The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum

By Ben Miller | 08 May 2012
An image of ancient archaeological artefacts in a light brown clay pit
Exhibition: The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until November 11 2012

During the 3rd century BC, the Han Dynasty was the greatest power in the ancient world. Founded in 206 BC in succession to the Qin Empire, which had been established by China’s First Emperor, Qinshihuangdi, this “classical” period of Chinese history was as mighty as the early Roman Empire it was contemporaneous to.

Its influence on the culture, ideologies and structure of China is a lasting one, not least in Hanyu (the national language), Hanzi (the Chinese script) and Hanren (the nationality the vast majority of Chinese people regard themselves as).

A photo of a series of small clay figures crammed into a light brown archaeological pit
Jade ornament with an animal mask (2nd century BC, Western Han Dynasty). Unearthed at Xianggangshan, 1983. Nanyue Wang Museum, Guangdong Province
Less well known is the relationship the Dynasty had with Nanyue, an independent state founded as a busy port and silk route in 204 BC, whose King, Zhao Tuo, repeatedly styled himself as an Emperor despite agreeing to submit to the control of Emperor Gaozu’s Han.

Contemplating this spectacular display of funerary goods, tomb guardians, burial armour suits made of jade plaques, imperial seals and pottery soldiers, it’s hard not to look beyond the rival rulers in favour of the archaeological incredulity their contrasting rituals leave behind.

“The archaeology allows us to tell a story that textual evidence simply does not reveal,” says Curator Dr James Lin, calling the first ever comparison of discoveries from both kingdoms “immensely exciting”.

“It is known from written records that the first Han Emperor and the first King of Nanyue vied with each other for power and legitimacy in southern China.

“This exhibition shows how the struggle to be known as ‘emperor’ in the southern borderlands continued into the second generation of the Nanyue kingdom, an episode mostly passed over in the historical chronicles.

“Through a direct comparison of the tomb treasures from the Han imperial family with those of the second king of Nanyue, Zhao Mo, the exhibition shows how the latter’s funerary splendour continued to be styled on that of the Han heartland, often reaching the same level of exquisite artistry.

“This provides a new perspective on the Han period and how the imperial family continued to exert its influence, through both arms and art, to maintain control of their vast empire.”

A photo of various archaeological artefacts in a dark brown clay pit
Gold Seal belonging to the Marquis of Wanqu (2nd century BC, Western Han Dynasty). Unearthed from tomb M3 at Bojishan, 1994. Xuzhou Museum, Jiangsu Province
Each monarchical tomb was a work of staggering decadence. The plaques on the suits are sewn together with gold and silk threads, materials also used on imperial seals and exotic belt buckles.

Dancers, musicians and servants accompany the pottery fighters, bringing bronze weapons, a toilet and even an early ginger grater with them.

There are more than 300 objects in total. They’ve never been shown together before, but the Fitzwilliam has worked with the Xuzhou Museum – a temple of terracotta to the north of Shanghai – and the enticingly-named Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nnyue Kings, which holds the tomb of Zhao Mo, the grandson of Nanyue founder Zhao Tuo.

China’s State Administration for Cultural Heritage have also helped compile this exclusive UK exhibition as part of the London 2012 festival.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Han Dynasty in the formation of a Chinese national culture and identity,” says Dr Timothy Potts, the Director of the Fitzwilliam.

“At the time of the ancient Romans, the Han emperors were the first to unify a large part of the regions we now know as China under a sustained empire, which they ruled virtually unchallenged for 400 years.

“The Han Dynasty gave its name to the Chinese language, its script and the vast majority of the Chinese people. It was arguably the defining period of China’s history and the point of genesis for the China of today.”

Recalling the mores of two leaders who both yearned to remain indomitable, it’s unlikely any display this year will conquer what they left behind.

  • Open 10am-5pm (12pm-5pm Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays, closed June 5). Admission free. Visit the exhibition online.
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