The Museum holds extensive Chinese collections including ceramics, bronze ware, lacquer ware, carvings in jade and ivory, textiles, dress and dress accessories.
The Chinese collection has been shaped by a number of significant donations from collectors throughout the last 135 years. One of the earliest acquisitions was made in 1927 after the First Exhibition of New South Wales Collection of Applied Art held at the Farmer and Company Ltd in Market Street, Sydney.
Chinese ceramics, bronze ware, lacquer ware, carvings in jade and ivory entered into the collection. Julian Edmund Tenison-Woods (1892-1889), who was an English Catholic priest and geologist travelled to China and Japan and returned to Sydney with many items which are now housed at the Museum. Another significant donation was made by Christian Rowe Thornett (1879-1972), of Scottish descent, whose family has a history of collecting decorative arts including Asian objects comprising jade, embroideries, furs, jewels, silverware, porcelain and furniture. Some of her family’s collection was also housed at the Victorian and Albert Museum.
More recently, in the 1990s, the Museum acquired hundreds of black and white photographs of China taken by Hedda Morrison (1908-1991), a German photographer who created memorable documentary images of Beijing from the 1930s to the 1940s. Hedda and her husband Alastair Morrison (1915-2009) a son of George Ernest Morrison (1897-1920) was a journalist for the Times newspaper in London, donated 270 Chinese works including ceramics, bronze ware and belt toggles. The toggle collection is one of the largest collections in the world. The Museum’s Chinese numismatic collection (Ping Sing collection), numbering over 1000 is a comprehensive collection extending from the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BC) to the early 20th century.
As a part of the fashion and textile collection, the Museum holds extensive dress, dress accessory and textiles items from China. One of the most significant objects is an apricot semi dragon robe or ‘jifu’ which was worn by a crown prince during the Qing dynasty (around 1800).
The Museum’s Chinese collection also include objects that can demonstrate Australian links with China. Some examples include Margaret Tart’s Chinese surcoat with rank badges and architecture models of Quong Tart’s shop in King Street Sydney. Margaret Tart was an English woman who in 1886 married Quong Tart, a successful Sydney tea and silk merchant in Sydney in the late 19th century.
Many trade ceramics and textiles collections signify cultural influence from China. An armorial porcelain dish made in Jingdezhen during the Qianlong period (1723) is an excellent example. More recently, the Museum has acquired objects created by contemporary artists who have borrowed traditional Chinese techniques and designs, a good example is Ah Xian’s porcelain busts. Ah Xian migrated to Australia in 1990, following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and spent a year as a visiting artist at the Tasmanian School of Art. It was through this separation from his homeland that he began to reconsider his heritage and develop a new perspective on traditional Chinese craft.
The Museum’s Chinese collection is rich and diverse and can be interpreted in many different ways. One early object, a carved figure, ‘Shou Lao (God of longevity)’ excavated in Port Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia in 1879 still remains as a mystery object after Gavin Menzies mentioned in his controversial book ‘1421: The Year China Discovered the World’ that this object is an evidence to show that the fleets of Chinese admiral, Zheng He (1371-1435) arrived in Australia before Captain Cook. However there is a continuing controversy among scholars as to how it came to be in Australia. Who left it in the roots of the banyan tree at the head of what is now known as Doctors Gully in Darwin? Why and when was it left there?
The Museum’s collection has a long history inspiring artists, historians, scientists and storytellers looking for new ways to re-imagine and re-interpret their works. Inspired by one of our objects, the ‘Shou Lao’ and its mysterious story linked with Zheng He’s voyages (a 15th century Chinese admiral), contemporary artist Guan Wei created his fable for a contemporary world. The result was an art installation in which Guan Wei reassigns meaning to the object, drawing on his own heritage and migration experiences.
The Museum’s Chinese collection continues to evolve as we acquire new objects and encourage new ways of interpretation.
Post by Min-Jung Kim, Curator