A museum of ancient Chinese art, the Shanghai Museum possesses an impressive collection of over 140,000 precious objects including national-graded paintings, ceramics, bronzes and calligraphy. With so much to take in, follow our guide to the 10 most fascinating things to see at Shanghai Museum.
Giving insight into China’s Bronze Age, which spanned from around 3,000 to 200 BC, these ancient artefacts tell a story of a remarkably significant period of China’s past. From vessels used for food and wine to ritual bronzes placed in the tombs of royalty, these items shine a light on the lives and beliefs of the time. For this reason, the collection at Shanghai Museum is a must-visit, with some ornate vessels even decorated pictorially, such as the Dou food vessel, which is inlaid with a hunting scene.
Just like China’s ritual bronzes, sculptures were often made to be placed in tombs – just as the Terracotta Army were for the first Emperor of China – with intricate decoration. Since that time, these sculptures have gone on to have a defining influence on Chinese art. Over the centuries, Buddhist figures have also been produced in abundance, and examples of these can be seen in Shanghai Museum’s sculpture collection, including the stone statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, made for the monk Huiying in the year AD 546.
It was in around the year 600 when Porcelain was first made in China, going on to become the most advanced ceramics worldwide. These ornate ceramic items, originally made for the Imperial Court, became so synonymous with the country that porcelain began being referred to as ‘china’. The Shanghai Museum exhibits a diverse range of styles from different periods, including a vase from the Ming Dynasty that’s decorated with a swirling blue dragon.
This precious stone – ranging from white to dark green and brown – has been mined and carved in China since the Neolithic period, so it’s no surprise that the stone is so closely linked to Chinese arts and culture, gaining even more significance as it became associated with the soul and immortality. For this reason, each period has embraced jade, using it for decorative arts, burial and even Chinese medicine. The decorative items within Shanghai Museum’s jade collection reflect the country’s past beliefs and aesthetics, like a belt buckle with dragon design.
Across China, seals have long been used to print a name – typically in red ink – in the place of a signature, and are most typically made of stone. As such an enduring custom throughout China’s history, these stamps can be seen on artworks, too, from calligraphy to Chinese paintings. While some of the earliest seals are basic in their design, others are far more ornamental, such as the seal owned by the Lord of Duo Luo Ding.
As one of the most revered forms of Chinese art, calligraphy enables an artist to express themselves through both language and decorative art. And having been practiced for so many centuries it is traditionally considered one of China’s Four Arts to be mastered. The calligraphy showcased in Shanghai Museum reflects how significantly it can range in style; the couplet by artist Jin Nong is one that’s especially distinctive.
As another of China’s four traditional arts, Chinese painting uses the same techniques as calligraphy, with a brush and ink rather than paints, typically seen on paper or silk scrolls. While earlier paintings largely focused on landscapes, subjects such as birds or flowers became more popular later on. Throughout time they’ve proven to be more ornamental than representational of the subject. The painting Peony, Bamboo and Rocks by Xu Wei shows a particular similarity to calligraphy.
Coin and currency
Across the world, currency and coins are a compelling reflection of society throughout the centuries. In China coins were used as early as 770-476 BC, making them some of the earliest worldwide, and it was in around 350 BC that round metal coins were first cast. Some of these early coins can be seen in Shanghai Museum’s coin collection, showing cast coins from different periods, alongside printed notes from more recent times.
Ming and Qing-dynasty furniture
It’s the furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties that’s most revered across the world. While Ming furniture is coveted for the quality of woods used, design, decoration and craftsmanship, the Qing furniture that followed on from it incorporated influences from western art, ultimately becoming more grandiose in style.
Crafts of China’s Ethnic Minorities
Spread across a large and diverse landscape, China has long been home to a number of ethnic minorities. Each of these groups has their own distinct cultural background, which is reflected through their arts and crafts. Bai, Li, Yi, Zhuang and Tujia are just a few of the ethnic minorities represented in the collection at Shanghai Museum through woven textiles and other decorative items, like a carved-bone hairpin of Li ethnicity.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Shanghai, making it easy to discover China’s arts and culture.
Have you been to Shanghai Museum? What were the highlights for you? Let us know in the comments section below.