Art collection gives US heartland taste of Chinese culture

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Two ladies in their 50s stand contemplating in front of Guanyin of the South China Sea, an ancient Chinese sculpture in Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Over the past 20 years, they have been visiting the museum, describing the Mother Buddha as "beautiful, so serene, so sublime." "There is a huge Chinese collection here. This (Guanyin) is the most spectacular," they told Xinhua in anonymity.

The museum collects over 7,500 high-quality Chinese works, ranging from ceramics to furniture, and from paintings to sculptures.

"We may not have the biggest Chinese art collection, but it is one of the finest in the world," said Ling-en Lu, curator and Chinese art specialist of the museum.

Since its launch in 1933, the museum has been actively collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting works of Chinese art. And its Chinese art collection contains masterpieces in various historical stages.

The most admired Guanyin of the South China Sea, measuring 2.4 meters high, 1.68 meters wide and 1.1 meters thick from China's Liao (907-1125) or Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), was carved from the trunk of a single poplar tree. The larger-than-life sculpture has created a sense of calm and warmth in the hall.

In front of a Flower Vase with Dragon Motif, a stoneware decorated in sgraffito technique from Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Lu said this is one of the few vases of its kind left in the world that remains intact.

A Luohan sculpture with three-color lead glaze from Liao Dynasty to Jin Dynasty is found in the caves in high cliffs of Yixian, China's Hebei Province. Solemn expression and dignity portray his concentration and spiritual presence.

Sealed in a glass cupboard there are more than a dozen cricket cages, dishes and pots from several dynasties in ancient China. "They are very popular among children," Lu told Xinhua.

An exhibition on the theme of "Lively Creatures – Animals in Chinese Art" was held at the museum, which displayed tens of Chinese ancient paintings with images of animals in many art forms. The creatures on the paintings represented celebration, personal messages, and even political and religious agendas.

Organizers of the exhibition produced a set of cards, with images of animals on one side and their cultural meaning in Chinese artistic tradition on the other. For example, egrets represent incorruptibility and integrity and deer symbolize a long life. The cards are provided to visitors for free.

"I find it very interesting, and the way that the things are drawn, it's very cool," 17-year-old high school student Camden Lombard told Xinhua after visiting the exhibition. "I feel like I know a lot more about Chinese culture and how they were back then and their beliefs and stuff."

"I want to go to China someday to find more," he added.

It's "a big source of pride having such a collection of Chinese art," Christie Makar, an educator with the School Outreach and Educator Programs of the museum, told Xinhua.

She manages the museum's Art Connection Kit, a collection of student-friendly materials designed to encourage multi-disciplinary and hands-on activities. Local students can study Chinese art and culture while appreciating its diversity by exploring the museum's Chinese collection.

"It's kind of eye opening and we're bringing the world together," said Makar. "There are so many similarities and we can appreciate the beauty and the work that artists from around the world have created."

"We're (also) trying to give to our students that there are differences, but they are beautiful differences, and just trying to understand and appreciate one another," Makar added.

"We're in a moment where it's sometimes hard to look outside of your own personal view points," said Marla Van Thournout, manager of Volunteer Engagement at the museum. "I think having access to seeing what other culture have created, what they valued and appreciated and what was important to them, is really important in building that understanding about all the people we share this planet with."

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