| exhibitions

Gallery 1 | Gallery 2

by Julie Rauer


Heaven’s wrath was the percussive din of thunder, ominous growls followed by lightening that incinerated trees, obliterated buildings, and struck down impure, guilty men. Fear of heaven as a vengeful entity “collecting its dragon” preyed on the mortal Han dynasty mind, just one serpentine thread of an elaborately woven universe, a densely conceived unitary belief structure where creatures of heaven, earth, and man occupied a single daunting world.

Despite scientific intervention by rationalists such as Wang Ch’ung (AD 27-c. 100), who logically questioned the bestial nature of heaven and found any connection of thunder to human activity “nonsensical”,[1] the seemingly adversarial and often contradictory systems of mythology, empirical observation, philosophy, and rampant superstition were not segregated in the Han mind. Echoing ancient Roman attitudes of perpetual osmosis between immortal realms and earthly dominion, life and afterlife, myth and nature, the Chinese vehemently strove to elucidate man’s destiny after death and to discern superlative means of providing for the future welfare of the deceased, thereby ensuring the status and fate of both aspects of his soul.[2]

Instability and anxiety configured and propelled Han philosophy, mythology, and government - metaphysical constructions erected, both literally and figuratively, on the ashes of the Qin capital, reduced to cinders by rebellion. Taming the looming phantasm of death ran concurrent with the quest for immutability in a highly volatile world. Emerging profoundly shaken and deeply scarred from the Qin dynasty’s (221-206 BCE) protracted imperial bloodbath of murders, assassinations, defecting generals, crumbling bureaucratic structure and mass revolts, the population desperately sought the same stability, regulation, and eternal mechanism of natural cycles in life as in death. At the height of the Han dynasty, China’s population of 57 million people confronted death and their place in the universe with only the promise of an afterlife for solace.

Tomb objects furnished to provide both comfort and appeasement to the dead fill the China Institute Gallery in New York City in a riveting collective manifestation of human fear, ingenuity, superstition, achievement, folly, and haunted dread. Centuries of perishable human presence have brought us no closer to facing our inevitable mutability, no closer to spawning dialogues of cathartic revelation or consequence on death: but from February 3 through June 4, 2005, while Providing For the Afterlife: ‘Brilliant Artifacts’ From Shandong is in New York, fleeting visits to the Han dynasty’s conceptual afterlife are possible.

Exhibited in the United States for the first time, these mingqi, “glorious vessels” or objects made for burial with the dead, whisper of the desperate need to predict ephemeral journeys and wrangle the unknown into the familiar. Several pieces are culled from arguably one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the past decade, the tomb of—in all probability—the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-CE 9) king of the Jinan Kingdom, Liu Biguang. Situated in Weishan in Shandong province, this astounding tomb, excavated in 2002, contained two enormous intact pits crowded with troops arranged in precise battle formation: 172 ceramic equestrian cavalrymen, 55 ceramic horses, over 60 shields, 4 chariots, and more than 150 other objects.

Elucidating the Han definition of death—separation of the body from both aspects of the soul: hun, the ethereal component that leaves the corpse at death to scale heavenly realms and ascend to the kingdom of immortals; and p’o, the soul’s earthly component—the exhibition’s artifacts speak of creature comforts in service of the p’o. Material goods, food and services, utilities, and treasured possessions denote worldly prosperity, rank, and luxury, furnishing tombs in stylish appeasement intended to discourage the p’o from abandoning the body and returning, in rabid fury, to the realm of the living as enraged demons, or kuei.

Keeping rancorous ghosts at bay to protect the living, the objects at the China Institute include a fascinating array of pragmatic utilities for the p’o: a Green-glazed rooster and dog (both Eastern Han dynasty; 25-220 CE), a Green-glazed chef and stove (both Eastern Han dynasty; 25-220 CE), an elegant bronze covered Qi da guan ding vessel (Western Han dynasty; 206 BCE-9 CE), fantastical squat clay bird sprouting twin ding vessels with humanoid tripod legs (Western Han dynasty), and a perfectly engineered, exceedingly rare cast bronze Wellhead with pulley and bucket (Eastern Han dynasty: 25-220 CE).

Supplication of the p’o was both lyrical and intensely banausic. Exquisite gourmet meals would have been created by the exhibition’s cheerfully toiling clay chef using the accompanying olive hued model stove, repasts intricately described in the Guide to the Domestic Virtues chapter of the first century BCE book, Liji, and further validated by abundant archaeological evidence.[3] Excavated at Changsha, Hunan Province, the early Western Han dynasty (186-168 BCE) tombs of Lady Dai, a fifty year old aristocratic matriarch, held a staggering fifty-one ceramic vessels brimming with vegetables, rice, and sacks of cereals, in addition to forty-eight bamboo baskets of fruit and prepared meats.[4] In a catered banquet of indulgent epicurean afterlife boasting elaborate recipes served on lacquered dishes, the dead woman’s favorite dishes were prepared, each labeled with a bamboo marker identifying the gastronomic creation.

Beyond this exhibition’s solitary figures of domestic and farm animals, Han dynasty tombs often contained a plethora of complex architectural models, with rigorous utilitarian inclusiveness befitting a contemporary urban planner’s office. Granaries, diminutive houses, boats, and entire farmyards resided with the dead in a fascinatingly morbid realization of a Lionel model train village. In a consoling vignette of vanished, warm-blooded humanity, a charming model farmhouse of the Han dynasty (1st-2nd century AD; collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ezekiel Schloss) is a portrait of domestic bliss, with one human figure gazing serenely from an upper floor while another sleeps contentedly in the downstairs window of an L-shaped ceramic home surrounded by a bucolic courtyard.

Pragmatism was one aspect of Han dynasty thought regarding the afterlife, sharing philosophical space with omnipresent existential angst and the lacerating poetics of earthly terminus. Boundless grief has rarely been so eloquently extolled as in the fragile poem, On the Death of Li Fu-ren, written by Wudi, the charismatic, fiercely ambitious sixth Han dynasty emperor (r. 141-87 BC) who revived Confucian studies and advocated supreme scholarship during his protracted, highly stable reign:

On the Death of Li Fu-ren
The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still.
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors. …
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?[5]

Whether from intense sorrow or from impending fear of the inevitable severing of his own mortal coil, emperor Wudi searched feverishly for deathlessness—immortality. In vain hope of perpetual life, the ruler dispatched multiple expeditions to the ends of his vast empire to search for a fabled elixir, whose magical properties would allow him to cheat death. He was far from alone.

Frenzied worship and desperate zealotry surrounded the cult of the Queen Mother of the West, a goddess and puppet mistress of the cosmos whose paradise of immortality and deathless arboretums embodied the tormenting Han dynasty fears of nonexistence. Coinciding with ominous prophecies foretelling the end of the dynasty, the earliest recorded messianic crusade in the history of China gave an anxious population the concrete reassurance they so frantically sought, with crusaders dispensing texts in 3 BC that flatly promised the impossible: “The Mother tells the people that those who wear this talisman will not die.”

Eternal preservation of the body, most likely to create a happy domicile for the p’o while protecting the living from the wrath of disgruntled ghosts, was yet another dimension of afterlife ideology, employing jade as a highly revered protective force against decomposition. As early as the middle Western Zhou period (11th c. BCE-771 BCE), jade face covers protected the dead, later declining in popularity by the time of the Western Han, ceding much of the defense against mortal decay to full body jade suits, rectangular plaques sewn around the bodies of privileged elite—utilizing either gold, silver or bronze thread, denoted by the individual’s rank in life—in a presumed web of preservation.

In the eighteen separate pieces of jade comprising the China Institute’s haunting Face-cover (Western Han dynasty; 206BCE-9 CE), the clouds of Mount Kunlun churn and swirl with the abandon of wandering souls, with eyes and mouth fathomless voids cut into surrounding elements. Deeply incised openwork spirals and triangular nostril holes pierce the nosepiece to create an existential, geometric cage which relegates the sinus cavity microcosm to a singular afterlife beyond the boundaries of countenance.

Fear drove emperors and aristocrats to demand inconceivable feats of nephrite labor in service of superstition. One jade funerary shroud, unearthed in 1968 from the tomb of Liu Sheng in Mancheng, Hebei Province (Western Han dynasty; 206 BC-24 AD), was comprised of no less than 2,498 jade plate stitched with 1,100 grams of gold thread—demanding ten years from the waking lives of specialized craftsmen. Yet it was not the relief of arduous labor that ended the reign of jade suits over the remains of the dead after the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty, but rather an edict decreed by Emperor Wen (of the Wei dynasty) in 222 AD; “reliquaries of jade and jackets of beads” were prohibited, and in a sudden extinction of Darwinian proportions, an ingrained Han mythology was halted forever and jade shrouds simply vanished from the archaeological record.[6]

Manifestations of enduring wisdom lie side by side with embodiments of Sisyphean punishment in Han dynasty tombs. Encyclopedic military theory courses through the audacious calligraphic strokes of the exhibition’s breathtakingly well preserved copies of seminal texts—some resuscitating lost chapters and even unknown works—Bamboo Strip of the “King Wei’s Questions” Chapter of Sun Bin’s Art of War (Western Han period, 2nd century BCE) and Bamboo Strip of the “Questions of Wu” Chapter of Sunzi’s Art of War (Western Han period, 2nd century BCE). Edification of the soul still inhabits rows of ancient characters from numerous other tomb discoveries that speak plaintively of medicine, literature, philosophy, history, cartography, divination, animal physiology, and law—intellectual disciplines from centuries past that have, by their very survival and subsequent transmission, achieved deathlessness.

Transcending death via a self imposed hell reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit were countless effigies of the tortures of the living: contracts drawn up for the actual plot of land holding the interned corpse, enormous quantities of money used to pay eternal rent on that land, and coins for bribing the afterlife bureaucracy and paying interminable taxes to the underworld government (still an oxymoron). China Institute’s bronze Mold for wuzhu coins and bronze Wuzhu coins (Han dynasty; 206BCE-220 CE) and stone Mold for banliang coins (four zhu) and bronze Banliang coins (Han dynasty; 206 BCE-220CE), while signifying the cosmological round heaven inset with square earth, reverberate more in the modern mind as unnerving symbols of inescapable human folly.

Dazzled by the exhibition’s more sumptuous tomb artifacts—gold bridle ornaments of fantastical raptor heads, gilt bronze chariot fittings of horned felines and roaring dragons rising from celestial mountains, sinuous crossbow fittings and radiant gold ingots—it is easy to succumb to the ancient Han dynasty obsession with a comfortably ordered and exquisitely orchestrated afterlife, engineered luxury to appease the p’o and extinguish the looming unknown.

But it is in the mundane humbleness of clay that collective human fear of nonexistence is most poignantly preserved. Tomb tiles with a pair of handprints (Eastern Han dynasty; 25-220CE or later) are not deftly crafted objects, but rather fleeting impressions of a single unheralded soul—two left hand imprints on wet clay. A solitary character, zhang, is stamped on each, signifying either the name of the tomb architect, owner of the tomb tile workshop, or the deceased himself. The living can still discern joint delineations, skin folds, and the unique pattern of lines on flesh, map of its maker, whose presence in these hollow tiles still reverberates with uncertain waves of a life in transformation.



1. M. Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death, (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1982), pp. 12-13.

2. in the manner of Wang Ch’ung, the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius [c. 100-55 BC], attempted to liberate his countrymen from the dread inducing roar of thunder manifesting Jupiter’s fury . M. Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death, (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1982), p. 12.

3. S. L. Beningson, C. Y. Liu, Providing for the Afterlife: "Brilliant Artifacts from Shandong", (China Institute, New York, 2005), p.67.
R. L. Thorp, R. E. Vinograd, Chinese Art & Culture, (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), pp. 145-146.
P. B. Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 73.

4. S. L. Beningson, C.Y. Liu, Providing for the Afterlife: "Brilliant Artifacts from Shandong", (China Institute, New York, 2005), p. 67.

5. W. S. Morton, China: Its History and Culture, (McGraw Hill, New York, 1995), p.54.

6. 7000 Years of Chinese Civilization: Chinese Art & Archaeology from the Neolithic to the Han Dynasty, p. 183. citation – wonder why the edict was issued?

Copyright © March 10, 2005 Julie Rauer and

Gallery 1 | Gallery 2 | exhibitions