How to Build an Empire at The Met

Close up of Qin chariot horse replicas (221 – 206 B.C.). From: Qin Shihuangdi Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong

You can’t take it with you, or can you? The Chinese emperor with the terra cotta army thought so. See for yourself in Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C-A.D. 220), on view through July 16 at the Met.

There are only a few horses and men from that monumental undertaking on display, but the terra cotta visitors are stunners. They and the other luxury and art objects on loan from 32 museums and archeological institutions in China provide a vivid look into the culture and pride of a people who were just forming an identity as a nation in 221 B.C. Previously, the Chinese continent consisted of warring ethnic tribes.

Heavenly Han horse and military groom in bronze (25 – 220 A.D) from Mianyang City Museum.

About a century earlier, classical Greek style, art, and ideas washed over Europe and Asia due to Alexander’s empire-building success. At the time of the Qin dynasty, when the Great Wall was being built, scholars wonder whether the Chinese emperors had seen (or heard about) large-scale classical Greek sculptures and asked their artists to out-do their Mediterranean counterparts.

Why not build full armies, cities, entertainment troupes, cavalries, and watch towers and bury them in tombs of the emperors, princes, and princesses to serve them in the after life? Like the Egyptians, the Qin and Han emperors and princes wanted a lot of stuff to use in the afterlife. But unlike the Egyptian style, it was all about personality.

Each large-scale sculpture is imbued with individual flair in their apparel, expressions, hairstyles, and weapons. If you listen to the audio guide, the curators tell us that the large-scale terra cotta armies were mass-produced using molds, but the artists were told to give each sculpture-person a dose of individuality before they were done.

Terracotta cattle (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.) from the Yangling Mausoleum.

That holds true for the animals in the show, too. The Han dynasty had a thing for beautiful, spirited horses and the center gallery in the show displays some beauties. Grooms come along, too.

Apparently the conquering Han rulers kept menageries and ranches, as seen in the show’s room full of rhinos, elephants, cattle, pigs, and animals-turned-into-art-lamps. There’s a twinkle in each of their eyes, too.

Another highlight is the jade suit made for a princess, which was supposed to form added protection in the afterlife. Another is the money tree. Who wouldn’t want one of those?

The show’s objects reflect how many tribes and influences crossed paths over the course of the Han dynasty (think Silk Road) to create the modern view of a single, all-encompassing Chinese culture – diverse textiles, gems, inventions, and ideas.

Han Dynasty belt buckle (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum

The final object, a bronze mirror from the Han dynasty, reflects it all – the first recorded inscription expressing the desire for the peoples of the “Central Kingdom” (a.k.a. China) prospering for generations to come. It’s the earliest inscription to reference many ethnic groups considering themselves as one people, one China. 

Take a look at all the objects in the collection on the Met’s site, or look at our favorites on Flickr.

Browse through the catalog to see more spectacular stuff that Han dynasty emperors just had to have:

 

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