Extravagant tomb treasures from China

image jade suit

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.

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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.

image belt buckles v3

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.

image pendant in shape of dragon

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.

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Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

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The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh99/southernsong/en_03.html

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh95/ming/exhibition_en/3.html

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Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh96/orientation/en_b7_2.html

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Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh99/jade/big2_en.htm

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