USF's Museum Blog

Curator Shares Intimate Portrait of Everyday Life in Han Dynasty China

by Emily Lawhead (MA, 2017)

On February 8, 2017, University of San Francisco’s MA in Museum Studies Program partnered with the Center for Asia Pacific Studies and the MA in Asia Pacific Studies Program to host a lecture by Dr. Fan “Jeremy” Zhang, Senior Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum.  At this event, Dr. Zhang gave students, professors, and community members an “insider’s view” of the exhibition, Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty, which opened on February 17 and closes on May 28, 2017.

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Dr. Fan “Jeremy” Zhang, Senior Associate Curator of Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum.

The Tomb Treasures exhibition encourages visitors to think about ancient China’s material culture in a different light – by showing artifacts that are intimate, often used in daily life, and personal in nature. The majority of these objects were discovered at a Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE) archeological location called Dragon Pond in Jiangsu Province. 10,000 objects were unearthed at this site in the past two decades, and together, they represent a comprehensive collection of the Jiangdu Kingdom (~153 – 128 BCE). These items did not belong to Emperors and royalty, but to long-forgotten kingdom leaders who lived more typically “common” lives. Very few of these objects have ever left China, and this is the show’s only US stop.

Dr. Zhang, the lead curator on this exhibition, narrowed his thematic focus to three popular phrases used in the Han Dynasty – Everlasting Happiness Without End, Eternal Life Without Limit, and Eternal Remembrance Without Fail. Each artifact displayed in the exhibition relates to one of these phrases, which gives today’s visitors insight into the varied beliefs of ancient China.

Ritual bells symbolize one of these beliefs, as they were created with influence from Confucian principles in the 11th century BCE. The Asian Art Museum is taking full advantage of this ancient art form, and is using Virtual Reality to provide visitors with the experience of ritual music in real-time. Public programs will also include performances throughout the exhibition by professional musicians who specialize in the techniques of ritual bells and chimes.

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Tomb Treasures 3D Experience enables visitors to explore a 3D model of Tomb 1 at Dayun Mountain, the tomb of Liu Fei, king of Jiangdu (153-128 BCE)

Pottery figurines are also included in the exhibition, which provide fascinating insight into fashion trends of the Han Dynasty. Not only do they represent princely court style, but these movements also influenced high social elite fashion in the capital cities. The figurines vary from dancing women to sitting men, and were both created for decorative and functional uses.

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Dancer figurine, unearthed from the Tomb of the King of Chu, Tuolan Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu.  Western Han period (206 BCE-9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum. Image courtesy Asian Art Museum.

The importance of afterlife provision is another value of ancient Chinese culture evident in Tomb Treasures. Many works relate to this belief, as complete living quarters were often designed in individual tombs. During the Han Dynasty, it was believed that all humans had two souls. At death, one would go to heaven, and one would stay in the body. For this reason, practical objects were needed to remain with the individual. Lamps, food and wine containers, belt buckles, hat ornaments, pouring vessels, bath stones, cosmetics… and even toilets and dildos were prepared in tombs for afterlife comfort.

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Cosmetics box set.  Unearthed from Dongyang Miaotang site, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 1st century BCE. Lacquer. Nanjing Museum, (c) Nanjing Museum.  Image courtesy Asian Art Museum.

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Toilet model. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Queen of Chu, Tuolan Moutain. Xuzhou, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd Century BCE. Stone.  Xuzhou Museum.  Image courtesy Asian Art Msueum.

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Phallus.  Unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd Century BCE, Bronze.  Nanjing Museum. (c) Nanjing Museum.  Image courtesy Asian Art Museum.

One of the most important objects exhibited in connection to this afterlife tradition is a jade suit made by imperial commission. Jade was believed to hold properties that preserved the body and held the human soul on earth – which made it a very valuable material during the Han Dynasty. There are only twelve complete sets of this suit in existence, and it is a rare treat to see one in Tomb Treasures.

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Jade suite, Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period (206 BCE-9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold.  Nanjing Museum. Photograph (c) Nanjing Museum. Courtesy Asian Art Museum.

As a whole, this exhibition seeks to give an identity to those who history forgot. From princely to concubine tombs, these objects tell a story of Jiangdu Kingdom lives. Belt hooks on display even have inscriptions that read, “forget me not” and “remembrance without fail.” Perhaps, the Asian Art Museum’s efforts will help to honor those ancient proclaimed wishes.

Be sure to visit the Tomb Treasures exhibition before it closes on May 28, 2017!

To learn more about USF’s graduate program in Museum Studies, click here.

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