robe embroidered with images of the new steamships plying China’s rivers, a poster for a Shandong line train.

I especially liked the travelling medicine chest of Ida Kahn (1873 to 1931), a pioneering female doctor. Kahn was the adopted daughter of an American missionary in southeast China, studied medicine in the USA and England. Returning to China in 1896, she was hailed as a ‘modern woman’, gaining the support of the local gentry and foreign missionaries alike. But as well as Western medicine, Ida had knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Hence this travelling chest filled ointments, powdered plants, dried insects and written charms to speed recovery. I particularly liked the dried lizard.

Traditional Chinese Medicine chest (1890 to 1910) Lent by the Natural History Society of Northumbria

The Representative Person here is Lu Guangheng, also known as Mouqua (1792 to 1843) who organised trade with foreign merchants in Guangzhou, serving as head merchant of the ‘Hong’ – a guild with the exclusive right to trade with foreigners – from 1807 to 1811. He suffered severe financial losses in a fire in the city in 1822. In his portrait he is dressed in the robes of a high official which, however, he paid for rather than passing the difficult public exams. Mouqua was unusual for his time in speaking English.

Mouqua, also, has a one-minute audio-recording, telling his story in both Cantonese and English.

7. Reformers and revolutionaries

The last room concerns the political disruption which eventually led to the overthrow of the last emperor in 1912. A good deal of the final collapse was caused by foreign interventions. Qing China was shocked by its defeat to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895. In response to this humiliation Chinese patriots pressed for sweeping reform of the administration and the need to modernise all aspects of the country. The old Empress Dowager Cixi reluctantly permitted some reforms when the country was rocked by the Boxer War of 1899 to 1901.

The Boxer War

Anti-Christian militants supported by Qing troops against foreign residents of China and Chinese Christians. In summer 1900 Beijing’s foreign community was trapped in a 55-day siege in the capital’s walled diplomatic district. Qing and Boxer armies were eventually defeated by a joint expeditionary force from Austro-Hungary, the British empire, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the USA. The war is represented by a striking colour woodblock illustration. There’s a copy of the reformed military flag which was adopted by the Qing government.

North China was plundered by foreign troops and the foreign governments in yet another humiliation forced Qing China to pay reparations amounting to about £67 million over 39 years.

Rout of foreign troops by Boxers at Beicang near Tianjin. The Boxers are in the foreground wearing turbans. Commanders of the Qing troops wear yellow silk. Foreigners, at bottom left, hold the Union Jack and other European flags. Woodblock colour print on paper (1900) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reform

Intellectuals searched for ways to revive China’s administration after the 1895 defeat by Japan. In 1898 a reform movement to radically modernise China was launched, which came to be called the Hundred Days’ Reform movement because it was opposed by conservatives at court and shut down by the all-powerful Empress Dowager Cixi. Two leading reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, were forced into exile where they wrote doleful poetry.

However, pressure for reform continued and in 1905 the imperial exam system which focused on knowledge of Confucian philosophy was abolished. A revised curriculum for schools was introduced, including new subjects such as Western sciences and languages. Across China, new universities were founded.

Revolution

Many educated men and a few women left China for Japan, where some were radicalised. Pockets of resistance were established across China, but ultimately an uprising in Hubei on 10 October 1911 was the catalyst for change. The last emperor, Puyi, abdicated in February 1912, bringing to an end 2,000 years of imperial rule.

Qiu Jin

The exhibition ends, as it started, with a woman’s voice. Qiu Jin (1875 to 1907) was a revolutionary, feminist and poet. Qui travelled to Japan where, like many of her generation, she was radicalised i.e. saw that an Asian country could modernise without losing its traditional values. She returned to China where she was involved in revolutionary movements. She was arrested on trumped-up charges and executed aged just 31.

Qiu Jin in Kimono, from the Carrie Chapman Catt diaries and photographs (1910) © Wisconsin Historical Society

Apparently, she remains a celebrated figure in China to this day. Not only a political figure, she was a noted poet. A line of her poetry is written over her display:

‘As my heart shatters with rage over my homeland’s troubles, how can I linger, a guest abroad, savouring spring winds?’

The exhibition ends with a whole wall devoted to a slowly rotating sequence of photos of Qiu and, in a striking achievement, a recording of a song written by Qiu Jin performed by the London Chinese Philharmonic Choir (!) And with this rousing performance, this remarkable, overwhelming, encyclopedic journey through an alien culture and distant time, comes to a vivid and moving conclusion.

Reflections by Qiu Jin

The sun and moon without light. Sky and earth in darkness.
Who can uplift the sinking world of women?
I pawned my jewels to sail across the open seas,
parting from my children as I left the border at Jade Gate.
Unbinding my feet to pour out a millennium’s poisons,
I arouse the spirit of women, hundreds of flowers, abloom.
Oh, this poor handkerchief made of merfolk-woven silk,
half stained with blood and half soaked in tears.

Summary

Everything about this exhibition is carefully considered. The design, with its hanging gauzes, is lovely. The structure feels logical and inexorable. The representative figures reach out from the past to speak to us. The objects are uniformly fascinating or exquisite.

And through it all Chinese culture and society, its mores and values, shimmer and hover on the brink of our understanding. At moments it veers into our frame of reference and understanding. I understand cups and plates and furniture. Business is business everywhere and war is universal. And yet just as you think you can relate to these distant people, the Chineseness of Chinese art and design and life and war  arise as impenetrably other. Take the paintings: their concern with exquisite landscapes or photographic portraits obviously overlap with our interests, and yet derive from thousands of years of a completely different way of looking at the world and recording it, from a tradition it’s hard for us to relate to. We can really like it, but it’s always as outsiders.

At some moments the exhibition brings us really close to named individuals and their thoughts and concerns and, for a moment, we have the pleasing sensation that we understand these people. But the next moment the exhibition goes on to explain something about Chinese opera or art or poetry or politics or religion or social customs or traditions which seem utterly alien, and we are all at sea again.

I completely understand why the American Civil War was fought, the motives of the opposing sides and why it dragged on for so long. Whereas the Taiping Rebellion, which was ten times as large, one of the most catastrophic events in human history, remains incomprehensible.

I understand that Qiu Jin was a revolutionary, feminist and poet and yet, on closer examination, those very Western concepts don’t quite capture her, don’t quite map onto her actual words and concerns as recorded here. There’s something else. Something escapes. The fugitive Chinese quality of her thought and the lovely allusive quality of her poetry.

It’s wonderful and momentarily familiar and yet utterly strange, all at the same time.


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The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’. This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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