But disorientation is the point. From the collapse of the Han Dynasty at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. until the Tang emperors solidified control in 589, China was both politically and culturally a very messy place. Confederations of mounted nomads from the steppes were ransacking China's northern flank while to the South, Chinese aristocrats tangled with one another. Buddhism was seeping in from India and Islam from Central Asia and the Middle East. But rather than shun this cultural commotion, many Chinese came to welcome it—after all, the interlopers brought along some really cool stuff. Local artisans copied and reinterpreted foreign objects, and wealthy Chinese connoisseurs were entombed with their collections so that they could continue to enjoy them even in the afterlife. Those that have surfaced, writes James C. Y. Watt, who curated the exhibit for its first run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last fall, reveal "a wondrous world born of an ancient civilization and transformed by the acceptance of the many cultures that came into its orbit."
First up are a few striking examples of that ancient civilization. Much of the first gallery is dominated by a cavalcade of miniature bronze chariots and horsemen. Painstakingly detailed, with detachable saddles on the horses and mobile wheels on the chariots, they give a sense of the authority of Han rulers at their height at the beginning of the 3rd century. Also of interest from this period are pieces of carved jade, examples of an exacting art form that reached its apogee in the Han era. Jade carving was largely abandoned in the period that followed.
But there was much to fill the void. From the nomads of the powerful Xianbei federation, who came to dominate what is now Inner Mongolia, are exuberant golden hat ornaments—smug-looking antelope or reindeer, with heart-shaped leaves festooning their antlers. From 4th century Datong, in Shanxi province, comes a bronze cup decorated with vines and with the early-Christian motif of a boy carrying a lamb. The cup looks Roman, but is likely an expertly cast copy of an import.
Among the exhibit's most strikingly bizarre objects is a gilt and silver ewer, which was entombed with Li Xian, a general during the short-lived Northern Zhou dynasty (559-581) in Ningxia. The ewer's shape is typical of the Sasanians who ruled the area that is now Iran, and whose designs the Chinese appropriated for everything from tableware to clothing. But it probably comes from Bactria, in modern-day Afghanistan. And the figures on its surface seem to be characters in the Trojan War. Whoever cast the ewer seems to have been more concerned with style than mythological substance. But General Li probably didn't care. The foreignness of the design alone gave the jug its allure.
As the program winds down, these oddities are joined by more familiar forms. A ceramic camel carries an entire band of traveling minstrels, and a stylishly plump court lady wears an eclectic silk outfit, remarkably well preserved. The show comes at a fitting time. Today, inhabitants of the places that held these treasures tend to look back at the culture of their forbears as monolithic, and only now beset by tainting influences from abroad. But their ancestors knew differently. They managed their confusing times with grace and curiosity—and wandering among the pieces of what they left behind is a rare pleasure.