Published: 10:20, February 22, 2024 | Updated: 10:20, February 22, 2024
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A cultural crossroads across time
By Wang Ru

An ongoing exhibition connects the stories of the societies and ethnic groups that have come together over millennia to create a cohesive Chinese civilization, Wang Ru reports.

Bronze bells and other artifacts at The Exhibition of Cultural Relics and Ancient Books on Forging a Strong Sense of Community for the Chinese Nation, an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of National Palace of Ethnic Cultures in Beijing. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A remarkable event in China's history that heralded the solidarity of different ethnic groups was Princess Wencheng's marriage to Songtsen Gampo, ruler of the Tibetan Tubo regime, which lasted from the seventh to the ninth centuries, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The story has become a household tale.

Tang emperor Li Shimin (599-649) arranged for the princess to travel from what is now Xi'an, Shaanxi province — the Tang capital — to what is today the Xizang autonomous region, to marry Songtsen Gampo, significantly increasing the closeness between the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups. She brought with her tools, seeds, grain, books, medicine, musical instruments and musicians.

An ongoing exhibition at the Museum of National Palace of Ethnic Cultures in Beijing displays a drum and a guqin (a seven-stringed Chinese zither) that belonged to the princess nearly 1,400 years ago.

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This guqin has a special bent shape. The museum's director Tao Ying says this style was popular during the Tang Dynasty, but few examples have survived. They are mostly seen in murals or ancient paintings.

The exhibition hall at the Museum of National Palace of Ethnic Cultures. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"The drum and guqin were kept at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Xizang, and were passed down until they became part of our museum's collection. This is the first time they're being exhibited," says Tao.

The Exhibition of Cultural Relics and Ancient Books on Forging a Strong Sense of Community for the Chinese Nation, organized by the National Ethnic Affairs Commission, is a display of more than 1,500 artifacts and ancient books that tell how China became a united multi-ethnic country.

"The exhibition takes the development of Chinese civilization as its main thread. The exhibits bear witness to the long history of Chinese culture, and the communication and integration between different ethnic groups during this historical process," says Tao.

"They show the strong cohesion and centripetal force of the Chinese nation."

Tao explains that the exhibits were chosen from 150,000 artifacts and 510,000 ancient books at museums affiliated with the commission. These items include tools, seals, coins, costumes, ritual items, calligraphy and paintings. The texts are about political governance, the histories of China's ethnic groups, cultural integration and religion, she adds.

Some of the musical instruments on display. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Taking shape

Painted clay vessels from the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, which were typical prehistoric artifacts produced in the northwestern region under the influence of the Yangshao Culture that dates back to between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago in China's Central Plains, are one of the highlights.

Yangshao is known as a "painted ceramics culture" since these items have come to symbolize the civilization, according to He Chen, a researcher at the museum.

For example, one clay bottle on display that was made between 5,100 and 4,700 years ago witnessed the spread of the Yangshao Culture to what is now Northwest China and its evolution into the Majiayao Culture, which dates back 4,000 to 5,000 years.

He says studies show that the patterns of salamanders on the bottle originated in the Yangshao style of painting birds on pottery, but have their own characteristics. This shows Yangshao influence on the northwestern area and regional features.

"After the birth of Majiayao Culture, Yangshao Culture continued to spread to what is now Southwest China's Sichuan province and Xizang, and even today's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region," He explains.

"Then, the 4,000-year-old Qijia Culture — a continuation of Majiayao Culture — continued influencing other cultures established by the ancient Qiang tribe in the northwestern area during the Bronze Age."

In this way, Yangshao Culture continued to spread and deepen. And the artifacts on show are important witnesses to interactions between ancient cultures in different regions, that possibly led to the origin and formation of a pluralistic and integrated Chinese civilization, she adds.

Xinan Yi Zhi (Chronicles of the Yi Ethnic Group in Southwest China), a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) book about the society of the ancient Yi ethnic group on show. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Fancy footwear

She also highlights shoes with "toe springs", or upward curves at their tips.

The researcher says that since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC), people in China's Central Plains often wore this kind of shoe. The long robes or skirts they wore would drag on the ground, and the shoes would support their hems and prevent tripping. Over time, this became a characteristic of ancient Chinese footwear.

Although the prevalence of these shoes gradually declined during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, people in paintings made at the time were often depicted wearing them.

"This reflects cultural notions. When people think of ancient people, they think of them wearing these kinds of shoes," says He.

The examples on display are not from ancient times but rather are contemporary pairs made by the Zhuang, Miao, Sui and Yao ethnic groups.

"This indicates that although shoes with toe springs are not commonly worn by the Han ethnic group today, other ethnic groups in Southwest and Northwest China have preserved this style that's typical of ancient China's Central Plains," says He.

"It also demonstrates that non-Han ethnic groups have likewise inherited the aesthetics of the Central Plains and forged a shared aesthetic perspective."

The drum brought by Princess Wencheng to the then Tibetan Tubo regime during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) are part of the exhibition. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)


Precious pages

Many of the books on display are extremely special, and some are on the list of national-level precious ancient books issued by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

One example on display is part of a copy of Pearl in the Palm printed in the early 20th century.

It's a bilingual glossary of the Chinese and Tangut languages written by a scholar of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227), a powerful regime that ruled Northwest China until it was conquered by Genghis Khan. It has become the key to decoding the Western Xia's written characters, which faded from use with the end of the dynasty.

"The book was written in 1190 and is one of the oldest bilingual textbooks in China," says Sun Bojun, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"The writer says in the preface that learning the languages of other ethnic groups was an important way for people of the Central Plains to cooperate with non-Han people, and learning Chinese was an important way for other ethnic groups to learn about the culture of China's Central Plains, which could help them to develop," says Sun.

The guqin brought by Princess Wencheng to the then Tibetan Tubo regime during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) are part of the exhibition. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The writer believed the purpose of compiling this book was to ultimately become a "man of virtue" by learning from other cultures, she adds.

Other precious ancient texts on display include Xinan Yi Zhi (Chronicles of the Yi Ethnic Group in Southwest China), a Qing-Dynasty book about the ancient Yi people's understanding of human origins and the universe, and political, economic and cultural aspects of ancient Yi society.

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"This is the only existing copy of the book now," says Tao. "As a paper artifact, there are strict requirements for its exhibition, so we rarely display it."

Another rare exhibit is the bilingual Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kangyur, printed in the Tibetan and Mongolian languages in the Qing Dynasty. Only eight Mongolian copies exist worldwide, and it has been on the national-level precious ancient books list since 2008, Tao says.

"In the past, only researchers read it when they carried out studies," Tao says. "This is the first time for it to be displayed to the public."

Contact the writer at wangru1@chinadaily.com.cn