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Reviewed by:
  • China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 A.D.
  • Bonnie Cheng (bio)
James C. Y. Watt, et al. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. New York and New Haven, CT: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2004. xxiv, 392 pp. Hardcover $75.00, ISBN 1–5883–9126–4.

This beautifully illustrated catalogue accompanied an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured artifacts unearthed in China since the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Conceived as a companion to their 1996 exhibition, Splendors of Imperial China—a show that consisted largely of masterpieces of painting and calligraphy from the National Palace Museum in Taipei—the current catalogue represents the fruits of collaboration with scholars and archaeologists in the PRC.1 But unlike other exhibitions, which spanned several millennia of Chinese history, China: Dawn of a Golden Age concentrates on 550 formative years from the fall of the Han to the early Tang, a confusing time of short-lived and overlapping dynasties whose political disunity and ethnic and cultural complexity has complicated our understanding of the era. The present catalogue represents growing interest in early medieval art and cultural exchange. A show at the Asia Society in 2001, titled Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th–7th Century, brought to light the importance of art of this era, and James C. Y. Watt and his associates attempt a more comprehensive survey in the present volume. Broadening the temporal parameters by two centuries and the geographic scope to include artifacts unearthed in both northern and southern regions, the Metropolitan catalogue allows authors to showcase so-called decorative arts: textiles, glass, metalwork, and ceramic vessels that were crucial sites of technical and artistic innovation, as well as sculptures of clay, wood, and stone. Adding to this discussion Buddhist works uncovered at equally disparate geographic sites of northeast and southwest China, the catalogue highlights the stunning range of artistic forms brought into these regions from distant lands. Most authors of the catalogue's six essays are authorities on their topics and have published extensively in other venues. The specialist will find that the bibliography and notes offer further reading of select primary and secondary sources, and for the general audience the catalogue offers a good introduction to the period and some of the first essays by glass and textile specialists in China translated into English. The essays are brief, and each alternates between broad themes of the five centuries and focused insights on pieces from the exhibition. While no single thread unifies all six essays, many of its authors argue that diverse artistic traditions introduced to China during this era intermingled with indigenous traditions and reached their fruition in the early Tang (618–755 C.E.).

James C. Y. Watt's essay, the lengthiest in the volume, tackles the most difficult task of the catalogue: to provide an underlying narrative to works that span [End Page 585] 550 years. While Watt draws from traditional historical sources, he does not offer a strict historical account. He articulates major phases of the five centuries and key political events as they impacted changes in artistic and cultural production: from the decline of the Han in the third century, division into north and south and the rise and migration of regional groups in the fourth and fifth centuries, the consolidation of power by courts at Luoyang and Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), further division of the north into east and west followed by reunification under the Sui in the sixth century, and finally the High Tang culture of the late seventh to early eighth centuries. Watt's essay structure diverges from divisions of the exhibition, which were variously framed by dynastic period or region, by topic (coming of the Xianbei) or by a single medium (textiles) that spanned centuries. The exhibition's sometimes nonlinear organization served didactic purposes and established key themes to underscore the complexity of peoples and artistic strands colliding and enlivening the era between the "golden ages" of the Han and Tang. While he follows a rough chronology in his essay, Watt strays from a rigid temporal...