The Museum's collection of Chinese art, spanning 5,000 years, has grown from the approximately 130 works given by founder Ralph Norton to more than 700 objects. His acquisitions form two outstanding bookends to the Chinese Collection: ancient jade and bronze, and imperial jade and hardstone carvings dating from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 ) to the Republic period (1912- 1949). A seminal early work from Norton’s gifts includes a 3,200 year-old cast bronze wine ewer (gong) in the form of a dragon, which is a composite of many powerful creatures – tiger, bear, elephant, bird, and antelope. A seminal late work in the collection is an alms bowl with seven buddhas, commissioned in 1777 by the Qianlong Emperor who reigned from 1736 until 1795.
Over the years, Ralph Norton's gifts have been supplemented with other significant works of art illustrating the aesthetic values, technical achievements and cultural beliefs of this vast country. These works include: a painting by Ming dynasty master Tang Yin (1470–1523), titled The Nine Bends River, which links the personal qualities of man with Confucian moral values; one of the world’s finest extant pairs of 17th-century lacquered cabinets (1662–1700) made during the reign of the Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi; and Five Quail, a 13th-century painting influenced by one of China’s best known quail painters, Li An-Zhong (Southern Song dynasty, circa 1120-1160) that sends a subtle message about life in unstable times.