‘Phoenix Kingdoms’ display in SF has ‘rewritten the history of China’

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

The Asian Art Museum has collaborated with Chinese museums over many years to bring countless exhibits to San Francisco, displaying both exquisite art objects and monumental tomb warriors. Could there be more?

Yes, now there’s a trove notable for massive bronze cauldrons and tiny coins, depictions of writhing serpents and exquisite silk-gauze robes — excavated in the Yangzi River area and then displayed in Chinese museums.

Now these objects — more than 150 of them — are on display through July 22 as “Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age.” It’s a scholarly approach to the Zeng and Chu kingdoms that flourished in the Zhou Dynasty as long as 3,000 years ago.

Recent scientific advances have made it possible for archaeologists and conservators to excavate and restore many objects without damaging them. As the Asian Art Museum staff points out, waterlogged tombs, which might seem hopeless to a layman, can actually shield fragile objects from decaying by exposure to oxygen and bacteria.

“These very objects, in the last 40 years, have rewritten the history of China,” said chief curator Robert Mintz during a tour of the exhibit. The exhibit organizer, Fan J. Zhang, has called the objects “truly missing links between myth and recorded history.”

The history and archaeology, even the details in the objects’ captions, could be secondary for museum visitors. “You don’t have to read any of the captions to enjoy the exhibit,” Mintz said. “Just walk through and be amazed by the beauty of the objects.”

Mintz pointed out that these bronze objects originally “would have been a bright, shiny gold color.” Now most of them are dark, with makes it even more intriguing to decipher the engravings and detailed animal figures and mythical beasts.

“Phoenix Kingdoms” — the exhibit’s name comes from Zeng and Chu worship of the ever-reviving phoenix — is set up to compound the mystery. The galleries are darkened, objects spotlighted, historical text minimal, captions not always well lighted. A wall-size video projection does, at least, detail the excavation of many of the objects.

These objects are imaginative and intriguing.

A lidded box designed as conjoined pics, circa 43 B.C., was used to store wine cups. (Asian Art Museum) 

There is a lidded box, designed to store wine cups, in the shape of two pigs conjoined back-to-back, with lacquer and coloring still visible. Nearby is a massive square bronze object, a double-walled “jian-fou“ to keep beverages cool on outings. It’s an ice chest, circa 43 B.C. Around the perimeter are sturdy bronze rings for sturdy servants to carry it.

Animals and mythological beasts are depicted over and over; sometimes they’re grotesque, sometimes fanciful. A bronze beast functions as both an incense burner and an oil lamp, with a basket on its head and another on its upraised tail for the wicks. A water basin features the figure of a bird at its center; when filled, the bird would appear to be standing on the water’s surface.

A lovely surprise among the sculptures is a recumbent deer, in bronze, with a pair of real antlers attached its head.

This collection of writhing dragons forms the base of a drum stand on display at the Asian Art Museum. 

On the other hand, there are countless coiled serpents, the most impressive being a tangle of 16 writhing dragons that make up the base of a drum stand. It’s among many objects from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, dating from circa 433 B.C.

More realistic violence is suggested by a display of arrowheads, from a cache of more than 4,500 discovered in Marquis Yi’s tomb. Each arrowhead has three blades which, a caption notes, “would have caused massive bleeding in one struck by it.”

The exhibit’s subtitle, “Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age,” is further explained by the “obliteration” of the multistate Zhou dynasty in 221 B.C. by the conquering Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China who commanded the creation of the terracotta warriors.

Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum director, notes that the exhibit builds on the museum’s decades-long project to explore early Chinese culture and civilization. This exhibit can, he said “upend the notion of a monolithic early China and update it with the story of many distinct cultures interlinking into one over millennia.”


Through: July 22

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 pm. Fridays-Mondays, 1 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays

Admission: $24-$30, 415-581-3500, www.asianart.org

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.