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Happy Chinese New Year!

An article by me, published on the website Waleshome today:

Connecting Cultures

TODAY is the Chinese New Year, and we enter the year of the Rabbit.

Although we have been celebrating the Chinese New Year for a number of years at Amgueddfa Cymru –National Museum Wales, this year is extra special for us as it coincides with the unique exhibition that we are currently hosting at National Museum Cardiff – From Steep Hillsides: Ancient Rock Carvings from Dazu, China. This exhibition has been a coup, not only for Amgueddfa Cymru but also for Wales as these sculptures have never before been seen outside of China. We feel very privileged to have been chosen as the first ever venue to host them outside of their homeland and I’m confident that this free exhibition will be popular with our visitors.

If you have not yet had the opportunity to visit the exhibition, then it is difficult to convey in words just how magical they are. The carvings originate from the steep hillsides of the Dazu World Heritage site near Chongqing, which contain an exceptional series of rock carvings dating from the middle of the 7th century and developed between the 9th and the 13th centuries. The carvings comprise some 50,000 figures in total, and are remarkable for their aesthetic quality, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and the light that they shed on everyday life in China during this period. By a happy coincidence, a few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Dazu and see them for myself. It was an unique experience, and I remember being blown away by them. Obviously, we couldn’t bring all 50,000 figures to Wales, but this exhibition contains superb examples that have become detached from their original setting, along with accurate replicas of some of the most important sculptures still in situ and dramatic large-scale images, to give some idea of what it is like to visit these spectacular places.

Dazu is a real treasure house of Chinese art history and an important expression of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, as well as a fascinating insight into Chinese daily life. I cannot overemphasise how remarkable these carvings are, and certainly, this exhibition would not be out of place at any world-class museum. A question that I have been asked since the exhibition opened has been why was Wales selected as a venue for this stunning exhibition rather than somewhere like the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert? The answer lies in the blossoming relationship between Wales and the Chongqing region in China, which has been led by the Welsh Assembly Government.

The origin of the relationship was a recommendation from Premier Wan Jiabao during his visit to Wales in 2000, which resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chongqing Municipal Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, agreeing to collaboration and co-operation in a number of areas, which was signed during First Minister for Wales Rhodri Morgan’s visit to Chongqing in March 2006. Since then Wales has welcomed a number of visitors from Chongqing and delegations from Wales have visited Chongqing. The Welsh Assembly Government also funds a schools project, managed by British Council, which links more than 50 Welsh schools with schools in Chongqing. There have been several exchange visits by the schools to Chongqing and to Wales.

This relationship has also extended into culture, and National Museum Wales has established a relationship with several cultural organisations in Chongqing. It is hoped that this exhibition is the first of many such exchanges, which will in future include sending some of our own collections to China. Not only will we be able to continue to showcase Chinese culture in Wales but we will also be able to showcase Wales to the world. Both countries are steeped in history and culture, and it is a fantastic opportunity for us to share our national stories.

Establishing strong links between Wales and China is obviously of great importance to the Welsh Assembly Government, and it was widely commented upon that Wales had been excluded from the itinerary of a recent Chinese trade delegation that visited the UK. But those critics should not despair. I believe that the Welsh Assembly Government is laying the foundations for a successful long term friendship between the two countries, not just a relationship based on business and economics. This exhibition is a small but not insignificant part of that burgeoning friendship which will hopefully evolve over time.

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