China Embraces Its Ancient Art, One Shard at a Time, in Shanghai Museum

New leaders, partly to ward off foreign culture, back Shanghai in collecting rare art.

As researchers at the new Shanghai Museum painstakingly restore ancient ink paintings and stone Buddhist sculptures, they are also piecing together a country's shattered past.

Over the past 150 years, great swaths of China's imperial-era culture have been looted or destroyed by foreign invaders, Chinese troops, and Communist zealots. Yet now China is embarking on a great restoration project, says museum official Li Chaoyuan. "The more deeply we understand ancient Chinese civilization, the better we can construct an enlightened future," says Mr. Li.

Chinese civilization for thousands of years dominated and rippled through other cultures of the East. The unsurpassed technology employed in bronze works dating from the Shang dynasty, which began about 1750 BC, preceded the Pharaoh Tutan-khamun's rule in Egypt by three centuries. Historians say the mining of ores used in bronzemaking, like the building of the Egyptian pyramids, relied on a massive force of workers or slaves controlled by an all-powerful ruler. While authoritarian rule helped give birth to China's earliest art, it has combined in modern times with war to destroy much of the country's cultural legacy.

Today, the Shanghai Museum's effort to help shape China's 21st century culture by reassembling remnants of history is being echoed across the nation. From Guangdong, where new Buddhist temples are spreading across the province, to the capital, where traditional festivals and music are being revived, China seems to be racing ahead into the past.

David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington, says "Shanghai was long known as the cosmopolitan capital of Greater China," an area that includes the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

With its new museum, opera house, and high-tech library, "Shanghai may also be trying to become the cultural capital of Greater China."

The Shanghai Museum's design is cutting-edge Chinese architecture, but it also symbolizes the union of heaven and earth in a modern echo of centuries-old Chinese temples.

Beneath the crystalline dome, middle-school students gather around a touch screen to digitally surf the museum's exhibits, which cover the evolution of Chinese civilization over 4,000 years.

Nearby, the museum's ancient- bronze gallery - regarded as one of the world's best - traces the origins of not only Chinese art, but also the country's social structure and political hierarchy.

Among the earliest pieces are 3,500-year-old, turquoise-inlaid halberds and bronze ritual vessels that are etched with the images of mythical animals.

The bronze weapons were used in battles to create early kingdoms, and the vessels were employed by shaman-leaders to legitimize their rule through ritual sacrifices to their ancestors.

Li says much of the funding for the new art complex, which replaced the museum's original, dilapidated headquarters, and nearby concert hall came from the local Communist authorities. Yet it was just a generation ago that Chairman Mao Zedong launched his radical Cultural Revolution to smash China's philosophical, artistic, and religious roots.

To remake China in his own image, Mao enlisted millions of young Red Guard stormtroopers in an assault on Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, and Western-influenced thinkers, says writer Nien Cheng.

In the name of class struggle, Chinese and Western books were burned and replaced by Mao's Little Red Book of Quotations. Religious icons were smashed to make way for the Chairman's portrait, says Ms. Cheng, author of "Life and Death in Shanghai."

"Mao's Cultural Revolution, which was supposed to create a new communist society, was actually a Cultural Annihilation," she adds.

TODAY, it seems China is in the grips of a Cultural Counterrevolution. "President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji love traditional Chinese art and music, and they have given strong support for the new Shanghai Museum," says Li.

Cheng adds that the president and premier, who both hold engineering degrees, "are likely to purge uneducated former Red Guards who have risen to senior posts [since the 1960s] as part of an ongoing downsizing of the government."

Jiang and Zhu, both former Shanghai mayors, gave the green light several years ago to construct the Shanghai Museum at the center of People's Square - once the stage of massive Red Guard rallies.

The decade-long Cultural Revolution, which only ended with Mao's passing in 1976, paradoxically helped the Shanghai Museum expand its collection of ancient paintings and ceramics.

When Mao's stormtroopers began house-to-house searches for remnants of China's past, "sometimes private collectors would call the museum and say 'the Red Guards are on their way - please take away my collection'," says museum official Li. "After the Cultural Revolution ended, many collectors opted to donate their works to the museum."

Cheng, who now lives in exile in Washington, agrees that many of Shanghai's foremost collectors hoped to help reverse the destruction through endowments to the museum.

Although Mao's army of radicals looted Cheng's home, jailed her on fabricated charges of espionage, and killed her daughter, the writer still opted to donate a collection of porcelain that dated back to the Song Dynasty.

Cheng seems to relish the fact that China's current leaders have overturned most of Mao's plans for a radical Communist society. "If Mao came back today, he would want to put everyone in prison, including the leaders of the Communist Party," she says.

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