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

Dog, Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220), earthenware, height 42.5 cm, unearthed in 1987, Dongguan, Nanyang, Henan Province. Photo: Courtesy Henan Museum, Zhengzhou

Nowadays (circa 239 BC), the house of Zhou has been destroyed, [the succession of] the Sons of Heaven has been severed. There is no greater turmoil than the absence of the Son of Heaven; without the Son of Heaven, the strong overcome the weak, the many lord it over the few, they use arms to harm each other, having no rest.     –  Lushi Chunqiu, circa 239 BC,  Lu Buwei, Chancellor of the state of Qin, et al


THE IMPORTANT thrust of this exhibition is the foundations of much of what constitutes Chinese civilisation, the societal earthquake which began during the Qin and continued during the Han. It is a powerhouse of over 160 works of art from the Qin and Han Empires (221 BC-AD 220), on loan from the unprecedented number of 32 Chinese museums and archaeological institutions, meaning that the majority of these works of art have never been seen outside of China.

The exhibition, the largest exhibition of Chinese art in the United States in 2017, is made possible by China Merchants Bank. Additional support is provided by the Joseph Hotung Fund, the Ing Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar L. Tang in honour of Zhixin Jason Sun, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Estate of Brooke Astor, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Organising this exhibition was a milestone in US-China cultural exchange and mutual co-operation because of the unheard-of complexity of the Metropolitan and 32 Chinese museums, archaeological institutions, and Chinese and American governmental ministries working as one to achieve the results seen here.

In 237 BC, Ying Zheng, King of Qin (the future Qin Shihuangdi), had entered stage front of Chinese history, and in just two years after the regency ended, he fully ascended the throne of Qin, having already conquered the state of Zhou.

He was born in 259 BC to the King of Qin. After his father’s death in 246 BC, he ruled under a regent until 237 BC, when he assumed full power at age twenty-two. As a child he was known as an aggressive and turbulent individual and now as king, he began a path of military aggression to conquer the remaining Zhou vassal states of Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan (and Zhou itself), to place them all under Qin rule. Qin was the most western of the Warring States and was already considered by the other states as an uncivilised, uncultured realm in the far west with its extremely aggressive roots in the nomads of the north.

With civil war a constant among those states, Ying Zheng began a path to conquer and unite them (bing tianxia) under Qin. It was written in the Lushi Chunqiu that without a Son of Heaven, civil chaos would follow and this was a gap that Ying Zheng was determined to fill. By 221 BC, just 16 years after his ascension, he had completed his plans of total conquest. He adopted the title of First August Emperor, Shihuangdi, as he was no longer King Zheng of Qin, he was now the first emperor of the first united nation that the Chinese had ever known.

An ageless model of an autocrat, he exhibited the two main characteristics for which autocrats are known, megalomania and paranoia. As the new ruler of an immense domain and rightly distrustful of the kings of the states he had conquered, he did not leave them in power as his surrogates, but immediately replaced them with members of his own family, a practice followed by the following Han dynasty.

In comparison with the overwhelming work that needed to be done to achieve unification under Qin Shihuangdi, the unifications of Italy and of Germany were child’s play in comparison because they both had their own common languages, traditions and cultures. Shihuangdi immediately set his remarkable organisational genius to the task which was conducted as a mass offensive to create a radically new form of governmental organisation that was supported by security and infrastructure. The territory of Qin was bordered on its north by one of the sections of the Great Wall and was uncomfortably aware of the dangers of the war-like nomadic tribes to the north, particularly the Xiang Nu who, with other nomadic tribes, continued to be threats to China for centuries. He began the monumental task of defence be connecting the various sections of the Great Wall as it existed then. There were rumours, probably of fairly recent date, that workers who died were buried within the wall. Construction-wise, this is pure nonsense because a decomposed body creates a hollow space which endangers the material integrity of a structure. Anyway, it sounded shocking enough to have been kept alive.

Upon completion, the Wall measured about 3,300 miles and served its purpose of national defence during both the Qin and Han Empires. This, the largest construction project ever undertaken, fell into disuse afterwards, but was rebuilt and extended in parts in several stages as late as the 17th century. Even though the Wall fell into general disuse, it still had a protective function, but it failed twice. Firstly it failed in 1115 when the Wall was crossed by northern nomads who captured the northern half of the Song Empire and established the Jin dynasty, and secondly in 1271 when the Mongols crossed the Wall, captured all of China and established the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

With the defence of the Empire secure, the Qin construction projects continued, this time as non-defensive infrastructure to aid and abet commerce – canals to serve as sources of irrigation water and as a spur to the economy which could then be taxed. He ordered nationwide improvements in the road systems, connecting those that existed and building those that were needed. He micromanaged resourcefully by dictating that all cart axles be the same length in order to have the same ruts cut into the stone roads, speeding commercial movement.

Consistency was the byword and the collective glue of this new empire. Qin Shihuangdi ordered a system of standardised weights and measures. He ordered the creation of a standardised written and spoken language to facilitate communication. Then he established a unified legal system. He also abolished all local currency and had created a round copper coin minted with a square centre in the centre for stringing. Qin Shihuangdi established a unified code of laws, as well as a uniform script, so that the entire realm could communicate more easily. Legalism became the governing philosophy because of support of organised control. The smelting of iron ore, achieved in South Asia several millennia BC, but not effectively in China before the Qin, as a means of making farm tools, a huge agricultural boon, as well as weapons. The period is also credited with the multiplication table, improved irrigation systems and the crossbow, a highly questionable claim since the crossbow was in great use during the preceding Warring States period.

The Qin state was never known for its artistic tradition and the Qin Empire seemed to be no exception. Its entire existence was on a war alert and in the wholesale creation of a new nation it really did not have time, or need, to devote to the arts. Yes, several exquisite works have been discovered, but it cannot be stated with certainty that even though they were excavated from Qin-dynasty tombs that they were created by the Qin. A massive and exquisitely cast bronze ding was unearthed during the excavations at the emperor’s mausoleum, but because of its remarkable quality, the possibility exists that it was made during the earlier Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC) and was looted during the conquests. Extremely high quality gold-inlaid bronze weapons, fittings and vessels, many of which are in the exhibition, typical of the Late Eastern Zhou period, circa 4th/3rd century BC, may also have been taken during the series of conquests as trophies.

The great exception to the thin Qin art tradition was the ‘pottery army’ sculptures. The archer here is a rare exception to the other archers excavated because it still retains some traces of its original multi-coloured pigments, something that heretofore has not been loaned outside of China. The human figures do not seem to resemble any preceding sculptural tradition in Asia, with the exception those created in western Asia under strong Greek influence and transmitted to East Asia through the intermediaries of the Gandharan region, the Sogdians and Sassanians. This is in all probability the original inspiration for these remarkable figures.

Regardless, the pottery sculptures are monumentally impressive and The Metropolitan Museum is indeed blessed to have several figures, horses and a reproduction of a chariot and driver with quadriga. Even if one has seen some of these sculptures at traveling exhibitions over the last 20 years or so, they will always be spellbinding.

Even though the Qin Empire only lasted 14 years, its effects on the future of China are almost untouched through the present day. Although Shihuangdi united the Warring States into a single union, the stringent government created frequent revolts. After his death from slow mercury poisoning in 210 BC, the country erupted into open revolution and in just three years the Qin dynasty was no more.

Qin was conquered by the Han who came into the possession of a prêt-à-porter empire into the framework of which they easily slid. Without the martial, infrastructural and time-consuming pressures dominating the Qin, the Han were able to turn their attention to national improvements, inventions and the arts, at which they superbly excelled.

The Han expanded the empire’s borders to the Tibetan border in the west, the northern parts of Korea in the northeast and present-day Vietnam in the south. This created a realm even larger that the Roman Empire at its height. This being so, the ultimate and permanent societal achievement of this 400-year period was that the Chinese recognised themselves as a single nation.

Through its ceramics, sculpture, paintings, metalwork, weapons, calligraphy and architectural models, the Han part of this exhibition displays and explains the unprecedented rise of Chinese science, industry and culture in all fields under the Han: the improved manufacture of paper; the wheelbarrow; sundial; acupuncture; steel; glazed pottery; embroidery; complex lacquer; hot air balloons; mirrors, lamps and burners; winnowing machines; seismographs; improved farm tools; state service academy; blast furnace; pipeline transportation; waterwheel-powered bellows; chain pump; armillary sphere; bridges; celestial sphere; ocean-going ships with rudders; medicine, and philosophy.

The categories of works of art in the exhibition are so widely varied that the curators had a most difficult time deciding on the final selection, but the categories include gilt bronzes, mirrors, pottery ceramics and sculpture, embroidered textiles, weapons, models of armour, jades, glass, just to name some. In this exhibition, almost nothing seems to be missing. Obviously, one of the most stunning items in the exhibition is a burial suit for a Han princess made of more than 2,000 jade pieces. Jade was the stone of choice because of the strong Daoist teachings about immortality at the time. The Han elite had a strong determination to take care of their afterlife and so had palatial tombs stocked with the many luxuries of life. This one category of a luxurious lifestyle is the subject of the Han exhibition now at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Gilt bronzes certainly take a place of honour and they are present in sundry forms. The most impressive Han vessel is a wine jar, hu, with its original cover. It is meticulously and lavishly inlaid in gold with extraordinarily complex, stylised dragons. When discovered, it contained some thick liquid at the bottom which was analysed as the residue of its original wine contents. There is a pair of gold-decorated finials in the form of stylised raptors. Even though they were discovered in a Qin tomb, they are almost certainly late Eastern Zhou in date. There is gold jewellery as well, some probably from the states along the Silk Road.

The influence of Greek taste arrived as a result of the Hellenisation of western Asia as a result of the military invasion of Alexander the Great (358-323 BC) and its residual artistic tradition. One sees in the exhibition, for example, an anatomically precise pottery figure of a nude performer that clearly reveals its Hellenistic ancestry. This, together with a stone column and a silver bowl and cover, reveal other aspects of Hellenistic influence. One outstanding example of a derivation of Greco style art in the exhibition is a lamp, suspended from three chains, of a recumbent foreigner holding the ring lamp itself.

The power and wealth enjoyed by the Han elite are vividly conveyed by an array of ornate ritual vessels, sets of musical instruments, refined lacquerware, and colourful silk textiles. A striking example of the Han love of spectacle and exoticism is conveyed by a meticulously rendered sculpture of a rhinoceros that was clearly modelled on a living animal offered as tribute for the imperial menagerie.

Whether the present existence or the afterlife are intended, the Han had early on mastered the art of elegance and creature comforts and The Met has created an exhibition which promises to dazzle the eyes and stir great interest in this remarkable, 441-year period.



From 3 April to 16 July at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, catalogue accompanies the exhibition. For the many related events connected to the exhibition, visit the museum’s website for further information