A huge map of the known world at the time opens an exhibition about China’s “hidden century”, but unlike any map you might have seen before as it shows country size by their importance, so China dominates and Europe is a small insignificant blob in the far corner.

Over to the side, two easy to overlook documents can be seen as China’s own Rosetta Stone, being dictionaries written in multiple languages for a country that contains a large number of ethnic and cultural groups within a single border. That in a way highlights the contradictions of the country – one name, one border, but many cultures, and yet, we Westerners probably only think of China as a single entity.

The exhibition tells the story of the last century of the Chinese emperors prior to their downfall and blends a mix of richly decorated imperial objects with the more humble, and often rarer surviving objects owned by the average person.

Two massive Cloisonné jars turn out to be gifts to King George V to mark his coronation, so quite topical at the moment — and the jars aren’t much smaller than the King was himself.

Amongst the riches though is a reminder that hardly anyone lived like that — and while the straw cloak looks like its come out of a Mummers play, is actually the sort of cheap waterproof cloak worn by those who couldn’t afford anything more practical to wear.

You might not want to look too closely at the painting of a dentist, with her long strands of teeth she removed displayed as a sign of her skills.

Something you might walk past without a second glance because it looks like the sort of thing you’ve often seen is actually very rare – a small wooden sculpture of a man. Rare because all those small Chinese sculptures you see on Antiques Roadshow are usually of gods — not ordinary people.

A remarkable basket looks to be created from delicate lacework overlaid over bamboo, but it’s exceptionally well-carved slices of ivory. Not so good for the elephant, but undeniably a master craftsman at work.

A painting of George Washington seems an odd inclusion but turns out to be an example of reverse glass painting. In fact so desirable was the work created that the USA tried to ban the imports of Chinese copies of George Washington’s portrait. In some ways, times never change with the trade war between the two countries ongoing to this day.

The British Museum famously has the Elgin Marbles, and here in the China gallery, the Elgin family reappears, as Lord Elgin of Marbles’ son was the one who led the bombardment of Guangzhou and the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing (Peking).

He also took a small dog and presented it to Queen Victoria – the UK’s first Pekinese – which, in shockingly bad taste was called Looty.

Although the space is filled with objects, there is a narrative going on, with the exhibition broken into themes, from the Imperial palace, the military, the domestic, internationalisation and later revolution.

The exhibition does end on an odd note, with the impression that the country is about to enter a new age of enlightened liberalism with women gaining human rights, education for the masses and opening up of society.

Then communism took over.

It’s a richly decorated snapshot of a time of turmoil in China, and reminds us how little many of us know about this formative period in time that underpins much of how China looks at the rest of the world today.

The exhibition China’s hidden century is at the British Museum until 8th October 2023

It will be open daily, with late opening every Friday as well until 8:30pm.

  • Adults: £18
  • Concessions: £16
  • National Art Pass: £9
  • Under 16: Free (with an adult)
  • British Museum members: Free

Tickets should be booked in advance from here.

There is also a 2-for-1 offer for students on Fridays – select two tickets and you will be charged for one at the checkout.

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