Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C. – A.D. 220)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | April 3 – July 16, 2017
The archeological record from the Qin and Han dynasties in Age of Empires, which includes over 160 artworks, should be a revelation to anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to visit China’s leading regional museums in the last twenty-five years. The period it covers, roughly contemporaneous with the rise of Rome up to its imperial heyday, laid the foundations for China’s imperial system that managed to endure, in successive iterations, for another staggering 1700 years. The Qin and Han were China’s classical antiquity, before the advent of Buddhism, which in subsequent eras made an indelible imprint on the Middle Kingdom’s art and culture. As such, Age of Empires not only gives a fascinating glimpse into China’s original myths and cosmology, with the associated iconography and funerary practices of its elites, but also offers additional context to the Classical, Indian, and Persian art that exerted an influence in those four centuries.
The exhibition is divided into three parts: Qin Dynasty; Han Dynasty Part 1, with art from its first 200 years, the “Western Han”; and Han Dynasty Part 2, featuring artifacts from the second half of the dynasty, or “Eastern Han.” The Qin dynasty was short-lived, but enormously consequential for the development of the Han dynasty, which followed directly on its heels. Its founder Qin Shihuangdi (literally “First Emperor of Qin”) was indeed the first imperial ruler of a unified China. To achieve that goal, he had leveraged the militarism of the Qin state, which required every able-bodied man to serve in its army, to subdue all other rivals during the preceding Warring States period. Not surprisingly, much of the art from the Qin has a military cast. Qin Shihuangdi’s mausoleum, with its famous terracotta army of 8,000 life-size warriors first discovered in 1974 by farmers in Shaanxi province, is a case in point.
Age of Empires has several examples of these sculptures, the earliest of their kind in China, including a kneeling archer, a standing archer, and a general, as well as a civil official. All are strikingly naturalistic, with distinct facial features, correct proportions, and highly detailed costumes. Traces of pigment show that all had painted coloring to make them even more realistic. Also found near Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb is the terracotta Strongman (Qin dynasty, 221 – 226 BCE) believed to be an acrobatic performer, with a great belly and knotted arms whose hands grasp a long-lost implement or length of rope. Although missing a head, the anatomical precision of this sculpture has led scholars to speculate about the possible influence of Hellenistic art found along the Silk Road in Central Asia a century earlier.
The Qin Dynasty’s rule was harsh, and after the death of Qin Shihuangdi, there followed a series of insurrections that overthrew Qin Shihuangdi’s son. The Han Dynasty, founded by one of the rebels, Liu Bang, proved much more stable as it managed to forge an enduring Chinese cultural identity, based in part on Confucianism and traditional Chinese cosmology. To this day the Chinese refer to themselves ethnically as “Han.” As was the case with the Qin, much of the archeological record from the Han centers on funerary practices, and Han Dynasty Part 1, the second third of the exhibit, has many examples. Cultural pursuits and wealth flourished during the Han, allowing, among its elites, a lavish life- and death-style to emerge.
The Han continued the ancient Chinese practice of burying with its well-born dead models of people and objects designed to perpetuate everyday pleasures in the afterlife. Female Dancer (Western Han dynasty, 206 BCE – 9 CE), is a charming terracotta statuette of a graceful dancer stylized almost to the point of abstraction. Her long sleeves and slender s-shaped body draped with a long robe seemingly convert her into an animated candelabrum. There is an entire gallery devoted to funerary models of animals out of metal and clay that include not just livestock, such as (very cute) pigs and goats, but exotic animals such as an elephant and a rhinoceros—what’s the afterlife without a zoo?
One of the treasures of the show is Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan (Western Han, 206 BCE – 9 CE), which consists of a jade “burial suit”uand jade pillow. The Princess Dou Wan was the wife of the Prince Liu Sheng of Zhongshan. The ritual of the burial suit is an instance of Chinese spiritual practices, such as religious Taoism, to bring about immortality. These ancient beliefs have a cosmology that incorporates a realm of immortals and gods, such as the Queen Mother of the West, featured in another artwork in this exhibit. The suit itself consists of small plaques of jade bound together with gold wire into a covering for the entire body of the deceased. Jade, highly prized among Chinese to this day for its hardness, subtle luster, and fine texture when polished, made an ideal emblem of perfection. After the corpse’s orifices were plugged with jade, and the body covered with the suit, the transformation of the body was complete. Lying with her head on the jade pillow in the mausoleum, Princess Dou Wan was ready to enter the afterlife.
Burial Ensemble of Dou Won, Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE). Suit: jade with gold wire; pillow: gilt bronze and jade; orifice plugs: jade. 67 11/16 x 30 7/8 x 11 1/2 inches. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The third part of the exhibit, Han Dynasty Part 2, has still more striking examples of funerary art. It offers two massive stone carvings, a column and a large lion, that stand out both for their size and their foreign influence. Lion (Eastern Han Dynasty, 25 – 200 CE) has the head and body of what was a representation of a striding lion, now with its legs missing. The carving is about six feet long and remarkable for its elegant lines, as well as the fact that a lion, not being native to China, shows Persian and Indian influence. This particular carving was designed for placement along a “spirit path” which would lead to the tomb of an aristocrat or high official. Column with Dragon and Inscriptions (Eastern Han Dynasty, 25 – 200 CE) was similarly designed to line a “spirit path.” While the dragon is of course a Chinese motif, the fluting on the column is unusual, pointing to the influence of architecture from the court of King Ashoka, the Mauryan king and great patron of Buddhism.
Given the time span Age of Empires encompasses, as well as the sheer quantity of objects in the show, one visit is probably not enough to absorb all the implications it raises about the origins of imperial China. Yet two takeaways seem inescapable. The first is that this is an event not to be missed for anyone who admires, much less has a direct connection to, Chinese culture. The other is that the Han dynasty was from its inception sophisticated, life-affirming, and imbued with a dynamism that allowed it to absorb outside influences and make them part of an on-going narrative which in some ways is still being worked out in the China that we know today.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.