China’s hidden century ★★★★★ The British Museum | May 18 - Oct 8, 2023

Carl Sagan stated, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” Understanding China is no small task, but this extraordinary exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into a shadowy era of the country's history. From 1796, the accession of Jiaqing, fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, to the abdication of last emperor, Puyi, in 1912, the 19th century was a tumultuous time for today's superpower. Through catastrophic wars and the disruptions of modernisation, everything changed and set the stage for a revolution that was to reverberate into the present era. The present exhibition brings together 300 objects, half from The British Museum and half borrowed from 30 different British and international lenders. The display is the culmination of a four year project involving the collaboration of over 100 scholars from 14 countries. Divided into six sections: Court, Military, Artists, Everyday Life, Global Qing and Reform to Revolution, the story is told in a dramatic and personal manner. Each section has an individual identified as a guide to that part of the narrative, and this device creates a wonderfully intimate tone and brings the fascinating selection of objects to life. From the amusing self-description and reference to Queen Victoria by the Empress Dowager Cixi in the Court section to the tragic story of the painter Ren Xiong in the Artists gallery the effect is to humanise the history. While there is a lot of information to be gleaned from this remarkable aggregation of treasures, it is all kept in human perspective and is made delightfully engaging. Don't miss the embroidered earmuffs, waterproof for workers or portrait of Queen Victoria's little dog, Looty! China's hidden century may tell the epic tale of an important period in the country's history, but the hallmark of this extraordinary initiative is that it never overwhelms or exhausts the viewer with information. Here's an exhibition that breathes life into a frequently misunderstood and insufficiently known period of the imperial state, while providing insight into the past and context for the present.

Rated: ★★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Unidentified artist, Portrait of Lady Li (Lu Xifu's Wife), about 1876. © ROM.

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