Grave Concerns Memphis' Wonders Series Displays Treasures from Imperial Tombs of China

Article excerpt

YOU CAN'T TAKE it with you.

That phrase has been enshrined in our psyches since the beginning of time. We've accepted in, and we've lived by it.

Enjoy your earthly treasures in the here and now, goes the script, for they won't do you any good in the hereafter.

Even the emperors of China couldn't take it with them. But they sure tried.

Approximately 250 priceless artifacts scooped up from the tombs of the Sons of Heaven, who ruled China from hundreds of years before Christ to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, are dazzling visitors to the Memphis Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn.

"The Imperial Tombs of China" has brought together a wealth of rarefied objects, including:

A death mask of 14-karat gold that was to preserve the skull of the Princess of Chen, a noblewoman of the Laio Dynasty who died in 1000 A.D.

A burial shroud from the Han Dynasty, fashioned from more than 2,000 squares of jade.

Carvings of the "horses that sweated blood," revered for their extraordinary strength and courage.

A large, round, three-legged, bronze vessel that sometimes held nourishing broth - and, at other times, the hacked flesh of certain unfortunate criminals.

An exquisite dragon and phoenix headdress, encrusted with ropes of pearls and clusters of rubies and sapphires. Made posthumously for an emperor's concubine by her grandson, she was dug up, crowned and reburied.

A vial with 13 tiny, white granules reputed to be fragments of the cremated remains of Buddha.

The throne room from the Shenyang Palace, replicated down to the last detail. Crowded with a seven-panel screen engraved with 103 dragons, cloisonne braziers, lacquered stands decorated with pot-bellied creatures, and dominated by an ornate 6-foot tall, 5-foot-wide throne, this was where China's last emperor vacationed when he wanted to get away from it all.

Of particular note are four life-size statues of ancient warriors, standing like sentinels, each apparently modeled after a real person.

They were among the terra-cotta soldiers, chariots and horses buried with China's first emperor and unearthed in 1974 by two farmers who had set out to dig a well. Called one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, the spectacular grave site has yielded 8,000 warriors from its ancient depths.

The tombs collection spans 2,500 years and seven periods of Chinese history and was selected from 18 different museums and cultural centers in nine provinces. Some of the items have never been seen outside of China.

The driving force behind this cultural coup is WONDERS, a Memphis-based series that showcases objects gathered from around the world. Past exhibits have included:

"Ramses the Great" (1987), featuring as its centerpiece a gigantic 47-ton, 25-foot-tall statue of the Egyptian ruler.

"Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia" (1991), a highlight of which was the restored carriage ordered by Peter the Great for his second wife's coronation. …