Treasure from ancient China. Opening tomorrow in Seattle, `Son of Heaven - Imperial Arts of China' brings to America some 220 rare objects spanning 26 centuries

ONE of the most extensive art exhibitions ever sent to the United States by the People's Republic of China will be unveiled tomorrow in Seattle, first stop in a two-city tour that will take it on to Columbus, Ohio, next spring. ``Son of Heaven - Imperial Arts of China'' will feature 221 seldom-viewed artifacts, ranging from an 18th-century Dragon Throne of the Qing Dynasty to 26 large bronze bells from Eastern Zhou (6th century BC) and life-size terra cotta warriors (ca. 210 BC) from the tomb of China's first emperor. Together, they begin to lift the mist from 26 centuries of Chinese history.

``We hope this exhibition will open new doors of friendship between our countries,'' Wang Jifu, vice-minister of culture, told me while the exhibit was being prepared for shipment here in Peking. ``It is something that has taken three years to achieve. It involved the cooperation of 20 museums, eight different provinces, and the city of Peking.''

Mr. Wang is flying to Seattle for the opening, as is the Chinese ambassador to the US, Han Xu.

A test of patience

``Son of Heaven,'' a title taken from a term that refers to the emperor, is the culmination of a dream of two dedicated curators: Yan Xiaoneng, deputy director of display and conservation in China, and Robert Thorp, professor art history and archeology at Washington University in St. Louis.

``Our key to success was patience,'' Dr. Thorp explained in an interview here. ``Ask, wait, ask again, wait, and then request once more. Understandably, many of the museums and provinces, exhilarated by the archaeological discoveries, wanted them for their own display and were not eager to let them travel so far. Ninety-two percent of the treasures have never been seen in the US and 80 percent have never left China.

``We mounted the exhibition in five galleries,'' Thorp continues, ``with many of the artifacts viewed in scenes. For instance, the imperial throne is displayed in an elegant reproduction of that area in the palace where the emperor received his high-ranking subjects. We want the visitor to feel he isn't just looking at, but is surrounded by, history.''

The five sections of the exhibition are ``The Altar - Ritual Life of the Son of Heaven,'' ``The Outer Court - Public Life of the Emperor,'' ``The Inner Court - The Private Life of the Emperor,'' ``The Temple - The Emperor and the Three Teachings,'' and ``The Tomb - The Emperor's Eternal Resting Place.'' The display spans the period from the Pre-Imperial 7th century BC to 221 BC, and the Imperial period of 221 BC to AD 1800.

Seattle Center's Flag Plaza Pavilion, site of the 1978 King Tut exhibition, was selected for ``Son of Heaven'' partly because it is larger than a museum and partly because the exhibition could remain on display there for five months, until its closing Dec. 31.

Suit of jade with gold thread

``We've had our highs and lows,'' Thorp said of the effort to realize the exhibition. ``A definite high was obtaining the Suit of Jade, 200 pieces of jade strung together in pure gold thread, used as a burial suit for royalty. A disappointment was not obtaining one of the chariots that surrounded the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. We do have some of the terra-cotta soldiers and horses that guarded the tomb; so that is a plus.''

For the Chinese, ``Son of Heaven'' is something of an emotional as well as educational experience. Standing in the Palace of Martial Glory, a place in the Forbidden City off limits to tourists, I watched many of these treasures being prepared for shipment to Seattle. The workers in white gloves handled them with reverence. As Thorp commented, ``China is an untapped archaeological treasure house. Each ... new dig unearths more secrets from her hidden past.''

Bilateral cooperation

The United States ambassador to China, Winston Lord, also spoke about the significance of this exhibition. ``China's borders hold one-fourth of the world's population, and both our governments want to promote bilateral cooperation. The `Son of Heaven' exhibition is an extraordinary cultural exchange. It is the most comprehensive art exhibition sent abroad by the People's Republic of China since 1949.''

Proceeds from the exhibition will benefit China's Ministry of Culture of Archaelogical Research and Preservation and Washington State's Resource Center for the Handicapped and Vesper Society Group.

It is estimated that 1 million people will see ``Son of Heaven'' in Seattle. The exhibition will be on display at the old Central High School in Columbus, Ohio, from March 1989 through September.

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