Thursday, June 22, 2017

Three Views Of China's Past Give Life To History
Part II

Jade burial suit with gold thread,  Western Han (206 B.C. 9 A.D.),
4,248 pieces of jade discs, 1,576 g (about 55.6 ounces) gold thread, 
L. 69 5/16 in. (176 cm), W. (shoulder) 26 3/4 in. (68 cm),
excavated from the tomb of the King of Chu at Shizishan, 1994 - 1995
Photo:  Courtesy of China Institute Gallery
On view in the exhibition Dreams of the Kings:  A Jade Suit for Eternity 
Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou,

The exhibit Secrets of the Sea:  A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia at the Asia Society Museum dealt with objects the Chinese made for the living (see May 2017). 

Objects the ancient Chinese made for the dead are displayed in two major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of ArtAge of Empires: Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties (221 B.C. - A.D. 220) and the China Institute Gallery, Dreams of the Kings:  A Jade Suit For Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou. The Met and the China Institute Gallery present a view of a sophisticated civilization of the distant past.    The works displayed were buried with the deceased.  The intention was that they would never again see the light of day.

Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.),
earthenware, H. 491⁄16 in. (122 cm),
excavated in 1977, pit no. 2, mausoleum complex of Qin Shihuangdi (d. 210 B.C.), 
Lintong, Shaanxi Province
On view in the exhibition Age of Empires:  Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
( 221 B.C. - A.D. 220)

The ancient Chinese believed in a world beyond life.  To ensure that the deceased would have a good afterlife, tombs were equipped with every imaginable object.  These tomb items are called by the Chinese term ming-ch'i, spirit articles.  Made of a variety of materials including wood, clay, bronze and jade, they  included models of humans, animals, weapons, transportation vehicles, buildings and more.  No other people left such a complete picture of ancient life. Mass production of ming-ch'i became extremely popular during the Han period (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.).  The Book of Han, Han-shu, a history of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), prescribes the number of ming-ch'i  required for imperial and nobility burials. Regional workshops were set up to provide for the stipulated spirit articles.  The greatest amount and variety of ming-ch'i were made during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). Tomb pieces became extravagant and a special government office was created to supervise all production.  By this time not only the higher ranking, wealthy class spent widely on burials but also the common people.  Ming-ch'i were discovered in the late nineteenth century. Modern excavations continue to unearth the articles of the spirit in ever increasing numbers.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's show explores the era of China's consolidation, the Qin (221 - 206 B.C.) and the Han (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) Dynasties.  It was a time when the sense of a Chinese identity came into being.  The first Qin Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, unified the country and established a centralized Chinese government.  Among its many achievements were the standardization of currency, weights, measurements and written language.  The Qin supported a large military which is reflected in the over 7,000 life-size clay figures that were buried in the Qin Shihuangdi's tomb.  The practice of burying the emperor with an army began with the Qin and continued with the Han.  

Although missing their vivid colors and flesh tones, the now grayish terracotta warriors continue to amaze viewers.  Each face is individualized.  No detail is left out as exemplified by the exhibit's kneeling archer from the Qin's first emperor's burial grounds.  He is now missing his weapon but was unearthed in a pit containing about 40,000 bronze weapons and arrowheads.  His armor is rendered in exactitude.  No feature is left out.  

Six Niuzhong Bells, Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.– 9 A.D.), 1st century B.C.,
parcel-gilt bronze, H. in descending order: 
95⁄8 in. (24.4 cm); 9 in.(23 cm); 81⁄4 in. (21 cm); 77⁄8 in. (20 cm); 
73⁄8 in. (18.6 cm); 61⁄2 in. (16.5 cm), excavated in 2015, 
tomb of the Marquis of Haihun (Liu He, d. 59 B.C.), 
Nanchang, Jiangxi Province
Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Nanchang
Photo: Courtesy Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology
On view in the exhibition Age of Empires:  Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
( 221 B.C. - A.D. 220)

Every part of life was considered by those who equipped tombs. Luxury goods, entertainers, dancers, musicians and all types of trade was represented.  An elegant set of six Niuzhong bells is a case in point. These are chime, clapperless bells used in rituals since the Zhou period (ca. 1044 - 256 B.C.).  Two distinct tones were produced by striking either the center or side of the bell with a mallet. They would have hung from a decorative stand.  The sound is said to create an atmosphere for humans to interact with their ancestral spirits. These came from the treasure-filled tomb of the Marquis of Haihun (ca. 92 B.C. - 59 B.C.) excavated in 2015.  The Marquis was Liu He, grandson of the Emperor Wu  (156 B.C. – 87 B.C.).  Liu had been emperor for 27 days (74 B.C.) but was dethroned for inappropriate conduct and lack of morals. Afterward, he was given the title of marquis and the estate of Haihun, a small kingdom in the Jiangxi Province.   The excavation report on his tomb has not yet been published.*       

Rhinoceros, Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.– 9 A.D.), 2nd century B.C.,
gilt bronze, rhinoceros 7¾ x 3¼ x 3⅞ in. (19.8 x 8.4 x 9.8 cm),
excavated in 2010, tomb no. 1 (Liu Fei, prince of Jiangdu, d. 129 B.C.), 
Dayunshan, Xuyi, Jiangsu Province
Photo: Courtesy Nanjing Museum
On view in the exhibition Age of Empires:  Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
( 221 B.C. - A.D. 220)
The Han's depictions of animals are delightful.  Realistically rendered horses, dogs, goats, roosters, chickens, bears, boars and sows in bronze, jade and painted earthenware accompanied the deceased to the next life.  Rare and exotic animals, some imported from Southeast Asia like the rhinoceros or elephant, demonstrate the owner's wealth and power.  

Ornament with Two Dancers, Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.),
gilt bronze, 4¾ x 7¼ in. (12 x 18.5 cm),
excavated in 1956, tomb no. 13, Shizhaishan, Jinning, Yunnan Province
Photo: Courtesy Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming
On view in the exhibition Age of Empires:  Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
( 221 B.C. - A.D. 220)

The sense of life and animation is characteristic of Han artifacts.  The ornament with two dancers atop a long, curving snake is a particularly energetic work.  The figures wear belted, tightly fitted garments embellished with rich patterns.  Hair is neatly knotted at the back of their heads.  Their exuberant expression with open mouths suggests they are also singing.  Each holds a dish in one outstretched arm.  Each is fitted with a long sword.  One turns toward the left; the other to the right.  The snake bites into the ankle of one dancer and wraps around the foot of the other.  This lively performance scene is all about movement.  The figures prance outward in opposing directions but the composition is held together and anchored by the undulating snake. The work was unearthed from a tomb in the Yunnan province, southwestern China, inhabited by Dain, an ethnic group.  The Han empire allowed for those they ruled over to maintain their different cultures.  All were united under one political organization. The snake was a common motif of this region denoting power and earth.  

Burial Suit of Dou Wan, Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.– 9 A.D.),
jade (nephrite) with gold wire, L. 67¾ in. (172 cm),
excavated in 1968, tomb no. 2 (Dou Wan), Mancheng, Hebei Province
Photo: Courtesy Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang
On view in the exhibition Age of Empires:  Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
( 221 B.C. - A.D. 220)

Jade, an extremely hard mineral, is highly valued by the Chinese.  The ancient Chinese thought it could protect the body from decay and ward off evil spirits.  They believed that the soul had two aspects, the spiritual that leaves the body after death and the earthly that dwells in the dead body.  

The practice of burying members of the imperial family in jade suits dates from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.).   Suits were made of thousands of small jade plaques of various shapes and sizes which covered the corpse from head to foot.   Each piece had to be cut, polished and drilled with holes.  They were sewn together with gold, silver or copper thread.  The thread's material depended on the deceased rank.  Gold thread was used for the highest rank.  In addition to the suit, jade plugs were used to fill the body's orifices:  eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth, anus and genitalia.  It is estimated that these labor-intensives suits would take up to ten years to make and involve possibly hundreds of artisans.  

The use of royal jade suits came to an end after the Han Dynasty.  The first emperor  of the Wei Kingdom, which replaced the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD-220 AD), ordered their stoppage in 223 A.D.  Tombs had been plundered and suits were destroyed to retrieve gold thread.  

Only fifteen jade suits have been unearthed from royal and other Han tombs. Two of these suits are currently in New York.  The burial suit belonging to Dou Wan, a Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 9 A. D.) princess, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the suit of Liu Yingke, the second King of Chu (178 B.C. - 174 B.C.) at the China Institute Gallery.**  The more spectacular of the two is at the China Institute.  

Dou Wan's burial suit is made up of 2,160 jade plaques attached together with gold wire.  Jade pieces lined her coffin and were inlaid in her bronze pillow.  Although the suit is fitted close to the body with no gaps, there is a hole in a circular-shaped element on top of her head. Such openings appear on some of the other surviving suits.  Scholars are of different opinions as to the relevance of the aperture.  It may served as an opening for the soul.

The jade burial suit of Liu Yingke on display at China Institute's exhibition is the earliest and finest gold threaded jade suit to have been found in China.  Its craftsmanship is superb utilizing 4,248 pieces of an extremely precious jade from Khotan in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.  This is double the amount of jade used to produce other suits that have been discovered.  When excavated in 1994 - 1995, it was found in disarray.  No gold thread was left. Restoration took place in 2001 replacing the lost strands, probably looted, with a modern equivalent. 

Jade embedded pillow with bronze panlong (coiled dragon) frame,
Western Han (206 B.C. - 9 A.D.), 
L. 14 5/8 ins. (37.1 cm), W. 6 5/16 in. (16 cm), H. 4 1/2 ins. (11.4 cm),
excavated from No. 1 Han tomb at Houlouschan, Xuzhou, in 1991
Photo:  Courtesy of China Institute Gallery
On view in the exhibition Dreams of the Kings:  A Jade Suit for Eternity 
Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou,

Two bronze pillows on view at the China Institute Gallery are splendid examples of those typically found in royal tombs.  One was excavated from an ancillary tomb of King Chu.  Its gilt bronze rectangular fame has four coiled-dragon (panlong) pedestals.  Each end has a ring-bearing head of a beast. The frame is filled with thirty pieces of jade. Its joints are covered in gold leaf.  A door design on the front, also equipped with ring-bearing beast heads, may represent a means for the soul to come and go.  

The China Institute Gallery's show presents over 76 objects from the royal tombs of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 9 A.D.) which have never been shown in the United States.  Comparisons between similar objects, like the jade burial suits, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and China Institute makes for a stimulating exercise in connoisseurship.  Please take a close look at the earthenware dancing figurines that are almost identical.  

Earthenware dancing figurine,
Western Han (206 B.C. - 9 A.D.), 
H. 16 9/16 in. (45 cm),
excavated from tomb of King of Chu at Tuolanshan, Xuzhou (2000)
Photo:  Courtesy of China Institute Gallery
On view in the exhibition Dreams of the Kings:  A Jade Suit for Eternity 
Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou,

The figures depict a Chu dance popular during this period. The performers wore flowing garments with long sleeves that covered their hands.  Dancers would sway, creating smooth curves with their covered bodies.  Both figures in each show have their arms raised forming graceful arcs.  The craftsmen who made them seemed to have partaken in a bit of punning. The Chinese character for five appears on the garments' sleeves.  The spoken sound for five is wu. This is the same sounded word for dance which has a more complex written character.  

There are more correspondences between the two exhibits making the concurrent dual presentations especially enlightening.  

One additional note: knowledge of China's historical and cultural past informs the understanding of the country's present actions.  Keep this in mind when viewing these splendid art exhibitions.  

*To learn more about the excavation of the Marquis of Haihun's tomb see NewHistorian post October 12, 2016.

**The jade burial suit of Dou Wan was in the exhibition The Chinese Exhibition - The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China that toured Europe and the United States from 1973 - 1975.  There were three venues in the USA: the  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, December 13, 1974 – March 30, 1975, the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, April 20–June 8, 1975 and Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California, June 28–August 28, 1975.  The close to 400 objects in the exhibit, spanning prehistory to the late fourteenth century, were excavated in China from 1949 to 1972.  The jade burial suit of Dou Wan's husband, Liu Sheng, was in the exhibition The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology - Celebrated Discoveries From The People's Republic of China, which took place at  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, September 19, 1999 – January 2, 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 13 – May 7, 2000 and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, California,  June 17 – September 11, 2000.  The catalogue is available online at the National Gallery of Art's Web site under research/publications. See

Secrets of the Sea:  
A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia
March 7 - June 4, 2017
725 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Tuesday - Sunday 11 am - 6 pm
Friday 11 am - 9 pm (September - June)
Closed Mondays and major holidays.

Age of Empires:
Chinese Art of the Chin & Han Dynasties
(221 B.C. - A.D. 220)
April 3 - July 16, 2017
1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Sunday - Thursday 9 am - 5:30 pm
Friday and Saturday 10 am - 9 pm
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, 
January 1, and the first Monday in May.

Dreams of the Kings:  
A Jade Suit For Eternity
Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou
May 25 - November 12, 2017
100 Washington Street, Manhattan
(Temporary entrance: 40 Rector Street)
Gallery Hours:
Monday - Friday: 10 am – 5 pm
Thursday: 10 am - 8 pm
Saturday: 11 pm - 5 pm
Closed: Sunday and major holidays

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