December 22, 2023 San Francisco — Stately phoenixes, writhing serpents, and horned spirits; fleshy jades and sonorous bells; swathes of wispy silk; the unmistakable shimmer of gold; enigmatic copper smiles that meet our gaze from across the ages.
A major new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, Phoenix Kingdoms: the Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age brings to life the distinguished Bronze Age cultures that flourished 3,000 years ago along the Yangzi River, a cradle of Chinese civilization. With more than 150 artworks from five major Chinese museums, Phoenix Kingdoms explores the artistic and spiritual landscape of the multistate Zhou dynasty, which was obliterated in 221 BCE by the all-conquering Qin Shi Huangdi, the legendary first emperor of China who commanded the creation of the Terracotta Warriors.
Phoenix Kingdoms: the Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age opens April 19, 2024 and is on view through July 22, 2024, only at the Asian Art Museum. Showcasing archaeological finds from the Zhou Dynasty’s Zeng and Chu kingdoms—cultures of southern China “lost” to the Qin—much of what is traveling from China has only recently been restored and many objects will be on public display for the first time ever.
“We are living in what is truly a Golden Age of archaeology—Chinese archaeology that is,” says Dr. Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum, and a globally-recognized specialist in early China. “There were always obvious gaps in the record that never made sense. We knew which states the Qin conquered—their historians were delighted to write that down—but what we were missing was the artistic evidence connecting the beliefs of older kingdoms with images that proliferated in later dynasties. Ever wonder why Chinese art brims with phoenixes, tigers, and snake-like dragons? Where do the styles we think of today as distinctly Chinese come from? Phoenix Kingdoms fills that gap with some of the most historically important, as well as eye-catching, finds in recent memory—splendors that bring you face-to-face with the past.”
Featuring remarkable archaeological finds unearthed from aristocratic tombs, this groundbreaking exhibition reveals the splendid material cultural of the ancient Zeng (c. 1040–400 BCE) and Chu (c. 1030–223 BCE), two phoenix-worshipping states during the Zhou Dynasty which thrived along the Yangzi River. Little known in the West, these lost kingdoms were significant power players before the rise of the first empire under the Qin, which ruthlessly suppressed the history and culture of subjugated states, burying scholars and burning books in an infamous spasm of violence and destruction.
“Many of the extravagant artworks in Phoenix Kingdoms are considered national treasures due to their rarity and their beauty; they are truly ‘missing links’ between myth and recorded history,” says Dr. Fan J. Zhang, exhibition organizer and the Barbara and Gerson Bakar curator of Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum. “Our original exhibition highlights the importance of the Yangzi River region in forming a recognizably southern style that would influence centuries of Chinese art and religion. We could not be more excited to update our understanding of this historical epoch by inviting our audiences to unlock the glorious mystery of China at the dawn of the first empire.”
Exhibition Showcases Science and Spirituality
Through a series of immersive thematic galleries, Phoenix Kingdoms: the Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age contextualizes a range of stylistically rich material across six categories:
Swirling with sacred birds, mythical creatures, lively visages, elegant forms, elaborate patterns, and incredible textures, these fabulous artworks introduce audiences to the technologically and artistically sophisticated cultures that influenced the later, and better-known, Qin and Han dynasties.
The oldest artwork on view is the ornament with a design of two raptors on a mask (c. 2200 BCE). This neolithic triumph of precision jade carving predates the Zeng and Chu kingdoms, but demonstrates how longstanding motifs, symbols, and forms—back-to-back spirit guides, powerful flying creatures, ritual face-coverings—continued to inspire artisans in the Yangzi valley heartland after more than thousand years.
Numerous highlights from later Zeng and Chu bronzeworking masters include the sixteen writhing “dragons” that resemble snakes and which make up the base of a drum from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (c.433 BCE). The large piece depicts a naturalistic tangle of bodies, which is indecipherable in photographs. The pleasure of discovering which tail belongs to which head is reserved for viewers able to move around the actual object and hints at the obvious delight—and the associated costliness—such an extravagant artwork would bring.
Other technological marvels include the bronze double-walled square jian-fou “wine cooler” also found in the Marquis’ tomb, a cleverly engineered vessel-within-a-vessel that could keep refreshments, like millet ale, cool for lavish festivities during warm months—perhaps the first metal refrigerator in recorded history.
The jian-fou’s elegant detailing is echoed in another masterpiece from the same tomb, the heaviest gold container yet discovered from early China. The lidded bowl and slotted spoon are of the most refined workmanship, suggesting strongly they were reserved for the personal use of the Marquis himself. Gold, which was traded for across long distances, does not tarnish and therefore seems indestructible. Such unbelievably rare metal thus played a role in the development of the cult of immortality in China, and the benefits of imperishability were likely believed to flow from the golden bowl to its owner.
Feasting was often accompanied by entertainment. The large lacquer-on-wood painted drum with pedestal design of phoenixes on tigers’ backs (c. 300 BCE) represents the Chu’s distinctive tradition of sculpture and music while alluding to their worship of mythical beasts and wild animals, as well as to the importance of rhythm (drums) and melody (bells) in rituals.
Like the drum pedestal, many objects and artworks in Phoenix Kingdoms would not have been possible to present until recent scientific advances allowed archaeologists and conservators to safely excavate and preserve fragile organic materials. The waterlogged, and therefore relatively anaerobic atmosphere of these ancient tombs means decaying bacteria or chemically reactive oxygen are sealed off from the precious silks, lacquers, and woods. While various other forces might crush or tear, new techniques mean intricately painted garments and other fragile luxury wares are now resilient enough to leave the ground and travel overseas.
“Along with 2017’s Tomb Treasures, Phoenix Kingdoms: the Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age is an opportunity to reorient the U.S.’s eternal fascination with the past away from the familiar Mediterranean and towards the incredible history and groundbreaking archaeological finds of East Asia,” says Xu. “Accomplished primarily by domestic Chinese scientists and specialists, the content of this exhibition builds on the Asian Art Museum’s decades-long project to bring the best of early Chinese culture and civilization to audiences in the U.S., to, in fact, upend the notion of a monolithic early China and update it with the story of many distinct cultures interlinking into one over millennia.”
The exhibition is accompanied by an original, fully illustrated scholarly catalogue, Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age, published this August by the Asian Art Museum and the University of California; edited by Fan J. Zhang and Jay Xu, with contributions by I-fen Huang, Guolong Lai, Colin Mackenzie, John S. Major, Haicheng Wang, Jay Xu, and Fan J. Zhang; with 240 pages, 320 images, and 4 maps; cloth: 978-0-520-34164-7 / $65; paper: 978-0-520-34165-4 / $40.
Phoenix Kingdoms: the Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age is organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Hubei Provincial Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, Barbara Bass Bakar, Huifen Chan and Roelof Botha, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen, Harry and Sandra Cheung, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Fred Eychaner, Ken Lamb, The Tan Family Education Foundation, the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund, Diane B. Wilsey, and Richard and Fukan Yen. Additional support is provided by The Ellen Bayard Wheedon Foundation, Buck Gee and Mary Hackenbracht, HSBC Bank USA, and Angela and Gwong-Yih Lee. This exhibition is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Sustained support generously provided by the following endowed funds:
Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Endowment Fund for Exhibitions
John and Sherry Chen Endowed Fund
Arlene Schnitzer Endowed Fund
James M. Gerstley Fund for International Exhibitions