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On Visual Literarcy, Archives and Exhibitions

Accessing Images for Teaching China during the Year of the Ox: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves

Wendy Eagan


     Considering a spot of 17th century Chinese tea culture in London? This and many more things Chinese can be obtained at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a mere five minute walk from the South Kensington Tube Station. Visitors can also refresh themselves in a virtual way through on-line exhibitions, such as that maintained by the V & A, which includes art and artifacts from 3000 BCE to the present. Organized around analytical themes common to all teachers of world history, each section of this website and other virtual exhibitions provide students with excellent and scholarly background essays contextualizing images literally illuminating world history themes and processes.

Teapots, 1650-1660 and 1984. Museum nos. C.871-1936, FE.31-1984

     For instance, most history courses address cultural practices and standards. One topic of interest to many students is the choice of clothing that they wear for situations both formal and informal. What image did the Chinese elite wish to present to the world? Students could select and view a 20th century luxurious velvet robe when assessing social stratification by clicking on Living in China:

Robe, 1900-1930. Museum no. FE.126-1983
    Robe, 1900-1930

     As more Europeans made their way east during the 16th century, they noticed and wrote about the food they encountered in China. Everyone who lives must eat, so students might enjoy being directed to consider the proper etiquette necessary of eating with "two long little sticks" from the point of view of a 16th century Portuguese missionary or read about Han Dynasty "Table Manners" at Chinese Sources for Eating and Drinking:

Banqueting scene, about 1600
    Banqueting scene, about 1600

     The importance of marriage patterns, family life and gender expectations are taught routinely in courses more socially oriented in the 21st century classroom. So what was the connection between family and belief systems in China? After reading two short essays which compare Confucianism and Daoism, viewing a pair of 18th century ancestors becomes an exercise to contemplate veneration as means of complying with Confucian goals of social harmony. Students just need to click on Temple and Worship in China:

Pair of ancestor portraits, 1700-1800. Museum nos. E.362-1956, E.363-1956
    Pair of ancestor portraits, 1700-1800

     Other images relating to belief systems are grave goods that have been discovered. A section about Burial in China introduces changes and continuity in funerary practices and customs which include brief essays and objects such as ceramic pillows to make the deceased rest more comfortably and food offerings and vessels for feasting . Students will want to visit this section and analyze Chinese notions of the hereafter and buried grave goods protected by ancient fierce guardians such as the one below while they can read a 20th century lament to a beloved aunt.

Tomb guardian, 700-750. Museum no. C.48-1955
    Tomb guardian, 700-750

     Today we teach a political identity to young citizens of this nation, where everyone can aspire to high elected office; perhaps more than ever before. This was not true in China where patriarchal norms limited power and prestige for many centuries. President Barak Obama is not the only source of power in our federal system with three branches and checks and balances on his authority. We have separation of church and state but the emperor in China was expected to serve as a connection between heaven and earth. He dwelt not in a White House, a rather modest executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but in a Forbidden City in Beijing. We use the symbolic image of a Bald Eagle on the Presidential Seal but the dragon was a different and potent image for the Son of Heaven. Imagine George Washington sitting on red lacquer throne along with symbolic fish, bats, peaches at Mount Vernon as the 18th century Qianlong once did at Ruling in China

Throne, 1775-80. Musuem no. W.399-1922

     In January of 2009 millions of citizens and foreign visitors came to witness the inauguration of our 44th President, despite the cold of winter. People lined the streets to cheer the First Family as they rode in a new black limousine termed "The Beast" (because of safety precautions) and watch a parade that stretched down a long ceremonial route in Washington, DC. The emperor of China also rode in a ritual which is described in a primary source entitled "Instructions for an Imperial Procession in Peking, 1759" found at Chinese Sources for Ruling: Students can compare recent photos of officials, and parade routes of our political rituals with images of those of 18th century Asia.

Illustration, 1759
    Illustration of Processionin Peking 1759 Plan of Peking 1788

Plan of Peking, 1788
    Plan of Peking 1788

Official, about 1795. Museum no. D.898-1898
    Official of the Fourth Rank

     The V & A has a database of 30,000 works and 50,000 images that can be searched online without registering. Visitors are invited to "use the information for educational purposes in print or on the web. Be sure to introduce your students to THE CHINA (T T TSUI) GALLERY: INTRODUCTION TO LIFE IN CHINA as soon as your curriculum warrants.

     Cartographic sources are also easily accessed online by students seeking clarification of spatial relationships, historical boundary changes or continuities, trade routes, military maneuvers, locations of resources, patterns of population settlements, and so much more. Instructors might consider a source sponsored by the Asia Society which states that its mission includes promoting greater knowledge about Asia in the United States.

     Ask has lesson plans, essays, maps, and images and an international studies resource directory for teachers in addition to resources and context on globalization for students on their website. Maps and images are chosen by newest or alphabetical categories and offer a broad selection across many historical periods.

     Students unfamiliar with maps made outside western cartographic traditions will be able to examine the beautiful Qing Dynasty's "Coastal Map of the Seven Maritime Provinces of the Illustrious Dynasty" made with ink and gold in 1798.


     A comparison of the 125 acre 21st century presidential retreat and fortress called Camp David, located in the Catoctin Mountains of rural Maryland, is possible with a similar Qing compound from the early 20th century. Both were used by powerful rulers for similar purposes as temporary relief and relaxation from the pressures of office.



     The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are located on the National Mall in Washington, DC and are two of the 19 museums comprising the Smithsonian Institution. Instructors may visit the informative website and click on Education and then scroll down to Resources for Teachers to download curriculum packets prepared by museum curators with multidisciplinary activities for a wide range of student interests. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient China, A Teachers Guide is available in a PDF format that can be printed free of charge. A bronze chimera, symbolizing peace and prosperity in China, serves as the introductory image in this valuable guide which covers ancient art, history and culture from the Neolithic to the Han Dynasty. Highlights include overview essays and maps to provide dynastic contextualization, photographs of objects and art, explanations of and excerpts from The Analects of Confucius and The Daode jing, and a useful illustrated timeline stretching from ca. 5000 BCE to 220 CE.


     Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation is an interactive site allowing students to explore the relationships fostered by 9th century maritime trade from China. Merchants and artists influenced each in terms of material profit and artistic transformation. An excellent opportunity for anyone learning or teaching cross-cultural encounters through the Indian Ocean Basin awaits each visitor.

Historical Buddha

     The Art of Buddhism briefly compares the differences and similarities that may be found in Tibet, China, Japan and India by presenting images from the collection alongside informative textual panels. In addition, creating your own E-Gallery is possible by browsing the Chinese collection and selecting your own favorite objects. Visit , click on Chinese Art, and look through as many of the 247 pages as you choose, then sign up by choosing Add to my e Gallery and make your selections.

     All of these online sources can assist in lesson planning that make the most of images needed to bring visual clarity to a variety of topics while teaching the vast historical record of the Middle Kingdom.

Note: If these resources seem useful, the files should be copied immediately as exhibition web pages can often expire or change.


Teacher Resources

Victoria and Albert Museum

V&A South Kensington
Cromwell Road                 
London SW7 2RL
+44 (0)20 7942 2000

Admission to the V&A is free, but some exhibitions and events carry a separate charge is an educational website for students and teachers covering some thirty countries that comprise Asia today, and featuring materials that stem from early civilizations to current events.

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The galleries are located on the National Mall, the grassy area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, steps from the Smithsonian Metro stop. The Sackler Gallery is located at 1050 Independence Avenue, SW. The Freer Gallery of Art is located at Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW. The two museums are connected by an underground exhibition space.

More than eight thousand objects from the collection are now available online. The eGallery is a feature that lets you create your own online galleries using artwork from the Freer/Sackler collections, after registering for a free account.

Wendy Eagan teaches AP World History at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.



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