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The exhibition Mystical Colours is a collection of eclectic flashbacks through the many symbols, images, colours and shapes that reflect the fascinating changes in the material culture of China spanning some 2,500 years. While many elements of the change observed in this catalogue were rooted in ideological practices, notions of Confucian lifestyle, or aesthetic preferences and tastes, others were constant and evolved over time.

One instance of this is the continued importance of incense in both religious and secular life.  From the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 BC), whether used for its herbal or medicinal properties, or as an inseparable part of ritual, incense was burnt in censers that fulfilled both decorative as well as ritual functions. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and thereafter, incense was also used purely as a sensory stimulus, creating its own meditative atmosphere, or as an inspirational tool for artists, musicians and poets alike.

The early examples were innovative, considerate of both practical use and design (catalogue nos. 4, 5). From the Song Dynasty (960-1278) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), archaism became the primary source of decorative style both in motifs (catalogue nos. 27, 29, 30 to 32) as well as shapes which were usually derived from ancient bronzes. The various incense burners and lamps in this catalogue show the ingenious ways in which these receptacles were turned into ornaments of great imagination, combining functionality with symbolist design or archaistic ideas.

Most of the animal motifs found on these objects have something in common with the other free standing animal sculptures in this exhibition. Beginning in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1100 BC), zoomorphic iconography frequently had a direct correlation to the cosmic elements or mystical beliefs. Much of the early symbolism remains a mystery, but the bird, chimera and turtle (catalogue nos. 3, 4, 5 and 7) were to have a lasting impact  on account of their auspicious, moral or spiritual connections.

The Silk Road became the conduit, not just of trade, but additionally, of ideology and new aesthetics. The lion as a guardian figure in the Indian Buddhist tradition reached the height of its popularity during the Tang Dynasty (catalogue nos. 13, 14). The Brahmin bull was another import from early Indian Mahayana Buddhism, which relied on elements of Hindu iconography for its broad-based appeal. Distinguished from native Chinese oxen by its hump and dewlap, the bronze bull in this exhibition (catalogue no. 8) was very likely used as a talisman against floods in disaster-prone areas of the Central plains.

Painted Pottery Figure of
a Sportive Noblewoman,
Tang Dynasty (618-907),
19 5/8 in. (49.9 cm.) high