Salem, Mass. The new Peabody Essex Museum will open in June with four unique exhibitions highlighting the art and culture of China, from imperial splendor to everyday objects. The exhibitions include: Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits, a traveling exhibition organized by theArthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Under the Imperial Gaze, an innovative exhibition organized around two rare hand scrolls; Men Plow, Women Weave an exhibition of objects and images that explores the reoccurring themes of rice and silk production in Chinese art from the twelfth through the twentieth centuries; and Yin Yu Tang, an early nineteenth century Chinese house reassembled on the museum’s campus.

“With the opening of the new museum, and the addition of Yin Yu Tang, the museum is taking the opportunity to explore and illuminate the art and culture of China as expressed in a diverse array of media, technique, and time,” said Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. “Worshiping the Ancestors, Under the Imperial Gaze, and Men Plow, Women Weave, together with Yin Yu Tang, present a rare opportunity to experience a range of Chinese art and culture over the past 350 years.”

Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits — June 21, 2003 through August 9, 2003

Worshipping the Ancestors
, a traveling exhibition drawn from the exceptionally large and rich collection at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, features more than forty commemorative portraits and several three-dimensional objects relating to the practice of ancestor worship. In Chinese culture, people paid homage to their forebears believing that they had the power to ensure health, prosperity, and the continuation of the family. Elaborate portraits were commissioned and offerings made to the paintings to secure the ancestors’ goodwill.

Unlike its stature in European and American art, portraiture in China receives little notice from connoisseurs of the country’s traditional art. Considered the work of craftsmen, ancestor portraits were usually unsigned and not included in traditional painting collection indices. Rather, the images, often lavishly articulated to the most minute detail, were intended for use in ancestor worship rituals, to reinforce a sense of hierarchy and order within a family, and to maintain a link between the realm of the living and the dead.

Although the ancestor paintings serve as striking works of art, they can also be viewed as a window into the Chinese artistic canon through the range of techniques, composition, and media used. These variations also highlight the regional, social, and technological differences inherent in each of the paintings.

Under the Imperial Gaze — June 21, 2003 through May 18, 2004

This exhibition offers an unprecedented glimpse into the work of the Imperial painting workshop, as well as the distinction between imperial and non-imperial art and lifestyles. The foundation of the exhibition is two rare hand scrolls, Departing the Capital of Beijing, and Jiangsu-Zhejiang Border, Approaching Jiaxing, which have never been displayed before in public.

Sponsored by the emperor, the scrolls offer an idealized vision of a well-ordered, prosperous Confucian society, watched over by a benevolent and dutiful ruler. The elaborately chronicled scenes suggest content subjects and a thriving economy. Juxtaposed against the scrolls will be a number of objects representative of the era’s street culture. Clothes, coins, shop signs, among other objects will lend scale and context to the scrolls, taking visitors on their own journey through China during the Qinglong Emperor’s reign (1736-1795). As visitors walk through the gallery, they will also be “walking through the scrolls,” witnessing and observing objects, as the emperor would have on his journey.

Men Plow; Women Weave — YYTInterpretive Gallery through May 2004

For centuries, rulers in China have professed through literary and visual arts a profound respect for the men and women who cultivate rice and fabricate silk. In 1696, the Kangxi Emperor commissioned the publication of a set of 46 woodblock prints known as the Gengzhitu, “Illustrations of Plowing and Weaving.” Twenty-three images of rice cultivation and twenty-three images of silk production, each accompanied by the emperor’s poem, pay tribute to these culturally important and economically vital vocations.

The Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibition, Men Plow; Women Weave centers on the 46 prints of plowing and weaving created in the Kangxi imperial workshops, and various Chinese art objects that demonstrate the lasting influence of these themes. The rice farming and silk production motifs celebrated in the Kangxi imperial prints are also apparent in later examples of Chinese embroidery, porcelain, paintings, and lacquer on display in the exhibition. These themes also appear in an eighteenth century English engraving book, and twentieth Century posters from China.

Yin Yu Tang — Permanent Installation

Yin Yu Tang, a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Chinese merchant’s house, is the only installation of its kind in North America. The house, which was built by a merchant named Huang, was brought to the Peabody Essex Museum as part of a cultural exchange between China and the United States, intended to educate visitors about the diverse art, architecture, and culture of the Huizhou region.

Yin Yu Tang’s spectacular decorative art and furnishings speak explicitly of the Huang family, their daily lives, and their culture. Although, the house will be presented as it was in 1982, when last occupied, the furniture and decorative objects that accumulated from prior generations represent a variety of time periods and styles. One bedroom contains a carved lacquered bed from the late eighteenth century as well as nineteenth-century storage cabinet decorated with twentieth-century advertisements. Another bedroom is papered with European floral wallpaper dating from 1926. In the main reception hall bamboo, rattan, and lacquer baskets occupy the same space as pictures of revolutionary heroes.

When the new Peabody Essex Museum opens, Yin Yu Tang will be available for self-guided audio, and docent led tours. The tours will be limited to optimize the visitor experience and protect the historic structure. In the interim, the Yin Yu Tang Web site (, provides an in depth look at the house’s history, conservation, and architecture, in addition to the Huang family genealogy.


**Images from the exhibitions are available upon request**


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April Swieconek  -  Director of Public Relations  -  978-745-9500 X3109  -

Whitney Van Dyke  -  Director of Communications  -  978-542-1828  -

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