Exhibition of ancient bronzes in Hong Kong illuminates culture, history

A bronze zun, a drinking vessel, exhibited at the Hong Kong Museum of History. ZHU WEI/XINHUA

During her five-day study trip to Central China’s Henan province in April last year, Chun Wai-wa marveled at the high degree of development of ancient Chinese civilization while exploring the ruins of cities dating back 2,000 to 4,000 years.

“How can I pass on my deep feeling to the audience in Hong Kong?” pondered Chun, assistant curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, as she and her colleagues crafted plans for the first exhibition of the General History of China Series.

One year later, more than 150 sets of cultural relics from 15 institutions in eight cities in Henan have been transported south to Hong Kong and are on display in the museum of history from April 3 to July 8, telling the story of Chinese civilization in this international metropolis.

Central plains origins

Titled Center of the World, the exhibition aims to trace the origin of Chinese civilization, focusing on the Xia (c.21st century-16th century BC), Shang (c.16th century-11th century BC) and Zhou (c.11th century-256BC), the three earliest dynasties in Chinese history, which are collectively referred to as the Bronze Age.

But why Henan? According to Hui Siu-mui, curator of the HKMH, Henan houses the ruins of the capitals of all three dynasties, and numerous cultural relics have been unearthed in the region.

The Hong Kong curators’ idea was echoed by their Henan counterparts as soon as the latter was contacted.

“We have always paid great attention to cultural exchanges via relics, as it is a good way to vividly tell the story of Chinese civilization,” said Ren Wei, director of the Henan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Cultural relics from Henan embodied the essence of Chinese civilization and could definitely unleash unique charm in Hong Kong, where diversified cultures exchange and blend with one another, Ren added.

Upon returning to Hong Kong, Chun and her colleagues started going through a large amount of photos, videos and documents collected during their trip to Henan and picked out the most representative relics to piece together a holistic picture of China’s Bronze Age.

A total of 15 institutions coordinated, and finally agreed to offer collections, including large and complete sets of bronze, jade and bone wares, pottery, and oracle bones. It’s noteworthy that 33 items are grade-one national treasures and about 40 items are on display outside Henan for the first time.

As both the Hong Kong and Henan teams aimed to display more of the latest achievements in Chinese archaeology, there are also 44 items unearthed after the year 2000.

A lot of details of the exhibition also demonstrate the joint efforts made by the two sides during a year of intensive cooperation. For instance, to provide high-definition pictures for the catalog, the Henan team made efforts to find a venue suitable to take a group photo of a huge set of bronze ritual objects.