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Deep Tradition Dynamic Change

Explore The Field Museum’s Cyrus Tang Hall of China and discover one of the world’s most influential civilizations. Over 350 objects—including rare textiles, rubbings, bronzes, and ceramics—tell the story of deep tradition and dynamic change that define Chinese culture.

  1. Origins

    Beginning more than 10,000 years ago, people established diverse ways of life across the varied landscapes of China. From river valleys and mountain plateaus to deserts and semi-tropical forests, different groups of people found creative ways to transform the environments in which they lived.

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    By mapping the size and dating of the material that we find on the surface, we get some idea of the size and density of settlements in an area over time.
    Gary Feinman, PhD, is the MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum. Together with his colleagues at Shandong University, Gary conducts survey archaeology in China. The team scans large areas looking for small artifacts, plotting each on a map. The results yield a picture of population shifts over space and time. In this video, Gary speaks about his work in China and what it reveals about life in China’s past.
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    Creating a diorama of a Neolithic village in China (and the modern-day archaeological excavation that revealed its remains)

    Dioramas inside the Cyrus Tang Hall of China convey the research of archaeologists whose excavations provide clues about how people lived in the distant past.

  2. Adjunct Curator Deborah Bekken examines the Qingming Scroll during the conservation process.

    Daily Life

    How did everyday people live in China during the past? Scholars interpret historical texts to find answers, but they also study artifacts to supplement written records. One such object inside the exhibition vividly captures daily life in a 16th- or 17th-century Chinese town. The 27-foot-long painted scroll, Along the River during the Qingming Festival, depicts a variety of individuals from across Chinese society during the late Ming Dynasty.

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    We want to see [objects] used and accessed by members of the public through exhibitions and programs, by scholars and researchers, and by community members whose heritage we care for.
    Jamie Kelly is the Anthropology Collections Manager, and oversees The Field Museum’s China collections. He and his colleagues support the care and preservation of thousands of Chinese objects and connect researchers from around the world with the collection. In this video, Jamie speaks about his role as a steward of cultural heritage.
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    My role in the China Hall project was to evaluate every object or specimen that the developers and the curators wanted to display.
    Shelley Paine is the Exhibitions Conservator at The Field Museum. She and her colleagues address the conservation needs of artifacts that go on public display or travel to other museums. In this video, Shelley discusses her role in helping to preserve and display one of the museum’s Chinese painted scrolls from the Ming Dynasty.
  3. Shared Stories

    For millennia, different religions and philosophies have existed side-by-side in China. Buddhism and Daoism influenced each other, often blending different traditions and combining “high religion” with local folk beliefs. These combinations of beliefs reveal themselves in shared stories and regional practices expressed in art, rituals, festivals, and performances.

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    One of the most interesting things to me was just the ability to select an object that represents a particular point in time and bring it into the exhibition so that visitors will have access to it.
    Deborah Bekken, PhD, is an Adjunct Curator of Anthropology and co-curator for the Cyrus Tang Hall of China at The Field Museum. In this video, Deborah explains how the curatorial team selected objects and stories for the exhibition.

    Of the more than 25,000 objects in The Field Museum’s China collections, nearly three-quarters were collected by one man: Berthold Laufer (1874-1934). Laufer served as the museum’s curator of Asian Anthropology from 1907 to 1934, and he is considered a pioneer in the study of Asian cultural traditions.

    Between 1908 and 1910 Laufer traveled throughout China and Japan as part of the Blackstone Expedition. His second journey to China was in 1923 as part of the Captain Marshall Field Expedition. In these two collecting trips, Laufer acquired around 19,000 archaeological, historical, and ethnographic objects dating from between 6000 BC to AD 1890.

    Despite the amazing number of artifacts that Laufer amassed, his collection does not represent a comprehensive view of Chinese cultural history; certain areas are underrepresented. Laufer was a brilliant man who spoke more than a dozen different languages; yet, like all of us, he had his biases. The objects he collected—including masks, puppets, and religious sculptures— reflected his personal collecting practices many of which are different from what cultural historians might do today. However, because Laufer collected items from across the social spectrum in China, covering different aspects of people’s lives, he is considered a pioneer.

    Supplemented by the Museum’s other Chinese collections, the Laufer objects help tell the story of cultural change and continuity in China across time and space.

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    Go behind the scenes during the making of the exhibition’s puppet theater

    Loved by millions of people, Chinese shadow puppet plays tell stories that have had enduring popularity over centuries. The exhibition’s puppet theater introduces visitors to Journey to the West, a Chinese epic that recounts the adventures of a Buddhist monk aided by the magical and mischievous Monkey King.

  4. Exchange

    Since ancient times, China has traded goods and exchanged ideas with other countries despite changing political boundaries and the rise and fall of ruling dynasties. During expansive periods, maritime trade routes and the Silk Road (a series of overland routes that linked China with Central Asia, the Middle East and Mediterranean) brought Chinese goods, people, ideas, and innovations to the world—and conversely, brought the world’s goods, peoples, ideas, and innovations to China.

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    Recovered objects help trace Chinese trade and production patterns

    Lisa Niziolek, PhD, provides research and curatorial support for the Cyrus Tang Hall of China. In her role as postdoctoral researcher, she studies the Java Sea Shipwreck, a trading vessel that sank around the 12th or 13th century AD carrying a variety of goods, including many from China. In this video, Lisa discusses the technique of compositional analysis that allows her to identify where particular ceramic objects were manufactured.

    Envisioning a long-lost ship

    The Field Museum has more than 7,600 pieces from the Java Sea shipwreck in its collection, approximately half of the total number recovered during the 1990s. While some wooden pieces remain from the ship that sank in the Java Sea, there is no complete record of what the vessel looked like. To tell the ship’s story, this model was designed using historical sources, recent scientific research, and an understanding of current shipbuilding practices in Southeast Asia. Professional model maker Nicholas Burningham crafted this scale model.
  5. Spirit Stones

    Spirit stones are extravagantly shaped rocks that often come from Lake Tai in Suzhou, China. In traditional Chinese gardens, the stones may represent mountains and inspire visions of idealized landscapes. The Municipal Government of Suzhou donated eight spirit stones to The Field Museum, which are now on display at the end of the Cyrus Tang Hall of China.

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    Constructing a garden of spirit stones

    These amazing rock formations were formed as limestone deposits dating back millions of years. Eroded over time into unusual shapes, the spirit stones are now the centerpiece of the Sue Ling Gin Garden (located at the end of the Cyrus Tang Hall of China).

  6. © The Field Museum, A115189d_002, Photographer Karen Bean

    Educator Toolkit

    Focus on object-based learning using this Educator Toolkit for the Cyrus Tang Hall of China.

    Activities push students to analyze objects, build context through engagement with the content, and develop their own ideas about how to interpret Chinese history. Explore the exhibition online or during a visit to The Field Museum, using these flexible activities in the Museum and in the Classroom.

    Learning Approaches


    Inspired by the College, Career, and Civic Readiness (C3) Framework, each activity follows an inquiry arc that prepares students to ask questions, apply disciplinary knowledge and skills, gather and evaluate sources, and develop new arguments.


    These activities are designed to build empathy—both academically and socially. Empathy is a crucial skill for understanding the lives of others in their own context, and for preventing bias in the present day. We approach empathy in three ways:

    Historical Empathy
    Building understanding for how people lived in other times to help build historical context.
    Cultural Empathy
    Learning from the perspectives of other cultures today.
    Social Empathy
    Developing skills for collaboration with peers in the classroom.
    Collaborate with other educators Join our Facebook Group


    • Archaeological Footprint

      Can we really know about the past from things left behind?

      Students will analyze the objects in the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, think about how history is told through objects, and theorize about what gaps can exist in storytelling through objects.

      Keywords: object-based learning, world history, geography, archaeology, critical history, social empathy
      Lens: history, geography, art, anthropology

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    • Exploring Language

      How has language changed the world?

      Students will explore the history of writing in China and draw conclusions about the impact of the written word on human civilizations, and how language has changed over time

      Keywords: power/politics, untold stories, object-based learning, reading, discussion, critical history, archaeology, foreign language, social empathy
      Lens: history, anthropology

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    • Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism

      How do different belief systems fit together?

      Students will learn about three major belief systems in China—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism—using art and artifacts. Through discussion and object-study, students will wrestle with how these different belief systems co-existed in China, and how they influenced an informed each other.

      Keywords: object-based learning, world history, geography, life-ways, cultural empathy, social empathy, historical empathy
      Lens: history, geography, art, anthropology

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    • Maps

      What do maps tell us about our world?

      Students will analyze the many different maps in the Cyrus Tang Hall of China and draw conclusions about the purpose, audience, and potential bias in maps in general. Students will then have the opportunity to construct their own maps based on a specific purpose/audience.

      Keywords: object-based learning, maps, discussion, world history, geography, social empathy
      Lens: history, geography

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    • Structure and Function

      Materials Science and Every Day Objects

      Students will analyze early Chinese objects to understand how the design or structure of an object is related to its function. Students will also explore how materials are best suited for the function of the object and the impact of natural resources of a geographic region of China to infer what materials were used to create objects in that region.

      Keywords: object-based learning, world history, geography, materials science, social empathy
      Lens: history, geography

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    • Exploring Objects

      How many stories can one object tell?

      Students will interpret objects using a variety of disciplinary lenses—including anthropology, history, economics, geography, and art history—to explore the role of different social scientists in uncovering the stories objects hold.

      Keywords: object-based learning, social empathy
      Lens: history, economics, art history, anthropology, geography

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    • Outsiders Inside

      What does it mean to belong to a community?

      Students will discuss the concept of “outsiders,” or ethnic minorities, in Chinese history through artifacts in the museum and connect the concept to present experiences.

      Keywords: object-based learning, untold stories, discussion, world history, geography, cultural empathy, social empathy, historical empathy
      Lens: history, geography, civics

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    • Investigating the Qing Ming Scroll

      What does an idealized image of society tell us?

      Students will learn about the contradictions contained within the Qing Ming Scroll and compare it to present-day representations of idealized societies.

      Keywords: object-based learning, untold stories, discussion, world history, geography, cultural empathy, social empathy, historical empathy
      Lens: history, geography, civics

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    • Testing the Scholar Officials

      How do you choose who runs a dynasty?

      Students will explore the classical Chinese civil servants exam system, compare it to our own, and construct their own ideas of what it means to be qualified and how to prove qualification.

      Keywords: power/politics, discussion, civics, world history, world literature, historical empathy, social empathy
      Lens: civics, history

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    • Traveling the Silk Road

      Is the Silk Road an example of globalization?

      Students will explore the Silk Road trade network through museum resources and a reenactment of exchange along the route to form arguments about the global impact of the international trade route.

      Keywords: trade, life ways, discussion, reading, world history, historical empathy, social empathy
      Lens: history, economics, geography

      English PDF Spanish PDF

    Additional Resources

    The China Educator Toolkit was generously supported by:
  1. Educator Toolkit

    Access object-based activities and other resources for use in the classroom or on field trips

  2. Exhibition Online

    Learn more through objects, stories, and experiences from the Cyrus Tang Hall of China