National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS



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Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline

Chu Culture

In 770 B.C., the king of Zhou moved his capital east to Luoyang; the five and a half centuries that followed, comprising two phases the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.) and the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) are called the Eastern Zhou period. The Western Zhou kings had wielded considerable power; the kings of the Eastern Zhou period, by contrast, were largely puppet figures: several regional kingdoms exercised greater influence and waged frequent war among themselves. Despite the political turmoil, the arts flourished, to the point that the period has been called that of "one hundred flowers blooming." Archaeological excavations have revealed several thriving cultures at this time, one of which -- Chu -- dominated southern China. Its cultural richness is manifested in literature such as the Songs of Chu and in lavish, even flamboyant works of art.

The Chu state arose sometime before the sixth century B.C. near the middle reaches of the Yangzi River. Over time, through the annexation of more than forty smaller states, the territory of the Chu kingdom expanded. As a result, Chu culture is a rich mix of diverse influences. The bronze bells from the tomb at Xiasi (no. 91) reflect the Zhou (and Shang) tradition of burying the dead with musical instruments for solemn performances in honor of ancestral spirits. Yet the elaborately decorated surfaces of the bells attest to a distinctly Chu aesthetic that is also seen in bronzes from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, a small state absorbed into the Chu kingdom in the fifth century B.C. His lavish tomb furnishings included ten metric tons of bronze objects, exceeding that of any ancient tomb in the world.

The layout of Marquis Yi's tomb, opened in 1978, reflects the belief that each individual had an immortal soul. To provide an attractive dwelling for this soul, tombs were fashioned after palaces and furnished with goods made more for the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife than for offerings to ancestors. Yi's tomb, dating to about 433 B.C., was laid out in four chambers. The room to the east, representing his private quarters, held his coffin as well as those of eight concubines and his dog, furniture, silk, zithers, and other objects for personal use. A magical bronze creature (no. 100) -- part crane, part deer was found near his coffin, probably to protect him from evil spirits. The tomb's central chamber, evidently corresponding to the ceremonial hall of Yi's palace, contained the bronze ritual vessels and musical instruments. The north chamber, serving as Yi's armory, was filled with spears, halberds, and other weaponry, while the room to the west, where the skeletons of thirteen young women were found, was apparently the servants' quarter.

In late Chu tombs, lacquerware, silks, and objects for personal use far outnumber the ritual bronze vessels that had predominated in tombs from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Although the Chinese are known to have woven silk from prehistoric times, few ancient textiles survive. The fragments of silk shrouds and burial costumes found in 1982 in the tomb of a Chu noblewoman at Mashan (no. 112) reveal that silk weaving was a highly developed art in Chu domains. Among the many Chu lacquers in the exhibition are the picnic chest with dishes, flasks, and a tray, and the remarkable coffin (nos. 113-114) discovered in 1987 at Baoshan in the tomb of a Chu official who died in 316 B.C. Decorated with serpentine dragons and phoenixlike birds, this coffin is the innermost of three that were nested one inside the other and all coated with lacquer. The complex process of coating objects with this resin from the lac tree made lacquerware very expensive. A text from the first century B.C. reports that the price of lacquerware was then ten times that of bronze.

Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline