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08/05/2013

12 best relics in the Shanghai Museum II

Shanghai Museum is a must-see for your China travelin Shanghai.

7. What you're looking at: Celadon jar with modeled human figurines

Exhibition hall: Ceramics

Period: Wu State of Three Kingdoms, 222-280 A.D.

Why you should care: The purpose of a soul jar like this is to nourish spirits in the afterlife.

The five openings at the top correspond to various food types, such as millet, hemp and wheat.

One legend says the origin of the jar stems from the story of a minor king’s two sons.

Bo Yi and Shu Qi ran away to avoid becoming the king’s successor. Later, they starved themselves to protest a competing king’s war. That king created the soul jar to nourish their spirits in the afterlife.

“The idea caught on, and soon soul jars became a way to appease one’s ancestors and gods,” says Newman.

8. What you're looking at: Vase with design of peaches and bats

Exhibition hall: Ceramics

Period: Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Reign, 1723-1735 A.D.

Why you should care: During the Qing Dynasty, there was an emperor named Yongzheng who loved ceramics. He’s credited with cracking the secret of enamel making, and for adding nine colors to the traditional enamel palette.

“It’s said that at the end of a hard day’s work, Yongzheng’s favorite pastime was to look at the new ceramics that had been sent to Beijing (a must-see for China travel deals)”.

This piece is symbolic for its peach and bat depictions.

Peaches were considered a sign of longevity, while the Chinese name for bat -- bianfu-- sounds like the word for luck, fu.

9. What you're looking at: Oracle bone inscriptions

Exhibition hall: Calligraphy

Period: Shang Dynasty

Why you should care: Oracles bones like this were an ancient fortune-telling device.

First, the king would ask the bone a question, such as this one’s: “Will there be a bumper harvest?”

The shaman would then crack the bone with heat to get the answer. Depending upon the direction the crack traveled, it’d be a yes or no. The problem was, the cracks would often be hard to interpret.

“It wasn’t a very efficient system since they’d have to ask the same question over and over,” Newman says.

We have grave robbers to thank for the preservation of so many Shang Dynasty oracle bones. Thieves unearthed the ancient ox remains and sold them to pharmacists, claiming they were dragon bones.

10. What you're looking at: Xiping scriptures by Cai Yong

Exhibition hall: Calligraphy

Period: Eastern Han

Why you should care: Originally, Chinese carved their scripts into bamboo, a material that would eventually rot. That changed with Cai Yong, an officer who began etching texts into stone. That way, future generations could trace and preserve ancient texts.

“It suddenly becomes much quicker to produce texts that are official,” Newman says. “This is comparable to the creation of the printing press.”

It was a timely invention. Soon after the onset of stone etchings, the Eastern Han dynasty collapsed. During the violent Three Kingdoms period that followed, fighting destroyed much of the bamboo texts.

11. What you're looking at: Display cabinet with engraved bird design

Exhibition hall: Furniture

Period: Qing, 1644-1911

Why you should care: In the 1940s, this intricately-designed cabinet was abandoned in a cardboard box in a Shanghai shipping warehouse.

Experts believe it was left by accident when Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with many of the mainland’s relics. When it was re-discovered in the last decade, the detective work began.

The Qing Dynasty cabinet is made of zitan, or red sandalwood, a material only used by emperors. If you look closely, there is a phoenix, a symbol used to represent an empress, at the top of the cabinet. That phoenix is placed above two dragons, a common representation of an emperor.

“For that reason, they think it belonged to Cixi,” Newman says. “This is an acknowledgment that she was the one in power.”

In general, excessively detailed furniture pieces like this were a way for the increasingly insecure Qing emperors to project their power.

12. What you're looking at: Square table and stools(carved floral design)

Exhibition hall: Furniture

Period: Qing, 1644-1911

Why you should care: Since zitan was restricted for imperial use, what was a rich nobleman to use for his furnishings?

“Nobels had to come up with an alternative to show off their wealth,” Newman says.

The next best thing: lacquer.

Lacquer furniture is constructed with wood, and then covered with 100 layers of wax. Since each layer took about three days to dry, pieces could take up to a year to finish.

“What’s even more ridiculous was that, when they were finished, you couldn’t sit on them or you’d get a red bottom,” Newman explains.

That waste and increasing wealth gap were contributing factors leading to the Qing Dynasty collapse.

When you visit the museum for your popular China tour package, the above-mentioned things should not be missed.

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