A large but also very fragile document that can only be seen for a few weeks each year will be displayed next week at the British Museum.

The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies is a Chinese scroll thought to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, such document in the world, and it is around 1,500 years old. The one in the museum is probably a copy of an earlier scroll, and they think it was composed to reprimand Empress Jia and provide advice to the women in the imperial court.

The painting illustrates this text with scenes depicting anecdotes about the exemplary behaviour of historical palace ladies and more general scenes showing aspects of life as a palace lady. In that sense, it’s an earlier version of the sorts of guides to domestic bliss that have perpetually instructed ladies how to behave, maintain a good home, and be a good wife — or, in this case, Empress.

Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands. The history of the painting can be ascertained through the seals and inscriptions, beginning with the eighth-century seal of the Hongwen guan, a division of the Han-lin Academy.

The painting was subsequently in the collections of well-known connoisseurs who added their own seals and inscriptions before ending up in the imperial collection during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-96). In 1899, during the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, the painting was acquired by an officer in the British Indian Army, who sold it to the British Museum.

Due to its age and how the painting was made, it can only be exposed to light for a few weeks each year. It usually sits in a room with other documents but with the lid firmly sealed shut. Next week, the lid will be opened.

You can stand in the presence of the Admonitions Scroll from 5th October to 15th November. It’s in the British Museum in Room 91a – which is at the back of the museum at the very top of the stairs – look for the prints exhibitions.

You need to book free tickets from here, and tickets will be released weekly for visits the following week.


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