Freer Gallery Presents First U.S. Exhibition on Childhood in Chinese Art

Paintings and Ceramics Spanning Two Millennia Reveal the Lives of Children in Chinese Culture
November 18, 2009
News Release
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A collection of Chinese paintings, ceramics and slate carving depicting children at play from the past two millennia will be on view Nov. 18 through May 23, 2010, at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. “Children at Play in Chinese Painting,” drawn from the collection of the Freer, is the first exhibition to be organized on the theme in the United States.

The exhibition includes 36 objects highlighting the effervescence of youth. Silken scrolls depict young school children teasing each other over lessons, rural boys flitting through idyllic nature scenes while herding oxen and urban toddlers jumping rope to the beat of a striking gong. The images are simple and amusing, yet revelatory of the important role children play in Chinese civic life.

“This show brings a popular Chinese theme to light,” said Joseph Chang, curator of Chinese art, who organized the exhibition. “Children are considered blessings and symbols of good luck in Chinese culture.”

Images of children were especially popular from the 10th century onward, during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, reflecting the desire for offspring, especially males, which permeated all sectors of Chinese society. Professional artists sold paintings to the general public, who bought them as tokens of good luck or gave them as gifts. Emperors hoping for male heirs commissioned artworks depicting up to 16 children, a number considered auspicious due to popular stories of an ancient emperor whose 16 children helped him rule.

One such object in the exhibition, a Ming Dynasty blue and white “boys jar,” was commissioned by Emperor Jiajing and depicts 16 lively youngsters cavorting through an abstracted garden setting.

Chang organized the exhibition to reflect “the striking contrast between the lives of rural and urban children.” Rural children are depicted in rugged, natural landscapes. They engage in solitary activities, such as herding livestock or fishing, that contribute to the prosperity of the family farm. Urban children, on the other hand, are found in contained environments, such as brightly colored gardens, where their activities are closely monitored by mothers and female attendants.

Although female children are rarely represented, mothers are commonly portrayed, benignly watching their young boys growing into men. Whether rural or urban, male or female, the message is the same for all Chinese children: You are the future, but take time now for play.

The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Ave. S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs, tours and other events, the public is welcome to visit For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.

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