The Chinese Collections

The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the world's greatest ethnographic museums. It was founded in 1884 when General Pitt Rivers gave his collection of some 25,000 archaeological and ethnographical artifacts to the University. It has grown substantially since then through donations and purchases from a variety of sources and now holds more than 250,000 objects.

The Chinese collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum comprise well over 3000 items. In keeping with the spirit of the Museum, the Chinese collections include artifacts which demonstrate technologies as well as fine arts, embroidered textiles and ceramics. Material from Chinese minority communities is also to be found, such as Miao embroideries. This breadth makes it an exceptional teaching collection.

The Museum has many objects relating to the daily life, such as opium and tobacco pipes, jade ear-scoops, lamps, lacquered pillows, card and chess games, fans, a large shop-sign of gilded wood and combs (including an ivory and bamboo moustache comb worn as an ornament only by men who are fathers). Many of these items, when first collected, were in everyday use but are now rarities as they were not collectors items. A set of eyebrow tweezers, a combined compass and sundial and a gambling die with its own brass shaking box are typical of such ordinary rarities. Within the music collection examples include the largest collection of pigeon whistles in Britain and whistling arrows "taken during a punitive expedition against pirates in 1865".

The Museum has a display cabinet devoted to its ivory collections. These include a Chinese ball of eleven graduated hollow spheres cut from a solid block of ivory, each sphere elaborately carved and fretted. The ingenuity of the workmanship is astonishing and this piece is much remarked on by visitors. A court necklace of fretted ivory worn only by officials in the top five ranks during the Qing dynasty is also to be found in the ivory cabinet. This was recently used as a centrepiece in the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness book on China.

Also in the Court (ground floor) displays is a cabinet of Chinese export ceramics which were collected from a range of countries including Iraq and Sarawak (Malaysia). Among the amulet displays is a Chinese-made ceramic saucer with Arabic inscriptions and magic squares, collected in Lamu, East Africa. This piece was lent recently to an exhibition in Lisbon about the cultures of the Indian Ocean.

Further understanding of the work of Chinese writers, painters and calligraphers can be gained by studying the Museum's collection of writing brushes and accessories such as a ceramic brush-stand with water holder or an ink box lined with tortoise-shell and complete with ink cakes. A beautifully made chop-stick and knife set with a sheath of tortoise-shell and shagreen gives fresh insight into the art of Chinese cooking and eating. A Manchu composite bow which is separated into three parts to show the method of construction is typical of the interpretive approach of the Museum and can be seen in the Upper Gallery displays.

The Museum's model collection, especially of boats, is one of the best in the country. Of particular note are a two metre-long Chinese model war junk and a model of a houseboat made of bamboo root complete with details of sailors, hats and baskets. There is also a model of the marble boat said to have been owned by empress Tsu-Hsi, made of an ox-scapula. The Museum also has a finely worked model showing the method of endless chain water irrigation made in the late 19th century, however this is not currently on display.

Amongst the metalwork collections are an eighteenth century brass mirror on a kylin (mythical beast) stand and a finely cast figure of Shou-Lao, the god of longevity, seated on a stag. One of the highlights of the jewellery collection is a collection of hair ornaments of brilliant turquoise colour made of silver overlaid with kingfishers' feathers. These were part of General Pitt Rivers' founding collection.

The museum houses an important collection of some 1000 photographs of China. Most notable are the photographs taken by Laver from 1905 1908 when he was working with the China Navigation Company. These images are of particular interest as they record the unrest at the time of the fall of the Manchu dynasty.

Compiled by Julia Nicholson, Head of Collections Management (Documentation: Americas, Asia)