Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The Cyrus Tang Hall of China

No, I don’t know who Cyrus Tang is, or was, but I suspect this exhibition is named for him because a major portion came from his collection. That said, the exhibition itself gives an overview of the history of China from the Neolithic to the early 20th Century.

As one enters, one is greeted by a full-color topographic map of the world with China front and center. Off to the left is a small case that’s worth looking at: it’s a small collection of stone tools and fragments dated from 700,000-300,000 years BCE, created by Homo erectus, which provides some food for thought: Homo sapiens was not the first to make tools.

The first gallery begins with a map of China showing twelve Neolithic sites, which date from 7000-5000 BCE. As the artifacts from two of the sites in the accompanying display reveal, tool-making was already very sophisticated, and there is evidence of farming and animal husbandry, which naturally gives rise to villages. If you look up, the gallery is surrounded by a large, multi-panel video display showing various parts of the Chinese landscape; in the center of the gallery is a relief map of China on which the areas being shown are highlighted; there is also a key on the left-hand wall showing where the videos were filmed. There are small dioramas showing Neolithic villages, and at the end of the gallery a diorama showing, on one side, archaeologists excavating a village, and on the other, the village itself. (Interestingly the village is surrounded by a moat and wall, which leads me to believe that times weren’t all that peaceful.)

The next gallery brings us to the Bronze Age, beginning with the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) followed by the Zou (1046-246 BCE), and including the time of the Warring States (475-221 BCE). If the overlap is puzzling, it pays to keep in mind that China was a unified state at very few times in its history. The accompanying display cases are filled with bronze weapons and tools and everyday artifacts — pots, censers, coins, even a bronze drum. There is a center case displaying Qin artifacts; the exhibition notes that the Qin dynasty (pronounced “chin”; 221-206 BCE), even though it lasted a mere fifteen years, was the first to unify China.

Then we enter the Han period, 66 BCE-CE 220; again, the artifacts on display show increasing sophistication. Along one wall is a scroll showing daily life during the Mingqing Festival, dating from the 11th-12th Centuries CE. It’s richly detailed, and the signage includes an interactive panel that allows the visitor to unroll the scroll and examine various section in detail.

Next is an animated video centered by a map of China showing its boundaries at various periods, from the Shang Dynasty to the Peoples Republic, with a surrounding timeline that notes the periods and is color-coded to the boundaries being shown.

The exhibition then jumps to the Ming and Qing Dynasties (16th-17th Centuries CE), with an emphasis on the Qing. We are now in the hard-core Imperial state. One is struck by the first display, a richly embroidered Imperial robe. Opposite is a small side gallery that examines the role of the Imperial functionaries, displaying some of their marks of rank: a hat, a badge of rank, a scepter.

The next gallery expands somewhat on the role of government officials, and notes that they were highly educated and were often poets and artists as well as bureaucrats.

The next gallery focuses on the various beliefs prominent in Chinese society, beginning with the native Daoists and going to on include Buddhism (side note: China today ha the world’s largest Buddhist population), and even including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. (There is a photo panel showing a rubbing of a stone carving commemorating the rebuilding of the synagogue in Kaifeng in 1512 CE.)

Next is a shadow-puppet show, Voyage to the West, based on a fifteenth-century Chinese novel. Behind the front screen is a pendent video that shows what’s going on behind the scenes.

After that interlude, the displays again pick up the theme of beliefs, concentrating on artifacts associated with birth, marriage, and burial and their associated rituals.

Next we come to the final gallery, which explores China’s extensive trade networks throughout history. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the fabled Silk Road (not noted in the exhibition is the fact that there were two: a northern route, through Central Asia, and a southern route, through India and Persia to the Mediterranean). There were also extensive trade connections with Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This is highlighted by a central case holding artifacts from the Java Sea Shipwreck (12th-13th Centuries CE). The walls hold displays of various trade goods – ceramics, tea services in porcelain and metal, some luxury goods.

The exhibition exits to the Sue Ling Gin Garden, a modern and fairly abstract rendering of a traditional Chinese garden.

Some notes:

The historical narrative, as you may have noticed from the summary above, is sometimes gappy, although there are some unexpected fill-ins — read the labels as you’re looking at the artifacts.

Each display case is accompanied by an interactive panel that offers more details on the objects on display and the context they occupy.

Note well: this is a ticketed exhibition, meaning that there is an additional charge, which you pay on admission to the Museum. Members get in free.

Across Stanley Field Hall, the great central atrium, is a sort of pendant exhibition, the Cyrus Tang Hall of China Tibetan Gallery. There are two small galleries holding on one side, clothing and artifacts of daily life (there’s even a boat – we’d call it a coracle), and on the other, ritual objects and vestments. Although lacking in a historical narrative line, they are worth looking at, although there is one big problem for those of us who don’t bend as easily as we once did: most of the labels and descriptive signage are at floor level.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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