Noe Valley Voice September 2000

Summing Up Our Summer

By Florence Holub

Every fall, friends ask us how we spent our summer vacation, and we almost always answer, "Puttering around the house in Noe Valley." Although most people feel they have to travel somewhere, we--perhaps due to our aging bodies--do not often feel the urge to leave town.

This year we did manage to brave the highways to attend two beautiful family weddings in Grass Valley, one held in our son Jan's garden and another on his cousin Kim's flowering grounds. But the rest of the summer we spent close to home. And why not?

Our fair city has so much to offer that Modern Maturity, in its June/July 2000 issue, ranked San Francisco No. 2 among the 50 "most alive places to live" in the United States. (Boston was No. 1.)

My man Leo and I -- now both octogenarians -- can't hope to indulge in all of the local activities, but we do manage to regularly visit our world-class museums, where there is always something of enduring value to appreciate.

This summer, through September 11, the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park has devoted the entire ground floor to a magnificent exhibition titled "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology." There are 240 objects on display, including many jade pieces, lacquerware, silks, ceramics, gold and silver objects, and pottery and sculpture in terra cotta, stone, and bronze. The "Golden Age" refers to the past three decades of archaeological excavation in the People's Republic of China.

The earliest artifacts in the exhibit date from about 5,000 B.C.E. (the abbreviation for Before Common Era, the museum term for B.C.), and the most recent from 1,000 C.E. (Common Era, or A.D.) -- spanning 6,000 years of Chinese history.

By the end of the late Neolithic Period (5,000 ­ 1,900 B.C.E.), people had already settled along rivers, domesticated the dog and the pig, and were raising sophisticated crops such as rice and millet. Using stone tools, they fashioned jade into precious objects, some of which were buried with the dead.

The Asian Art exhibition features a coiled dragon made of jade, which had been placed with the deceased in a temple structure in northeastern China (I've done a sketch -- see Figure 1). The dragon figure, often associated with immortality, resembles the earliest known written character for the word dragon. Another fine specimen in the show is the animal spirit mask (Fig. 2), also carved from jade. And don't miss seeing one of the earliest images of the human face in Chinese art -- on a hand-coiled, painted earthenware flask (Fig. 3).

The Bronze Age in China (2,000 ­ 770 B.C.E.), which produced a stratified society ruled by a military aristocracy, also produced hundreds of inscribed bronze vessels. One example, a bronze zun (Fig. 4), is a wine bottle in the form of an owl. The most mystifying object of this era, discovered in one of two large pits in Sichuan province in 1986, is an extraordinary male figure on a pedestal (Fig. 5), standing eight feet tall. The man's large hands are shaped as if they were holding something, but whatever it was is no longer there. Perhaps it was one of the elephant tusks unearthed near the sculpture. The two pits also held life-sized heads, and gold, silver, and jade objects: a spectacular find!

The Early Imperial China Period (221 B.C.E. ­ 924 C.E.) is marked by the domination of the state of Qin, pronounced "chin." (The name of China is thought to be derived from this powerful nation state.) Two thousand years ago, the First Emperor of Qin proclaimed himself ruler of China and founded a sequence of dynasties that would last until 1911. In addition to uniting the country, he established standardized currencies, axle widths, and other weights and measures. The Emperor also built sections of the Great Wall and ordered the construction of a vast burial center -- as the final resting place for his soul -- near the present-day city of Xi'an.

His tomb, the largest ceramic project ever undertaken, was discovered in 1974 by laborers digging a well. The burial complex contained an army of more than 7,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers, arranged to protect their leader in the afterlife. On display in the museum exhibit are two archers, one standing and one kneeling (Fig. 6), and a proud, high-ranking army officer (Fig. 7). Out in the lobby, there are two more figures and a team of horses. These five soldiers are representative of the 500 warriors excavated so far.

A few years after the First Emperor's death in 207 B.C.E., the Qin Dynasty collapsed due to a series of economic excesses and labor revolts. The Han Dynasty followed, establishing a more peaceful and orderly society based on the teachings of Confucius. The Han emperors would reign for 400 years until 221 C.E.

When a Han emperor died, he was clothed in a shroud made of 2,500 small jade plaques, which were pierced in the corners and sewn together with gold thread (Fig. 8). Jade plugs were used to seal the body openings -- the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and anus -- because it was believed that jade had the power to preserve the body, thus guaranteeing immortality.

Two jade burial shrouds from the Han Dynasty -- both dating from around 100 B.C.E., but excavated from tombs more than 2,000 miles apart -- are featured in this amazing exhibition.

In case you've lost track of all the changes occurring in the San Francisco art world, here's the latest information I have (I work as a docent for the Fine Arts Museums). Next year, the Asian Art Museum will be moving from its current location adjacent the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to the old Main Library building in Civic Center Plaza. The museum should open in its newly renovated building across from City Hall in early 2002.

Meanwhile, the de Young Museum will close its doors on December 31 (of this year) and not reopen until 2005, in a new, modern, earthquake-safe building in the park. For this reason, the next four months will be your last chance to visit these two museums together in Golden Gate Park.

After you explore the exhibits, you might want to walk over to the Japanese Tea Garden, located on the south side of the Asian Art Museum. It's another San Francisco gem and a wonderful place to contemplate the fascinating art you have just seen.

Speaking of contemplating, my man Leo and I spent the rest of our summer contemplating political conventions on TV, wringing our hands over the polls and pundits, and amusing ourselves by thinking up good running mates for Al Gore.

Before we knew that the U.S. president and vice president had to be from different states -- and before Al picked Joe Lieberman, a fine choice -- Leo and I thought Gore could easily top the Bush-Cheney Texas ticket by choosing a running mate from his home state of Tennessee -- someone who has a great sense of humor and who is always upfront: Dolly Parton. Wouldn't they have made a winning pair?

Seriously, though, before I saw the Demo-cratic Convention and Al's rousing speech (it was good, wasn't it?), I felt that the best team for next year's White House was the one we have now: Clinton-Gore. Too bad we can't have Bill for eight more years!