National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

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

Early Imperial China

The word "China" may derive from Qin (pronounced "chin"), a state near the western frontier. In 221 B.C. the king of Qin united squabbling, disparate kingdoms to create China's first centralized government. The empire he established was consolidated during the ensuing Han dynasty and lasted until 1911. The grandeur of the First Emperor's ambitions and achievements is mirrored in his burial complex, discovered in 1974 outside his capital near modern Xi'an. Still only partly excavated, the complex includes three huge underground pits containing seven thousand life-size terra-cotta foot soldiers, archers, charioteers, and commanders as well as chariots and clay horses, all for the emperor's protection in the next life (nos. 123-128). The terra-cotta warriors may have been substitutes for burying sacrificial victims, a practice known from Shang times and one that Confucius had decried as wasteful in the fifth century B.C. The First Emperor himself was buried beneath a huge earthen mound that has not yet been excavated and may have been looted in antiquity.

Political unification led to cultural unity as well, as exemplified by the two jade burial suits in the exhibition. One was made for the imperial Han prince Liu Sheng, who was buried in a rock-cut tomb at the northern site of Mancheng in 113 B.C. (no. 129; fig. 8). Fashioned from nearly twenty-five hundred jade plaques knotted together with gold wire, the suit perhaps served as armor to protect the body from evil spirits and the forces of decay. Jade suits were thought to be the prerogative of the imperial family, until 1983 when a jade suit sewn with red silk was unearthed in the tomb of the king of Nanyue in southernmost China (no. 139). Made within ten years of each other but for tombs more than two thousand miles apart, these suits demonstrate that shared beliefs and burial practices linked distant parts of China.

The art of the early imperial period also reflects the results of diplomatic relations and trade with other Asian cultures, which exposed the Chinese to foreign ideas as well. The most famous trade route, the Silk Road, stretched from central China to western Asia, but other land and sea routes connected China to India and southeast Asia. Buddhism, which arose in India, reached China in the first century A.D. The Buddhist statues from Qingzhou (no. 152; fig. 9) and the gold and silver objects found in the crypt of the Famen Monastery testify to its profound influence on Chinese religious life.

Interest in the outside world intensified during the prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907), when the capital at Xi'an became the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the world. Flourishing trade with the West sparked a demand for luxury goods from Persia and western Asia. The ceramic figurines of women playing musical instruments and hunters on horseback (nos. 170-171) reflect a fascination with western Asian music, costumes, and horses, which were much larger than the ponies native to China. Found in tombs, these figures are mingqi, grave goods that magically served and entertained the deceased in the next life. A lively new spirit also pervades a painted relief from the tenth-century tomb of Wang Chuzhi (no. 175; fig. 10), excavated in 1995. It depicts female musicians performing a concert much like those Wang Chuzhi would have enjoyed during his life at court. Ever since the Shang dynasty, the Chinese had considered the afterlife unthinkable without music. In the Bronze Age, however, making music on majestic sets of bells was a solemn rite honoring ancestral spirits. The female orchestra performing for Wang Chuzhi's eternal pleasure illustrates a fundamental change that had occurred over the period covered by the exhibition. Initially focused on religious ritual, Chinese art gradually embraced the secular realm to express the worldly concerns and delights of individuals.

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