Chinese Memory: Treasures of a 5,000-year-old Civilization

Capital Museum, Beijing Until 7 October 2008

This ancient Chinese 'environmentally friendly' oil lamp (pictured) has a built-in system to eliminate smoke and dates from the Western Han dynasty of 206 bc to ad 25. It is one of 169 artefacts on display in the exhibition Chinese Memory, showing at the Capital Museum in Beijing until October. The items, ranging from a 6,000 bc flute to a twentieth-century incense burner, were chosen from 55 museums across the country to trace China's technological and cultural innovations.

The bronze oil lamp was excavated in Pingsu, Shanxi province, in 1985. It takes the shape of a swan goose turning its neck backwards, holding a fish in its mouth. A round burner sits on the bird's back, shaded by the fish. Two curved bronze panels make an adjustable shutter for the burner, and can be slid open or closed to shelter the flame from wind and to control the illumination level. When the lamp is lit, smoke rises into the bird's mouth and is channelled via the neck into the belly, where it is trapped by water. Assembled from four components, it can be taken apart for cleaning.

The lamp's form reflects a fusion of philosophies. During the early Han period, the emperors co-opted many ideologies that had been suppressed by the preceding Qin dynasty (221–206 bc), during which scholarly books were burned and Confucians buried alive. The lamp combines Confucianism's regard for utility with Taoism's respect for living in accord with nature. The swan goose symbolizes compassion and blessing and the fish represents prosperity.

By embodying the traditional Chinese ideal of tianren heyi — the harmony between man and nature — this exquisite lamp's design points to the early desire among the ancients to live in a clean environment.