Splendours of The Han

Jade Pendant, Western Han (206 BC-9), jade, 17.5 cm x 10.2 cm x 0.6 cm, princely tomb of Chu, Shizhishan, Xuzhou, Jiangsu, Xuzhou Museum

THE MUSEE GUIMET commemorates the 50th anniversary (1964-2014) of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the French Republic and the People’s Republic of China by hosting this monumental exhibition of Han treasures. Over the last half century, scholarship of an increasing number of important Chinese archaeological discoveries has brought to light the exceptional art and culture of the Han era (206 BC-220). A special loan of more than 200 objects from 27 Chinese institutions in nine provinces has enabled the Musée Guimet to stage a panorama of Han artistic creativity covering every possible field of artistic endeavour.

‘As a French national museum of Asian art, it is our role to organise one of the most important events in the series of celebratory activities,’ say the exhibition co-curators, Eric Lefebvre, Curator of Chinese Painting and Huei-Chung Tsao, Scientific Associate at the museum. ‘Since the 1973 landmark exhibition on Chinese archaeology in Paris, (Tresors d’Art Chinois) many more significant Han archaeological finds have been unearthed. It is crucial that we have the most recent discoveries. Many of these have never been lent outside China and have not been shown even in Beijing. For the Musée Guimet, this is the most important collaboration with China since the 2013 ‘Year of Culture’ between the two countries.’

Splendours of the Han takes us back to the 3rd century BC, when the Han succeeded the unified but relatively short-lived Chinese empire established by the ‘first emperor’ Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BC). Building on these foundations, it became one of the most successful ancient attempts to maintain an empire, and inaugurated the Chinese imperial system which persisted for almost 2000 years until the Qing (1644-1911). The Han also achieved four centuries of comparative peace and stability, during which a Chinese identity was formed and its cultural genius reached full flowering.

Since the 1950s, Chinese state-sponsored archaeological excavations have unearthed tens of thousands of tombs, most of which might be identified as dating from the Qin and Han periods alone. Tombs, their funerary structures and furnishings, and exhumed objects constitute a compendium of the rites of death. They tell us that Han views of life and the afterlife, and of the place of man in it were largely shaped by the desire for permanence in this world and the next. Moreover new ways of attaining a life of eternity beyond the grave were motivated by a paradise that lay in the world to come.

The Chinese aspiration for an afterlife was dominated by the idea of the mountain – the yang force of birth and life – which was considered particularly auspicious. It featured in tomb construction, its form benefitting the deceased by its placement and location. As a symbol it appeared again and again. Han tomb sites were therefore constructed with tumuli above them, or were hewn into the side of a mountain. They might be classified according to the value of objects interred with their occupants, which were intended to satisfy their material needs in the next world.

Recent archaeological research has made it possible to identify some tomb owners, their places of burial and the dates of their completion. The opulent funerary furnishings from the princely tombs of Liu Sheng (r.154-113 BC) and his wife Dou Wan in Mancheng, Hebei are pointers to their rank and social status. The eating and drinking vessels, censers, vases and lamps indicate that bronze, a principal alloy of copper and tin used already in the second millennium BC, had achieved advanced casting techniques by the Han. They form a picture of the accoutrements of Han aristocratic life and are textual records of the exemplary craftsmanship of Hebei’s Mancheng workshops. One of their creations suggests a distinct regional style; an exquisite set of gilded bronze double-cups of gold and turquoise inlay, conjoined by a phoenix with a jade ring on its beak.

Other objects were rooted in ancient myth and superstition. Carrying symbols from Han iconography, they escorted the dead to the next world. A boshan lu, ‘mountain censer’ consists of a miniature mountain landscape encircled by real and imaginary creatures. It is decorated with gilded spiralling cloud scrolls and stands on a footrim of intertwining dragons. The censer is a visual representation of the deceased’s journey in search of the elixir of eternal life found on mountain summits, to transport him to the realm of Penglai, a Han paradise.

In Chinese antiquity, bronze mirrors had been sacred objects. They gradually developed from around 50 BC into talismans imbued with a different type of symbolism. The mirror, jian meaning ‘to reflect’ was a symbol of tomb geomancy; it placed the deceased person in the most favourable situation in relation to the cosmos and provided a necessary link between this world and the next. An inscribed mirror discovered in 1959, in the Niya site of Minfeng, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, was made to serve this purpose.

Jade has held an important place for the Chinese since ancient times. White, green and brown nephrite was valued for its beauty, translucence and texture, and was also believed to have supernatural powers. It was exclusive to those who occupied the highest ranks of Han society and was used for their ceremonial weapons. Some of jade’s uses reflect its supposed ability to prolong life on earth for as long as possible. A jade suit from the princely tomb of Chu in Shizishan, Xuzhou, Jiangsu was intended to preserve the deceased’s body forever. Crafted from hundreds of individual jade pieces of uniform size linked together by gold thread, it covered him completely from head to foot. The smaller ornamental jades such as pendants, belt hooks and rings found were of a secular character. In 1995, a dragon-shaped pendant was traced to a branch of the ruling Liu imperial family.

A distinctive part of Han material culture was lacquer, one of the world’s earliest plastics. It was a long established tradition in Hubei where objects made of an inner wooden core, were lined with hemp and covered with layers of lacquer. The Hubei lacquer school borrowed ornamental schemes from bronzes, pottery jars and bricks. Their geometric motifs or swirling cloud scrolls appeared on cups, bowls and boxes of standard red and black lacquer, and are vividly portrayed on the handles of wine cups called erbei, from the Mawangdui tombs of Changsha, Hunan.

Like most Chinese dynasties, the Han had come to power by the force of arms. Since the 1980s, small mortuary sculpture called mingqi, ‘brilliant artefacts’ have been recovered from tombs associated with the Liu imperial family. The earliest of these belonged to Han founder Liu Bang, the emperor Gaozu (r.206-195 BC). However among 11 mausolea dated to the Western Han (206 BC-9), the most extensively excavated has been the Yangling mausoleum of emperor Jingdi (r.157-141 BC), situated near the capital, Changan. Yangling’s significance lies in its diversity of funerary figures, particularly the naturally sculpted images and painted horse-riders of imperial troops, found interred with the emperor. These finds form an important ensemble on show. The nude earthenware figures, mostly male and but also some female, had originally been dressed. Their arms now missing, were made of wood. The male figures are believed to form part of a miniature ‘underground army’ confined only to burials of the highest order. Yangling also contained 48 pits with hundreds of larger terracotta figurines of court personnel. The ladies, functionaries and eunuchs with distinct facial features and costumes had been coated by colourful pigments, now faded. Some of the female figurines testify to their place in the Han court, where kneeling and the joining of hands were part of the rules of propriety and decorum. Other pits contained animal livestock, among them cows, pigs, sheep and chickens pointing to the agricultural basis of Han society.

One of Yangling’s satellite tombs housed a terracotta army of 2375 figures; they come from 11 ranks, of which 583 formed part of the cavalry. They testify to the central role and strength of the Han conscript army which was organised with a high degree of professionalism. These models were designed to serve the emperor, to be transported with him to his afterlife.

A centralised army was critical to governing the Han empire and vital to its defence. Since ancient times, the threat to China had always come from the Eurasian steppes, from the men on horseback and the deadly crossbow. The Qin had already built the Great Wall, a series of ‘great walls’, along China’s northern frontiers to contain nomadic incursions. Around the 2nd century BC, the powerful Xiongnu confederacy posed the greatest challenge to the Han. It provoked a series of military offensives by the emperor Wudi (r.141-87 BC) who brought the full resources of the Han against it. The basis for expansion into the ‘western regions’, from the Gansu corridor to Lop Nor was thus secured, as the empire reached its furthest limits under Wudi’s 54-year reign. The Xiongnu were eventually split and forced to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. Communities settled in the Ordos loop of the Yellow River introduced the artistic steppe culture into China proper. Ordos bronzes of small plaques and belts with a repertoire of steppe animal themes – horse griffins, deer, wolves and eagles – made their way into northern Shanxi and Hebei. The parcel-gilt bronze leopard weights inlaid with silver and agate belonging to aristocrat Dou Wan suggest she too was partial to them.

Ancient Chinese mythology had equated the horse with the quest for immortality. By the Han it had achieved monumental status as a significant subject in mortuary art. Wudi’s campaigns had been partly directed at securing the Ferghana tianma, or ‘heavenly horse’, the finest and swiftest of which came from the steppes. It was of critical military importance, and essential to contain the Xiongnu threat. So valued was the creature that bronze replicas complete with chariots were found in tombs, to facilitate their owners’ journeys to paradise.

Cavalry mounts imported from the steppe were paid for in Chinese silk. It travelled along the series of roads linking China and Central Asia whose oases communities and trading posts had been supplied by water and shelter. In time, the increased traffic led to an export trade in silk, whose expansion opened up the network now known as the Silk Road.

These and other exchanges within China contributed to an age of Han economic prosperity. The development of agriculture and the circulation of money produced a merchant class in metropolitan areas. The great Han cities included Changan and a majority of northern cities but did not extend south into the Yangzi region. Changan was a walled city of irregular shape, divided into 160 residential wards. Surviving tomb artefacts of terracotta and wood suggest some of the nobility lived as absentee landlords in the capital, and that urban and rural dwellers formed part of Han society. Miniature models of clay houses with four sides provided basic living quarters; larger houses with two storeys and surrounding walls were for the more affluent. Theatre did not exist in Han times but there was a variety of diversions. Outdoor spectacles were performed by acrobats, jugglers, clowns, musicians, dancers and singers now immortalised in terracotta, who also contributed to festivals.
In Han China, there was enormous respect for the written word. The writing system had long been recognised as an important instrument of power and of official control. Chinese ideograms had been standardised in Qin. The Han made further efforts to simplify them and they remain essentially unchanged today. Lishu, ‘clerical script’ was a popular Han calligraphic style widely used in its large bureaucracy where bamboo, or wooden strips, served record-keeping purposes. Silk was reserved for important, and imperial documents. An extremely rare silk manuscript called boshu discovered in 1991 in Xuanquanzhi, Dunhuang, Gansu, was dated to Han by comparison with other objects found alongside it. Although Han prosperity encouraged large-scale silk-weaving, it remained expensive despite a government office having been established to stabilise prices.

By the Han, the essential Chinese writing materials, ink, brush and paper were already in use. Around 105, paper was invented as a new medium for writing and an alternative. It became one of the four major Chinese inventions, including printing, the compass and gunpowder. The eunuch Cai Lun who was credited with its invention, developed it from hemp fibre. Different types of paper began to be fabricated from jute, flax, Chinese grass and mulberry. Paper, which is lighter than bamboo and cheaper than silk, was used for the first Chinese dictionary called Shuowen jiezi of 9,000 ideograms, compiled around 100. One early paper manuscript specimen dated to the Eastern Han (25-220) was recovered in Fulongping, Lanzhou, Gansu in 1987. Although somewhat damaged and reduced to a circular form -– perhaps to echo a mirror – the lishu ideograms on it have survived and remain visible.

The Han was an age of enormous achievement and innovation. It left several lasting legacies. The majority of ethnic Chinese people are today known as han, the written script they inherited is hanzi, and their language, hanyu. However the artistic legacy of the Han rests above all on the unique window it opens into the art of China as it was, before the advent of Buddhism changed it forever.

YVONNE TAN

Splendours of the Han: Rise of the Celestial Empire is at the Musée Guimet, 6 Place d’Iena, 75116 Paris until 1 March 2015. www.guimet.fr