In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.
Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).
Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.
Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.
Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.
Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects: