In 1926, missionary John Whitsed Dovey returned to Sydney from a decade-long stint in Shanghai with a set of lantern slides – precursors of photographic slides – to build awareness in Australia of Confucian and Buddhist ideals.
Almost a century after Dovey presented them to Sydney’s Lyceum Club, a selection of these slides feature in an opening exhibition at Sydney’s newest museum, an exhibition built around the idea of auspiciousness and its importance in Chinese life.
Auspicious: Motifs in Chinese Art opened with the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum on 18 November. Dovey’s slides, now part of the University Art Collection, feature Confucian and Buddhist pictures reproduced from books Dovey discovered in China.
The exhibition is on show at the museum’s China Gallery, a distinct space dedicated to China. The gallery is one of the museum’s 18 exhibition spaces.
“Auspiciousness has underpinned China’s belief system for centuries,” says curator and art historian Dr Shuxia Chen. “People will come away from this exhibition understanding the scope and significance of auspicious objects in all walks of Chinese life.
“Motifs of auspiciousness appear on objects ranging from hair pins to imperial birthday dishes. These aren’t mere good luck charms; each denotes an aspect of the themes of fortune, prosperity and virtue. Auspicious examines the prominence and importance of these themes in Chinese arts.
“This is done through both decorative features and materials. Jade, for instance, has been revered as unique and hardwearing, therefore symbolic of social status and virtue, since the Shang dynasty of 1600BC.”
The exhibition comprises objects from the University Art Collection, the Art Gallery of NSW and the Powerhouse Museum. It is divided into four sections.
Into Life comprises everyday objects conveying auspicious wishes. It includes vases and tea sets decorated with totemic dragons, alongside less recognisable headrests calligraphed with stories of piety.
The largest section of the exhibition, Gods, sages and Immortals, looks at spiritual figures and the influence of religion. Immortals, humans transformed into gods, feature prominently in this section which includes a depiction of each of the legendary Eight Immortals. Also included is a bronze statue of Wenshu, a figure embodying wisdom and worshipped today by those seeking to excel in exams.
Auspiciousness focuses not only on fortune and prosperity; it is also about bringing virtue to the world. On the Scholar’s Desk looks at how moral virtue is acquired via scholarly objects. China’s literati were historically court officials whose desktop possessions alluded to moral virtue, learning and aesthetic cultivation. Included in this section are brush holders, paperweights, water droppers and ink slates – objects which allowed scholars to pursue virtue in their work and serenity, through artistic practices like calligraphy.
Roof figures typically feature in imperial Chinese architecture and are a highlight of the Guardians of Space section of Auspicious. Aside from supporting roof joinery, roof figures were decorative symbols of power and status. Roof figure of an official on a galloping horse, for instance, offers the promise of rapid career success. The oldest object of the exhibition, a mirror dated back to 206 BC, reflects on ancient Chinese perceptions of the cosmos.
“The objects in this exhibition aren’t necessarily superstitious,” Dr Chen says. “They embody spiritual ideals drawn from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that fuel people’s aspirations.”
Auspicious will show in the China Gallery until November 2021.
What: Auspicious: Motifs in Chinese Art
Where: China Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University Place, Camperdown, NSW 2006
When: 18 November until November 2021
Opening hours: Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm; Thursday until 9pm; Sat-Sun, 12-4pm.
Cost: Free, but online bookings essential while Covid-19 restrictions are in place