Chinese Miniatures

Recumbent Bull 700s. China, Tang dynasty

Miniatures have mesmerized people universally throughout the ages. Unlike large objects, their presence does not intimidate the beholder. The miniature, the small object, or the fragment demands attention to detail and employs the imagination. Moreover, by offering an alternative world, miniatures can suggest the opportunity to control and master an environment as well as the tantalizing possibility of possession. 

The CMA’s Chinese collection has a large number of high-quality small-scale objects dating from early historical times to the 1800s. China through the Magnifying Glass: Masterpieces in Miniature and Detail in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery explores the role and function of these masterpieces of artisanry in six themed sections, including “Objects of Ritual and Devotion,” “Luxury and Pride in Craftmanship,” “The Scholar’s Desk,” “Toys, Boys, and Games,” and “Accessories and Ornaments.” 

Exhibitions of miniature objects are rare, perhaps because visitors cannot handle them or study minute details up close by turning them around. However, in this exhibition, the visitor’s experience is augmented through three-dimensional photogrammetry, an initiative to make images of the collection accessible to all in the museum’s digital collection database. A separate section in the exhibition space will offer tablets that turn objects around digitally, allowing visitors to view them from all sides and angles and zoom in and out on details, similar to handling the objects. In addition, magnifying glasses will be provided.

A highlight in the exhibition is a paperweight in the form of an eighth-century recumbent bull. Made of solid gilt-bronze, it was meant to be placed on a scholar’s desk. Chinese literati-officials whose daily routine was administrative work in an office enjoyed precious objects on their writing desks that offered distraction and demonstrated good taste. Oxen were precious livestock, as they could pull carts and plows. Often depicted in landscape paintings and in pictures of tilling the spring soil, the bull possessed a nature that was traditionally likened to the willingness of a loyal civil servant who bears the burden of hard labor without complaints.