The latest exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art will transport its visitors back three millenia and more than six thousand miles away.

"Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan," showcases a collection of bronze vessels and musical instruments produced between 300 B.C.E. and 221 B.C.E.

Normally on view at the prestigious Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha, China, the exhibit appeared for the first time in the United States when it opened at the China Institute of New York on January 27, 2011. On September 1, the BCMA became the second venue to showcase the collection.

"This is the most important exhibit I have ever been involved with," said Joachim Homann, the Museum's curator.

Two world-renowned bronze vessels figure prominently in the exhibit: the rectangular ding bearing a human face design and the elephant-shaped zun vessel.

Homann said, "These two pieces are generally found in most art history textbooks on Ancient Chinese Art."

While ding is the only known bronze vessel of its kind found in China to feature a human face, the zun vessel is highly regarded for the intricate zoomorphic carvings on the elephant figure's surface.

"Along the Yangzi River" sheds new light on Ancient Chinese politics and society and has already led to reinterpretations of Yangzi culture.

This is due, in part, to the tremendous range of difference between the relics archaeologists have unearthed in recent decades digging along the Yangzi River from what has been found in the past along the banks of the Yellow River.

Hamilton College Associate Professor of Art History Stephen Goldberg focused on Yangzi River findings and their implications for ancient Chinese history in his October 13 lecture, "From Center to Periphery: Regional Culture and Identity in the Ritual Arts of the Hunan Province."

"Archaeologists wanted to see a nation-state, but this show tells a very different story," said Homann. "Archaeologists living in a Communist state were projecting their views back upon history, thinking 'China must always have been this unified.'"

As Goldberg noted, however, these most recent findings point to a culture that was less dependent on dynastic rule, and less centralized than previously thought.

While art from the Hunan province has long been interpreted as variations on the cosmopolitan styles emerging in the northern part of the region, Goldberg said that the art emerging from the southern part of the region can be distinguished quite clearly from that produced in the North.

"A regional style is not simply a derivation and variation of the art of the cosmopolitan center in the North, but rather an adaptation and refashioning of artistic forms to the requirements of the local culture," said Goldberg.

Goldberg also made special reference to a guang—a ritual wine vessel—in the form of a water buffalo in his discussion of the South's distinctive style. It "perfectly incorporates a naturalism that captures the shape of the head and horns of water buffalo commonly seen south of the Yangzi River. You will never see this in the North," he said.

Goldberg's respondent, Ankeney Weitz, an associate professor of art and East Asian Studies at Colby College, said that bronzes recovered in southern China decorated with silkworm engravings further highlight China's regional differences.

"While silk was occasionally produced in the North, you need mulberry trees, and these grow in the South," she said. Thus, the silkworm became a regional emblem for southern China.

"Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan" will be on view in the Museum through January 8, 2012.

Editors' note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Bowdoin College Museum of Art was the first venue to feature the exhibit in the United States. In fact, the show originated at the China Institute of New York; Bowdoin is the second institution to display the collection. The Orient regrets the error.