Objects in focus
A journey through China and South Asia in eight objects

The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia has now reopened to the public after a major refurbishment. At 115 metres, this magnificent space is the longest gallery in the British Museum. Its narrative now brings the stories of China and South Asia right up to the present, with new acquisitions of contemporary works. For the first time, paintings and textiles are included in presenting these enormously important areas of the world. Our curators have highlighted eight objects from this remarkable new space.

Carved lacquer ewers

Commissioned by the Qing dynasty court, this pair of beautifully carved red lacquer jugs, decorated with dragons, was used to serve Tibetan butter tea. The tubular form of these vessels is found in both copper and wood in Tibet, as is the feature of a makara (mythical creature) biting the base of the spout.

Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of China Section

Stamp seal

This steatite stamp seal with carved bull and inscription was found in the 1850s in the town of Harappa in Pakistan and played a part in the discovery of the Indus Valley civilisation, one of the earliest urban societies. Indus seals were probably used in trade and administration, and are usually carved with animals and a short inscription. The script has not yet been deciphered.

Daniela de Simone, Tabor Foundation Research Assistant

Sculpture of the god Shiva

The god Shiva, dancing within a ring of flame, here marks both the beginning and the end of each cosmic cycle. This legend of Shiva is especially recorded at the temple of Chidambaram in the Tamil country of southern India. The lost-wax techniques of sculpture production were honed to the greatest perfection in the Chola period (8th–13th century AD).

Richard Blurton, Head, South and Southeast Asia Section

The goddess Sarasvati

Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, is worshipped by Hindus and Jains. In this sculpture from a Jain temple in Rajasthan, she holds a palm-leaf manuscript and a rosary in her left hands, and may have held a stringed musical instrument and a lotus flower in her right hands (now broken). Her mount is the goose. She is surrounded by enlightened Jain teachers called tirthankaras (‘ford makers’), celestial beings and donor figures.

Sushma Jansari, Curator: Asian Ethnographic and South Asia Collections

Lacquer box

This box is a fine example of 16th-century inlaid lacquer. This type of pictorial design became increasingly intricate, partly due to the widespread availability of woodblock prints which provided artisans with clear references. The scene depicts a group of scholars, identified by their elaborate robes and caps, and attendants scattered across an architectural setting, enjoying recreational pursuits such as painting, calligraphy and zither playing.

Wenyuan Xin, Project Curator: China and South Asia

Bronze bell

Bronze bells such as this, with a flat bottom rim and a loop knob (often elaborated in dragon shapes), are called bo in Chinese texts. They were used together with other varieties of bells to form a chime set to produce music essential for court life and rituals. All bells in China were cast with an elliptical section and some of them can produce two notes when struck at the mid-point of the bottom rim or at the bottom corner. This bo bell was made at the Houma foundry in present-day Shanxi province around 600–400 BC. At Houma, patterns on bells and other ritual bronzes were made by using pattern blocks, allowing mass production of objects with complex yet identical surface decorations.

Yi Chen, Curator: Early Chinese Collections

Modern landscape

At first sight, Yang Yongliang’s prints appear like Song dynasty (AD 960–1279) idyllic landscapes, painted in ink and in traditional fan format. By digitally manipulating photographic images, however, Yang substitutes trees with telegraph poles and mountains with clusters of skyscrapers, commenting on the rapid transformation of cities and landscapes in present-day China.

Mary Ginsberg, Research Associate: Asia

Poetic installation

In this contemporary installation by Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969), postage stamps from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India depict Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976). He was a Muslim revolutionary poet active during the Indian independence movement. Nazrul has been commemorated and claimed by all three nations at different times. His poetry transcends territorial boundaries in its celebration of humanity against oppressive authority and its promotion of Hindu-Muslim fraternity.

Imma Ramos, Curator: South Asia

 

The renovation of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia was generously funded by the Sir Joseph Hotung Charitable Settlement.

A version of this article originally appeared in the British Museum Magazine, produced three times a year for Members. You can find out more about becoming a Member and join online today.