Exhibition Rewrites the History of Han Civilization in China ; Museum Opens Window on One of the World's Most Resilient Cultures

By Melikian, Souren | International Herald Tribune, June 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Exhibition Rewrites the History of Han Civilization in China ; Museum Opens Window on One of the World's Most Resilient Cultures


Melikian, Souren, International Herald Tribune


"The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China" on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, sheds new light on one of the world's great civilizations.

"The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China" on view at the Fitzwilliam Museum through Nov. 11 is one of those landmark shows that shed new light on a crucial historical period in one of the world's great civilizations.

The discoveries made in the past three decades by Chinese archaeologists have yielded so much datable evidence that books dealing with Han China must be rewritten.

The tour de force achieved by the curator of the show, James Lin, with the backing of the director of the museum, Timothy Potts, is to have brought to the West some of the art treasures that lay the foundations on which our understanding rests of the Han age in the second and first centuries B.C.

The most startling revelation is perhaps the existence of the Kingdom of Nanyue, the Yue people to the south of the Han empire. A Chinese-speaking elite in a non-Han area organized its court on the model of the northern giant.

In 1983, a royal funerary chamber was excavated on a hill in the modern city of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. In the exhibition book, the historian Michael Loewe notes that some of the population lived naked in the tropical climate of Nanyue and "had yet to learn the habit of pairing off in orderly forms of marriage." If the Chinese sources that often project unflattering views of non- Chinese peoples are accurate on this score, this makes the Guangzhou discoveries the more sensational.

The royal seals found in the funerary chamber yield a name previously unknown to historians, Zhao Mo. The ruler styled himself "emperor" and used his own calendar, established on the model of Han China.

Historical discoveries often come together with new enigmas. Mr. Lin commenting on two jade seals respectively inscribed with the name "Zhao Mo" and "The Emperor's Seal" believes that the ancient historian Sima Qian made a mistake in recording a king named "Zhao Hu." Others speculate that Zhao Mo's short rule might account for the omission of his name in written sources.

If so, that would make the grandeur of Zhao Mo's funerary furnishings even more astounding.

A large jade beaker was placed on his coffin, set into a trefoil jade platform supported by gold and silver mythical creatures. Mr. Lin, citing a passage from Sima's chronicle, said that one of the emperors of Han China believed that drinking dew and jade powder from a jade vessel ensured eternal life. He added that the beaker "is likely [to be] related to the search for immortality" -- a bold inference that provides the eye-catching title for the show.

The king's remains lay under a suit made from 2,291 plaques of jade, with a jade disc placed near the top of his head and two similar discs lying across his waist. Jade artifacts, one shaped as a dragon with a curving tail, the other simply fitted with a dragon head, were clutched in the king's right hand. Earlier in style than the jade suit, they provide rare evidence of the preservation of ancient objects at that period of Chinese history.

Rooms adjacent to the king's burial chamber yielded a wealth of bronze containers. Among them, a wine vessel rising from a square base also looks earlier than the second century B.C. by a century or two.

Further proof of the preservation of earlier pieces is yielded by a gold fibula terminated with a feline head that grips in its mouth a jade dragon. While the gold hook dates from the second century B.C., the jade dragon is probably earlier by a couple of centuries. The hook of the fibula, which was discovered on the king's right shoulder, is inscribed with the Chinese character "wang," king. All these ancient objects in the ruler's possession point to a definite interest in the past. Not clearly spelled out in the book, this interest may come to change the way in which the evolution of Chinese art is understood. …

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