I love getting lost in museums, among immortal paintings, flawless sculptures and those archaic tools that have contributed in “making” human history. However, I admit, when I’m inside a museum for too long, I sort of need a break. Usually I need up to two to three days to visit a big museum. In London, I went to the National Gallery twice, and I still have a lot to see.
This was my frame of mind when I entered Shanghai Museum, in People’s Square. As one of the main museums in Shanghai, it’s pretty big, four floors of ancient collections and exhibitions, thoughtfully divided into themed pavilions.
After almost nine months in China, I’m little by little getting the full idea of how excellent Chinese organization skills are, in every aspect of daily life. Being construction, art, transport, their attention to the tiniest detail is always visible.
After grabbing the map, I decided to start my journey into Chinese culture and history from the top floor, sure that I was going to do one floor per day.
Today China consists of 56 ethnic groups, being the Han (汉) the largest one. Although they all keep their own mores and traditions, they also give their precious contribution to enriching Chinese culture.
The first pavilion I visited was the one that in my mind better symbolized the complexity of today’s Chinese society, the display of costumes, tools, masks, embroideries of the minority ethnic groups populating the mainland, from the Tibetan, to the Manchurian, to the Uyghur. A burst of colors and shapes that made it for a great start.
After leaving the colors of Chinese minority groups, I was ready to get into the country’s finest art, and I started with the exhibition of elaborate pieces of furniture belonging to Qing and Ming dynasties, showing how the habits of kneeling or sitting crossed-legs have changed throughout the centuries.
In general, as displayed in the museum, the Ming furniture was of simple and elegant structure, while the Qing pieces are characterized by elaborate carving and inlaid decorations.
From the detailed works of ancient furniture, I went directly into the Jade Gallery displaying jewellery and any sort of objects made of the precious stone that is China’s national pride, available in different colors and shades, from green to white.
Close to the jade exhibition there was the pavilion devoted to currencies, a topic that didn’t interest me much. However, I decided to quickly have a look at that too, and I found myself immersed in a fascinating journey through the different coins and money used in China and all along the Silk Road.
After having carefully delved into everything the fourth floor had to offer, I motioned to the third one, in which I tackled two pavilions, first the one devoted to calligraphy, then Chinese Painting Gallery.
Since I’ve been studying Mandarin, those little characters that constitute the framework of the written language have been proving the more and more challenging. In the museum I wandered through a fine selection of traditional and simplified characters written with the typical brush used in ancient times. Beginning with inscriptions on oracle bronzes, getting on to bamboo slips and stone steles, this fascinating exhibition displays some 70 masterpieces of traditional Chinese writing.
Staying on the same floor, I visited the Chinese Painting Gallery, displaying drawing in different styles like figure, landscape, flower and bird painting, the traditional Dan Qing, that literally means the mineral colors of cinnabar and azurite used as pigments, to masterpieces from Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties to the Yangzhou School, important commercial port during Qing dynasty where a group of painters made their living out of their art.
After the painting gallery, I headed to the second floor, where I dived headfirst in the elegant collection of ancient ceramics, finely decorated with traditional flower styles and dragons. China is famous all over the world for its ceramics so, although I was already starting feeling tired, I couldn’t miss out on all those beautiful pots, bowls, tools dating back 8000 years nonetheless. From the Neolithic Age to the late Qing dynasty, the exhibition shows some 500 pieces that accompany the visitor along the long and rich Chinese history.
I spent a whole afternoon musing around such east asian masterpieces, but I haven’t seen it all, which makes it for the perfect excuse to go back and visit what I missed out the first time.