Two lions protect the new Cyrus Tang Hall of China.
  • The Field Museum
  • Two lions protect the new Cyrus Tang Hall of China.

Maybe the best part of the Field Museum‘s new Cyrus Tang Hall of China, which opened Wednesday, is that it’s a permanent exhibit. It tells the story of nearly 10,000 years of Chinese history, from the Neolithic period up to the turn of the 20th century and the end of the imperial age, through 350 objects, ranging from primitive tools to 19th-century snuff bottles. Touchscreens below the display cases provide all sorts of extra details about each artifact. There’s way more information here than anyone could possibly absorb in a single museum visit.

And then think about this: a team of 100 scholars (both on the Field’s staff and imported from elsewhere) spent several years sorting through more than 40,000 objects in the Field’s collection to choose the 350 that eventually made it to the display.

  • The Field Museum
  • A 19th-century drama mask, representing a blind man who uses a magic spell to create new eyes

“We wanted an interplay between the story and the artifacts,” says Gary Feinman, the lead curator for the exhibit. “That interplay led to the selections. Of course when we spotted pieces like oracle bones or a pot, they were so striking, we wanted to use them. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in North America with such a wide swath of Chinese culture.”

The exhibit is organized both historically and thematically, taking pains to emphasize that there’s no single “China”—both its geography and people have been wildly diverse. One of the most informative displays is an animated time-lapse map that shows who was living where and when. (There are also more traditional museum teaching tools: a large 3-D geographical relief map and several dioramas of Neolithic villages.)

But for me, the most interesting displays were the ones that tried to show what daily life was like in China for specific types of people. A section on scholars shows inkstones and brushes and diagrams of the cells where aspiring Qing dynasty (1644-1912) civil servants took their exams. These lasted three days and two nights; a single board functioned as both desk and bed. Also on display is a silk handkerchief covered with tiny characters that was used as a cheat sheet. It’s unclear whether its owner managed to pass without getting caught, but the odds were not in his favor: only .01 percent of candidates passed every level.

  • The Field Museum
  • A porcelain pillow. Beauty is pain.

There is also a display of women’s shoes and an x-ray of the bones of a bound foot. It is gruesome. Shoes for women with unbound feet don’t look much more comfortable: they have six-inch high platforms. And fashionable ladies had to sleep on porcelain pillows.

There is also an opium tray, with two adorable little ceramic cats to hold the long needles which, in turn, held opium pellets over the spirit lamp so they would soften enough to smoke. And masks from the 19th-century theater. And a video of a puppet show in action. And the remains of a 13th-century shipwreck.

  • The Field Museum
  • Museum workers prepare the Qingming scroll painting for display.

The most fascinating thing, though, is probably “Along the River during the Qingming Festival,” a 16th- or 17th-century copy of an 11th- or 12th-century scroll painting. It’s 27 feet long and shows all the goings-on in a city in the Yangtze River Delta, from the farmers in the fields and the merchants in the market to the bride arriving for her wedding to the scholar-ruler in his palace. The original is too fragile to show more than a little bit at a time, but it’s all been reproduced on a touch screen, where you can zoom in on particular scenes and details. It brings all that history—all those names and dates—down to human scale.

Feinman says the last permanent China exhibit was around for 40 or 50 years. So that should leave us all plenty of time to explore this new one.