China Institute

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Inexplicably, the jade burial suit included round bits just where the nipples should go. Mysterious, as there were no jade abs or jade belly button. Still, it created a link across times and cultures from Han Dynasty China to Ancient Greece and Rome to the awful Val Kilmer Batman movies.

Jade Burial Suit Nipple, China Institute NYC

China Institute, New YorkThe China Institute occupies second floor space in a fairly anonymous office building in the Financial District.  It appears they will soon move to much more prominent ground-floor space, which should help drive awareness and attract visitors.

The Institute broadly recently turned 90 years old.  Like the Japan Society and the Korean Cultural Center, it serves multiple purposes: hosting talks and language classes and, since 1966, a gallery as well.  Unfortunately, the China Institute frowns on photography, so this will be a relatively un-visual review.

The gallery is reasonably sized, windowless, and neutral.  The current exhibition divides into four themes or sub-topics, and to match that the curators divided the space into four rooms, using modular internal walls.  It worked well.

Have a Good Afterlife

The space, then, is fine, and right now they’ve filled it with treasures. “Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou” displays examples of the funerary goods buried with a prominent Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) ruler.  It includes terra cotta figures selected from the army-in-miniature they buried kings with.  While not as impressive as the life sized ones from Xi’an, these were much more portable.  It also featured various other terra cotta servants, including a beautiful dancer, all long sleeves and sinuous curves.  And finally, various beautiful and luxurious objects made of jade, bronze, and gold, all complementing the showstopper at the exhibition’s heart.

That would be the jade suit.  Literally, a head-to-toe burial costume comprised of 4,248 little jade tiles with tiny holes pierced in the corners allowing each piece to be tied to the next with gold thread.  According to contemporary  beliefs, burying the nobility with appropriate jade accoutrements–handgrips, plugs for the nine orifices, and the full suit–helped ensure the preservation of the body (and therefore the soul)  forever.

Marketing for China Institute Exhibition
Marketing a jade suit

I felt just a little bit suspicious about the state of preservation of the jade that makes up the suit.  Other jade pieces in the show look…older.  They definitely restored it significantly, but the exhibition doesn’t specify just how much.  I’m no archaeologist and I’m not reviewing the suit, so I’ll not say more on that subject.

On the other hand, the well-written labels and wall texts explained things well and thoroughly.  They even sneaked a pun into one of the section titles, “Rapt in Jade.”  I doubt that works in Mandarin, but in English it made me smile.

Where else in New York can you take a tour through the tomb treasures of a 2,000 year old Han Dynasty ruler?  Actually, by coincidence, one place: you can see very similar, but even more extravagant, artifacts at The Met’s “Age of Empires” show. But outside The Met, you’d have to go to China.

Under the Radar no More

The China Institute has flown under my radar in the past.  I won’t let that happen going forward.  Their ability to borrow the Han tomb artifacts from the Xuzhou Museum bespeaks strong connections with cultural institutions and government leaders.  I’d compare it to the Onassis Center in terms of ambitions and capabilities.

Who should visit?  The Met’s China galleries will always offer a better overview for those seeking the full sweep of Chinese art history.  But sometimes you want something smaller and more focused, or you don’t have a whole day to spend on art overload.  For sure anyone with an interest in Asian art should definitely go, and keep an eye on their calendar, too.  

When it comes to prepping for the afterlife, I’m not convinced about having jade plugs stuffed in my nine orifices and being dressed in a jade suit.  Judging from history, it seems like an invitation to grave robbers to mess you up. Three orifices plus some terra cotta dancers to keep me company would be plenty, thanks.  I’ll share more on my preferred funerary practices when I get around to visiting Green-Wood and Woodlawn.

For Reference:

Address 100 Washington Street, Manhattan (entrance at 40 Rector)
Cost  General Admission:  $10 (free for IDNYC members)
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