China! 7000 years of Innovation

The Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center

Mobile, AL

April 15th, 2002

We spent this week in Mobile, AL., a place we had previously visited. Normally this is a "no-no" as we try to never repeat, but I had spotted an interesting article in a local paper, describing a new exhibit at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. It was the U.S. premiere of an exhibit from Beijing, China. called "China! 7000 years of innovation". The exhibit celebrates ancient Chinese arts, science, and creativity. Being from a country that is only a couple of centuries old, it is hard for me to fathom a history that goes back as far as recorded time, and then some. Now, I found displayed out on two floors of this gigantic building, all those fascinating things the Chinese invented long before the Europeans would even envision them. The communications between east and west was practically non-existent until Marco Polo ventured across the Alps and into that strange and beautiful land. One of the neatest things about the exhibit is that it came with a full set of Chinese artisans right out of China. These delightful craftsmen and women spoke very little English so it was somewhat difficult to ask questions. The staff at the museum is currently learning Mandarin, the language of most Chinese in order to make the show more workable and the workers a little more comfortable. We were met at the entrance to the exhibit by two of my favorite Chinese characters. Terracotta warriors, the kneeling archer who was missing his crossbow was a copy of one of more then 7000 life-size figures which were found in 1974, buried in a single huge pit near the grave of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. They represent a complete army unit of chariots and infantry. Each body was modeled by hand and the mould-made heads, hands and feet were attached separately. Just around the corner we found a scale replica of a bronze chariot from the tomb of the same Emperor. In the winter of 1980, Chinese archaeologists discovered two chariot groups at the site of the tomb of the first Emperor of China near the city of Xian in Shanxi Province. The excavated chariots, horses and drivers are about half life-size. The horse harness and other fittings were reproduced in such fine detail that they are a major source of information on ancient Chinese vehicles. As this exhibit showcases the ancient discoveries and inventions of China, none is more impressive or well known than the discovery of silk around 2600 BC. Demonstrations of this art were in several areas. The largest of which was a two story Jacquard style loom requiring two people to operate. They were typically used to produce a silk fabric called Nanjing brocade starting around the 13th century AD. Because of the varied designs and patterns of the fabric, and the requirement of being hand done on these old fashioned looms, the two weavers working together could produce only about 4 to 8 inches of brocade per day. In contrast to the massive loom was a table containing a light and a small frame on which was stretched what is most probably the most beautiful cloth ever produced by man, or women as this case was. Sometimes referred to as double sided discrepant embroidery, it is the most difficult and demanding of needlework. An example was one display in which gold fish had been embroider into a panel from Suzhou. Using colored silks on a fine openwork silk base as thin as a cicada's wing, the artisan used thread only 1/48 as thick as normally used, and employing a variety of stitches was able to produce a translucent image with knots and thread endings so cleverly concealed that the finished work can be viewed from either side. An added fascination was offered when we watched a young lady by the name of Ms. Feng, who was traveling with the exhibit from China, as she meticulously added stitches to a new piece of embroidery. Although only a few feet away, leaning over her shoulder, the thread she was using was invisible to me.

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