Made in China. We see the words stamped on most objects. Pencil cases, water bottles, costume jewelry, and souvenirs.
Located on the first level of the Royal Ontario Museum, the exhibit Made in China weaves through two halls in a stretched S-shape.
At the beginning of the S-shape stands the Ming tomb that housed the remains of General Zu Dashou. A case encloses the sunflower yellow walls that run the length of the gallery. Three Judges from Hell grimace behind the glass. The glazed earthenware statues from the Henan Province date from the 16th century Ming dynasty. The Judges are part of a group of ten. In Chinese mythology, the realm of the dead had ten courts, and each Judge presided over a different punishment and atonement.
It’s a striking beginning.
Continuing in the glass case are glazed earthenware models of watchtowers and mansions with miniature guards and horses that reflect Chinese architecture from different dynasties, or for westerners, centuries. The tags throughout the exhibit describe how the architecture distinguished between Yang and Yin houses. The ancient Chinese built Yang houses of wood for the living, and they used stone for the dead’s tombs.
The exhibit drops down into another corridor at the corner of the reconstructed Imperial Palace Hall. Smaller Korean and Japanese exhibits bookend the row of Chinese artifacts. The row of Chinese artifacts feature coins, dishes, burial accessories, and a fleet of description tags contextualize each object in the traditions of daily life in ancient China.
Buddhist statues float on platforms in the middle of the space. Ink and colour on clay murals drape the walls around the statues. The murals represent the deities of Daoism as they pay tribute to Yuanshi Tianjun (the Primordial Celestial Excellency).
On the other side of the walls, the ROM has set two small booths that display Chinese export art. The pieces include landscapes on hand-painted wallpaper and a collection of painted porcelain pieces. A variety of panels titled “Imagine China” describe how Chinese manufacturers tailored their works to reflect western trends of the time.
The hand-painted wallpaper shows a landscape in Southern China. According to the description tag, wallpaper symbolized luxury and elegance and reached the height of fashion in Britain in the 1700s. By the early 19th century, most working-class homes had European-printed wallpaper. This standardization led wealthier households to demand hand-painted, custom-made Chinese wallpaper.
The enormous space the ROM dedicated to the ancient Chinese artifacts is juxtaposed with the two small booths dedicated to export art. It’s interesting to think how brief a moment export art is in the vast spread of Chinese cultural history. And yet, it’s art made for export that shaped how the western world viewed China as exotic.
In the mid-1800s, however, new technologies allowed the mass production of popular export items. It’s easy to imagine how production and trade deals expanded, overriding handmade, and therefore slower to produce, items.
Souvenirs don’t reflect the place visited as much as the visitor’s impressions of the place. The mass-produced items on a shelf in Walmart don’t reflect China’s rich cultural history or the reality of factory workers’ lives, but rather the consumer’s desire for a product at an affordable price.
The “Imagine China” section of the exhibit displays the artifacts in the context of capitalism and colonialism and leaves room for reflection about how trade shapes our world today, as well as the impact capitalism can have on art.