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12 best relics in the Shanghai Museum I

With hundreds of exhibits and very few explanatory panels, navigating the Shanghai Museum can be a daunting task. You go in, spend hours and come out knowing little more than when you started for your affordable China travel packages.

Not exactly the cultural experience you were hoping for.

That’s why Daniel Newman, of the Shanghai-based Newman Tours, initiated his tour of the Shanghai Museum last year.

“If you don’t know the context and how the piece fits into the bigger picture, the museum can be rather lifeless,” he explains.

Newman, who has a master degree in Modern Chinese studies from Cambridge and a clear love of the country’s past, uses history, stories and amusing anecdotes to bring the pieces to life. We catch up with Newman to hear some of those tales.

1. What you're looking at: Fu yi gong (wine vessel)

Exhibition hall: Bronze

Period: Late Shang Dynasty, 13-11 century B.C.

Why you should care: This vessel was used to make offerings to the gods and ancestors. Objects like this are so well-preserved because they were buried with the kings in chambers that were often airtight.

This one is particularly interesting because you can clearly make out the animal motifs found on such vessels.

“The animals they picked are symbolic of the connections between the living and the dead,” Newman says.

The birds are flying to the heavens, the snakes shed their skins in a death and renewal ritual, and the phoenix dies and is reborn.

2. What you're looking at: Bells of Marquis Su of Jin

Exhibition hall: Bronze

Period: Western Zhou Dynasty, mid ninth century B.C.

Why you should care: These bells are an example of the gift-giving culture in the Western Zhou dynasty, the predecessor of the modern day hongbao.

King Li gave nobleman Marquis Su some land and other goods after performing well in a war. In return, the nobleman commissioned these bronze bells for the king, with his "thank you" message and name inscribed.

“This is a thank you, but it’s also a way of showing off how close you are to the king,” Newman explains.

The bells themselves illustrate just how sophisticated bronze casting had become -- the spikes on the exterior could be filed down to create the perfect pitch.

The head of the Shanghai museum discovered 14 of these bells in a Hong Kong (a must-see for your top 10 China tour packages) antique shop. The other missing two were eventually discovered and are now housed in the Shanxi Museum.

3. What you're looking at: Da ke ding (food vessel)

Exhibition hall: Bronze

Period: Western Zhou, 10th century B.C.

Why you should care: This commonly-used vessel has an uncommon story: it’s cursed.

When a senior official dug it up and took it home during the Qing Dynasty, his sons began dying one after another. Later, a widow named Pan Da Yu inherited the vessel.

Soon thereafter, Japan invaded China, and she was forced to hide and protect it. Ultimately, in the early 1950s, she donated the ding to the museum -- which itself was actually built to be shaped like a ding.

“By then, she had enough of the darn thing,” Newman says. “I like the story of this ancient vessel’s afterlife.”

4. What you're looking at: He of Fu Chai (wine vessel)

Exhibition hall: Bronze

Period: King of Wu State (early 6th century, 476 B.C.)

Why you should care: This bronze is linked to the story of King Fu, and how he turned a defeated enemy -- Gou Jian of Yue -- and turned him into his servant, only to have the tables reversed. From this bronze, you can learn something about Chinese history to enrich your popular China tours.

The story goes that after years of humiliation, Gou Jian (who was earlier defeated in battle by Fu) persuaded King Fu to set him free. But Gou Jian wasn’t ready to make peace. He sent King Fu a gift: one of ancient China’s four great beauties named Xi Shi.

While King Fu was focusing on this beautiful woman, Gou Jian invaded the kingdom, leading to King Fu’s defeat and ultimate suicide.

Inscribed on this bronze, which belonged to King Fu, are the words: “For a beautiful woman.” Historians like to guess it was made for Xi from King Fu.

“Xi Shi is seen as the key to his downfall,” Newman says. “It’s rather sexist, but it’s still a good story.”

5. What you're looking at: Buddhist stele stone

Exhibition hall: Sculpture

Period: Northern Wei, 386-534 A.D.

Why you should care: This stone marker is typical of the Buddhist sculptures found along the Silk Road (where you can have Silk Road travel), a beacon wishing travelers good karma and success in business.

“In this and similar sculptures we see how Buddhism is becoming more and more materialistic,” Newman says.

The scene at the top of the stele has its origins in the Indian text called Vimalakirti Sutra.

Vimalakirti, an influential preacher, pretended to be bedridden so that he could persuade well-wishing visitors of his philosophies. In this scene, he invited Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, for a debate.

Although Indian Buddhists considered this sutra minor, Chinese gravitated toward its humor: a comic scene punctuated by a fool’s pedestrian remarks.

6. What you're looking at: Bodhisattva stone

Exhibition hall: Sculpture

Period: Tang, 618-907 A.D.

Why you should care: Look closely at this Bodhisattva. Is it male or female? The original Indian version of Pusa Guan Yin-- Avalokite?vara -- was male. But, at the time the story spread to China, Daoist fertility goddesses were popular.

“That’s one of the major reasons we believe he slowly became a woman,” Newman explains. “You can see a degree of gender ambiguity here.”

There is a soft, yet still masculine face and just a hint of breasts. The changes reflects how religion was morphing to fit with China's culture identity.

For more, you can contact with China travel agents.

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