Birthday Celebrations in Chinese Art to be Theme of New Installation at Metropolitan Museum

A new installation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art explores themes of birthday celebrations and long life in Chinese art. Drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection and promised gifts, and on view in The Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts, Celebration: The Birthday in Chinese Art showcases more than 50 works—paintings, garments, and decorative art objects—depicting the birthday and longevity themes that were pervasive in China especially during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. While the earliest work in the installation is a 13th-century painting, most date from the 16th to 18th centuries. Celebration includes several works never before exhibited, including a monumental 18th-century tapestry (kesi) woven in silk and gold with the character for longevity shou as well as a recently acquired lacquer box with mother-of-pearl inlays capturing a party setting and lively boys at play. The installation will remain on view through August 15, 2010.

Among the highlights are richly detailed works of embroidery, lacquer, porcelain, and tapestry, all depicting a grand reception celebrating the 80th birthday of the Tang-dynasty hero Guo Ziyi (697-781), who became a popular Chinese god of wealth, honor, and happiness. Of particular interest are a set of 12 exquisite hanging scrolls with dozens of figures embroidered in silk, gold, and feather thread on satin; a meticulously carved red lacquer screen (dated 1777) showing the bustling activity accompanying a birthday celebration in a large residential compound; and a delightful 19th-century silk tapestry (kesi) with painted details—that is on display for the first time.

As the birthday in Chinese art is a celebration of a long and rewarding life, objects with longevity themes were appropriately given, displayed, and worn on birthdays. Long life was encoded in the character for shou itself, in images with Daoist immortals, and in images of rocks, peaches, cranes, and flora and fauna of many kinds. The installation features many such examples, including a tall blue-and-white porcelain vase of the Wanli period (1573–1620) illustrating spirited immortals offering up the character shou; and a silk tapestry of the Ming dynasty depicting the legendary Dongfang Suo, who stole the mythical peaches of immortality and became immortal himself.

The installation is featured on the Museum’s website at

Celebration: The Birthday in Chinese Art is organized by Joyce Denney, Assistant Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Asian Art. Installation design is by Michael Batista, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Emil Micha, Senior Graphic Design Manager; and lighting is by Clint Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Museum’s Design Department.