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This Review comes from "News and Reviews" Vol. 4, No. 3 Spring 2001. A publication of the Asian Educational Media Servie, Center for East Asia and Paicific Studies -- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Treasure the Treasures Series, Volumes 1 through 3

The National Palace Museum: A Treasure-house of Chinese Art, A City of Cathay, The Dragon in Chinese Art
Produced by the National Palace Museum, Taiwan. 1999. Available for Windows platform only.

These three CD-ROMs introduce users to the collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The series surprises the user with ingenious approaches to the collections but frustrates because it lacks some simple features that would make the CDs much more practical for classroom application. Of the three, Volume Two, A City of Cathay, is probably the most suitable for classroom use.

The first of the series, The National Palace Museum: A Treasure-house of Chinese Art, The National Palace Museumsurveys the museum's collections using three different interfaces. "The Story of the Museum" module presents four short documentary-style montages of still photographs narrating the origin, history, and mission of the museum. Each less than five minutes long, these montages (in particular the first two) put the museum in excellent historical context and could be shown to classes on late imperial or modern Chinese history in both college and high school classrooms. Although the perspective is obviously from the Taiwan side of the straits, the narrative is not overtly biased (and, interestingly, despite the CD's Taiwanese origins, pinyin romanization is used throughout this CD, but not the others).

One can view the museum's collections directly via the "Antiquities" module. Clicking on the words "Chinese Art" on the CD's home page produces an icon menu listing twelve categories of Chinese art, including sculpture, painting, carving, jade, bronze, calligraphy, and the "scholar's studio." This approach would be the most appropriate for college or advanced high school teaching. The 136 different items are easily accessible, either by chronological sequence or through hyperlinks from a brief narrative describing developments in each medium. This is also one of the CD's weaknesses, for it would be a much more flexible teaching tool if a single menu listed all the available objects at once, enabling the instructor to move quickly between pieces. It is also frustrating that not all the objects hyperlinked in the text can be enlarged.

The objects are presented in excellent detail and can be magnified by one degree. However, the detail is so great that many of the paintings, including classics like Travelers Among Streams and Mountains, by Fan Kuan, and Early Spring, by Guo Xi, cannot be shown full-screen except as very small images. Once magnified, no more than one-fourth of the painting can be on screen at any one time. Chinese pronunciation is available with a mouse-click; audio and text narration accompany each piece. Also, each object has "hot spots," which produce more detailed analyses of particular features.

In the "Timeline" module, objects from the museum's collection parade across the screen, arranged by dynasty, from "pre-history" through the Qing. This section is probably not suited to classes beyond middle school. Any of the objects can be clicked on, linking to the detailed descriptions available through the Antiquities module.

A City of Cathay A City of Cathay
The second volume of the series is probably the most useful for classrooms, perhaps because it focuses on only one work of art, the 11-meter-long handscroll here titled A City of Cathay (one of several similar paintings often titled Going Upstream at the Qingming Festival). The version presented here dates from the 18th century, though there are versions that date back as far as the 12th century.

This painting has long been recognized as a valuable source for teaching and learning about Chinese life in a large city (originally perhaps Kaifeng during the Southern Song era). Street entertainment, commerce, folk customs, daily household life, and architecture are just some of the many facets of life here presented. This CD would be very useful just for enabling the cumbersome scroll to be shown in a classroom.

The scroll can be accessed using six different menus: "Close-up," "Highlights," "Journey," "Study," "Guide," and "Fun," with the last being two jigsaw-type puzzles taken from the painting. The close-up enables the instructor to focus in on any part of the painting in great detail, at two different degrees of magnification. This permits great flexibility in viewing the painting, although flexibility is limited because the magnification has been arranged into a series of "tiles"; if a particular detail sits on the border between tiles, you may have to continually return to the wider view to click on the adjacent "tile." Still, this is a minor inconvenience, and the quality of magnification is exceptional and important for so detailed a painting.

For instructors or students who wish a more directed tour of the painting, the "Guide," "Journey," and "Highlights" menus are appropriate. The "Guide" narrates the painting, which is divided into 20 panels. Each panel is described in great detail, with hyperlinks to items described in the narrative, for instance an opera performance, a Daoist temple, or a medicine shop. Some of the scenes also include sound clips, enabling students to hear the sounds of Chinese opera or a bustling market. The "Journey" module is similar to the "Guide," but focuses on the artistic aspects of the painting more than the social and cultural details of its subject. The "Highlights" menu permits users to narrow down the painting's many details, choosing just one element from among eight choices (storefronts, for instance), which will then be highlighted from throughout the painting.

The "Study" module comprises resources to help understand the painting and its context, including essays on the different versions of the scroll, whether its subject is purely realistic, mythical, or some combination, and on the Qing imperial painting academy.

The Dragon in Chinese Art The Dragon in Chinese Art
Volume Three offers three ways to interact with China's most recognizable cultural symbol. Although creative and interesting, this CD is not flexible enough to make it useful in most classroom settings. First, an informative and entertaining "Documentary" introduces the motif of the dragon in Chinese history and art. Next, the "Dragon Types" menu analyzes the nine different types of dragon commonly depicted in art, from the kui dragon with roots in Shang and Zhou bronzes, to the lion-like rampant dragon popular during the Tang dynasty, to the Ming and Qing imperial seated dragon. Each type is introduced with excellent graphic detail, using photographs of objects that depict each style and computer animation to illustrate the prominent features.

A chronology presents the major dynastic periods in Chinese history, and invites the user to trace the development of the dragon through each of them by analyzing stylistic innovations and also changes in the meaning of the different depictions over time. Finally, the "Antiquities" module allows direct access to the 126 objects presented in the CD, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 19th century, from jade carvings to silk robes.


Uses and Strategies
These CD Roms present numerous opportunities for classroom use at several levels. I recommend using them essentially as slides, employing a multimedia projector rather than a traditional one. The computer-stored images have a great advantage over traditional art slides: because you can move between images with at most a few mouse clicks, in no fixed order, comparisons among slides-even comparisons not anticipated by the instructor-are easily made.

For younger students (perhaps middle school) the timeline feature of the first volume could serve as a useful introduction to Chinese history. The narration, though too slow and pedantic for more advanced classes, would reinforce the information presented visually through the objects. When a class appeared bored, an object could be selected for group discussion. Because City of Cathay presents numerous scenes of daily life, including performing animals, stage performances, and household games, younger students could be engaged in discussions of how similar or different life in imperial China was from life in their own time and place.

Instructors in the college classroom can use these CDs to augment, rather than replace, their own lectures. To do so effectively will require significant preparation time working with the CD, but once familiar with its contents, an instructor can use the many images stored to illustrate points from four millennia of Chinese history.

Advanced high school and college undergraduate courses are probably the best suited to these CDs. The documentary-style images that introduce Volumes One and Three could be shown in their entirety to such classes, setting up further activities or discussions. This could be especially valuable in world history or world cultures survey classes, where instructors are not always experts in Chinese history and art history.

A City of Cathay is probably the most useful volume for the classroom at either the advanced high school or college level. This is in part because of the richness of the source, which provides an unparalleled visual introduction to life in imperial China. Because the time and location of the painting's subject is not specific, it can be used in any course focusing on traditional, imperial, or late-imperial China. The CD permits exceptionally flexible interface with the painting so that instructors can focus on specific kinds of practices (religion, entertainment, commerce, architecture, et cetera) and use the painting to illustrate their points.

In conclusion, despite some unintuitive and awkward interfaces and some inconsistencies in how the images can be viewed, these three CD Roms introduce a valuable collection of art treasures to a wider audience, and do so in flexible, creative, and usually effective ways.

James Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He holds a Ph.D. in Modern Chinese History from Yale University.

The National Palace Museum: A Treasure-house of Chinese Art, A City of Cathay, and The Dragon in Chinese Art are part of the Treasure the Treasures Series available from Lee & Lee Communications, U.S.A. Price is $49.95 each.

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