Porcelain: Elegant, with a historical twist

Ewer in the form of a dancing woman from China (C.1522-1600). Photos: ACM
A porcelain horse incense burner with gilded bronze mounts assembled in Europe in the 18th century. The horse dates back to the Qing dynasty.
The Asian Civilisations Museum’s last exhibition of the year shines a light on China’s porcelain art
Published: 4:04 AM, August 2, 2014
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SINGAPORE — A beautiful courtesan with robes swirling around her, her deep blue locks coiffed neatly and her expression one of peace and sullen shyness. It sounds like something out of an old Chinese text. But she’s an ewer in the form of a dancing woman. A valuable porcelain pitcher from the late 1600s, she has an almost identical twin owned by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the father of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. And she is only one of the 150 exquisite pieces showcased at the Asian Civilisation Museum’s (ACM) latest exhibition ChinaMania!.

For centuries, porcelain has been seen as something magical and unobtainable. Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) director Dr Alan Chong said: “They were delicate-looking and highly prized for their decoration and the brightness of their colours. Everyone around the world struggled to make imitations of it. It was something that other cultures wanted to achieve. So we thought it would be a very interesting way of looking at how creativity flows throughout the world. This was a way of looking at the connections between East and West.”

But is he concerned that many, especially the youth in Singapore, might dismiss such porcelain artefacts as mere “junk” or consider them irrelevant in this modern age? “Well, they are old!” laughed Chong. “And junk is in the eye of the beholder. For me, they tell such an interesting story. If you’re an economist, you can talk about trade. If you’re an art lover, you can talk about the beauty of the individual objects. I don’t expect everyone to love every single thing, as it’s all a matter of taste.

“We thought it was a way of looking at Chinese culture that was at least a little innovative.”

Then there’s also that little thing called taste. “The taste for porcelain really varies. Some people want really pure monochromatic things that are very sophisticated. Other people like the bright colours and crazy designs. We have to be open for everyone, right?” said Chong.

But ChinaMania! isn’t only about porcelain from China, but rather, the idea of China, its innovations, creativity and creations being sought-after commodities all over the world — even from as early as the ninth century. When sourcing for the show, they had to consider several factors — tangible things such as its importance and its age, as well as some intangible aspects.

“The X-factor,” said Chong. “A great artefact must do many things. It must get the public interested and tell a historical story of creativity. It has to do more than one thing. Like a great movie star! It has to excite you on many different levels. It could be nice to look at, but if there’s no resonance, we don’t really need it. If you go ‘Ah, it’s 2,000 years old and it’s just a little lump’, it’s not going to entice the public to learn more. So we use the idea of excitement and beauty to get the people more involved.”

This is the last exhibition this year for the museum. The ACM will undergo renovations to prepare for its official re-opening that’s slated for the end of next year. Chong said that the public can look forward to some new additions.

“There will be the T’ang gallery, new displays, we’ll be refreshing old galleries and we’re also going to carve a new entrance from the river,” he elaborated. “The river’s so important to Singapore’s history, it faces one of the great sights of Singapore.”

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