A document that is so rare and fragile that it can only be seen for a few weeks each year will go on display next week at the British Museum.

The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies is a Chinese scroll thought to be one of, if not the, oldest such document in the world and is around 1,500 years old. The one in the museum is probably a copy of an earlier scroll, and it was composed, they think, to reprimand Empress Jia and to 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, as well as with 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, how to maintain a good home, and how to 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 the way the painting was made, it can only be exposed to light for a few weeks each year — and normally sits in a room with other documents, but with the lid firmly sealed shut.

Next week though, the lid will be lifted.

It’s split into two documents, thanks to the acts of a previous owner, which does incidentally make it easier to view now as it is in two separate glass cases.

You can stand in the presence of the Admonitions Scroll from 3rd October to 13th 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.


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