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Homage to the ancestors

Ritual art from the Chu kingdom

Left: Wine set comprising ewer (jian) and bowl (fou), bronze – height 63.2 cm, excavated from tomb of Marquise Yi of Zeng in Hubei, China, 1978. Right: Lacquered dou vessel with cover, Warring States period, 4th century BCE, height 31 cm, excavated from tomb No. 2 at Jiuliandun in Zaoyang, Hubei province, 2002

Homage to the ancestors: ritual art from the Chu kingdom has been organised to coincide with Chinese New Year celebrations mounted by the Sydney City Council, in conjunction with the Chinese government and Hubei Province.

This exhibition focuses on the unique theme of ritual art from the specific region known as the Chu, located in the mid Yangzi basin and encompassing present-day Hubei Province. The time, some 2500 years ago, spans the Warring States (475-221 BCE) and the unified Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). This was a time when regional warlords began to annex smaller kingdoms to consolidate power. Chu was one of the strongest kingdoms until it was eventually conquered by the First Emperor in 223 BCE, two years before he unified China.

Featuring some 70 stunning ritual objects, including bronze vessels, musical instruments, lacquer wares and jades, the exhibition is drawn from the holdings of the Hubei Provincial Museum. The objects are mostly from the treasure-filled tombs of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (died 433 BCE) and an anonymous aristocrat at Jiuliandun (late 4th century BCE). Both tombs were furnished with a wealth of luxury goods and are among the most astonishing discoveries ever made in Chinese archaeology.

In ancient China, ritual was the instrument that ensured the power of the state and social cohesion. Ritual took the form of banquets offered to the ancestors and heavenly deities, with technically sophisticated and elaborately cast bronzes used to hold food and wine. Musical instruments also played an important role in such religious ceremonies. Because of the Chinese belief in an afterlife, bronzes used in the ceremonies of this life were placed in their owner’s tomb after death to provide the deceased with the same material environment enjoyed while living. Modern controlled excavations of the tombs of the ruling elite have given the world a legacy of superb ritual objects of diverse imaginary shapes and uncertain purposes.

Many of the artefacts included in the exhibition demonstrate an artistic perfection and a technological sophistication unparalleled anywhere in the ancient world. Included in the exhibition are: a magnificent set of 34 bronze bells, originally hung on a wooden rack and capable of producing an almost complete chromatic scale; a huge set of bronze vessels for cooling or warming wine; and an extraordinary mythological creature in the form of an antlered crane inlaid with turquoise.

In ancient China, ritual and war were the most important affairs of a state. While the Gallery’s major summer exhibition, The First Emperor: China’s entombed warriors, presents a panoramic view of war and conquest, of an extraordinary man who forged the Seven Warring States into one nation and himself from stately king to First Emperor, Homage to the ancestors gives you a fascinating focus on the ritual, providing an insight into the meaning and history of one of China’s most vibrant and enduring cultures, with objects around 2500 years old.

On view
4 Feb – 26 Apr 2011
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


Media contact

Claire Martin
Tel 02 9225 1734
Mob 0414 437 588