Currently showing at the Asian Art Museum is Tomb Treasures, a major exhibition of archaeological finds from Chinese royal tombs. I sighed inwardly as I approached this one because, much as I love Chinese art, I was pretty sure I had seen the material before, when it travelled to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. That show had a similar title, too – The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China.
As it turned out, the Fitzwilliam show really had featured some of the same pieces from the Xuzhou Museum. These were among the objects I liked best, though, so I now count myself lucky to have set eyes on them twice – once in Cambridge and once in San Francisco.
The current show combines material from both the Xuzhou and Nanjing Museums. It includes works from four kingdoms in modern-day Jiangsu province: Jiangdu, Chu, Sishui and Guangling. Among the best preserved is the Dayun Mountain site – a 62-acre walled compound that contained the tomb of Liu Fei, king of Jiangdu, along with the tombs of two queens and other consorts and concubines. It was excavated between 2009 and 2011, to considerable fanfare. The site had been looted by grave robbers, but the collapsed floors of the outer chambers helped to conceal the objects beneath.
The exhibition is themed around different spheres of a person’s life at court, represented through items the deceased would need in the afterlife: vessels for food and drink; bells for making music; weaponry and ceramic warriors for making war; or even an advanced type of toilet for sitting on. I especially liked the more decorative items: a pair of gold belt buckles, with a tiger and bear motif; or a dragon-shaped jade pendant that was itself an antique when it was buried, reflecting the fascination of the elite with rare antique jades.
There are numerous items crafted from jade, a material believed to protect the person’s flesh from decomposition. You can see a custom-tailored jade suit for a queen, made from jade plaques sewn together with gold thread, and a large jade coffin, reconstructed from 1500 jade plaques of assorted shapes.
One quirk of this exhibition is the labelling, which has been augmented with short quotes in which a local figure from outside the art world (wine expert, food blogger, make-up artist) will say something about one of the objects. It’s too distracting and it was definitely causing some mirth among the Chinese pensioners. Aside from that, the exhibition is great.
Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
17 February to 28 May, 2017
Above: Jade suit. From Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: Nanjing Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.
Below: Kneeling female figurine. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Beldong Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.
Below: Set of belt buckles. From a Han dynasty tomb, Tianqi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Gold. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.
Below: Pendant in the shape of a dragon. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Zhou Dynasty, Warring States period, (approx 475-221 BCE). Nephrite. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.
Below: Jade coffin. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Nephrite, lacquer, wood. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at http://www.asianart.org/regular/tomb-treasures-exhibition-highlights.