Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Exceedingly wealthy, the royalty of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) lived indulgently, and these aristocrats were determined to enjoy their accustomed luxuries in the afterlife as well. While their strong affinity for the extravagant is largely unrecorded in historical texts, modern archaeology has immensely helped to shed light on these lifestyles from 2,000 years ago. Since 2009, archaeologists have uncovered thousands of telling treasures buried in royal tombs that date to the Jiangdu kingdom. They found not only exquisite mortuary objects and finely crafted domestic wares but also artifacts that speak to the body’s needs and desires — including a number of ancient sex toys.
Over 160 of these artifacts from various excavated sites are now on view in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty, an ongoing exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Most of these works have never been seen outside of China; many are rare findings, from a lavish suit with jade tiles sewn with gold thread — actually worn by the deceased — to an elaborate jade coffin painted in lacquer. The hard material was believed to be able to protect the body from decay; jade articles may even have been placed in orifices to prevent the loss of their inner essences.
“The Han, like the Egyptians, also conceived of a soul dualism, or a vital essence, one on earth in the body (po) and one in the ethereal beyond (hun), that could linger on into eternity — even immortality,” co-curator Jay Xu said, “as long as it was properly cared for, and you had the right funerary rites, and regalia and retinue to keep the spirit alive and entertained, and also adequately nourished after death.”
The royal tombs that housed these material splendors were essentially palaces in their own right, comprising sprawling subterranean architectural spaces compete with bedrooms, kitchens, storage areas, and even bathrooms. On view in the museum is a stone toilet — a finely crafted one, and advanced in design, too, featuring stepping stones above a hole for squatting and a rail for support. A vast number of the exhibited tomb artifacts are functional, indicating how they were intended for “use” in the afterlife. Craftsmen, to give another example, also designed one particularly ornate set of bronze bells that chime beautiful notes, meant to guide dance performances that would keep the elite entertained in the afterlife.
The Han, as Xu said, “relied on image-making and mystical ornamentation to transfer these possessions into the next world. Think of the tomb itself as a kind of ‘will’ or a registry for the deceased, in addition to the ‘real’ objects.”
These registries were extensive, featuring everything from weaponry to cosmetic box sets to smokeless lamps. On some individuals’s list of wants were bronze objects that may surprise some viewers today, considering how nudity was often considered taboo in traditional Chinese artwork. The exhibition features two bronze dildos that could be both worn and used, sculpted with fine detail. These love aids, according to Xu, were relatively common among elites and were high quality goods, made of expensive bronze. Although considered toys, they were also, as he described, tools.
“When I say ‘tool,’ I also mean that these phalluses had a larger purpose than sheer physical pleasure,” Xu said. “The Han believed that the balance of yin and yang, the female and male spiritual principles, could be achieved during sex. Basically, sex was a pathway to longevity in body and spirit, since these powerful forces could be combined during intercourse to achieve a kind of universal harmony. In this regard, sex, especially if it was pleasurable and lasted for a sufficient amount of time, had a real spiritual dimension.” The small, weighty objects may seem like frivolous inclusions at first glance, but they speak lengths of the Han’s vision of the afterlife as a realm that should promise everlasting happiness and self-love.
Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty continues at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA) through May 28.