” ‘Age of Empires’: How 2 Dynasties of Art Forged China’s Identity,” By Holland Carter

“Female Musician Playing a Zither,” an earthenware sculpture from the Han dynasty.
Photo: 
Jake Naughton for The New York Times


” ‘Age of Empires’: How 2 Dynasties of Art Forged China’s Identity”

By HOLLAND CARTER


No one does epic better than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It brought Pergamon to New York last spring and got the balance of giant and delicate right. It flew in medieval Jerusalem, and kept its multicultural sprawl intact. Now, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” it brings us China becoming China in a big-picture take as strange and warm as life.

We love life, of course, all the details: sparrows in the forsythia; books and lamps and late-night coffee; the voice of a friend on the phone. The ancient Chinese loved it, too, and wanted it to last forever. China’s first emperor believed it might.

He viewed death as a kind of power nap, from which he’d awake refreshed in a tomb that was like an earthly home, but better, more fun. He designed his mausoleum as an underground Mar-a-Lago, with countless pavilions, great feng shui and a major security force. For light, there were candles, the most expensive money could buy, guaranteed to keep burning after he’d moved in — he died in 210 B.C. — and the doors had shut for the last time.

A portion of the jade burial suit of Dou Wan, a Han princess, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times

A portion of the jade burial suit of Dou Wan, a Han princess, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

Those lights are still burning in the Met’s hypnotic, glow-in-the-dark exhibition of 160 objects from 32 museums in China, which opens on Monday. Of the museum’s several presentations of Chinese antiquities over the past 20 years, this one is probably the most dramatic visually and the most accessible emotionally. There’s a certain amount of the type of art the Met is too comfortable with: imperial bling. But here even this material feels purposeful, because it dates from a time in China when the idea of empire and corporate branding through art was experimental.

By the third century B.C., the long-lived Zhou dynasty had run its course, and turf wars broke out among smaller regional states. One of those states, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced CHIN), overcame all rivals and brought much of China under one rule for the first time. It did this partly through armed strength, but also through a sort of management savvy taught in business schools today.

The Qin ruler, born Ying Zheng, decided that the most effective means of control was to promote team spirit: Get everyone on the same civic page, and keep them there. To that end, he instituted a unified currency and a single standard of weights and measures. He decreed the use of a universal written script, which let him control the political conversation. And he initiated construction of the Great Wall, a brick-and-mortar statement of Us versus Them.

“Kneeling Archer,” an earthenware sculpture from the Qin dynasty. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

“Kneeling Archer,” an earthenware sculpture from the Qin dynasty. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

The effect of all this was to create a rudimentary sense of shared identity within a diverse population; a sense of Qin-ness or — to use a modern English word that may derive from Qin — Chinese-ness.

The M.B.A. thinking worked, or did for Ying Zheng himself. He became the first Chinese ruler to assume the heaven-kissed title of emperor — Qi Shihuangdi, or First Emperor of Qin — and built a tomb near Xian, in northwestern China, to match its grandeur. We have only written accounts of what’s in the tomb (the pavilions, the candles; it’s never been excavated). But its presence yielded one of the late-20th-century’s great art historical finds when, in 1978, on a tip from local farmers, archaeologists uncovered an army of some 7,000 life-size terra-cotta figures buried nearby.

Five of those figures, four standing, one kneeling, open the Met show (along with two modern reproductions of buried chariots found with them). They, or their like, have been endlessly circulated for display, but they’re still magnetic, with their blocklike bodies and personable faces, mold-cast and customized. Even more striking, and less familiar, is another figure found in a different part of the tomb site, this one a beefy court entertainer, nude to the waist, with every fold of flesh and swell of muscle precisely rendered.

“Female Dancer,” a vogueing earthenware dancer from the Han dynasty.  Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

“Female Dancer,” a vogueing earthenware dancer from the Han dynasty.
Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

There was no precedent in China for any of this, the scale, the naturalism. So what was the source? Historians point to a likely one: the Hellenistic art that was introduced by Alexander the Great to Asia — at Pergamon, for example — and filtered over trade routes to China. Whatever its origins, the new sculpture adds another facet to the profile of Qin-ness: cosmopolitan taste.

But for all its innovations, or maybe because of them, Qin rule was brief, 15 years. The emperor spent a lot of time on the road, surveying his domain but also on a quest for life-extending elixirs. His sudden death unleashed an opera-worthy drama of assassinations, suicides and civil war, until another imperial power, called Han, took its place, and held it more than four centuries.

Han artists built on Qin precedents in art, but with adjustments. For a while they maintained an interest in realism, but seemed to shift the emphasis from the human figure to the natural world. The big personalities in Han sculpture in the show are animals: horses as majestic as gods; elephants, foreign to China, closely observed. Even common barnyard creatures — chickens, goats and pigs — are portrayed with empathy; you can almost hear them clucking and snuffling.

A detail of “Cowrie Container With Bull and Rider,” a bronze container from the Han dynasty that was found on an ancient site associated with the Dian people. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

A detail of “Cowrie Container With Bull and Rider,” a bronze container from the Han dynasty that was found on an ancient site associated with the Dian people. Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

The Han further refined the policy of centralized imperial rule and expanded its reach outward, globally, evident in the steady increase in material richness and variety seen as you move through the show, past granulated gold work, amethyst necklaces and luxury textiles brought overland and by sea from Afghanistan, India, Persia, nomadic Eurasia and the Mediterranean.

Some of the most exotic items are from China itself. An eye-stopping, fantastically sophisticated bronze cowrie shell container, swarming with tiny figures in what looks like a raucous Bruegelesque market scene, was produced by the Dian culture in what is now Yunnan province, people that Han court records referred to as “southwestern barbarians.”

Was that imperialism or provincialism speaking? They can be the same thing. And they can equally motivate people to shape an exclusive group identity. The Han were intent on doing so, though this didn’t prevent them from borrowing heavily from other cultures, including their immediate predecessors.

From left, “Warrior,” “Female Courtier” and “Court Attendant: Eunuch,” all earthenware sculptures from the Han dynasty. They were meant to provide for the emperor in his afterlife, the warrior offering protection, the eunuch and courtier attending to his needs.  Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

From left, “Warrior,” “Female Courtier” and “Court Attendant: Eunuch,” all earthenware sculptures from the Han dynasty. They were meant to provide for the emperor in his afterlife, the warrior offering protection, the eunuch and courtier attending to his needs.
Photo: Jake Naughton for The New York Times

As with the Qin, Han society, at least at elite levels, focused on the hereafter. Most items in the Met show came from graves. Many objects were specifically for funerary use. Like much art everywhere, the underlying inspiration was political and personal. Art promoted and shored up the hierarchies on which a culture was built. It also answered to a human need to keep life going.

The Han elite spared no expense to ensure their continuance. The survivors of a Han princess named Dou Wan encased her corpse in a jumpsuit made from 2,000 jade plaques linked with gold threads, jade being a stone thought to have preservative properties. The suit is in the show, and as we approach through a passageway in Zoe Florence’s theatrical exhibition installation, it looks like a sleeping extraterrestrial, a space traveler patiently waiting to be beamed up.

Yet everything in the surrounding galleries seems designed to anchor the traveler to life on earth: a little hand-warmer in the form of a carved jade bear; a silk pillow woven with the words “extend years”; a vogueing earthenware dancer with ankle-length sleeves; and a jeroboam-size wine jar that, when discovered in 2003, still held Han wine. There’s even a luxury high-rise, or a model of one, and lamps to light it, including one shaped like a tree sprouting ducks and dragons like spring buds.

At the end of the show — organized by Zhixin Jason Sun, a curator of Chinese art at the Met, assisted by Pengliang Lu, a curatorial fellow — there’s a low closed door, carved from stone, made for a tomb, and painted with figures that could be earthly or celestial. If you passed through the door, which life would you be entering, or leaving, and is there a preference?

An answer may lie in an object hanging on the exhibition’s exit wall. It’s a round gilt-bronze mirror with an inscription embossed on its rim: “May the Central Kingdom be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.” Central Kingdom meant China. And for the Qin and the Han, wherever you went, in this world or the next, you were there.


“Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin & Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220)”
April 3 – July 16, 2017
The Met Fifth Avenue
Info: http://bit.ly/2olL2sv


By Holland Carter, Reprint from The New York Times / Art & Design, 30 March 2017, © 2017 The New York Times Company.

65 Comments

Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published.

Area on with this article, I truly think this web site needs much more factor to consider. I?ll probably be once again to check out a lot more, many thanks for that info.

You should be a part of a contest for one of the
best blogs on the internet. I will highly recommend this blog!

An impressive share, I simply given this onto a coworker who was doing a little evaluation on this. And also he as a matter of fact purchased me morning meal since I discovered it for him. smile. So let me rephrase that: Thnx for the treat! Yet yeah Thnkx for spending the time to discuss this, I feel strongly concerning it and like learning more on this subject. When possible, as you end up being know-how, would you mind updating your blog with more details? It is extremely helpful for me. Huge thumb up for this blog post!

If you want to grow your experience only keep visiting this
website and stay updated using the hottest news posted here.

Look at my web-site :: WayneOPelton

Can I simply state what a relief to find somebody that really knows what theyre talking about on the net. You definitely recognize exactly how to bring an issue to light as well as make it essential. Even more individuals need to read this as well as comprehend this side of the story. I cant believe youre not a lot more preferred since you definitely have the present.

At this time it sounds like Drupal is the best blogging platform available right now.

(from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

very great message, i definitely love this site, keep it

I’m curious to find out what blog system you happen to be using? I’m experiencing some small security issues with my latest blog and I’d like to find something more secure. Do you have any solutions?

Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers? I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on. Any suggestions?

This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled
blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your
excellent post. Also, I have shared your website in my social
networks!

Youre so cool! I do not expect Ive review anything like this before. So great to find someone with some initial ideas on this subject. realy thank you for beginning this up. this website is something that is required online, someone with a little creativity. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

There is visibly a bundle to find out about this. I assume you made sure nice factors in functions also.

After research study a few of the post on your website now, as well as I genuinely like your way of blog writing. I bookmarked it to my bookmark web site checklist as well as will be examining back quickly. Pls check out my website also as well as let me recognize what you assume.

An Asian teen stripping and spreading from Chris

Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce a good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never seem to get anything done.

This is the right blog site for anybody that wishes to find out about this subject. You recognize a lot its practically difficult to argue with you (not that I in fact would want?HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a subject thats been covered for years. Great stuff, simply wonderful!

There are definitely a great deal of details like that to take into consideration. That is an excellent indicate raise. I offer the thoughts over as general inspiration but plainly there are inquiries like the one you raise where one of the most important point will certainly be operating in sincere good faith. I don?t know if ideal techniques have arised around points like that, however I make certain that your work is plainly recognized as an up for grabs. Both children and ladies feel the impact of just a moment?s enjoyment, for the rest of their lives.

I really like reading an article that will make people think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

Tremendous issues here. I am very glad to look
your post. Thanks so much and I’m having a look ahead to touch you.
Will you please drop me a mail? adreamoftrains best web hosting sites

I am typically to blog writing as well as i actually appreciate your material. The short article has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and also maintain looking for brand-new info.

There are some fascinating points in this write-up however I don?t recognize if I see every one of them center to heart. There is some credibility however I will certainly hold viewpoint till I check out it additionally. Great short article, many thanks and also we desire much more! Included in FeedBurner as well

Oh my benefits! an outstanding short article man. Thanks Nevertheless I am experiencing issue with ur rss. Don?t understand why Unable to register for it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anybody who recognizes kindly react. Thnkx

Wow, this part of writing is fastidious, my younger sister
is analyzing such things, so I will let know her.

Also visit my site; LuluDCocking

Place on with this review, I truly assume this web site requires a lot more factor to consider. I?ll possibly be once again to check out far more, many thanks for that details.

We’re a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community.
Your site provided us with valuable information to work on. You have done
an impressive job and our entire community will be thankful to
you.

Hello! I simply would love to provide a significant thumbs up for the fantastic information you have here on this blog post. I will certainly be coming back to your blog site for more quickly.

Oh my goodness! a fantastic article man. Thanks However I am experiencing concern with ur rss. Don?t understand why Not able to sign up for it. Is there anybody getting similar rss problem? Anyone that recognizes kindly react. Thnkx

I discovered your blog website on google as well as check a few of your early posts. Continue to maintain the very good run. I simply additional up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Looking for ahead to finding out more from you later on!?

you have a terrific blog site right here! would certainly you such as to make some welcome blog posts on my blog?

My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web page and thought I might as
well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.

Look forward to going over your web page for
a second time.

Somebody essentially assist to produce severely posts I might state.

This really is the first time I frequented your website page and for this point?
I amazed together with the research you designed to make this actual post amazing.
Magnificent task!

Check out my blog – JamilaFHaw

Your place is valueble for me. Many thanks !?

I am often to blog writing and i actually value your content. The write-up has truly peaks my rate of interest. I am mosting likely to bookmark your website and maintain checking for brand-new details.

This web site is actually a walk-through for every one of the info you wanted regarding this and didn?t know who to ask. Glimpse here, as well as you?ll absolutely find it.

you have a great blog right here! would certainly you such as to make some welcome articles on my blog site?

You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I
find this topic to be actually something which I think I would never understand.

It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get
the hang of it!

This web site is actually a walk-through for all of the information you desired regarding this and also didn?t recognize that to ask. Glimpse below, and you?ll most definitely find it.

Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it
was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly
enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the
whole thing. Do you have any points for inexperienced blog writers?
I’d genuinely appreciate it.

When I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when brand-new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I obtain four e-mails with the very same comment. Exists any way you can remove me from that solution? Many thanks!

Nice article. I discover something extra challenging on different blogs daily. It will constantly be boosting to read material from other authors and practice a something from their store. I?d prefer to make use of some with the web content on my blog whether you don?t mind. Natually I?ll provide you a web link on your web blog site. Many thanks for sharing.

After study many of the websites on the web site now, i really such as your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark internet site list and you will be checking back soon. Pls look at my internet site as well and make me aware what you consider.

Oh my benefits! an impressive short article dude. Thank you Nonetheless I am experiencing issue with ur rss. Don?t understand why Unable to register for it. Exists anybody getting identical rss problem? Any individual that knows kindly react. Thnkx

Youre so trendy! I do not suppose Ive read anything like this prior to. So nice to locate somebody with some initial thoughts on this subject. realy thanks for beginning this up. this site is something that is needed online, someone with a little originality. helpful task for bringing something new to the web!

You should participate in a contest for among the best blogs on the web. I will advise this site!

I truly appreciate this post. I have been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thx again!

Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

Hi would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you suggest a good web hosting provider at a reasonable price? Cheers, I appreciate it!

I must say, as a lot as I enjoyed reading what you had to say, I couldnt help but lose interest after a while. Its as if you had a wonderful grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers. Perhaps you should think about this from far more than one angle. Or maybe you shouldnt generalise so considerably. Its better if you think about what others may have to say instead of just going for a gut reaction to the subject. Think about adjusting your own believed process and giving others who may read this the benefit of the doubt.

Would you be interested in trading web links?

I just want to say I am just all new to weblog and truly savored this website. Likely I’m likely to bookmark your blog post . You actually come with beneficial posts. Cheers for revealing your website.

Stunning story there. What happened after? Good luck!

Wonderful, what a weblog it is! This blog presents helpful data to us, keep
it up.

Normally I don’t learn post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look
at and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me.
Thank you, quite great post.

Hurrah, that’s what I was exploring for, what a data!
existing here at this weblog, thanks admin of this site.

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say
that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and
I hope you write again soon!

At this time it looks like WordPress is the best blogging platform available right now.
(from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your
blog?