The Oriental Museum houses over 10,000 objects in its Chinese collections, providing a rich and diverse overview of the long history of Chinese material culture.
The earliest materials produced by Chinese craftsmen, which survive today, are jade and earthenware objects dating to about 5000 BCE. Although of an early date, such pieces illustrate the highest levels of sophistication in craftsmanship and in design. The Oriental Museum contains a comprehensive collection of ceramics ranging in time and function from earthenware storage jars of about 2500 BCE to fine examples of domestic and imperial porcelain of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE).
Jade has long been used in China for burial, ritual, decorative, and practical uses. The Oriental Museum houses an extensive collection of Chinese jades including paperweights and writing accessories for the scholar's desk, bi and cong, protective burial plaques, snuff bottles, dress ornaments, and decorative pieces. As well as jade, the Oriental Museum also houses an extensive range of hardstones, increasingly used by Chinese craftsmen during the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing dynasties. Among these is soapstone, also known as steatite, a relatively easy to carve stone often used to produce carvings of deities and popular religious figures, of which the museum has a large number.
Ivory, bamboo, wood and rhinoceros horn were also carved, often into intricately detailed and exquisite pieces, and these materials feature extensively within the Museum's Chinese collections.
Bronze technology was another area where Chinese craftsmen excelled. During the Shang (1600-1045 BCE) and Zhou (1045-256 BCE) bronze was cast into elaborate wine and food vessels for making ritual offerings and the Oriental Museum houses a number of fine examples of bronze vessels from these dynasties.
Many fine objects examples of Chinese laquerware are also to be found in the Museum's Chinese collections. Lacquer which, in its liquid state can be applied to cups, dishes, boxes, furniture and other items, gives the objects it coats a protective outer layer, rather like plastic. Resistant to acids, alkalis and insect attack, lacquer can be coloured, carved and decorated to produce durable, decorative objects.
Painting and calligraphy were traditionally considered to be the highest of art forms in China. The Museum has examples of painting and calligraphy, in various formats, on both silk and paper. These formats include hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, fans and album leaves.
Some of the more spectacular Chinese objects in the Museum are the embroidered and woven silks, particularly the official dragon robes and their accessories from the Qing dynasty. The collection also features footwear, headgear, theatrical robes, hangings and folk costumes.
Notable among the Museum's collection of Chinese furniture is a magnificent bed made of huali hardwood with carved boxwood and ivory panels and dating to the first half of the 19th century.
In 2008 the importance of the Chinese collections was recognised when they received Designated status from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as being of outstanding national importance. During 2011 the museum completely redeveloped both of our Chinese galleries. The new galleries are now open to the public. Marvels of China provides an introduction to Chinese art and culture, while the Malcolm MacDonald Gallery focuses in particular on the ceramic and jade collections and provides more indepth information aimed as the specialist or serious enthusiast.