When the Han Dynasty princess Dou Wan died some 2,000 years ago, her corpse was encased within 2,160 small plates of solid jade. Carefully strung together with 700 grams’ worth of gold thread, the green stones formed a glistening cocoon that conformed to the contours of her body, intended to preserve it for eternity. That jade burial suit, recovered with her husband’s in 1968 from their tombs in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s one unmissable, standout artifact in a blockbuster exhibition showcasing the rich artworks that emerged during two of China’s most pivotal dynasties.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties is impressive in logistics alone. The over 160 objects arrive on loan from 32 museums and archaeological institutions in China — just think of the bureaucratic hurdles, never mind the shipping — and most have never before been displayed in the West. The exhibition is intended as a kind of visual summary of archaeological findings, mostly from shrines and underground tombs of royals, from the last half-century. The result showcases the remnants of 400 years of innovation and craftsmanship, developed to suit the visions of an increasingly unified state.
The long histories of the Qin and the Han dynasties, which witnessed the centralization of government and the standardization of everything from laws to the economy to written language, are glossed over in a handful of wall texts. The exhibition relies largely on visual splendor, with the objects, most of which are accompanied by short descriptions, serving as traces of a clearly astounding past. That this didn’t bother me is a testament to the allure and evocative power of almost every piece on view, from tiny jade pigs intended to serve as hand warmers for the dead to a life-size, terracotta statue depicting a rotund strongman — a performer in an acrobatic troupe who likely entertained the imperial court of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. (Detailed historical context, for those who seek it, can be found elsewhere, in the show’s dense catalogue.)
As the museum’s curator of Chinese art, Zhixin Jason Sun, writes in a catalogue essay, “These remarkable objects attest to the unprecedented role of art as spectacle, and more importantly, reflect changes in political, social, economic, and religious aspects of public life.”
Organized chronologically, Age of Empires begins with what are probably the most recognized jewels of ancient Chinese art outside of that country: five examples of the terracotta warriors from Qin Shihuangdi’s mausoleum complex, along with eight nearly life-size earthenware horses pulling two chariots (modern replicas of Qin originals). It’s a crowd-pleasing introduction, but also one that exemplifies the naturalism that characterized Qin works: the curved forms of the frozen archers, originally painted, are particularly elegant, and you’ll notice that each warrior bears an individual visage. It’s easy to forget that the results of this painstaking labor were never intended for our world of the living, produced to reside underground for eternity and endure as markers of an emperor’s eternal power.
The majority of what follows dates to the Han Dynasty, which the peasant rebel leader Liu Bang founded in 206 BCE. Although most objects were created for funerary use, they aren’t generally somber in appearance, a reminder that the Han viewed the afterlife as a realm where pleasure should flourish. A tomb of a prince of the Chu state, for instance, yielded a group of small, earthenware models of dancers and musicians. Although their faces are blank, their active poses convey a palpable energy, as if a snap of the fingers could magically awaken them to continue performing. One statue of a curved female dancer is particularly mesmerizing, with her wide sleeves billowing to form tall parabolas. She looks like she’s doing the wave with her entire body.
Mausoleums were built as extensive replicas of real-world residences, so most of the objects in Age of Empires are more quotidian in nature. Their occupants spared no expense, however, ordering artisans to create lacquered tableware, skillfully woven silk textiles, furnishings that boast intricate metalwork. Smaller versions of buildings stood in funerary complexes, too, as models of grand homes that conveyed an owner’s status and power. One luxury, multistory structure is so realistic, it even has a tiny guard dog sitting by its entrance. Animals themselves were popular subjects for standalone works. Some species were considered auspicious symbols, while others represent the exotic creatures that populated imperial zoos. An entire gallery at the Met is filled with animals, from elephants to cows, sculpted in a variety of materials.
While the Han developed and honed the imperial policies established by the Qin at home, it was busy engaging beyond China’s borders as well. Some of the most intriguing artifacts on view speak to the growing trade networks that resulted from the Han’s military and diplomatic campaigns. Beautiful objects integrate precious materials from places such as Persia, India, and Sumatra, while other artifacts reveal foreign influences more explicitly: for instance, the unique mix of culture in a Hellenistic fluted stone column that bears a Chinese inscription. Then there’s a comical lamp with a fuel chamber shaped like a Southeast Asian man, who hovers in the air, attached to chains — a design borrowed from the ancient Mediterranean.
Although many of these objects were made for individuals, their specific identities and stories aren’t highlighted here. Most of the works are placed in glass cases or set on protective pedestals, presented as priceless artifacts displaced from their original, funerary contexts. Its unique construction aside, the jade suit of Dou Wan stuns because it represents a real body. To turn a corner and suddenly behold the otherworldly armor lying still in its own room is jarring. But it’s also stirring, with that mass of protective stone reminding us of the very human uncertainties and fears behind every material affirmation of power.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 16.