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Art Museum

Exhibition re-examines key Chinese burial site

Sleeve Dancer

“Sleeve Dancer”

Princeton NJ -- An exhibition that re-examines one of ancient China’s great archaeological sites will open at the University Art Museum Saturday, March 5. “Recarving China’s Past: Art, Archaeology and Architecture of the ‘Wu Family Shrines’” will run through Sunday, June 26.

For more than a thousand years, the burial site known as the Wu Family Shrines in the Shandong Province of northeastern China has served as a benchmark for the study of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) — one of the defining periods in Chinese history. The inscriptions and pictorial carvings covering the stone slabs from this family cemetery complex have been the basis for much of what is known about critical dates concerning artistic, literary, cultural and architectural developments from one of ancient China’s richest eras.

Now, new scholarship led by Princeton will be presented in the exhibition, in an accompanying catalog and at an April 30-May 1 symposium. This work likely will prompt significant re-examination of the site’s long-accepted implications, including even its attribution to the Wu family.

The exhibition and catalog reinterpret the shrines based on the discovery, since the 1980s, of additional structures and archaeological materials, as well as evidence that some of the writing and pictorial carvings at the site may have been re-cut over the intervening centuries — essentially recarved to fit prevailing attitudes and assumptions about the Han era.

“In leading this project, we intend to reopen discussion about what has been taken for granted over nearly a thousand years of study and create the possibility to reconsider and reimagine some of the most fundamental assertions about China’s cultural, archaeological, and artistic past,” said Cary Liu, curator of Asian art at the museum and team leader for the project.

“We are proud to lead this re-examination of a cultural legacy that is fundamental to those steeped in the study of ancient China,” said Susan Taylor, director of the museum. “This initiative, centered on objects in Princeton’s collection but including works borrowed from collectors and other institutions, also allows the public to participate in a reappraisal of this extraordinary legacy and to open an unusual window onto the remarkable issues surrounding archaeological research and cultural history.”

19th-century ink-on-paper rubbing

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the University Art Museum’s own set of rare, 19th-century ink-on-paper rubbings (above) of the “Wu shrines” pictorial carvings. Some 60 works of art from the museum’s collection, as well as objects including the “Sleeve Dancer” (top) borrowed from museums in the United States, Canada, Europe and China, also will be exhibited, bringing these reliefs to life.