Audio Description Tours


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5 mins walk from Raffles Place MRT Station (Exit H)

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Learn about the Tang Shipwreck Gallery.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 1: Introduction

    (welcoming music plays)

    Welcome to an Audio Tour of ACM's Tang Shipwreck Collection. This sonic experience is created with elements of a radio play, and will feature descriptions of two specially picked objects in this gallery.

    The Tang Shipwreck was acquired through the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat in honour of the late Mr Khoo Teck Puat.

    This tour is ten and a half minutes long, and you may choose objects you would like to know more about, for your listening pleasure. Each audio clip will begin with the number and name of the object, such as Clip 3 - The Octagonal gold Cup.

    (sounds of slow waves creep in)

    You are now on level one of the Asian Civilisations Museum. You are about to travel back to a time when Asia was dominated by two great powers. China was under Tang dynasty rule, and the Abbasid Caliphate reigned in West Asia. Here in maritime Southeast Asia, the seas were controlled by the kingdom of Srivijaya, based in southern Sumatra.

    As you enter the gallery, you will encounter a model of a small wooden ship with two white sails and a white painted bottom. It is about 1 metre long and suspended above a sea of light brown ceramic bowls carefully arranged to resemble cresting waves. Each bowl’s interior was hand-painted, more than 1,100 years ago, with a fish, or a bird, or a sea monster, or one of several other decorative patterns.

    (rousing cresting music, followed by cross fade into sounds of lapping waves)

    You are entering the heart of a global trading network, which carried objects that attest to the exchange of goods and ideas between faraway lands and cultures.

    (sounds of lapping waves grow in intensity and then cross fades into muted chattering of local dialect and water splashing)

    The story begins with a group of Indonesian fishermen diving for sea cucumber three kilometres off Belitung Island in the Java Sea, about 600 kilometres south of Singapore.



Discovery of the ship

Listen to the story of the discovery of the shipwreck.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 2: Discovery of the ship

    (sounds of a thunderstorm and sailors crying out, then fade off to gentle underwater sound)

    The year of discovery was 1998. At the bottom of the sea,– with silver fish swimming in the dark blue waters, light yellow silt floating above dark green mounds on the seabed – the hidden remains of a small ship was waiting to be found.

    This 9th-century ship, about 18 metres from stem to stern, is one of the earliest vessels of Arab origin ever found.

    (sounds of shipbuilding)

    Specialists examining the wreck saw that the dark brown wooden planks of the ship had been stitched together with thick ropes made from fibre, a technique used in the Arab world, and one that still survives in Oman today. To assure that the ship was watertight, each plank had to be perfectly fitted to the next, and wadding material was packed between the joints. Remarkably, the ship was put together without a single nail.

    (glorious tune and fanfare to evoke a ship setting sail)

    This little ship with two white sails carried an astonishing cargo of more than 60,000 ceramics, luxurious gold and silver objects, and bronze mirrors, all created in Tang dynasty China.

    On its long journey from the Chinese port of Guangzhou, or maybe Yangzhou, to the Abbasid Empire, which is today's Iraq and Iran, the ship navigated through the narrow straits of Southeast Asia – maybe to drop off some of its cargo – and that was when it met its demise.

    (ominous music trails off)



Octagonal cup with musicians and a dancer

China, around 830s. Gold

Learn about a rare find from the Tang Shipwreck.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 3: The Octagonal Cup

    (underwater sounds and sudden splashing sounds of something fished out of water)

    More than thirty gold and silver objects were found in the wreck. These objects are among the most important Tang-dynasty gold and silver objects ever found.

    From this group of beautifully ornamented boxes, dishes, bottles, and bowls, an octagonal gold cup stands out. In it's own glass case, it is located in a small room to your left when you enter the Tang Shipwreck gallery from the entrance corridor off the main lobby.

    The eight sides of the cup are decorated with eight figures: seven musicians and one dancer. Each figure was cast separately, then attached to the sides of the cup. Skillfully made in China around the 830s, the rim features a repeating X-shaped design, which might represent flowers.

    The cup tapers gently from the rim, and sits atop a circular foot carved with lotus petal designs. The outer edge of the foot is decorated with a border of small carved circles. As mentioned earlier, the Octagonal Cup consists of eight gold panels decorated with the figures of seven musicians and one dancers. Lines of circles form borders around each of the eight sides of the cup, framing the figures.

    (sounds of music and revelry)

    Each of the three-dimensional figures on the sides of the cup has long curly hair, and is dressed in loosely draped clothing with billowing sleeves. When this cup was made, this clothing style – along with long curly hair – was associated with people from Central Asia.

    (sounds of Central Asian musical instruments)

    The musicians hold Central Asian music instruments, such as the three-stringed lute, with a long neck and oblong body, which is a cousin of the guitar and the pipa; the flute; and percussion instruments, such as the frame drum and tambourine. One musician also appears to be playing a castanet-like percussion piece.

    Moving along to the music, the dancer clasps her hands together above her head, with an expression of ecstasy on her face.

    The cup, largest of its type known, is 9.2 centimetres tall, and 13 centimetres wide at the top, including the handle. That's about the size of a large coffee mug these days. The handle is a circle of gold, like slipping your finger into a ring. The top of the handle, where you would place your thumb, is carved with the heads of two bearded men, back to back.

    This exceptional gold cup, weighing at 619.1g, roughly the weight of six apples bagged together, would be perfect for an entertaining evening of wine drinking, with music and dance, as the theme of the decoration is clearly revelry. It's unclear why this cup and the few other gold and silver objects were onboard a ship mostly filled with ceramics for everyday use. Perhaps they were gifts of tribute for foreign rulers, or specially ordered objects for rich foreign buyers.

    (sounds of revelry, clinking of cups and laughter cross fades into crashing waves)




China, probably Gongxian kilns (Henan province), around 830s. Stoneware

Learn about this tall ewer, then about the dragon-head stopper that might be a part of it.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 4: The Green and White Splash Ewer

    (a drum beat plays and slowly fades into the background)

    The tall, green and white splash ceramic ewer is located near the back of the Tang Shipwreck gallery, in a stand-alone glass case.

    Perhaps the most spectacular single object from the wreck, this ewer is close to what we know today as a pitcher or water jug. It was probably made at the Gongxian kilns, in the Henan province, northern China, around the 830s. Its off-white clay surface has a stone-like appearance, with splashes of copper green glaze.

    Just over a metre tall, 104 centimetres, to be exact, this tall and slim object would reach the waist of an average male adult when placed on the floor. It a long neck, bulbous central body, and a pedestal foot that flares out at the bottom. Its handle is long and curving, and much too thin for actually holding the ewer.

    (sounds of ceramic work processes, a fire crackles in the kiln)

    The ewer’s neck is slim enough such that most people should be able to wrap a hand around the neck, with the thumb overlapping the fingers. The neck of the ewer is also etched with tear-drop shaped leaves.

    The wide, bulbous midsection features diamond-shaped motifs with leafy designs at each corner. Incised lines divide the diamond into four sections, each with a floral motif inside. These floral "lozenge" motifs, as they are called in the art world, were a popular design in Iran at the time. Interestingly, this motif appears on many other objects from the wreck, which is a reason scholars think the ship was heading to the Middle East. The pedestal base of the ewer flares out at the bottom, it is patterned with arrowhead-shaped overlapping leaves, resembling fish scales. A thin handle with a snake head connects the mouth of the ewer to its round midsection, where liquid would be stored.

    (the awakened dragon stirs and roars)

    On the platform beside the ewer is a green glazed stopper shaped like the head of a dragon. The intricate details include horns, sharp eyes, mouth open wide with bared fangs, scales, and a curled mane. The dragon stopper fits awkwardly on the narrow mouth of this ewer.

    Curators at the museum think the stopper was probably not an original part of the vessel. When fitted onto the mouth of the ewer, it blocks the view of the snake’s head on the handle.

    The overall form of the ewer is based on similar objects produced in metal, as evident from the rim surrounding the base and the thinness of the handle. This ceramic ewer would be difficult to hold by its handle – especially if full of liquid – which suggests it was probably meant as a decorative piece.

    This grand ewer is a combination of Abbasid and Chinese design, and a magnificent example of a hybrid work of art travelling between two cultures, a long time ago...

    (sounds of a ship sailing off, sounds of waves swelling and crashing before fading off)



Dish Decorated with Persian Figures

China, Jingdezhen, early 17th century. Porcelain

Learn about the influence of Persian art on this dish.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip1: Dish Decorated with Persian Figures

    (traders conversing in Chinese and Malay languages at a bazaar)

    We enter the Maritime Trade Gallery, which is located on level one, after you walk from the lobby through the Museum Label gift shop. This audio tour is 16 and a half minutes long.

    This large gallery displays objects traded between Asia and the rest of the world from the 14th through the 19th century.

    (soft classical European music)

    The arrival of Europeans, who set up trading “companies” in many Asian port cities, spurred production and trade in artworks.

    In a vault room on the left after you enter the Trade Gallery, you will encounter a large, blue-and-white porcelain dish decorated with two people sitting in a garden at its centre.

    (sounds of the guzheng fades in)

    With a diameter of about 48 centimetres, this large dish is about as wide as the woks used in hawker stalls, but not as deep. The flat rim is divided into sections, each filled with complex figural or floral decoration in shades of blue glaze. This division into sections made it easier for potters to standardise designs for faster production. It is a distinguishing feature of a type of Chinese export porcelain called "kraak", named for the Portuguese ships that first carried large cargoes of these wares.

    (sounds of a garden, birds calling and leaves rustling)

    The circular image in the centre shows two figures in an outdoor landscape, indicated by a few flowers, a rock, and the edge of a stream or pond in front of them. They face each other, seated cross-legged on the ground. A bold stroke of blue glaze rises from each forehead, perhaps to indicate a feather attached to their headcovering. They lean forward, one hand raised, as if deep in conversation. One holds a cup, the other a pipe, perhaps. Seated figures in conversation is a common motif seen in manuscript paintings, ceramics, and textiles from the Islamic world.

    Two narrow bands of decoration surround the central image – curling vines and dots, then upturned, heart-shaped crests and flowers separated by broad leaves that resemble wings.

    (birds chirp as the wind gently blows)

    The wide flat rim of the dish features eight panels of decoration, each separated by vertical bands of flowers, fruits, and vines. Four sections contain flowering plants drawn in blue glaze; these alternate with scenes of everyday life in China. A Chinese scholar reads in a hut with a sloping straw roof beside a body of water. A small tree, with just-budding branches, grows near the hut. Reeds grow in the foreground. Rolling clouds mark the sky.

    (water splashing)

    In another scene, a clean-shaven young man with his hair in a bun and his pants rolled up to his knees poles a boat across calm waters. In the distance, you can see a wooded area, a small hill with trees, and buildings resembling single-storey houses with sloping roofs at left and right.

    (a labourer's light panting fades off, replaced by countryside sounds)

    A moustachioed farmer, pants cut off at his knees, walks barefoot in another scene. He wears a wide conical hat, and balances a long pole on his shoulders. Suspended from the pole are eight geese hung by their feet, and bundled stalks of grain at each end. Behind him is the similar backdrop of a hill sandwiched by leafy trees,with a building on each side. 

    In the final scene, a barefoot farmer with a conical hat walks away. He too balances a long pole on his shoulders. A basket hangs on one side, what looks like a snake or eel wraps around the other side of the pole.  

    (sound of flute plays softly) 

    In the sections between these Chinese scenes there are flower motifs – cup-shaped blooms, petals in full display, bulbous fruits, and curling vines. Blooming flowers like these are a traditional Persian motif, used since the 13th century to decorate ceramics.   

    A thick band of blue glaze runs along the slightly wavy edge of the dish. Small chips and breaks in the glaze reveal the porcelain body – and the fact that this dish was well-used in the past, perhaps to hold food at communal dinners. 

    (Persian music plays)

    Many objects like this were made for Western consumers, but royal courts in China, India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia were also important patrons and buyers.

    Some rulers formed collections that included works from different cultures.

    (Persian music fades off)



Hong Bowl

China, ca 1785. Porcelain

Learn about the lively Canton trading scene as captured on this punch bowl.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 2: Hong Bowl

    (lively sounds of a thriving port)

    A large, vibrantly coloured punch bowl can be found in a showcase just before the back wall in the Maritime Trade Gallery. Dating to around 1785, this nearly 235 year old porcelain bowl, made in China, is 15.5 centimetres tall, about the length of your mobile phone. With a diameter of 36 centimetres, it is twice the width of a regular noodle bowl – certainly not suited for daily dining. This is a party bowl!

    Bowls like this were produced by Chinese artists for foreign merchants to take back home as souvenirs of their stay in China. This one shows detailed scenes of the lively waterfront of Canton, now modern-day Guangzhou, which was the busiest Chinese port at the end of the 18th century.

    (shophouse bustling sounds, wooden windows creaking)

    Rows of blue and white-fronted shophouses with sloping gray roofs mix with large, white Western-style buildings around the exterior of this bowl. Orange-coloured, cobbled pavements lead from the buildings to the waterfront, where many boats are docked.

    (sounds of lapping waters)

    The water is coloured purple, strangely, and that colour is matched in the purple and green treetops seen beyond the buildings. Brownish-red paint strokes in the background indicate rolling hills far away. The bowl sits on a circular base, mostly white, but lined with an orange zigzag pattern called “Greek key” or “meander” in the West, but seen on Chinese bronzes of much earlier date. Small trefoil finials rise from the pattern ring. Trefoil is a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings used in architecture. A finial is like a pinnacle or a spire, with a vertical, pointed element surrounded by four out-curving leaves or scrolls.

    (sounds of waves cross fade into lively sounds of a thriving port)

    The buildings here are the "hongs" – offices, warehouses, and residences for Western trading companies.  Many figures can be seen walking the pavement, as well as on balconies and in windows of the buildings. Western traders discuss business with Chinese merchants; labourers walk the streets carrying goods balanced on poles over their shoulders. Chinese artisans sell their wares in the open courtyards.

    Figures are brightly dressed in Chinese robes of reds, yellows, blues, pinks, and greens. They sport Qing dynasty hairstyles – shaved heads and queues, which is a male hairstyle with the front of the head shaved, and the remainder of the hair braided into a long braid. Some wear black conical hats. Western traders wear frock coats, knee-length breeches, and boots. Children run and play, one climbs a flag pole.

    (sounds of children laughing over splashing waters)

    The harbourfront is crowded with sampans, small brown boats with a semi-circular shelter over part of the deck. There are also small sailboats, each with a white sail and a different European flag flying.

    (a medley of the Dutch, British, Swedish national anthems plays softly in succession)

    The imposing, two-storey, white-washed Western trader buildings have railings supporting terraces and balconies. European flags are mounted on flagpoles in front of these buildings, identifying which country owns each hong. The flags fly just under the rim of the bowl, atop tall black poles hewn from trees.

    The Dutch flag has been rendered incorrectly – horizontal stripes of blue, red, and white from top down. It really should be red, white, blue.

    In front of the next building to the left is the iconic Union Jack – the British flag. A white X, overlaid with a red cross, like an addition sign, on a dark blue field.

    Continuing around to the left, we see a group of three flags close together: they belong to Sweden, a flag with a yellow cross over a blue field, Imperial – or Holy Roman Empire (the Austrian trading companies) and a white flag.

    The Imperial flag has a fearsome crowned double-headed black eagle with wings spread, red beaks, and claws gripping swords, against a yellow background with horizontal stripes.

    (cries of an eagle over)

    The third flag is white.This represents France, since they used a white flag before adopting their current tricolour flag as we know it in 1794; Moving further left, there's one more flag – the white cross on the red background of the Danish.

    The American flag is seen on other hong bowls, but since it’s missing here, we can date this bowl to before the American company arrived in 1788.

    (sounds of a Western soiree)

    The interior of the bowl has sparse decoration.  In the centre is an orange vase holding flowers, with a purple ribbon wrapped around its base. The vase is framed within a double green circle, with fruits and flowers outside the perimeter. The rim is lined with an orange band with floral elements in green, dark brown, and purple glaze. 

    With its carefully painted and vividly detailed view of the foreign trading houses, this Hong Bowl conveys the bustling, international trading scene between China and the West during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    (sounds of the soiree cross-fades into a boat moving through water)



Mother-of-pearl Casket

Gujarat, India, 16th century. Teak (wood)

Learn about the craftsmanship behind this casket.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 3: Mother-of-pearl Casket

    (classical Indian instrumental music plays)

    At the end of the Maritime Trade Gallery, you can turn right into the Court and Company Gallery. This is a separate room to your right where you will encounter an exquisite mother-of-pearl casket.

    This rectangular box is about 16 centimetres tall by 24 centimeters wide, and about 13 centimeters deep. It is about the size of a loaf of sliced bread.

    The top gently curves, like the top of a casket; which is what these boxes are often called. A richly decorated box like this may have been used to store valuable jewellery, or as a reliquary – a container for holy relics.

    (music fades to background)

    Made in the Gujarat region, in northwestern India, during the 16th or 17th century, this more than 200 to 300 year old box is made of wood entirely covered with small pieces of dominantly cream-coloured mother-of-pearl held in place by gilded, pin-sized silver nails.

    (gentle sound of hammer on nail) 

    Mother-of-pearl is obtained from the interior of seashells, and great skill and specialised techniques are required to cut and polish the small pieces used here.

    Each piece is roughly the size of an adult's thumbprint, and they have been cut in several different shapes, forming patterns on the surface. Together, they somewhat resemble scales on a fish.

    (shimmering sound)

    They fit together like a puzzle, and reflect in iridescent blues, pinks, and golden yellows, depending on how light hits the surface. The box rests on four gilded silver ball feet, each incised with leaf motifs. Gilded metal mounts protect each corner of the box. These are hinge-like pieces, engraved with floral designs, and oval openings that reveal the mother-of-pearl below. The latch and lock are also gilded metal, with similar floral patterns.

    (spiritual, fusion Indian music plays)

    An object like this, made with rare and expensive material, reflects the desire for beauty and fascination with exotic materials that drove international trade in these precious commodities. Europeans at that time were dazzled by mother-of-pearl objects made in India. Encounters between cultures have shaped our world and affect the way objects look.

    (music trails off)



Bird calligram
by Yusuf Chen Jin Hui

China, Ink on rice paper.

Admire the multicultural influences behind each beautiful brush stroke that created this soaring bird.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 1: Bird calligram

    (welcoming music with thumping beat plays)

    The Islamic Art Gallery is located on level two, through a door off the Ancient Religions Gallery, near the central staircase. The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is five minutes long.

    The gallery showcases a variety of ritual, secular, courtly, and scientific objects that reflect Islamic values and sensibilities, inviting visitors to explore the rich variety and beauty of Islamic art.

    These exquisite works of art also show how global notions of Islamic art were adapted across Asia to create unique visual forms that reflect cross-cultural influences.

    One such example is a Bird Calligram, an ink painting that is framed in portrait format and mounted on a wall in the middle of the Islamic Art Gallery. It is approximately 90.1 centimetres in height and 47.7 centimetres in width. It would come up to around the height of local train gantries here in Singapore.

    A calligram is an image made up of words or phrases – in this case the Arabic letters of the basmala, rendered in the shape of a bird.

    (basmala being recited by individual male)

    The basmala is an Islamic invocation to God, which reads "In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate." Muslims recite the basmala before carrying out any action as a way of asking for God’s blessings. It is also invoked at the beginning of every chapter in the Quran.

    Every part of the bird is formed from Arabic letters, including its wings and its feet. The eye and beak, for example, are formed from a single Arabic letter.

    (sounds of bird calling)

    The bird is seen in side profile, leaning forward with wings spread, as if it is about to take flight. The artist has drawn in thick strokes of black ink on a piece of rice paper, now faded a bit to brown.

    With its slim long neck and legs, it resembles a crane, or perhaps a stork. Its head is held erect, and two tufts of feathers on the head form a V-shape. The top of the head, back of the neck, and left wing are formed by a singular brushstroke. The underside of the neck and abdomen are connected by another broad stroke. Three short diagonal strokes fan out from the lower body of the bird, forming its tail. The bird's legs are painted as two long, parallel lines, which curve in at the feet, shaped like two long Js.

    (sounds of bird chirping intensify and transition into sounds of flapping wings)

    To the left of the bird’s feet, we see the artist's signature in Arabic script (يوسوف ) above a red, square Chinese seal.

    (sounds of a guzheng play)

    The traditional characters in the seal spell the artist’s name – Chen Jinhui (陳進惠). Chen, or Yusuf, his Muslim name, was born in 1938 and died in 2008. He is one of the most famous Chinese Muslim calligraphers. His innovative mixing of the Arabic phrases and Chinese calligraphic technique shows his artistic skill and work to create his uniquely personal calligraphic style.

    (hand-drummed thumping beats play)

    This artwork is a donation by the artist around 1996. By fusing Chinese brush painting techniques and symbolism with Arabic calligraphy, this Bird Calligram masterfully captures how the interaction of cultures across Asia has influenced the region’s art, creating interesting cross-cultural artworks that reflect our diverse and hybrid culture today.

    (music fades out)



Brush rest

China, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty (Zhenghe period, 1506-21). Porcelain

Learn about this Ming dynasty brush rest and its role in a scholar's life.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 1: Brush rest

    (classical Chinese music plays)

    We enter the level two Scholars Gallery, a space dedicated to exploring the scholar-officials who for centuries represented an ideal in Chinese culture. The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is four and a half minutes long.

    (sounds of mountain winds)

    A blue and white porcelain brush rest can be found towards the right hand side of the gallery as you enter. Made in Jingdezhen, China, during the Zhengde period (1506 - 1521) of the Ming dynasty, it can be found in a showcase on one wall of the gallery. Measuring 11 by 22 centimetres, this object is about the size of a typical envelope you might receive in the mail.

    The brush rest is modelled as a mountain with a row of five jagged peaks. The middle peak is the highest, and the others lower in steps down each side. It could also refer to the famous Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五岳) in China, representing the five cardinal points.

    (sounds of mountain winds followed by bird calling)

    In Chinese culture, mountains are revered for their mystical associations, and as home to the immortals. Therefore, this brush rest, atop a scholar's desk, would inspire contemplation on the freedom and tranquillity of mountain landscapes. More practically, it would have been used to hold brushes when the scholar was writing or painting. The scholar’s brush would rest in one of the four “valleys” between the five mountains when not in use.

    The brush rest is decorated with a pattern of lingzhi fungus and vines drawn in underglaze blue on a white ground surface. In the centre of each side, under the largest peak, there is a line-drawn square inside a diamond. Inside each square there are Persian words written in Arabic script. One side says khamah, which means "pen"; the other side reads dan, which means "holder" – quite appropriate for this object, right?

    The white base is sparsely decorated with thin blue lines, with simple clouds in the middle and at both corners on each side. Chinese characters on the underside of the brush rest read: "Made in the Zhengde reign of the Ming dynasty." 大明正徳年制.

    (a Chinese mandolin plays and gently fades into the background)

    The Zhengde emperor was greatly interested in foreign cultures. An object like this may have been made for his personal use, or for one of the Muslim administrators known to have served at his court.

    Chinese scholar-officials, and other men and women interested in culture, were expected to engage in artistic activities, namely the Four Pursuits 琴棋书画 (qinqi shuhua) – playing the zither, playing weiqi (also called "go"), a type of board game, calligraphy, and painting. These activities were thought to improve one’s mind and character, and were hence sought after by such individuals at the time.

    (sounds of a male individual reciting the Confucian teachings play before swiftly fading out)



Crucifix reliquary

Japan, 17th century. Gilded copper alloy, lacquer.

Discover interesting details about this Japanese reliquary crucifix.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 1: Crucifix Reliquary

    (pensive ambient music plays)

    Traders brought their Christian faith from the Middle East through Central Asia, China, and India as early as the 7th century. Objects on display in the museum’s Christian Art Gallery bridge many cultures and traditions. Some may have even been collected and admired in the past by non-Christians who took an interest in the ideas and art of Christianity – perhaps because of shared spiritual values.

    This gallery is located on level two of the museum, through a door from the Ancient Religions Gallery or from the Scholars Gallery. In a case, in a corner of the gallery, you will find a reliquary crucifix. A "crucifix" is a Christian cross that shows Christ nailed onto it. The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is six minutes long.

    This black and gold crucifix is also a reliquary, a container to store holy relics, such as pieces of clothing or objects associated with saints and other religious figures. A knob at the bottom unscrews, and then you can open both sides to reveal small compartments.

    Made in Japan during the 17th century, it might have belonged to a Japanese Christian, or to a Western missionary working there.

    (sounds of metalwork, a fire burning in a forge)

    Measuring 15 by 11 centimetres, and 2.5 centimetres thick, the length of this cross-shaped container is similar to that of an adult’s hand. It could be easily cradled in your hand! One side shows Christ on the Cross, and the other shows the Virgin Mary looking towards heaven with her hands clasped in prayer.

    These figures and the rest of the decoration on the object are in raised relief – that is, they are three-dimensional. You would feel them as you held this reliquary. This tactile quality surely enhanced the appeal of the object.

    The gold relief elements stand out against the black lacquer surface. This effect was created with a technique called shakudō, which involves a combination of copper, gold and arsenic alloy for decoration on metalwork to create stunning contrasts of black and gold.

    (sounds of wind chimes play)

    A knob at the top of the crucifix has a ring attached, with which it could have been hung, either on a wall or, with a chain attached, around someone's neck. The other three branches have identical knobs, without a ring.

    On the side with the figure of Christ, there is a plaque above the cross with the letters "I-N-R-I". This stands for a Latin phrase meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. This phrase, used by the Romans who crucified him to mock Christ, commonly appears on crucifixes.

    Other traditional elements of Crucifixion images seen here are the halo behind Christ's head, and the skull and crossbones beneath his feet. Here his halo is shown as three triangular spikes radiating from his head along the lines of the cross. The skull and crossbones represent Adam, the first human created. According to Christian legend, Christ is thought to have been crucified on the spot where Adam was buried.

    The eyes of the long-haired, bearded Christ are closed, and his head slumps down to his right shoulder. His crown of thorns is partially worn away, as is much of the gilding on the figures, from frequent handling. His face bears a peaceful expression. His arms are nailed to the ends of the crossbar, and his feet are crossed and nailed below. He is naked except for a loincloth around his waist.

    (a Latin hymn sung by a choir fades into the background)

    On the other side, the Virgin Mary is shown between two winged angels, seen in profile, resting on clouds, with stars around them. Above her head is a bird with wings spread, symbolising the Holy Spirit. At her feet is another angel, facing front, with only its head and wings visible amidst swirling clouds.

    (tension-filled sounds of the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, plays subtly)

    Below the angel, there is a plant with two large blooms and a bud rising above. The blooms appear to be chrysanthemums, a flower popular in Japanese decorative arts.

    The Jesuits brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, and used art to instruct, delight, and move audiences. Many were against the religion and it was banned in 1614 for nearly 300 years. Some "Hidden Christians", as they came to be known, continued to worship in secret, creating their own unique brand of Christianity over time.

    (music slowly fades off)



Chaopao with Dragons

China, mid-19th century. Silk (satin weave, embroidered with silk floss, gold-wrapped threads).
Collection of Chris Hall.

Learn about the late Qing dynasty fashion in China through an exploration of the designs on this chaopao robe.


  • Drop down for transcript

    Clip 1: Chaopao with Dragons

    (atmospheric music plays)

    Located on level three of the museum, the Fashion and Textiles Gallery features a stunning display of over 30 Chinese robes and modern dress ensembles on loan from the renowned Chris Hall Collection of Chinese textiles. The audio tour for this gallery consists of two clips, and is eight and a half minutes long.

    The pieces displayed in this gallery were made from the late Qing dynasty to the end of the Cultural Revolution in China – that's the mid-1800s to 1976. Seen together, they present Chinese dress as diverse and evolving, reflecting a century of drastic political, economic, and socio-cultural changes in the country.

    (festive Chinese music grows in volume and then fades into the background)

    Some of the most striking pieces on display are the elaborate robes of the Qing dynasty, like this court robe called a chaopao 朝袍, probably made to be worn by a high-ranking male official during the most formal occasions and audiences with the emperor. The robe is mounted on a T-bar stand inside a glass showcase. It is a one-piece garment, with a bodice that flares from the waist like a skirt. Outstretched long sleeves, measuring two metres in wingspan, end in “horse-hoof” shaped cuffs. The garment conveys a sense of authority, grandeur, and power.

    (a classical guzheng tune plays and fades into the background)

    The robe is made of blue-black silk – a colour commonly associated with nobles and higher-ranking officials during the Qing dynasty. There are three buttons at the round Mandarin collar, and two under its right arm, which secure this wrap-around garment.

    The front is embroidered with silk floss and gold-wrapped threads. A magnificent golden dragon dominates its centre. The dragon faces us directly, eyes locked in a penetrating gaze above its gaping, four-fanged mouth. Its sinuous body forms a reversed letter “C”, as if twisting in mid-air, around a flaming pearl. Each of its four limbs brandishes five fearsome claws. Two more dragons swim stretched out above the wave patterns at the waist, and there's one atop each shoulder. And a dragon also decorates the end of each sleeve. These dragons are all set amidst a pattern of swirling turquoise clouds and auspicious Chinese symbols.

    The lower part of the robe features even more dragons. They are embroidered within circular discs, called "roundels," against a backdrop of turquoise clouds. Below the roundels, running the full width of the skirt, is a band of embroidery with two long dragons in profile facing each other, breathing fire. They fly between clouds and swirls and stripes of colour that represent waves and mountains.

    (sounds of dragons flying in the sky)

    (sounds of horses galloping and neighing; clashing of swords and battle cries rise into a crescendo before cross-fading into a tentative drum beat)

    The robe also shows design elements added by the Qing emperors of Manchu background. The Manchurians were a nomadic tribe from the northeast who took control of China in 1644. They incorporated elements from their traditional dress adapted for their hunting and warrior lifestyle to Ming-dynasty style dress worn by the ethnic Han majority. These include the flared lower portion of the robe (to accommodate horseback riding), and the "horse-hoof" shaped cuffs at the end of the sleeves, which were much narrower and more functional than those on older Chinese garments. This may also explain the non-functional square patch near the right hip – perhaps originally a flap to cover a slot that held a sword.

    (reverberating sound of a ceremonial gong)

    Qing dynasty clothing signified rank and status, and strict regulations governed what materials and designs officials could wear. But with the many changes in China brought about by internal rebellion and external invasion in the 19th century, it became difficult to strictly enforce these dress codes. This robe reflects the changes in Chinese court dress at the time. While its blue-black colour was meant for nobles and court officials, the inclusion of the five-clawed dragons is a departure from earlier court robes, where these would have been reserved only for the emperor.

    (evocative soundscape indicating change plays, then fades off)

    New and exciting fashions were also emerging as people were exposed to more knowledge of the wider world. Listen to the next clip to learn more about the evolution of Chinese fashion.



Blouse and Skirt

China, 1920s.

Blouse: Cotton (voile, with machine embroidery)
Skirt: Silk (satin embroidery), silk floss, gold-wrapped threads
Collection of Chris Hall.

Discover how fashion evolved during the 1920s in Republican China.


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    Clip 2: Blouse and Skirt

    (1920s jazz plays)

    After the fall of the Qing dynasty and with the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, fashion evolved, reflecting Chinese aspirations to appear to be part of the modern world. Early Republican fashion featured changes in silhouette, design, and materials. Styles worn by educated, urban women in the 1920s were called “New Civilised Dress.”

    This blouse-and-skirt ensemble in another showcase in the gallery is a classic example of this style. The blouse is in a gorgeous shade of turquoise. The fabric is cotton voile – soft to the touch, and quite sheer.

    Because this material is so thin, it would have been worn with a white camisole underneath.

    (traditional Chinese music plays)

    Black piping defines the collar and the traditional fold high across the chest (like on the older-style robes), as well as the hems of the sleeves. Instead of the long sleeves of the Qing dynasty, this blouse has three-quarter, flared sleeves and a rounded hem – both are design innovations that emerged in the early Republican period. The machine embroidered decoration on the surface includes gold and orange threads depicting flowers with vines arching in between them.

    The blouse is paired with a black silk skirt that slightly flares at the bottom. There are echoes of Qing traditions here. Like skirts of earlier periods worn by the majority Han Chinese, the front rectangular panel that begins at the waist and ends at the hem displays a large, auspicious, embroidered floral design. Three big, pinkish-gold flowers with long yellow stamens bloom from a blue, leafy stalk.

    (reflective soundscape plays and fades into the background)

    Because of the modern cut – and the sheer fabric of the blouse – a woman wearing this outfit in Republican-era China would have been admired by some people for being liberated. But traditionalists may not have approved.

    (crowd applause interspersed with a Mandarin jazz song playing)

    As women grew more active and visible in society, this “New Civilised Dress” style became associated with the embrace of democratic notions, women’s equality, and individual freedom. Eventually it was seen as representing enlightenment in a new era in the country.

    (cheering rises into a climax before fading into stern marches)