Shanghai Museum: a jewel of cultural and historical splendor

Yang Jian
A landmark building that captures the breadth, depth, soul and artistry of centuries of Chinese heritage.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Shanghai Museum, one of China’s first and most prestigious museums, tells a story not just of art and history, but also of the resilience, growth and cultural richness of the city.

It’s a historical narrative in itself, with roots tracing back to 1865, when foreigners established the Natural History Museum near the Xujiahui Cathedral. Initially, the museum’s collection focused on biological specimens from the Yangtze River.

However, the idea of Chinese creating their own museum was planted. That dream was realized in 1935 with the founding of the Shanghai Museum — part of the “Greater Shanghai Plan” of the then Kuomintang government.

Opened on the first day of 1937, the museum quickly became a cultural landmark of Shanghai. Its early leadership included prominent figures like renowned Chinese calligrapher and painter Ye Gongchuo and educator-archeologist Cheng Yansheng.

The museum was temporarily closed during the war against Japanese invaders, which began in 1931. The museum building sustained damage from enemy bombs, and while some artifacts were lost, many treasures were hidden away and preserved.

After the war, the museum reopened on the site of a former Japanese school on Sichuan Road in Hongkou District.

It later moved to the site of the former Shanghai Race Club near People’s Square, under a cultural preservation priority of then Mayor Chen Yi. A total of 2,853 artifacts collected by the People’s Liberation Army during the war to liberate Shanghai were also given to the museum.

The museum’s collection swelled in the postwar period with donations that included precious artifacts from the family of late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) art collector Pan Zuyin.

In 1959, the museum’s location was moved again, to a site on Yan’an Road roughly the size of a football pitch. It marked the beginning of another expansion, with significant exhibitions from both China and abroad.

Among its celebrated visitors was former US President Richard Nixon on his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972.

Shanghai Museum: a jewel of cultural and historical splendor
Ti Gong

Shanghai Museum’s current building at People’s Square incorporates the concept of “heaven is round, earth is square.”

The unveiling of the museum’s current building at People’s Square in 1994 marked the dawn of yet another monumental era for the museum.

The new building, designed by local architect Xing Tonghe, reflects a blend of traditional Chinese and modern architectural elements, incorporating the concept of “heaven is round, earth is square.”

The museum’s facade, featuring artful sculptures and stone lions from the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties, showcases the splendor of Chinese culture.

Today, the museum’s dozens of galleries house more than 10,000 artifacts, including ancient bronzes, ceramics and calligraphy.

The collections span Bronze Age artifacts from the Xia Dynasty (circa 21st century-16th century BC) to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), stone carvings, woodcarvings, clay sculptures and bronzes through the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

Its exhibits include blue-and-white porcelain from the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, Western oil paintings and more than 150 calligraphy works on steles, rubbings, scrolls, books, screens and couplets.

It also includes coins from various dynasties, exquisite jades from different periods, and ethnic minority crafts such as dyed textiles, embroidery and carvings.

Shanghai Museum: a jewel of cultural and historical splendor
Ti Gong

Visitors watch an exhibition at Shanghai Museum.

The museum has hosted major joint exhibitions, including one with Beijing’s Palace Museum and a major calligraphy exhibition in tandem with Japan’s Tokyo National Museum.

More than just a repository of treasures, Shanghai Museum also plays a vital educational role. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the museum hosted an average 200 public lectures a year.

Through lectures, cultural activities and educational programs like the SmartMuse initiative, the museum has become a center for learning about China’s vast historical and cultural legacy.

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