Henan, a province in China’s central plains, used to be regarded as the “Center of the World” in ancient China. One of the cradles of the Chinese civilization, it served as the seat of the capitals of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The inscription on the zun of He, a bronze dated to the Western Zhou dynasty, recounts the building of Chengzhou (today’s Luoyang) by King Cheng of Zhou, with the characters, zhai zi zhong guo (“located in this capital city”). It is the very first time that the word zhong guo, or “China,” has appeared in historical records, a word implying the concepts both of heaven and earth and of a nation. We have chosen the four Chinese characters, zhai zi zhong guo, as the title of this exhibition in order to underline the importance of Henan in the evolution of the civilizations of the three early dynasties and its significance in our exploring the origin of the Chinese civilization and understanding the essence of China.
The Shanghai Museum has been cooperating closely with the cultural relics institutions and museums in Henan for many years. In the spring of 2021, Mr. Tian Kai, Director of the Henan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage, visited Shanghai. Witnessed by leaders of the city’s municipality, Mr. Tian and I launched the planning of this event to extend our long partnership, a symbol of enhanced collaboration between Shanghai and Henan on cultural projects. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bi-party team worked hard, overcame all difficulties, and finally completed their curatorial work. Now with the full support of the internationally renowned Henan Museum, with the loans from twenty cultural relics institutions and museums such as the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, and with the generous assistance and guidance of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, we are able, through this exhibition, to present in a systematic and in-depth manner the charm and essence of the Central Plains civilization in the pre-Qin era and to show how the early “diverse unity” of the Chinese culture took shape and evolved.
Mr. Fang Shizhong and Mr. Chu Xiaobo, respectively Director and Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture and Tourism (the Administration of Cultural Heritage), have attached great importance to “The Essence of China,” an exhibition series of cultural relics and archaeological achievements. They stress the museums’ role in helping to answer vital questions regarding the underlying patterns and intrinsic mechanism of the origin, emergence, and growth of the Chinese civilization and regarding the various courses of evolution for regional civilizations. As Shanghai museologists, working on the frontier of reform and opening-up and in a cosmopolis with a splendid cultural tradition, we ought to take up the mission assigned by the times to make contributions on behalf of the city to promote the cultural relics and archaeological cause, perform more researches on the Chinese civilization, strengthen our historical awareness, and bolster our cultural confidence.
Henan is both the center of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties and the cradle of modern archaeology in China. That’s why we have chosen it as the first theme of “The Essence of China.” We look forward to having more exchanges with colleagues from all over the country, to working with them on projects for the next decade, and to enhancing synergy in presenting to the public a grand exhibition series that manifests the splendor of Chinese archaeology on our new expedition in the New Era and meanwhile emanates the charm of our Project of Great Museums.