Monumental Exhibition in New York Recalls Early Stirrings of Chinese Identity

The show commemorates and the art and culture of two ancient dynasties

This week, even as President Trump was preparing to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping, his most important foreign visitor, in Mar-a-Lago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum opened its landmark exhibition ‘Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC-AD 220)’, featuring priceless, monumental works that have never before been seen outside the People’s Republic. As Met director Thomas P. Campbell noted, “this magnificent assemblage of treasures from China establishes a new milestone in US-China cultural exchange.”

Indeed, the show, which will run from April 3 to July 16, is the culmination of the Met’s long collaboration with China that harks back to 1980. The 160 works on view here, lent by 32 regional Chinese museums, are already drawing critical raves: they are remarkable not just for their dazzling artistic worth but for the surprising characteristics that they reveal of China’s ancient history.

In 221 BC the long-lived Zhou dynasty was defeated by the first Qin (pronounced “Chin”) emperor whose dynasty ruled the “Central Kingdom” – the Chinese name for what would later be called “China”–for only 15 years. In that brief time, the Qin emperors brought that vast land under one rule for the first time and began creating a lasting and distinctive national cultural identity. Recent excavations have unearthed these seminal findings. In the first of the exhibit’s three sections, devoted to the Qin, we come upon a large gallery where two chariots – fine modern replicas of the originals – stand side by side, on a huge platform, drawn by four horses each: one an open, canopied battle-ready vehicle, the other, covered and box-like.

In the next room are amazing examples of the life-size army of 7,000 terracotta warriors that were excavated in 1978, at Xian, in north western China, from the underground mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Clearly, these pre-Buddhist Chinese believed in the afterlife: their emperors, like the ancient Egyptians, were buried with everything that they had needed, used or enjoyed while alive – these distinctive soldiers (along with their chariots and weapons) among them. Each one looks unique, as though modelled on a real-life individual. Thus, there is an imposing ‘kneeling archer’; nearby, a ‘standing archer’ in a graceful pose that indicates he must have held a bow; a ‘civil official’ who is every inch a bureaucrat; and a semi-nude, pot-bellied ‘strongman’ or entertainer, depicted with anatomical accuracy unprecedented in Chinese art.

The kneeling archer. Credit: Musuem of Metropolitan Art, New York

The kneeling archer. Credit: Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York

Zhixin Jason Sun, the Met’s curator of Chinese art, has compared these lifelike pieces to contemporaneous Greco-Roman sculptures, a plausible argument since Alexander had visited Central Asia. Smaller material pieces – glassware, metalwork, textiles, semi-precious beads, many-faceted gold-bead jewelry – may have come from as far West as Persia, Afghanistan, India, presumably imported by land, via the Silk Road and by sea, through maritime trade. So, China was already well-connected to the world outside.

Domestically, there was an ethnically diverse population that spoke many different dialects. The Qin rulers and their successors, the Han emperors, continued the Qins’ enlightened policies and unified their far-flung populations with a network of roads, built the Great Wall to keep marauders out, instituted a centralised administrative system, introduced a common legal code, standardised weights, measures and coinage. Most important, they created a uniform script – displayed here in a huge stele covered with Chinese calligraphy – that enforced one language across their vast empire. Thus, while the pronunciation varied regionally, written communication was unified, early on, through this single script. Crisscrossing the land, edicts spread Confucian morality. These kingdoms, bookending our own Maurya and Gupta kingdoms in time, offer parallels – and striking differences – with Ashoka’s India.

What the Qin had started, the four centuries-long rule of the Han improved upon. This, says Sun, is “China’s ‘classical’ era, coinciding in importance and time with Greco-Roman civilisation. Like the Roman Empire, the Han state brought together people of diverse backgrounds under a centralised government that fostered a new ‘Chinese’ identity. Even today, most Chinese refer to themselves as ‘Han people’—the single largest ethnic group in the world.”

Not surprisingly, then, two of the three parts of this show are devoted to life and art in Han times. On display here are musical instruments, silk textiles, lacquerware and ritual vessels – paraphernalia of the ruling aristocracy’s sumptuous lives and palace-like mausoleums. Sophisticated architectural models show off multi-storied, many-winged houses. Lifelike animals, both domestic and exotic – dogs, pigs, chickens, a crouching lion, an elephant and a rhino with their grooms, horses galore – are lovingly rendered in realistic statuettes. One stunning object is a recumbent princess’s corpse, clad head-to-toe in a burial suit of 2,000 jade plaques, linked together with gold thread. Another haunting sculpture is of a dancer, seductive in her floor-length sleeves, captured sinuously in mid-dance. Atop a bronze and cowry-shell container, miniature metal figures surround a gold princess on horseback, leader of a matrilineal tribe. Who knew? Equally surprising, we’re told that as Han rule extended over varied ethnic groups in southwestern China, local minorities were allowed to retain their tribal identities and regional traditions. (Contrast that with today’s Tibet?)

Predictably, the show ends on a supernatural note. Here is the world of half-animal, half-human deities, serpent spirits, the Queen Mother of the West – all cheek by jowl with a money tree that “grows” coins, while another, a multi-branched lamp holds birds, animals and supernatural beings. Near the exit, an inscription on the back of a large gilt-bronze mirror, made at the peak of Han power, and decorated with dragons, birds, turtles and clouds, offers up a prayer: “May the Central Kingdom be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.” It could well be a blessing that seems to have materialised for another “Han” comrade who was holding his own , in  Mar-a-Lago, against the most powerful ruler in the world.

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