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Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties

NEW YORK—In ancient times, the people of China believed their culture was divinely inspired. The elegant works of art and exquisitely made objects displayed in “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220),” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, show expressions of that belief.

From the First Emperor’s terracotta army created to accompany him in his tomb, to an intricately designed silk banner depicting a figure ascending to heaven, to a jade burial suit made to ensure the immortality of a princess, these ancient artifacts indicate the Chinese belief in the afterlife and in realms beyond the material world.

Kneeling archer, Qin Dynasty, 221–206 B.C. Earthenware with traces of pigments, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Strongman, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). “The unique feature of this sculpture is the depiction of human anatomy, which you don’t find in Chinese art any time before the Qin Dynasty,” said Zhixin Jason Sun, the curator of Chinese art at The Met. This large figure was found with ten others in a pit near the First Emperor’s tomb. The group is believed to have represented an acrobatics troupe performing at the imperial court. Acrobatics in China originated in antiquity, and by the Qin–Han era had developed a full repertoire of moves, including rope walking and sword swallowing. The figure has an imposing physique and brawny hands, which together with his wide stance suggest his role as a strongman. He and a partner once held a pole, atop which another performer could swing, balance, and twist. The striking accuracy of his anatomy, hitherto unknown in Chinese figural art, has led to speculation that he was inspired by the Hellenistic sculptures that Alexander the Great introduced into Central Asia a century earlier.

Burial ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Jade (nephrite) with gold wire, Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This jade suit was excavated from the tomb of Dou Wan, wife of Prince Liu Sheng of Zhongshan. Wan’s body was encased and sealed in this suit. Its 2400 rectangular plaques of jade are each meticulously shaped and fitted together with gold wire and silk ribbons. A Han Dynasty belief stipulated that if a deceased body would be encased in jade and its orifices plugged, preventing “the essence of life” from escaping, the person could attain immortality.

“Many of these spectacular works have never been seen before in the West, offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a fresh appraisal of the classical era of Chinese civilization,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of The Met, at a press preview for the exhibition, which will be on view through July 16.

Some of the more than 160 objects—including sculpture, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and architectural models on loan from 32 museums in China—have quite a presence about them.

Each of the terracotta warriors, for instance, has unique facial features, emanating the feeling of a particular character. The 7,000-strong army was buried with the First Emperor to protect him in the afterlife. “The [First Emperor’s] army is just as powerful as when he was alive,” said Zhixin Jason Sun, the curator of Chinese art at The Met, describing the assumed intent of the First Emperor in having created his mausoleum complex.

Figures of Han Dynasty dancers with flowing sleeves are made of simple earthenware, yet they look as if they are in the middle of a movement. Known as mingqi, or spirit goods, they were created to transport worldly pleasures into the afterlife and to entertain the deceased into eternity.

Gilded bronze objects with elaborate inlays, refined lacquer vessels, and smooth silk textiles with magnificent patterns, among other objects, show incredible attention to detail and technical virtuosity in design.

A Han Dynasty wine container, ornamented with gold and silver, shows four stylized, gilded dragons elegantly entwined, while three phoenixes form an interlocking circle on its lid. The wine container was a luxury object circulated among aristocrats during the Han period, but it also carried the values these sacred creatures symbolized, such as wisdom, nobility, peace, and perseverance. Many other pieces show a high level of sophistication, reflecting that of the ancient culture.

Establishing the Central Kingdom

Besides inspiring a sense of refined artistic taste, the exhibit also shows the cultural diversity within the unified empire that was based on Taoist, and later Confucian, moral principles. The Qin and the Han dynasties were seminal in establishing an overarching Chinese identity that has encompassed over 50 ethnic groups.

Six Nniuzhong bells, China, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) Bronze inlaid with gold and silver, Jiangxi Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Pair of Finials in the Shape of Mythical Beasts. China, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Gilt bronze inlaid with glass, Xi’an Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wine container (Zhong) with interlacing dragons, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Bronze, Hebei Provincial Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Tripod Food Container (Ding) with Cloud Pattern, China, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), 2nd century B.C. Lacquer over wood, Hunan Provincial Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Rhinoceros and Groom, China, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), 2nd century B.C. Gilt bronze, Nanjing Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Cowry Container with Bull and Rider, China, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Bronze, Yunnan Provincial Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Model of a Multistory House, Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). Earthenware with pigment, Henan Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The king of the far western state of Qin, Ying Zheng, conquered six rival states and created a centralized government in the territory. He was the first to proclaim himself Shihuangdi (First Emperor) of Zhōngguó (the Central Kingdom), which is still the name for China in Chinese today.

During his rule, the First Emperor traveled throughout his empire not only to address his subjects and to inspect newly conquered territories, but to communicate with cosmic forces at sacred sites, “by performing rituals and erecting steles that proclaimed his merits and accomplishments,” the exhibition catalog states.

The Qin Dynasty only lasted 15 years (221–206 B.C.), but it established the administrative, political, and intellectual institutions that were carried on further and consolidated by the Han (the main Chinese ethnic group) and all subsequent Chinese dynasties for the following 2,000 years.

The terracotta army of the Qin demonstrates the military might of that dynasty, which was necessary for unifying the territory. But its emperors could not continue to rule by force alone. “That would have been an impossible task,” said Sun, while giving a tour of the exhibition.

The Qin had to develop a new administrative system of communication to control the enemy states it had conquered. “They standardized weights and measures, and money. But most importantly, they standardized the written language,” Sun said.

“With the standardization of the written language, the same characters could be understood across hundreds of different dialects,” Sun said. “Government policies and orders could be issued and could be understood by everyone in the empire, even though the people could not communicate verbally.”

The Qin also built a highway system of some 4,250 miles, which surpassed the 3,740 miles of roads of the Roman Empire when it reached its prime (circa A.D. 150). Forming an empire also entailed establishing strong borders. The greatest public works project built by the Qin was the construction of China’s Great Wall, stretching 2,150 miles. They connected and extended walls previously built by the former six warring states into a single boundary to protect the empire from the nomadic peoples of the northern steppes.

When the Han Dynasty took over, it adopted many of the reforms the Qin Dynasty initiated. Even though the standardization of currency and weights and measures was initiated by the Qin Dynasty, it would take several decades to fully take root in the country, Sun said.

The Han Dynasty also adopted Confucianism as its intellectual basis, Sun said. The emperor held supreme authority through divine mandate. The Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu, who wrote the “Three Discourses on Heaven and Humans” for Han Emperor Wudi, explained why emperors must abide by the Confucian principle of benevolent governance (renzheng in Chinese), which effectively kept their power in check.

Confucian values such as filial piety became law during the Han Dynasty. Slips of wood with imperial edicts written on them, displayed in the exhibit in thin glass tubes for preservation, specify the privileges given to seniors under the Han.

“According to the edict, seniors, officially recognized as such at age 70, were exempt from sales tax and free from prosecution for minor offenses. In addition, a person who was willing to support a widowed senior was absolved of taxes and corvée labor [a feudal labor tax] , which was probably the earliest form of social welfare in China’s history,” reads the description for the “Slips With Imperial Edit” in the exhibit.

But perhaps the piece that is most symbolic of the birth of China and its consolidation under one empire is the elaborately decorated Han Dynasty mirror, which is displayed at the very end of the Tisch Galleries.

The inscription cast on its border says: “The sages made this mirror with the essence of the five elements. The images and designs are derived from the fundamental principles. Its brilliance is like the sun and moon, and its character firm and clear. When you see your face reflected here, this mirror dispels all harms and woes. May the Central Kingdom [China] be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.”

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