Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Public only: 202.633.1000
Media Preview: Tues. February 22, 9 a.m. RSVP: 202.633.0519
November 22, 2004

Whether to cheer the soul, exercise the body or the mind, organized games have existed since the beginning of civilization. From chess and backgammon to playing cards, polo, and field hockey, Asia is the world’s oldest and richest source of games. “Asian Games: The Art of Contest,” on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from Feb. 26, 2005 to May 15, 2005 celebrates this history by exploring the role of games in Asian culture and their transmission across cultures from prehistoric times to the present. The exhibition is designed to appeal to audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds and includes an area where some of the games on view can be played.This is the first major exhibition with a thematic, cross-cultural approach devoted to Asian games and the first to bring together superb examples of game sets and pieces, ceramics and magnificent Persian and Indian court paintings and illustrated manuscripts, as well as Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings and screens depicting the playing of games across Asia. Exclusive to its Sackler Gallery presentation are three stunning representations of games from China and Japan that are housed in the Freer Gallery of Art and cannot travel to other venues. Organized by the Asia Society, New York, the exhibition includes works drawn from numerous museums and private collections around the world.

The approximately 166 objects featured were selected for their artistic quality and historical significance and mirror specific cultural emphases of Asian societies on physical challenge, competition, and scholarly and personal achievement. The exhibition is divided into discreet sections according to the games’ categories.

Tossing and Turning: Games of Chance
Among Asia’s oldest surviving games are those that reflect cultural notions of fate. Early games of chance such as dice and the Indian game of pachisi, which inspired the Western games of Parcheesi, Chutes and Ladders, Ludo and Sorry, were often centered on the players’ attaining spiritual enlightenment. Early first millennium-B.C. lot-casting dice demonstrate the game’s great antiquity in the Indian subcontinent. Two ceramic figures of male liubo players and an attendant from around the first century illustrate this ancient Chinese game, which was associated with divination and was popular during the first and second centuries B.C.

Backgammon (“nard”) is thought to have been invented in Iran in the sixth or seventh century and spread to many other areas of Asia, including China and Japan. A Safavid period (1501–1722) illustration of the game’s invention by the Persian king’s wise vizier as recounted in Firdawsi’s epic “Shahnama” or “Persian Book of Kings” is on view.

War and Territory: Games of Strategy
This section of the exhibition highlights two major board games, chess and “weiqi” (Japanese “go”), and examines their transmission and different histories in various Asian societies. Chess originated as “chaturanga” in India before 600 B.C. and may have featured elegantly carved ivory figures of elephants, camels and horses. More abstract appeared later in Iran and the Arab world, while the game probably spread along the Silk Road to China and Japan during the Tang dynasty (618–906 B.C.). Early surviving chess pieces and sets on view include magnificently carved pieces from India, Burma and Cambodia. Later illustrations in Persian and Indian court painting on view also reflect the game’s prestige and long history.

Depictions of players, as well as surviving pieces and containers, document the history of the game of weiqi, the most influential and enduring of Chinese board games, which flourished at least as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.). In Japan, the game called “go” achieved even greater status and popularity during the Edo period (1615–1868). The exhibition presents an elaborate go table with red and white agate pieces, as well as Edo-period paintings and woodblock prints that demonstrate the game’s importance in Japanese society.

From Cards to Connoisseurship: Games of Memory and Matching
Games of visual memory, such as card games, dominoes and mahjong, provide clues to cultural attitudes toward gambling. The popularity of these games encouraged the production of easily transported game paraphernalia that could be played in any setting. A stunning set of lacquer playing cards from Safavid Iran (1502–1722) and colorful, round ivory cards from Mughal India (1526–1858) illustrate these games.

Games that reflect a refinement of intellectual abilities and the senses of sight and smell are also showcased. These include an incense game set, as well as two 18th-century woodblock prints of courtesans playing the game and a set of Japanese cards used for a poetry matching game.

Power and Dexterity: Games of Physical Skill
In addition to the well known martial arts of sumo wrestling and swordplay, Asian societies developed a diverse array of physical games. Kickball (perhaps a precursor of soccer) and “touhu” (an arrow-throwing contest, resembling the game of darts) both originated in China. Images and paraphernalia in this section include polo balls from 13th-century Japan and an early 19th-century Japanese polo set. Focusing on game types that increase physical strength, coordination, and dexterity, these objects demonstrate the importance of these skills in the societies they represent. Remarkable Tang dynasty ceramic sculptures of men and women polo players demonstrate the game’s antiquity and the dynasty elite’s enthusiasm for vigorous sports. Persian paintings of the Safavid dynasty (1502–1722) show the great importance of polo in the court’s heroic culture.

Catalogue, Multimedia Website Component and Outreach Programs
“Asian Games: The Art of Contest” is accompanied by a fully illustrated 325-page color catalogue, edited by co-curators Colin McKenzie, Middlebury College Museum of Art and Irving Finkel, The British Museum, and published by the Asia Society.

A multimedia exhibition web component, developed in association with the Asia Society, provides the potential to view information on the themes and exhibition images online. Extensive outreach programs have been developed in partnership with several national associations of games, some of which are headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“Asian Games: The Art of Contest” is organized by the Asia Society, New York. Major support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by United Airlines.

Funding for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery presentation has been provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, with additional support from Glenna and David Osnos and H. Christopher Luce and Tina Liu.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily except Wednesdays and federal holidays. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian metrorail station on the blue and orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ Web site at

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