Shanghai Surprise

Thirty centuries' worth of art is brilliantly showcased in China's grand new museum.

Traditionally, the great art collections of China were private—if not imperial—affairs, intended solely for the delectation of the elite. With the fall of the empire and growing Western influence, a need for public displays of art and artifacts emerged. However, until recently most Chinese museums were of inferior quality, if not downright wretched. On my first trip to China, in 1988, I visited dozens of museums throughout the country. At that time, the norm was dusty vitrines speckled with dead flies, flanked by cards that read something along the lines of "Imperial Ornaments, Ming Dynasty." In one provincial museum I saw a case labeled, simply, "Money," which contained, among other things, a buffalo nickel. The problem was aggravated by the necessity to satisfy political agendas as well as aesthetic and educational needs: In most museums, the binoculars and walking stick of a local revolutionary hero were likely to be displayed more prominently than fine works of art.

Like almost everything else in China today, that's all changed. When the Shanghai Museum opened in 1996, there were wide reports that it set a new, much higher museological standard. On a recent visit, I found that an understatement: It's the finest museum I've seen in the Far East. Shanghai is young for a Chinese city, not having really come into its own until the 19th century, but it's the country's richest metropolis, and the museum's Chinese art collection, comprising some 120,000 works, is among the best in the world.

The museum occupies pride of place in the middle of Renmin Square, in the heart of the city. In Shanghai's decadent heyday between the World Wars, this area was occupied by a horse-racing track. When the city fell to the Communists, in 1949, this degenerate relic of Western imperialism was leveled and converted into a broad plaza where the party faithful marched and shouted revolutionary slogans. Just three years later, in a rare instance of cultural philanthropy, the authorities created the Shanghai Museum, drawing upon what was left of the collection of a museum founded in the late 19th century by the North China branch of the British Royal Asiatic Society; unfortunately, most of the early exhibits rotted in the damp climate. The nascent collection was installed in the charming Italian Renaissance Revival building that had formerly been the race-track club. (The clubhouse has recently been refurbished and is the new home of the Shanghai Art Museum, an intermittently interesting display of work by local artists, concentrating on the contemporary scene.) The collection expanded quickly, and was moved in 1959 to larger quarters, in an Art Deco bank building.

In 1992, the government allocated the center of Renmin Square, the most valuable plot of land in the newly booming city, for the construction of a permanent home for the Shanghai Museum. The contract was awarded to Xing Tonghe, one of the city's most distinguished architects. When I first saw the building, it made me smile: a flat-topped, pink-granite cylinder mounted on a squat, massive box, with four arches on the roof at the cardinal points. Many Shanghainese affectionately call it "the rice pot"; others insist it resembles an ancient bronze drum. As I approached, some fine details asserted themselves: Subtle bas-reliefs echoing ancient Chinese motifs run along the "lid"; charming white-stone lions and mythical beasts stand on pediments around the building, serving as guardians.

Only a fraction of the collection is on display, but it's a rich visual experience that will leave even the gluttonous art lover sated. The objects are displayed in ten galleries, sorted by medium: bronzes, paintings, calligraphy, and so forth. The interior designs differ strikingly from one another, each showing the art literally in the best light. Equally important, the pedagogical presentation is on a much more sophisticated level than any other mainland Chinese museum I am aware of. Ordinarily, I'm allergic to condescending audioguides, but in Shanghai they are well-done, and an important aid: Unless you're well-versed in Chinese art, you'll miss not just the fine nuances but in some instances the whole point of the work, which is often symbolic or even occult.

On my first visit to the Shanghai Museum, I was fortunate to have a living guide, Zhou Ya, the curator of the museum's collection of bronze objects. I asked him to show me the single most important object in the gallery. Without hesitation he led me directly to a massive three-footed food vessel entitled Da Ke Ding, which means "great Ke's ding," Ke being the man it originally belonged to, and ding the name of this particular sort of urn. "It was discovered in 1890 in Shanxi province, by a farmer plowing the land," Zhou told me. "It was then sold to a high-ranking bureaucrat, an art lover and antique collector named Pan Zu Yin. After Pan died, his family declined several good offers to sell it, though they weren't rich people." During the Japanese invasion, the family buried the 2,205-pound ding under the house. After the war, the widow of Pan's grandson dug it up and eventually donated it to the museum.

The Da Ke Ding, which dates to the tenth century B.C., is almost ungainly in shape, yet delicately incised with flowing decorative patterns. Cast during the Western Zhou dynasty, the ding is one of the most important surviving objects marking a new period in Chinese art, away from the magic "animal mask" motif (which had dominated the Shang dynasty) and toward more purely ornamental patterns. Zhou added that the bronze "is important not only as an art object but also as a historical artifact. There are no written documents from this period—we only have the inscriptions from bronze objects, and this one is unusually long and complete." The 290-character text states that the king gave the urn to Ke as a reward for various services, and describes how the donation ceremony took place.

Next Zhou showed me a whimsical wine-warmer, from the late Spring-and-Autumn period (about four hundred years after the Da Ke Ding), in the shape of an ox, its stout flanks covered with decorative scrolling motifs. He described it as "unique in the world." The zun, as it's called, has three large, round mouths on its back: The two outermost orifices, at the neck and rump, are the ends of a chamber that runs through the beast's belly; the mouth in the middle of the ox's back is a separate cavity that held the wine. Hot water was poured into the large chamber to warm the wine. Zhou explained that it was part of a historic archeological haul in a place called Li Yu, in 1923. "As you can see, the lids are missing. When my colleagues and I visited the Musée Guimet in Paris, which is famous for its rich collection of Li Yu bronzes, they kindly let us into their storage, but they didn't have the lids. Where they are now is still a mystery."

Perhaps the most successful installation is the painting gallery, a gift of Sir Run Run Shaw, the legendary Hong Kong film producer. The largest gallery of all, occupying most of the museum's third floor, it is exquisitely finished, with grilled windows and curved, carved wooden roofs over the cases, to suggest the serene atmosphere of a Ming scholar's study. The lighting is motion-controlled, gently brightening when visitors approach and dimming when they depart.

The gallery holds one masterpiece after another. In a landscape by the Ming dynasty painter Wen Zhengming, Beauty of Shihu Lake, ink is applied sparingly and thinly; a wide expanse of the page is blank, to suggest the sweep of the lake. Tiny boats, limned with a single stroke, intensify the impression of the lake's vastness and the monumentality of the mountains on the shore. Wen Zhengming was a leader of the Wu school of painting, which celebrated the contemplative life of the literati. Later, in the early Qing dynasty (the latter part of the 17th century), painting was dominated by the "four Wangs," who maintained the tradition of literati painting, while some of their contemporaries were becoming more vigorous and individualistic. Wang Hui's Beauty of Green Mountains and Rivers fairly glows in washes of pale green and rose, subtly modeling the rugged peaks. The masterly handling of brush strokes gives the work a feeling of richness and density, without any loss to the clarity and unity of the whole.

The museum's ceramics holdings are superlative, including some very early pieces, such as an elegant black-pottery stemmed cup with an openwork design, dating to the early third millennium B.C. One of the rarest works is an extraordinarily fine example of Southern Song dynasty Ge crackleware, a massive five-footed brush washer with an "iron wire, gold thread" glaze, so called to describe the interlacing of dark cracks and more delicate yellow veins, the result of chemistry and a sophisticated method of firing. The ancient location of the Ge kilns is unknown, and very few examples of their artistry have survived.

Excellence glows in each room. The sculpture gallery has splendid work from every period, with the Tang collection particularly strong: Slender, placid Bodhisattvas in stone and gilt bronze pose near a squat, grotesque stone statue of the avenging demigod Lokapala, trampling his demonic victims underfoot. The jade gallery is marvelous, ranging from hefty works dating to the dawn of Chinese civilization to the decadent fantasies of the late Qing, at the empire's end.

Renmin Square is the city's matrix: Not a day in Shanghai passed that I didn't find myself wandering here, and with every visit Xing Tonghe's building grew on me more. It has a friendly, human scale, never blocking the sky regardless of where one stands. Part of its success is attributable to the new landscaping of the square: After the tumultuous events of the democracy movement in 1989, the vast, paved plaza was replaced by sloping gardens and pools—to prevent mass demonstrations in the future, according to popular lore.

On my last day in Shanghai, Xing Tonghe took me on a tour of his most famous building. He began by explaining the rationale for the museum's drumlike shape. One reason, he said, is that it occupies the center of the city, and should therefore be different from the other, rectilinear buildings. "The basic design follows ancient Chinese philosophy, which holds that the earth is square, and the sky is round," hence the square box supporting the great round superstructure. The four arches at the cardinal points are gates, symbolizing the door that China had begun to open to the world when he got the commission.

Then the architect took me to see some of the museum's non-public places. Every Chinese building, it seems, must have a VIP room, and the one here is unique: In the basement, Xing created a garden in the style of the Ming dynasty, with a massive yellow-limestone formation (real) draped with hanging vegetation (artificial), and an ornamental pool with carp swimming about. Painted on the ceiling à la Correggio is an azure sky laced with fluffy clouds; it dims slowly to a starry night sky, as birdsong chirrups in the background. To an American sensibility it's a bit hokey, but a group of Hong Kong businessmen who were there at the same time were enchanted.

Xing said that his main concern in designing the museum was "to create a building of Chinese artistry that took advantage of advanced Western technology." Before he drew his first sketch, he went on a world tour, visiting some of the best new museums in Western Europe and America, to get ideas. Among them, in addition to practical matters such as security measures and mechanical devices for temperature and humidity control, was the principle of letting people move about at will—older Chinese museums have a set route for all visitors. "This is an open presentation," he said. "You won't find a door in it anywhere."

On the contrary, Xing's treasure house is itself a door, a gateway to China's artistic heritage thrown wide open. In the past, the Chinese have been highly protective of their culture, sharing glimpses from time to time, but concealing far more. No more powerful symbol of China's new openness exists than the Shanghai Museum, a magnificent collection brilliantly presented that generously welcomes all the world.

Shanghai Museum, 201 Renmin Da Dao, People's Square, Shanghai; 21-6372-3500. For information, contact American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, in New York; 212-861-7799.

Jamie James wrote about Hong Kong in the September issue of Departures.