High culture: the Shanghai museum

A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon
A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon

When we came out of the Shanghai Museum, we were happy that we didn’t skip it. The Shanghai that we had seen before was the modern China, the city of engineering marvels. This gave us a glimpse of the other China: the old civilization that developed across the Himalayas from us.

The museum is located in People’s Square, and entry is free. It is worthwhile to take an audio guide for RMB 40. The museum classifies its collection by form: furniture, bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and so on. Calligraphy is an art form that is hard to appreciate if you cannot read the script. There are also other sections of the museum that we were not culturally prepared for. What we could appreciate was really well selected. I spent a lot of time in the porcelain, jade and painting galleries. The galleries contain a lot; it would be easy to spend half a day in each. We simply did not have the time.

Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
There are exquisite pieces of jade. The photo at the top shows a lovely piece whose cultural significance I do not appreciate. The only connection I know between the moon and a cow is through a nursery rhyme, or the song in Lord of the Rings. The porcelain is astonishing. I had not realized how much technology is required to execute porcelain; the development of celadon work required precise high-temperature kilns. I understood later when talking to a modern pottery artist that the state of the art is not very much further advanced. Celadon kilns work at a little over 1200 Celcius. Modern kilns can achieve around 1350 Celcius, but the success rate of firing pottery in these can be as low as 20%.

The art form from China that is perhaps most familiar to all of us is painting. We saw wonderful examples in the Shanghai museum. In addition to the individual pieces, walking through these galleries gave me a first understanding of how the aesthetics of China developed in a direction so different from either the Western or the Indian.

We arrived in the museum early in the morning, when there was absolutely no queue to enter. When we left at 1 PM we saw enormous queues, and realized how lucky we had been with the timing of our visit.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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