Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China's Han Dynasty
Feb 17, 2017 – May 28, 2017
Royal Life Unearthed
One of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world, China’s Han dynasty achieved profound cultural and artistic influence, technological advancements and military might. Two thousand years later, discoveries of royal tombs allow us to glimpse these extraordinary accomplishments firsthand.
Emulating their grand palaces, Han royals built lavishly furnished tombs so that, in the afterlife, no need would go unmet. Daily utensils, kitchen vessels, royal symbols, weaponry and even toiletries were all accounted for. And the nobility spared no expense preserving the tools of earthly pleasures — food, music, wine, sex — in anticipation of an afterlife to surpass this world.
On view for the first time in the U.S., 160 rare selections from recent excavations — including a jade coffin, rare bronze bells, elaborate crafts and much more — share the extravagance, artistry and elegance of Han royal clans.
The Asian Art Museum is the only venue for this exhibition.
Unearthing Han Tombs
Deep within the earth, a tomb is touched by sunlight for the first time in 2,000 years. Inside, a treasure trove of vast riches entombed during one of the most powerful and advanced civilizations of the ancient world — China’s Han dynasty.
The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) achieved great prosperity and cultural richness. Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when its diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony.
Objects in Tomb Treasures were excavated from royal tombs in China’s Jiangsu province, mostly from the mausoleum of Liu Fei, which has generated significant buzz in recent years. In early 2009, the deaths of four tomb robbers brought the attention of the local government to a rural site: a stone quarry on Dayun Mountain. Over the next two years, archaeologists excavated three large tombs, 13 attendant tombs, two weaponry pits and two chariot pits containing more than 10,000 artifacts. These fascinating objects share stories of the economic and social development of the Han dynasty and provide insight into the quest of the Han elite for glory even after death.
Measuring over 1,600 feet on each side, the royal mausoleum’s total area amounts to almost 2.7 million square feet, about the size of 35 soccer fields. It consists of the tombs of Liu Fei and his two consorts, dozens of graves for concubines, and pits for chariots and weapons, closely resembling how the king’s actual palace would have been designed. The mausoleum was amply stocked with items that the king would find useful or enjoyable, everything from weapons to kitchen utensils to musical instruments to human figurines that would act as servants in the next world. Objects were often packed together tightly, and many were found damaged and later restored by the Nanjing Museum.
Tomb Treasures will be on view in the museum’s first floor special exhibition galleries (Osher, Hambrecht and Lee), featuring over 160 rare selections from recent excavations in Jiangsu province, China.
The exhibition explores three main themes:
Everlasting Happiness Without End (長樂未央)
Learn about the daily life and courtly entertainment of the Han nobility
While stories of power struggles, political turmoil and land division in the Han empire have been frequently recounted, Tomb Treasures provides new insights into the daily rituals and personal relationships at the Han court — the pleasures of life people loved so dearly they spared no expense bringing them into the beyond.
Objects displayed in the Osher Gallery demonstrate the luxuries, advanced technologies and elaborate decorations that the Han elite enjoyed in their daily lives. Highlights include:
Ritual Bell Set
Music was a mainstay of courtly celebrations, and a bell set like this one would have been part of an ancient musical ensemble. Consisting of 19 individual bells, this bronze bell set includes special frames adorned with mythical creatures, patterned designs of twin dragons and bi disks with holes. These disks, made of silver, have fine engravings of floating clouds with birds and beasts. The entire ensemble is supported by two bronze stands in the shape of squatting camels.
From left to right, the bells increase in size and get deeper in pitch. Each bell produces two distinct tones, depending on whether it’s hit at the center or side. This bell set would have been played by at least two performers, one for each rack.
Similar to the “wine thief” siphons still popular at wineries today, this hollow wine vessel was used to serve beverages during banquets. It has two small holes, and the mechanism for drawing and releasing liquid is operated by using the thumb to cover and uncover the top hole. The beverage is first drawn into the vessel through the bottom hole, then withdrawn from its container while covering the top hole, and finally dispensed into a cup by uncovering the hole. This vessel was decorated with inlays of silver and gold, as well as small pieces of precious stones and agate that are now largely missing.
“Hot Pot” – with the five compartments
The ding, a vessel for cooking food and boiling water, has functioned since antiquity as a ritual object to indicate noble status and privilege. This large cauldron was not designed as a ritual vessel, however, but for practical use. The body is composed of five compartments, allowing the user to sample five different broths at the same time without mixing different ingredients and flavors.
With her dramatic posture and outstretched arms, the bold design of this figurine captures a dynamic and graceful moment of the “flying swallow” dance. Possibly belonging to the third king of the Chu kingdom, the Tuolan Mountain tomb housed an ensemble of these dancing figurines, allowing us to imagine the spectacle of courtly entertainment.
Drinking Set for Two People
Intimate gatherings, such as drinking parties attended by just two or three men, were common among the Han elite, based on scenes depicted in the art of the time. Each individual would probably use a cup and a spoon for soup or wine, as well as a ladle to scoop out the liquid from the basin into his own bowl.
Eternal Life Without Limit (長生無極)
Explore ancient ideas about the afterlife
Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination with jade to the extreme, believing it had the power to protect flesh from decomposing. In life, Han kings used exquisite jade pieces as eating utensils and decorative ornaments; they were eventually buried with an exorbitant amount of the material. Orifices of the body were even blocked with jade to preserve the vital essence within.
On view in Hambrecht Gallery, three stellar examples, among many other works in jade, attest to this “jade worship”: a complete jade suit, a jade coffin and a jade dragon to adorn the coffin.
A king’s coffin is more than just a casket: It is a shelter for his corpse and soul in the afterlife. By employing a jade coffin along with a jade suit and other inner and outer coffins, the king’s body would receive multiple layers of protection. Considering the rarity of jade coffins, they were probably the most extravagant and highest-quality burial furnishings, used exclusively by high-ranking royalty.
Believed to be the largest jade coffin found to date, this coffin was reconstructed from about 1,500 jade plaques of various shapes (square, rectangular, triangular, diamond). The unadorned rectangular holes at the lower register of the coffin walls may have been created as gateways for the king’s soul.
Han royal family members were often interred in custom-tailored suits made of jade plaques to protect their bodies in the afterlife. Depending on the body size, a complete suit could comprise up to 2,500 jade pieces in rectangular, triangular, round, half-moon and fan shapes. Sewn in gold, silver or bronze thread to denote the wearer’s status, they resemble a full suit of armor. Because jade suits were major targets of tomb robbers, only a few complete sets of gold-threaded jade suits have been fully reassembled from some 60 royal tombs. This restored jade suit belonged to a queen of the Jiangdu kingdom, who died shortly before the king.
More than two hundred painted figurines were discovered in the niches that lined the long tunnel of the Beidong Mountain tomb. Crafted in various stances, these figurines were elaborately painted with a variety of pigments. From their faces to their shoes, each is decorated with lifelike details, creating the appearance of hundreds of unique individuals.
This lacquer divination board would have been consulted before deciding on important life events, such as waging battles or choosing wedding dates. Representing the earth, this board would probably have been used with another board representing heaven to decipher the interplay of the cosmic forces of yin and yang. The black lacquer is marked by red lines and characters that charts complicated cosmology.
Enduring Remembrance Without Fail (長毋相忘)
Discover the Han elite’s preoccupation with hygiene, beauty and intimate relations
In Lee Gallery, intimate items — such as toiletries, mirrors, basins, incense burners and even phalluses — invite you into the interior spaces of the court to explore its mystique. Highlights include:
Forget Me Not Belt Hook
Belt hooks, typically used to fasten belts or carry small items at the waist, were very popular during the Han dynasty. This belt hook is particularly noteworthy in that it holds a romantic secret: The inscriptions on the inside face of each half of the hook, one convex and one concave, bear the same phrase, “forget me not,” and the two can be joined as one to convey the wish for love and loyalty. The occupant of the tomb from which this piece came was a concubine lovingly nicknamed Chunyu Baby (Chunyu Ying’er). There are two possible scenarios for how it came to be in her tomb: She may have prepared the belt hook for the Jiangdu king as a request for his remembrance but never had a chance to present it to him. Alternatively, the two halves may have been reunited at her death, with the king having this token placed in the tomb of his favorite lover.
This 2,000-year-old toilet has an advanced toilet design that allowed users to comfortably sit on a set of step stones and rest their backs and arms on the supports. Water could clean the pit and flush the excrement directly into the sewage system. Han noble households had separate rooms for baths and toilets, and similar structures, like this one, were also prepared in tombs for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Outside the palaces, most latrines were still squat-style over a large pit or basin, and many were built above or near a pigsty to collect human excrement for manure. Because the filth and smell often made people sick, latrines were believed to be hiding places for demonic or evil forces.
Han nobles took great care with their appearance. The variety of cosmetic items found in tombs indicates that they applied powders and herbs to make up their faces. Mirrors, brushes and scissors were found, as were lacquerware containers of various sizes, used to store a full set of personal-care tools and accessories.
This set of cosmetics boxes represents a type of household item popular at the time, a large outer box featuring seven small interior boxes in circular or horse-hoof shapes. These lacquerwares are painted with cloud designs and other abstract motifs, and their tops are adorned with silver pieces that create auspicious persimmon patterns.
It is not unusual to find phalluses buried in the tombs of Han-dynasty noblemen. The polished surface of this one indicates that it was not made merely for burial but had been used before interment. The hollow body and the thread holes around the base also suggest that the phallus was designed to actually be used.
Han people were interested in the Daoist arts of the bedchamber and believed that guided intercourse between men and women could help to achieve health and longevity. Because the Han took care to address every need the deceased might have in the afterlife, archaeologists have been able to unearth such intimate items.
Different styles of oil lamps emerged during this era, enabling members of the court to enjoy banquets and music late into the evening. The innovative technologies and superb craftsmanship of these new lamps changed the fabric of life at court by extending the period of activity into hours of darkness and allowing a culture of entertainment to flourish.
The ingenious design of this oil lamp made it easy to use and smoke-free. The two semicircular panels of its midsection could be slid around to control the amount of illumination, while the tray could be turned to change the direction of light. The lid of the lamp has two curved tubes connecting back to its body, designed so that smoke would be collected and absorbed by water in the reservoir at the bottom of the lamp. These tubes also distributed heat and warmed the hands and air, a design that worked well for interior use during long winter nights.
You’ll also discover Han burial practices involving jade, believed to have magical properties to preserve the body. Some of the finest examples unearthed to date are on view in Tomb Treasures, including a jade coffin and body suit sewn with gold thread, a particularly rare find.
Click on the links above to find out the stories behind some of the exhibition’s most striking and important objects. Then, visit the museum and enjoy the extravagance, artistry and elegance of these artworks in person.
Jade in Han Burial Practices
Deceased kings were often interred in coffins whose surfaces were painted in lacquer and inlaid with jade planks and circular bi disks. Their heads were rested on pillows of jade, and their ears and noses were stuffed with small columns of jade to prevent their vital essences from escaping. It’s likely that jade articles were also placed in their mouths, hands and anuses for the same reason.
Inside or Out? A Coffin Controversy
Discovered just over 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums in Xuzhou, the jade coffin on display in Tomb Treasures was reassembled with an elaborate pattern of jade pieces decorating its exterior. In contrast, a coffin excavated more recently from the Jiangdu mausoleum at Dayun Mountain, where most of the material in Tomb Treasures originates, was reconstructed with the jade pattern lining the inside — causing some scholars to argue that, since the stone is meant to protect the body, the Chu coffin’s jade should line its interior as well. Others believe that regional variations or the different ranks of the deceased could explain the inconsistent construction methods.
Did the earlier archaeologists make a mistake? There’s no definitive answer so far, says excavator Li Yinde, since the records from the Shizi Mountain excavation do not provide sufficient detail. “Jade coffins are not made to look the same due to regional variations,” he explains. “Current evidence shows that jade could either be put inside to protect the deceased or outside to be visually attractive.”
Visit the exhibition and offer your take! Share your opinion using #TombTreasures @AsianArtMuseum.
What People are Saying
“[Tomb Treasures] offers an expansive portrait of everyday life among the elite of the Han dynasty.” — Robert Taylor, Bay Area News Group
“You don’t have to go to China to see these wonderful artifacts. The jade suit is definitely amazing but I am awed by the ingenuity of the smoke free oil lamp design. Thank you Asian Art Museum for bringing these treasures to us.” — Polly Kam
“The Tomb Treasures exhibition is detailed, sophisticated and breathaking. Strongly recommended.” — Kalin S.”
“Was there for the Tomb Treasure and was stunned by all the amazing artifacts, especially the use of jade in funerary practices.” — Ikarus Tseng
“My first time here. Why did I wait so long to visit? Wonderful collections. The Han exhibit is terrific! I loved all the bronze pieces.” — Anonymous
“Tomb Treasures… a jewel!” — @Seembee, San Francisco
Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty is organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Nanjing Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of The Bernard Osher Foundation, Diane B. Wilsey, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, United, Barbara and Gerson Bakar, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Warren Felson and Lucy Sun, Angela and Gwong-Yih Lee, Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson, and Brayton Wilbur Foundation.
Media sponsors: San Francisco magazine, Sing Tao Daily, World Journal.