Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Presents “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings”

The First Major Exhibition in the United States Dedicated to Anyang, the Capital of Ancient China’s Shang Dynasty and Birthplace of Chinese Archaeology
January 17, 2023
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Three sculptural objects of varying ornateness depicting stylized animals

Left to right: Ritual wine pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie), dragons, and real animals, Anyang or middle Yangzi region, ca. 1100 B.C., bronze, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer, F1961.33a–b; Ritual wine-pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie) and dragons, middle or late Anyang period, ca. 1100 B.C., bronze, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.279a–b; Ritual wine-pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie), dragons, and real animals, middle Anyang period, ca. 1150–1100 B.C., bronze, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1939.53a–b (National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution)

The National Museum of Asian Art is presenting “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings,” the first major exhibition in the United States dedicated to Anyang, the capital of ancient China’s Shang dynasty (occupied ca. 1250 B.C.–ca. 1050 B.C.), the source of China’s earliest surviving written records, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the birthplace of Chinese archaeology. Composed of objects exclusively from the museum’s collection, “Anyang” will be on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Feb. 25, 2023–April 28, 2024. It is the second in a series of exhibitions that celebrate the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial in 2023.
 
Organized by Curator of Ancient Chinese Art J. Keith Wilson, assisted by research curator Kyle Steinke, “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings” brings together more than 200 artifacts—including jade ornaments, ceremonial weapons, ritual bronze vessels, bells and chariot fittings—to examine the Shang state and artistic achievements of those who lived in its capital some 3,000 years ago. The public will have the opportunity to explore the early development of Chinese writing, enduring ritual practices, innovations in weaponry and warfare, advances in design and the highly personal spaces of tombs, including objects chosen for the afterlife. The exhibition will feature a series of digital explorations, many developed in partnership with award-winning production studio UNIT9 that will help visitors revisit the discovery of the city almost a century ago and explore life in the ancient Shang capital as it was some three millennia earlier.

“The National Museum of Asian Art has had a long and productive relationship with our Chinese colleagues specializing in China’s extraordinary art and archaeology, particularly regarding Anyang,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Asian Art. “As we celebrate our centennial in 2023, this exhibition showcases our commitment to scholarship, research and discovery. We are delighted to welcome visitors to learn about an especially significant period in China's history, both in our galleries and in our programming."

Anyang holds a special connection with the National Museum of Asian Art. Beginning in 1928, archaeological work at the Bronze Age site was supervised by Academia Sinica, China’s first interdisciplinary research institute. One year later, Li Chi (1896–1979) assumed leadership of the excavations. At the time, he was also a staff member of the Freer Gallery of Art (1925–30). To promote archaeological practice in China, the museum supported Li and his first two seasons of work at Anyang. This collaboration, predicated on the advancement of scientific knowledge and the protection of cultural patrimony, marks an important chapter in the history of Sino-American relations.

“The exhibition uses the results of nearly 100 years of formal Anyang archaeology to establish the meaning and function of objects in our collection that were no doubt made there,” Wilson said. “Thus, the show has two parallel themes: the evolution of Chinese archaeological practice and key developments in Shang material, social and economic culture illustrated by our remarkable objects.” 

Wilson has curated numerous exhibitions related to China at the National Museum of Asian Art, including “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan” (2011). He frequently employs innovative digital methods, such as initiating a digital imaging and research tool dedicated to the Freer Gallery’s renowned Northern Qi (550–577) sculpture of the Cosmic Buddha, the subject of the monographic exhibition “Body of Devotion” (2016–2017) and now an online feature. Wilson also published the ancient Chinese jades digital catalog “Jades for Life and Death,” which includes numerous objects from the Shang dynasty. 

As a prelude to the exhibition, the Smithsonian Channel developed a feature-length program in the Epic Warrior Women series dedicated to Fu Hao, who is described in early Anyang inscriptions as a royal consort, military leader and ritual celebrant. The 2022 film stimulated new interest in Anyang worldwide.

Since its opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art has collected, exhibited and shared iconic Chinese works of art and their contexts, providing millions of visitors with opportunities to appreciate more fully the arts, histories and cultures of China. The museum holds one of the finest collections of Chinese art in the world, with masterworks in every medium. Ranging in date from the Neolithic period to today, the Chinese collections number nearly 13,000 objects, remarkable for their quality, diversity and depth. The bronzes and jades featured in “Anyang” are a strength of the collection.

Credit

Support for “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings” is provided by two anonymous donors, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Antoine and Emily van Agtmael, Henry Luce Foundation, Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, Blakemore Foundation and Friends of the National Museum of Asian Art.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial celebration is made possible by Presenting Sponsor Bank of America.

About Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art 

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen our collective understanding of Asia and the world. Home to more than 45,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American works, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the United States, Asia and the Middle East. 

Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.

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Jennifer Mitchell

(224) 251-9767
mitchellja@si.edu

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