Published: 17:03, May 16, 2024
Touring relics delight Hong Kong
By Chu Mengmeng in Hong Kong

Ancient bronzes from Henan province reflect culture, history of civilization over three dynasties

A bronze zun, a drinking vessel, exhibited at the Hong Kong Museum of History. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

During her five-day study trip to Central China’s Henan province in April last year, Chun Wai-wa marveled at the high degree of development of ancient Chinese civilization while exploring the ruins of cities dating back 2,000 to 4,000 years.

“How can I pass on my deep feeling to the audience in Hong Kong?” pondered Chun, assistant curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History (HKMH), as she and her colleagues crafted plans for the first exhibition of the General History of China Series.

One year later, more than 150 sets of cultural relics from 15 institutions in eight cities in Henan have been transported south to Hong Kong and are on display in the museum of history from April 3 to July 8, telling the story of Chinese civilization to this international metropolis.

A bronze ding, a holding vessel, is on exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Titled Center of the World, the exhibition aims to trace the origin of Chinese civilization, focusing on the Xia (c.21st century-16th century BC), Shang (c.16th century-11th century BC) and Zhou (c.11th century-256BC), the three earliest dynasties in Chinese history, which are collectively referred to as the Bronze Age.

But why Henan? According to Hui Siu-mui, curator of the HKMH, Henan houses the ruins of the capitals of all three dynasties and numerous cultural relics have been unearthed in the region.

The Hong Kong curation team’s idea was echoed by their Henan counterparts as soon as the latter was contacted.

“We have always paid great attention to cultural exchanges via relics, as it is a good way to vividly tell the story of Chinese civilization,” said Ren Wei, director of the Henan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Ritual vessels attract audiences at the exhibition. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE / XINHUA)

Cultural relics from Henan embodied the essence of Chinese civilization and could definitely unleash unique charm in Hong Kong, where diversified cultures exchange and blend with one another, Ren added.

Upon returning to Hong Kong, Chun and her colleagues started going through a large amount of photos, videos, and documents collected during their trip to Henan and picked out the most representative relics to piece together a holistic picture of China’s Bronze Age.

A total of 15 institutions coordinated, and finally agreed to offer collections, including large and complete sets of bronze, jade, and bone wares, pottery, and oracle bones. It is noteworthy that 33 items are grade-one national treasures and about 40 items are on display outside Henan for the first time.

As both the Hong Kong and Henan teams aimed to display more of the latest achievements in Chinese archaeology, there are also 44 items unearthed after the year 2000.

Drinking vessels attract audiences at the exhibition. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE / XINHUA)

A lot of details of the exhibition also demonstrate the joint efforts made by the two sides during a year of intensive cooperation. For instance, to provide high-definition pictures for the catalog, the Henan team made efforts to find a venue suitable to take a group photo of a huge set of bronze ritual objects.

After nearly a year of preparation, relics from all over Henan arrived at the Henan Museum this March for transportation south.

Many of the exhibits are “popular stars” with a tight exhibition schedule. As a result, the handover was limited to only three-and-a-half days. Experts from both sides checked and meticulously recorded every detailed feature of each item.

It was the first time Wong Yun-Chiu, assistant curator from the Conservation Office of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, had handled so many ancient bronzes.

“I learned some traditional as well as innovative restoration methods from my Henan peers,” Wong said, adding that chemical analysis adopted at the Henan Museum reinterpreted the bronze-casting techniques of ancient times.

Bronze bells and ritual vessels on display. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE / XINHUA)

To safely ship the precious items, a number of packaging boxes were customized in special sizes and shapes. Every step of the transportation process was examined again and again.

The lid of the Wangziwu Ding of the Spring and Autumn Period, having been evaluated by experts to be in a rather fragile state, was left behind in Henan. A ding is a holding vessel from ancient times.

“It pained us to make the decision,” Chun said, “But the ‘blessing in disguise’ may be that the audience can view the inscriptions inside the ding without its lid.”

The display arrangement also highlighted the security of the relics. “Based upon that consideration, we then figured out the best ways that allow the audience to appreciate the time-honored craftsmanship,” Wong said.

Holding vessels on display. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE / XINHUA)

During the exhibition, the condition of the cultural relics is monitored by Wong and his colleagues around the clock, with key indicators including temperature, humidity, the intensity of illuminance (light falling onto an object), and the impurity level of the environment.

“The suitable humidity of bronze wares is under 40 percent. As for oracle bones, it should be a little higher than 50 percent,” Wong explained, adding that close attention was paid to this as Hong Kong is much more humid than Henan.

Apart from works related directly to those cultural relics, it was also a priority for the Hong Kong curators to find simple and interesting ways to illustrate to visitors history that dates back thousands of years.

The exhibition is supplemented by several multimedia devices to achieve this. At the entrance of the exhibition hall, visitors can view a short video summarizing the history of the three dynasties.

A bronze zhong, or bell, on display. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Illustrations are placed beside certain exhibits to explain their features or related stories. There is even an interactive video in the display area of some oracle bones that allows people to experience the divination ritual of the Shang Dynasty.

On the first two days of the exhibition, the Huaxia Ancient Music Orchestra of the Henan Museum staged an ancient Chinese musical performance for Hong Kong visitors. Dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, actors played ancient tones recorded in historical documents using musical instruments that imitated ancient ones.

Other programs on the fringe of the exhibition in the upcoming months include forums, lectures, and handicraft workshops, organized jointly by Hong Kong and Henan. A study trip of Hong Kong history teachers to Henan is scheduled for June.

By April 22, the exhibition had welcomed around 39,000 visitors.

A bronze ge, a cooking vessel, on display. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

Launched by the Chinese Culture Promotion Office of the HKSAR government in collaboration with the HKMH, the exhibitions of the General History of China Series will last five years and display historical relics of significant periods in chronological order.

A ding of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-771 BC), with an old label stuck to it, stands out among the exhibits.

It has been deliberately kept as a witness of the story of people protecting cultural relics from gunfire during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

Hui, the curator, said through the exhibition, “We want to show to the audience not only the ancient Chinese civilization but also its inheritance and transmission.”