Chinese Museums: the lure of the East

China’s marvellous ancient treasures are displayed in a number of venerable provincial museums throughout this vast and richly historical country. Seeking expert guidance, we asked Cathy Giangrande and Miriam Clifford, co-authors of two books on the subject – CHINA: museums and the Chinese Museums Association Guide – to choose six of the best archaeological museums and sites to visit when touring China


Yinxu Museum, 1 Yinxu Road, North Section, Xiaotun Village, Anyang, Henan.

1. Sun and bird gold foil cut-out connected with sun-worship, Late Shang Dynasty, 1100 BC. D. 12.5cm. © Jinsha Archaeological Site Museum.

Anyang was the last capital of the bellicose, long-lasting and highly influential Shang Dynasty. Yinxu (the ruins of Yin) has been called ‘China’s ancient Egypt’ due to the splendid underground tombs of the Shang kings found here and filled with extraordinarily beautiful objects. The site is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

2. Turtle shell oracle, Shang Dynasty, 1600–1046 BC. H. 22cm. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

The marvellous underground Yinxu Museum tells the story of this ancient city – its street plans, plumbing, palaces, workshops, settlements and cemeteries. The excavated material culture is rich and varied, permitting archaeologists and historians to understand much of the social organisation of the Shang period as well as its infrastructure, culture, art and religion.

The original finds at Yinxu were incised oracle bones (once thought to be dragon bones). These ‘bones’ are actually ox scapulas and turtle carapaces (2) inscribed with paired pictographs and symbols – one for meaning, one for sound. This form of writing evolved into modern Chinese. Interestingly, these inscriptions are unique in that they often present a question, the divination and then the actual result.

Most of the inscriptions (about 40 percent of which have been deciphered) give the date of the divination and the name of the king – which amounts to a list of kings in chronological order. This, in tandem with other historical sources, offers historians a wide range of information regarding Shang society.

3. Skull pierced by bronze spearhead, Shang Dynasty, 1600–1046 BC. H. 22cm. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

The objects in the museum are thoughtfully displayed in five large galleries to present a coherent sense of the city’s life and culture. Pottery drainage pipes, seeds and floral remains, animal bones and bone ornaments, jewellery, vessels, bronzes, imported cowrie currency and more, all tell the story of an advanced and sophisticated city.

Additionally, many large tombs and sacrificial pits have been excavated here including gruesome skeletal evidence of violence (3) and death on a large scale.

Fine examples of the superlative bronze production techniques of the Shang period have been excavated including the largest and heaviest sacrificial bronze vessel ever found, the spectacular si mu wu fanding.

4. Bronze urn with the bones of a child sacrifice, Shang Dynasty, 1600–1046 BC. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

Also discovered here was the undisturbed tomb of Princess Fu Hao; the only intact Shang dynasty tomb excavated to date. Oracle bones tell us that Fu Hao was a general who participated in military campaigns. This explains why her tomb, consisting of more than 1500 objects, contains military bronzes as well as jades and other fine objects. Chariot pits have been excavated and their finds are displayed at Yinxu, containing the skeletal remains of horses and riders ritually buried with their chariots. Many more are known to exist but await excavation.

Sanxingdui Museum, Guanghan City (40km NE of Chengdu) Sichuan

5. Male statue, possibly a high priest, 1700– 1150 BC, bronze. H. (with base) 262cm. © Sanxingdui Museum.

The site of Sanxingdui is one of the great museum destinations in China, rivalling that of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. The Shu Culture was wrapped in mystery until the discovery of this site. Shu is the ancient name for the area now known as Sichuan – a large fertile region surrounded by mountains and known as the Red Basin. Although the archaeological evidence now shows that it existed from the Late Neolithic (equivalent to the Longshan Culture in the northern plains) through to the Eastern Zhou, very little mention is made of it in the historical record before the Spring and Autumn Period, and to date no written record exist. In fact, no system of writing has been found, with the exception of seven glyphs.

The first breakthrough came in 1929 when a Sichuan farmer digging on his land found a pit containing several hundred jade and stone artifacts. Subsequent excavation uncovered more objects and structures. Then in 1986 two Shang Dynasty sacrificial pits were found.

Pit I contained bronzes, jade (8), gold, elephant tusks, and burnt bones and associated objects, some of which are spectacular, such as a life-size bronze human head, a gold mask and a dragon-shaped bronze column.

Pit II, some metres away, contained objects even more dazzling. The objects were neatly organized: on the top 67 elephant tusks, then bronzes, gold, jade ware, turquoise ornaments, stone implements and seashells. Some of the finds are of the sort common in Xia and Shang burials, but others are exquisite, unique artifacts never before seen such as a 2.62m-high bronze statue of a human, a divine tree made of bronze nearly 4m high (the largest ancient bronze artefact ever found in China) (5), a 1.38m-wide bronze mask with bulging eyes (6) and a bronze human head with a gilded mask (7).

6. Stylised human face-mask, 1700– 1150 BC, bronze. H. 25cm. W. 40cm. © Sangxindui Museum.

The purpose of these pits is debated – it is thought there is a 100-year-old difference in their ages. Whether they are themselves a tomb, subordinate to a tomb or a storehouse is not clear.

The excavations have uncovered about a thousand jade and stone artifacts made to an exquisite standard. They include shapes such as the zhang, bi, yuan, cong, and ge. Many ritual tools and weapons were found giving credence to the evidence that the Shu Kingdom had a large and active ritual system. Interestingly, no actual weapons were found here, nor is there any other evidence of conflict, unlike other Shang groups.

The site of Sanxingdui covers an area of approximately 12sqkm. The archaeological evidence reveals an ambitious scale of city planning including traces of a wall, roads, a palace site, residences, workshops and sacrificial sites.

7. Head with stylised human face-mask, possibly of a highranking official, 1700–1150 BC, bronze and gold. H. 42cm. W. 19cm. © Sangxindui Museum.

Jinsha Archeological Site Museum, 2 Jinshayizhi Road, Chengdu, Sichuan

In February 2001, construction for new housing in the village of Jinsha near Chengdu was halted as a trove of gold (1), bronze, jade (8), stone (9) and ivory artefacts was unearthed. This site became one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries in Chinese history.

8. Jade bi disc (the term used to describe a particular type of Chinese jade or stone disc), originally grey, it is now multi-coloured due to minerals in the soil, 1200–650 BC. D. 10.5cm. © Jinsha Archaeological Site Museum.

Many of the objects found bear a close relationship to those found at nearby Sanxingdui, helping to create a timeline for the mysterious ancient Shu kingdom. Further excavations in the area uncovered related finds, ultimately converging into a single archaeological site covering five square kilometres. This is believed to be the Shu capital city, established when nearby Sanxingdui was abandoned. The site is divided into a number of zones including the palace, a residential, quarter, a place of sacrifice and a graveyard. In about 600 BC, Jinsha fell into decline for unknown reasons.

The history of the city is broken into three distinct phases: Phase I dates to the late Shang. The objects found in this phase are mainly ivory and stone. One sacrificial pit included 15 ivory tusks in addition to other objects. Where the ivory originated has been debated, but it is now generally believed to be local, as Shang inscriptions mention elephant hunting and as the climate and flora in the area has changed over time.

9. Sacrificial stone sculpture of a kneeling man, 1200–650 BC. © Jinsha Archaeological Site Museum.

Phase II is equivalent to the late Shang to mid Western Zhou and marks the high point of Jinsha Culture. In these levels are found beautiful bronzes, gold, jade and ivory. Phase III takes place in the late Western Zhou and early Spring and Autumn Period and was a period of decline. Many fewer bronze and ivory artefacts have been found.

The finest objects at Jinsha were found in the sacrificial pits and these trenches are open to public view. The quality and quantity of the gold and gilt objects here exceed any other pre-Qin site in China.

The numerous bronze objects excavated here highlight Jinsha’s relationship with nearby Sanxingdui – for example, a small standing Jinsha bronze figure looks very much like an extremely large one found at Sanxingdui which may have once held in its hands an ivory tusk. Beautifully crafted jade objects are plentiful; the stone locally sourced includes hopfnerite, nefrite and marble.

This site should be visited in conjunction with a visit to Sanxingdui for a fuller understanding of the Shu kingdom and ancient Sichuan.

Southern Song Dynasty Guan Kiln Museum, 42 Shijiashan, Nanfu Road, Hangzhou, Zhejiang

The word ‘guan’ means ‘official’, and guan kilns were set up to make porcelain exclusively for imperial use in both the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. The Song dynasty originally had its capital in Kaifeng (Henan Province) until Tartar invaders from the North forced them to flee southwards in 1127. Emperor Gaozhong established a new capital in present day Hangzhou, then known as Lin’an, where it remained until the end of the dynasty in 1279. Thus, the Song is divided into the Northern and Southern Song Periods.

10. Yue Kiln lamp, Western Jin Dynasty, 265–317, yellowglazed terracotta. Southern Song Guan Kiln Museum. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

Two guan kilns were set up at Hangzhou, one near the Xiuneisi (the government department in charge of maintenance of imperial buildings, including kilns) and one at Jiaotan (the Altar of Heaven).

The location of the Xiuneisi kiln was a great mystery until it was finally discovered in excavations undertaken between 1996 and 2001 at the Tiger Cave kiln site located near the north wall of the imperial city. The Jiaotanxia kiln (the site of this museum) was first excavated in 1930 and then again in the 1980s and is located at the foot of Tortoise Hill on the south edge of West Lake.

11. The 40-metre long Dragon Kiln, Southern Song Dynasty, Guan Kiln Museum. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

Guan ware of the Southern Song is considered one of the finest of the period and is famous for its celadon glaze which is light green, gray or yellow in colour. (10). The body of the vessels is thin, with either a thick or thin glaze, but the best pieces are those with the thickest glaze – applied in many layers often thicker than the body itself. The rich, smooth and brightglaze is deliberately crackled, with names such as ‘iron thread’ for the black cracks and ‘silk thread’ for the yellow.

Another characteristic is what is known as ‘violet mouth and iron foot’ which refers to a purplish colour on the upper rim caused by a separation of the glaze with the iron-rich clay left unglazed and exposed on the foot.

The museum galleries include ceramic examples in well-designed cases from the Neolithic to the Qing dynasty, as well as Chinese and English signage explaining the history of the Southern Song Guan Kiln. During the Southern Song, guan kiln celadon was used for ritual ware, replacing shapes used in earlier Shang and Zhou dynasty bronze vessels.

Another section displays the ancient kiln workshop site. The highlight however, is the remains of the dragon kiln itself, which stretches upwards for over 40 metres. Stairs have been added along the sides so you can walk along the length, with the remnants of the firebox at the lower end visible. There were two main benefits to this type of kiln.

Firstly, thousands of pots could be fired at once and secondly, the length and slope of the design, along with side stoking, allowed for a rapid rise to extremely high temperatures, followed by a quick fall. This was particularly advantageous in terms of the chemistry of the clay and glazes in use, as the clay could be prevented from distorting or cracking during firing, allowing for a bright, clear finish to the glaze.

Hanyangling Museum, East side of the Xianyang International Airport Road, Xi’an, Shaanxi

This site is a burial complex consisting of the tombs of Liu Qi, the fourth Han Emperor Jingdi, who reigned from 157–141 BC and his official wife, Empress Wang. The tombs were found in 1990, by workers building a road to the new airport. On the south side of the road is the Yangling Museum, home to thousands of pottery figurines (12 and 13) and animals. The emperor’s and his wife’s tomb mounds sit on the north side of the road, opposite the museum. Archaeologists have focused on excavating the burial pits in the nearby surrounding area leaving the emperor’s and empress’ tombs untouched while more advanced scientific methods of excavation become available.

The mausoleum’s south gate ruins and the remains have been housed inside a structure that resembles the original Han dynasty building. The rammed earth, pieces of tile, and the post holes of the original gate can be seen inside. This gate is the earliest gate to be found; it is the most complete, and offers important information on traditional Chinese architecture.

12. A collection of pottery figurines (approximately one-third life size) unearthed in burial pit No 17 in the southern area of the mausoleum site. © Hanyangling Museum.

Among the highlights are the pottery figures from the excavated tombs. A glass walkway has been built at the foot of the 18 furrows, giving visitors a bird’s eye view of the pits. Their number of figurines is impressive, with some 50,000 scattered around the site. When excavation work began on 24 pits containing the emperor’s army thousands of pottery warriors were discovered. Their bodies are approximately one-third life-size, without arms and naked. Their arms and hands were made of wood, with moveable joints, but these, together with the leather armour and silk clothing they once wore, have long since decayed. There are, however, traces of red silk remaining on some and patches of vermillion around the heads of others, with traces of woven silk fabric – apparently the remains of a kind of headband worn during this period. Eunuch figures have also been found, providing the earliest known example of the existence of eunuchs in China.

13. The heads of two pottery figurines, who once wore silk headbands, from the tomb of the 4th Han Emperor Jingdi (r 157–141 BC). © Hanyangling Museum.

The figures include soldiers, archers on horseback, servants, musicians and dancers. The excavated domesticated animals include horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs and chickens. It appears that each pit represents a division or department of the emperor’s palace. The inclusion of domestic animals is of particular interest to archaeologists, as this is the first time such a quantity and variety has been discovered. Following the unification and standardisation of the Qin dynasty, the Chinese under the Han emperors experienced a relatively stable and prosperous period, in which the development of agriculture progressed rapidly.

Its location beside the airport road, makes Yangling is a convenient stop for tourists flying in from Xi’an.

Linzi Museum of Chinese 6. Ancient Chariots, Houli Village, Qilin Town, Linzi, Shandong

This beautifully preserved sacrificial horse pit, attributed to the Qi state and dating to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), was discovered while road-building. Indeed, the cars on the expressway shake the roof of the excavation site conserved just below. The museum is presented in two sections: the burial pit area and a hall of chariots (16).

14. One side of the rectangular (26m x 23m) pit lined with horse skeletons surrounding the tomb of Jing Gong, ruler of the Qi dynasty, 547-490 BC, at the Linzi Funerary Horse Pit Museum of the Eastern Zhou. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

Two burial pits have been excavated. The first, which measures 32 x 5 metres, contains the remains of 10 chariots and 32 horses (14); of these, six of the chariots are associated with four horses and four chariots are buried with two horses. The second pit (15), which measures 8 x 3 metres contains three chariots and six horses.

The original wood of the chariot frames has decayed, but its impression remains in the loess [yellowish-grey windblown sediment]. Bronze beads, large bronze buttons and cowrie shells sewn on to fabric in a circular pattern, which served as ornamentation can still be seen on the horses’ skulls, along with some of the surviving horses’ tack.

15. Two horse warchariots found in the sacrificial horse pit (3m x 2.7m) dating from the middle of the Spring and Autumn period. Linzi Museum of Chinese Ancient Chariots. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

The chariots are mostly about 3m long and about 2.5m wide. They are all single axle and are of two types: smaller two-horse ones (war chariots) and larger four-horse ones (for transportation of goods). In the first pit, the horses and chariots are lined up, while in the second, six horses conceal three chariots buried beneath.

Displayed in the Hall are a large collection of restored ancient Chinese chariots and reproductions, along with an exhibition devoted to the development of the stirrup in China: an important development in Chinese military history. The display includes nineteen restored chariots of various functions found at sites, or reproduced. Among them is a Warring States Period battle chariot and a replica of the celebrated bronze chariot found in the mausoleum of Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of China (259–210 BC).

16. The entrance to the Linzi Museum of Ancient Chariots in Shandong Province. Photograph © Miriam Clifford.

Nearby this museum, is the Linzi Funerary Horse Pit Museum of the Eastern Zhou. Measuring 26m x 23m, the partially excavated tomb is that of the Duke Jing, who ruled the Qi dynasty (547-490 BC). In the centre, still unexcavated, is his burial place; surrounding him on three sides is a rectangular pit lined with the skeletons of 600 horses. Since 1964 when the site was discovered, only 228 of the horses have been excavated along with 3000 artefacts, however this year excavations have resumed. (Heyatou Village, Qidu Town, Linzi District, Zibo, Shandong

These six sites are among many of the lesser-known, yet wonderful, archaeological sites and museums to see in China. Besides the site of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihangdi, which few visitors to China miss, we should also draw your attention to the Neolithic site of Banpo in Xi’an, one of the earliest and finest archaeological site museums in China. Covered in a steel and glass, it allows the visitor to walk along the trenches viewing houses, storage pits, tombs and burials. This ancient site offers a fascinating insight into the development of local inhabitants from cave-dwelling to houses over 6000 years ago.

Another is the Palaeolithic site of Zhoukoudian, which is about 50 miles southwest of Beijing, where the first Homo erectus pekinesis (‘Peking Man’) skull was excavated in 1929. Some 40 individuals, male and female, of varying ages have been identified here – the largest known sample of Homo erectus fossils ever found. 

Equally worth a visit are the provincial museums filled with national treasures excavated on sites within the province. Among these are: the Nanjing Museum with a collection rivaled only by those in Beijing and Taipei; the Shaanxi History Museum with its spectacular collection of Tang tomb frescoes; the Hunan Provincial Museum that includes The Exhibition of the Mawangdui Han Tombs – one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in China; the Henan Museum; with a superb and enormous collection from the Paleolithic to the Qing, and the Hebei Provincial Museum with wonderful objects from the Warring States and Han dynasty, as well as a superb collection of objects from the tomb of the Western Han dynasty King Liu Sheng and his consort Dou Wan.

And finally, the National Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Museum are on the must-see list for any visitor interested in ancient Chinese art and archaeology.