When you see your face reflected here, this mirror will dispel all harms and woes. May the Central Kingdom [China] be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.
(excerpt from an inscription written on the back of a mirror on view in the exhibition)
A major international loan exhibition featuring more than 160 ancient Chinese works of art—including renowned terracotta army warriors—will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning April 3. Synthesizing new in-depth research and archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years, the landmark exhibition Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.– A.D. 220) will explore the unprecedented role of art in creating a new and lasting Chinese cultural identity. The works in the exhibition—extremely rare ceramics, metalwork, textiles, sculpture, painting, calligraphy, and architectural models—are drawn exclusively from 32 museums and archaeological institutions in the People’s Republic of China, and a majority of the works have never before been seen in the West. The exhibition will also examine ancient China’s relationship with the outside world.
Thomas P. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, stated: “It is a great pleasure for us to present this magnificent assemblage of treasures from China. A project of such scale and scope could not be realized without the strong support and cooperation of lending organizations and their staffs. As the largest and most important display of Chinese art to be held in the United States in 2017, the exhibition establishes a new milestone in U.S.-China cultural exchange.”
“This exhibition is the culmination of our long history of collaboration with China that began in 1980,” said Maxwell, K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman of The Met’s Department of Asian Art. “We thank especially China’s State Council, Ministry of Culture and State Administration of Cultural Heritage, as well as both the U. S. Department of State and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for their steadfast support and guidance.”
Jason Sun, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art in The Met’s Department of Asian Art, stated: “The Han Empire represents the ‘classical’ era of Chinese civilization, coinciding in importance and in time with Greco-Roman civilization in the West. Like the Roman Empire, the Han state brought together people of diverse backgrounds under a centralized government that fostered a new ‘Chinese’ identity. Even today, most Chinese refer to themselves as the ‘Han people’—the single largest ethnic group in the world. Thanks to new scholarship as well as the extraordinary artifacts unearthed by archaeologists in the past 50 years, this exhibition offers many new art-historical, cultural, and political insights. I’m delighted that Age of Empires can introduce this largely unknown era of Chinese civilization to our global audience.”
The unification of China by the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) and the centuries-long Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) fundamentally reshaped art and culture and established political paradigms and intellectual institutions that guided dynastic rulership for the next 2,000 years. They have continued to be influential to the present day.
Introducing an era of political stability and prosperity across an area much larger than that of the Roman Empire at its peak, the Han dynasty bound together its empire through a network of roads and a centralized administrative system that promulgated a unified legal code and standardized currency, weights and measures, and, most importantly, a consistent written language. These changes—first introduced under the Qin—fostered a “golden age” in art, architecture, technology, and literature while introducing lasting changes to society, the economy, religion, and political thought.
Transformational advances in art and culture accomplished during the Qin and Han dynasties are vividly conveyed throughout the exhibition. Most remarkable is the sudden appearance of monumental figural art as revealed by excavations at the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor (d. 210 B.C.), which unearthed a life-size army of 7,000 terracotta warriors.
The exhibition opens with a spectacular group of these warriors, some of the real weapons with which they were armed, and replicas of two half-life-size bronze chariot teams that together demonstrate the dynasty’s formidable military power. Even more striking is the recently discovered semi-nude performer whose anatomical accuracy, unprecedented in Chinese art, brings to mind Greco-Roman sculpture first introduced into Asia by Alexander the Great.
The Han dynasty’s consolidation of the Qin empire and the extraordinary era of prosperity that this ushered in is the focus of the exhibition’s second section. With a vast territory to rule, Han emperors maintained a centralized administration and shared authority with relatives and former allies. The power and wealth enjoyed by the Han elite are vividly conveyed by an array of ornate ritual vessels, sets of musical instruments, refined lacquerware, and colorful silk textiles. A striking example of the Han love of spectacle and exoticism is conveyed by a meticulously rendered sculpture of a rhinoceros that was clearly modeled on a living animal offered as tribute for the royal menagerie.
Believing that the soul could continue to enjoy in the afterlife all of the pleasures of the living, Han elite went to extraordinary lengths to insure the well-being of their souls, creating tombs that resembled underground palaces. The exhibition features a burial suit for a Han princess made of more than 2,000 jade pieces (jade was believed to purify and preserve the body from corruption). This section also includes many precious objects that were used to furnish the tombs as well as an array of tomb figurines that took the place of living attendants to serve the deceased in perpetuity. A second group of terracotta and wooden warriors—smaller in size than the Qin figures but of equal artistic significance—underscores the growing importance of cavalry for combating nomadic tribes as well as projecting power into Central Asia. The prime reason for the expeditions was to secure supplies of West Asian “heavenly horses,” exemplified here by a large stallion cast in bronze.
The final section of the exhibition will reveal the diversity of art and material culture within the varied regions of the empire around the first century, especially in those border areas that were most directly influenced by the objects and people arriving from the rest of Asia and Europe.
The highlights of this section—a monumental stone sculpture of a crouching lion, a creature not native to China; a towering stone fluted column with dragons raised in relief; and a fluted silver box—all point to the influence of Persian and Hellenistic art. Two gold belt buckles—one with brilliant granulation and the other ornamented with inlaid gems—and a gilt bronze horse frontlet with a fantastic animal in openwork were inspired by nomadic art of the northern steppes.
Maritime trade brought China abundant supplies of spices, gemstones, glassware, and metalwork from South and Southeast Asia during the period. The exhibition illustrates this luxury trade with necklaces made of amethyst, aquamarine, beryl, and rock crystal as well as a group of small, animal sculptures in carnelian and multifaceted gold beads.
This section also demonstrates that while Han rule nominally extended over a variety of ethnic groups in southwestern China, these groups managed to retain their distinctive identities and regional traditions. The Dian people, living in present-day Yunnan Province, for example, created distinctive and highly developed bronzes in the form of cowry shell containers and ornament plaques. Some masterpieces depicting vivid scenes of festivals and sacrificial rituals will be on view.
The exhibition closes with an examination of the numinous world of deities, spirits, and the afterlife. Fantastic images of the Queen Mother of the West and the half-human, half-serpent creator deities Fu Xi and Nu Wa open a window onto Han religious practices. Both a fabulous bronze “money tree” sculpture, on which a staggering number of coins “grow,” and a tall painted pottery lamp with multiple branches holding birds, animals, and supernatural beings provide glimpses of a heavenly world, while a large stone tomb gateway depicts the tomb occupants being guided by immortals to a celestial realm. All of these works predate the arrival in China of Buddhist concepts of paradise.
A large gilt-bronze mirror made at the peak of Han power will provide a fitting coda to the exhibition. The back of the mirror is embellished with a raised design of dragons, birds, and turtles amid swirling clouds and a long inscription, expressing the spirit of the age, when people from all parts of the empire began to identify themselves as citizens of the Central Kingdom—the Chinese name for “China”—as their common homeland. This is the ultimate legacy of the Qin and Han dynasties.