China's ancient treasures; The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. $40 (hard-cover); Treasures from the Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Ballantine Books. $12.95 (paperback)
Anyone who has seen the remarkable life-size terra-cotta figures of ancient Chinese warriors and horses found recently in the burial complex of the First Emperor of Quin (221-210 B.C.) will know what I mean when I say that these figures are an impressive reminder of how incredibly accomplished Chinese civilization was 2,000 years ago.
And yet these figures, part of a landmark exhibition called "The Great Bronze Age of China," now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum, come fairly late in the overall history of China. They were made at a time roughly midway between te present and the beginning of the historical period to which they belong.
The Great Bronze Age of China began shortly after 2000 B.C. During its early years the Chinese already had a distinctive form of writing, a stratified society governed by an all-powerful ruler, and large urban communities. It was a society controlled, according to its religion, by the gods, who exercised absolute authority over all human actions and events. They were believed to be the ancestors of the ruler, whose primary responsibility it was to intercede with the gods on his subjects' behalf. This was done through elaborate state rituals, which tended more and more to revolve around the large and impressive bronze vessels for which this age is famous.
All this and a great deal more is spelled out in fascinating detail, coupled with gorgeous color illustrations, in two books: "The Great Bronze Age of China" (in hardcover), and "Treasures from the Bronze Age of China" (in paperback). Both books are based on the exhibition, which was sent here by the Chinese government and includes 105 objects of bronze, jade, and terra cotta.
The larger, hard-cover books is a considerably expanded version of the paperback, with only the color plates and some short prefatory pieces remaining the same in both. These color plates are the next best thing to seeing the exhibition itself (which will tour four other American cities after it closes at the Met July 6). Beginning with an exquisite cup from around the 17th century B.C., and ending 104 plates later with one of the warrior figures mentioned above, they give a startingly clear, full, and detailed account of the entire exhibition in first- rate color reproductions. But if the color plates are the same, the texts are not. The text of the paperback is only a short introduction to the art and the history of the period. While this is enough for anyone interested only in gaining a general idea of what was going on in China at that time, it falls short of what one would need to get a full picture of the entire Bronze Age.
On the other hand, the text of the larger book is all one could ask for, short of a specialized textbook on the subject. It includes essays written by Chinese and American scholars on, among other things, "The Splendor of Ancient Chinese Bronzes," "The Chinese Bronze Age: A Modern synthesis," and "Burial Practices of Bronze Age China." These and the accompanying black-and-white illustrations give sufficient insight into the sources and the iconography of Bronze Age art for the general reader to view it in its proper context -- and not merely as a collection of alien and exotic objects.
Of particular interest is the "Summary of Comments on the Catalogue from the Committee for the Preparation of Archaeological Relics, People's Republic of China," which is exactly what the title indicates. Apparently the committee, when presented with the manuscript of this book, found little to challenge. And what there was seems to have been limited to minor matters of detail and interpretation.
Both books would make worthy additions to any art library. The color plates alone make the paperback a bargain, while the greater expository material in the hard-cover -- plus its larger size and the marginally better color quality of its illustrations -- make it fully worth its higher price.