Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China

animal-face-mask Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China

A major new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China, brings to life the distinguished Bronze Age cultures that flourished 3,000 years ago along the Yangzi River, a cradle of Chinese civilization. Opening in October, more than 150 artworks from five major museums in China will explore the artistic and spiritual landscape of the multi-state Zhou dynasty, which was annihilated by the powerful warrior Qin Shi Huangdi, founder of the Qin dynasty (221-210 BC), who became the legendary first emperor of China.

Zen and Chu Kingdoms

Concentrating on archaeological finds from the Zeng and Chu kingdoms of the Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BC), these cultures of southern China were ‘lost’ to the Qin. Many of the objects travelling from China have only recently been restored and are on public display for the first time. These finds were mainly unearthed from aristocratic tombs and through these works the exhibition reveals the extraordinary material culture of the ancient Zeng (circa 1040-400 BC) and Chu (circa 1030–223 BC). These two phoenix-worshipping states flourished along the Yangzi River. Little known in the West, these lost kingdoms were significant power players before the rise of the first empire under the Qin, which ruthlessly suppressed the history and culture of subjugated states, burying alive scholars and burning books in an infamous spasm of violence and destruction.

The Chu culture was a rich amalgamation of diverse cultures and groups. Over a century of archaeological investigation has yielded their influence over a large zone that includes the present-day provinces of southern Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Anhui. Important finds from the kingdom include lacquerware, textiles, and bronzes with the objects representing the contents of burials identified and charts the emergence of a developing Chu style.

Through a series of thematic galleries, Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China contextualises a range of stylistically rich material across six categories: jades; bronze ritual vessels; musical instruments and weapons; lacquerware made for luxury and ceremony; funerary bronze and wood objects; and textiles and unique objects featuring idiosyncratic designs.

Highlights from later Zeng and Chu bronze-working masters include the 16 writhing ‘dragons’ that resemble snakes (Cat 73), which make up the base of a drum from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (circa 433 BC), now in the collection of the Heibei Museum. Haicheng Wang in the catalogue describes this drum, called a jiangu, as something that was played by a standing musician using two short sticks. The base – originally embellished with inlaid materials that are now decayed – is a three-dimensional interlace of dragons clawing, biting, and swallowing one another. This large piece depicts a naturalistic tangle of bodies, which is indecipherable in photographs. The pleasure of discovering which tail belongs to which head is reserved for viewers able to move around the actual object and hints at the obvious delight – and the associated costlines – such an extravagant artwork would bring. There is a short inscription around the lip of the socket: ‘Marquis Yi of Zeng made [this] to cherish and use always’.

Marquis of Yi

The Marquis of Yi’s tomb was identified mainly by deciphering the inscriptions found on most of the bells and rituals bronzes that named him as their owner. His death can be fairly accurately dated by an inscription on a memorial plaque commissioned by King Xiong Zhang of Chu (r 488-432 BC), in the 56th year of his reign (433).
The oldest artwork on view is the ornament (Cat 1) with a design of two raptors on a mask (circa 2200 BC). This Neolithic jade with intricate carving predates the Zeng and Chu kingdoms, but demonstrates how long-standing motifs, symbols, and forms – back-to-back spirit guides, powerful flying creatures, ritual face-coverings – continued to inspire artisans in the Yangzi valley heartland after more than a thousand years.

Other jades in Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China cover a wide range of styles created during this period. The earliest jades of the Jiang-Han Plain are associated with the late stage of the Shijiahe culture (circa 2600-2000 BC), a Neolithic culture that thrived in the middle Yangzi River region. Despite the relatively small quantity that survived, these jades exerted a significant influence on later jade work in the region, especially that of Zeng and Chu. By the middle of the 6th century BC, a Chu style began to emerge at Xiasi and Xujialing in southern Henan, one characterised by knobbly relief consisting of packed curls derived from dragon heads. Although similar fields of curls are known elsewhere, the writhing energy of Chu jades distinguishes them from varieties in other regions. At these Chu sites, incised designs of dissolved dragon heads with areas of cross-hatching occur on pendants and disks.

Tomb Jades

The jades from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng mark a further advance. In addition to tiger pendants and traditional arc-shaped huang pendants, which had been the standard component of jade pendant sets since the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1050 BC), S-shaped pendants in the form of dragons appeared and became a popular element of pendant sets in both Chu territory and the north. The most dramatic innovations among the Marquis Yi jades are openwork linked ornaments (Cat 7). Along with serpents and birds, new types of dragons – with heads shown from above rather than in profile – became characteristic of Chu jades. In many cases, the animal designs echo styles current in woodcarving and lacquer painting, two art forms for which Chu artisans were renowned.

One jade pendant brims with symbolic meaning – an ornament in the shape of a figure and dragons from the Chu Yuanqiangwan tomb. Colin Mackenzie in the accompanying catalogue writes that the human figure balancing on his head a bi disk, is possibly representing heaven or the sun. He stands between two dragons, his hands grasping their bodies, and two birds sit on the backs of the dragons. Taken together, these motifs express a belief in supernatural or shamanistic power that seems to have been particularly prevalent among the local people in Chu. The bird-and- dragon (or bird-and-tiger) motif is common in Chu wooden sculptures, and the association of humans with dragons and birds is well documented in both jade and lacquer carvings of the Jiang-Han Plain. Although scholars dispute the precise meaning of these motifs, it is clear that they allude to spiritual power and the relationship between human and heavenly realms.

Chinese Bronzes

Other objects in Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China, showing technological innovation include the bronze double-walled square jian-fou ‘wine cooler’ also found in the Marquis’ tomb, a cleverly engineered vessel-within-a-vessel that could keep refreshments, like millet ale, cool for lavish festivities during warm months— perhaps the first metal refrigerator in recorded history. The jian-fou’s elegant pattern is echoed in another masterpiece from the tomb, the heaviest gold container yet discovered from early China – the bowl weighs 2,156 gram. John S Major, in the catalogue, describes this lidded bowl (zhan) and slotted spoon (Cat 149) as being of the most refined workmanship, suggesting strongly they were reserved for the personal use of the Marquis himself.

This special vessel type simulating a half-sphere dou with a cover, zhan, were used to serve soup or food in palatial banquets and have mainly been found in large aristocratic tombs in the middle Yangzi region– like that of Marquis Yi of Zeng, the source of this bowl. The matching slotted spoon suggests that this vessel was reserved for the personal use of the marquis himself. Three bird heads spaced uniformly around the base of the bowl give it a stable tripod stance. The lid has a ring-shaped handle and is ornamented with four registers of patterns, including interlocking snakes, curving waves, and swirling clouds; similar decor is found on the upper body of the bowl.
Gold, which was traded for across long distances, does not tarnish and therefore seems indestructible. Possibly influenced by local elites of the Yangzi region, Zeng lords valued gold vessels for personal use in their palaces and made sure these treasured objects accompanied them into the afterlife. Such unbelievably rare metal thus played a role in the development of the cult of immortality in China, and the benefits of imperishability were likely believed to flow from the golden bowl to its owner.

Feasting was often accompanied by entertainment and another highlight of the exhibition is a large lacquer-on-wood painted drum with pedestal design of phoenixes on tigers’ backs (circa 300 BC) that represents the Chu’s distinctive tradition of sculpture and music while alluding to their worship of mythical beasts and wild animals, as well as to the importance of rhythm (drums) and melody (bells) in rituals.

Musical Instruments

This standing drum, of the xuangu type, is one of the finest among some 50 examples of this type unearthed in modern Hubei and Hunan provinces so far. Since such drums have been found only in Chu tombs, they have come to be recognized as iconic artefacts representing Chu’s distinctive tradition of sculpture and music. Fan J Zang, in the catalogue, says that the creative pedestal design features two phoenixes standing back to back; they carry two smaller phoenixes on their wings and stand on the backs of crouching tigers. Two small tigers rise on their hind legs from the back of each of the larger phoenixes to lift the drum, which is suspended by two strings in the centre of the rack. Six interlaced snakes lie on a flat base with four ring-shaped handles. The wooden body of the drum and pedestal are lacquered in black and are further ornamented with elaborate lines and patterns in red. Amazingly, a portion of the drum’s leather cover survives along with two mallets. Recently conserved, the cover’s colourfully painted surface features phoenixes and animals accompanied by vigorous geometric and floral patterns. Whether this kind of drum served ceremonial roles in Chu funerals, or functioned as demon-quelling objects in tomb spaces, is still under debate.

Like the drum pedestal, many objects and artworks in Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China would not have been possible to present until recent scientific advances allowed archaeologists and conservators to safely excavate and preserve fragile organic materials. The waterlogged, and therefore relatively anaerobic atmosphere of these ancient tombs means decaying bacteria or chemically reactive oxygen are sealed off from the precious silks, lacquers, and woods. While various other forces might crush or tear, new techniques mean intricately painted garments and other fragile luxury wares are now resilient enough to leave the ground and travel overseas.

Dr Jay Xu, the director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum, and an international specialist in early China, says of the exhibition, ‘We are living in what is truly a Golden Age of archaeology – Chinese archaeology that is. There were always obvious gaps in the record that never made sense. We knew which states the Qin conquered, their historians were delighted to write that down, but what we were missing was the artistic evidence connecting the beliefs of older kingdoms with images that proliferated in later dynasties. Ever wonder why Chinese art brims with phoenixes, tigers, and snake-like dragons? Where do the styles we think of today as distinctly Chinese come from? Lost Kingdoms fills that gap with some of the most historically important, as well as eye-catching, finds in recent memory—splendours that bring you face-to-face with the past’.

Lost Kingdoms of Ancient China opens in October 2022 at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, asianart.org. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.