'TREASURES OF ANCIENT CHINA'

Illuminating the lives of ancient rulers

by Yoko Haruhara

“Treasures, of Ancient China” a major exhibition now at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, features a wealth of visual information and artifacts. In a process that took two years to complete, the four curators selected an amazing array of items from 50 museums in China, including both recent archaeological finds as well as 1,000 years of Buddhist art.

Speaking recently about the scope of the exhibition, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese archaeology, Toyonobu Tani, said: “The wealth of artifacts on display at the exhibition is representative of the extent to which important archaeological finds have been unearthed in recent years. This is an extremely rare opportunity, as it is the first showing of these items outside of China.”

Seventy archaeological finds from royal tombs have been grouped into three main categories in the exhibition: jade objects; terra cotta figurines; and bronze vessels.

Some of the most dazzling finds have come from the mausoleum of Qin Shihuang (259-210 B.C.), China’s first emperor. This tomb, located in Shaanxi Province, is a major archaeological discovery.

The initial find, accidentally uncovered in 1974 when a farmer was digging a well, included an army of more than 6,000 life-size terra cotta soldiers — the emperor’s army that would accompany him in the afterlife. The terra cotta soldiers and their horses have helped to make this site one of the most popular tourist attractions in China, but there were other equally astonishing finds, including a figurine of an acrobatic dancer, which is on display at the exhibition.

Eleven life-size figurines of entertainers were unearthed in 1999 during excavations at the southeast corner of the emperor’s burial mound. They represent the troupe of entertainers who served him during his lifetime. Each figurine shows a different body posture, suggesting that they each had different roles — as acrobatic dancers, jugglers, storytellers and wrestlers.

The acrobatic figurine on display is of a male dancer about 180-cm tall. Unfortunately, the head did not survive intact; the remaining portion shows a half-naked standing figure with a protruding belly. Scholars have confirmed that the figurine originally held a bamboo pole horizontally in order for a dancer to somersault over it.

Taking the throne at the age of 13, Qin Shihuang — who had united the nation by the age of 39 — was regarded as a fierce and bellicose ruler. However, the inclusion of these clay figurines at his burial site indicates he also had a light side.

One of the most spectacular pieces is a burial suit made of jade sewn together with gold thread. Excavated in 1994 from the royal tomb of the Chu kingdom in present day Jiansu Province, it is a splendid work, both in craftsmanship and design.

In contrast to Egyptian pharaohs, whose funeral attire included gold masks, the bodies of the ancient Chinese royals were covered entirely with finely worked jade suits including face masks, gloves and boots. Jade was regarded as the most valuable gem in Chinese culture, as the Chinese believed it had magical powers that prevented the body from decaying. The practice of dressing entombed royals in jade outfits took place only during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220).

Jade has a long heritage in China as a gemstone that is elaborately crafted. It is classified as a nephrite-type mineral and varies widely in color, including white, green, brown and black. It is opaque and has the same hardness as glass, and can be highly polished. The jade shroud on display at the exhibition was made from 4,000 individual square-shaped pieces sewn together with gold thread. Scholars believe the shroud dates to the time of the third king of the Chu kingdom, who died in the second century B.C.

Funeral suits made of jade were traditionally sewn with one of three types of metal threads: gold, silver or copper. The type of thread used was determined by the rank of the individual being entombed. Only five jade burial suits sewn with gold thread have ever been discovered in China, indicating the rareness of their use. The work at the exhibition is the most extravagant of the five, using about 1,500 grams of gold.

Not only does this show include invaluable archaeological relics that reflect the early reaches of this history, but it also provides an overview of the chronological development of Buddhism spanning from its introduction into China from India around the first century A.D., to the height of the Song Dynasty in the 12th century. The spread of Buddhism throughout China over this period of 12 centuries had enormous consequences for the dissemination of art and culture.

The impressive assembly of Buddhist reliquaries made of gold, silver, stone and wood is one of the highlights of the show. Buddhist reliquaries often contained jewels and images of the Buddha.

A 10th-century A.D. reliquary container made of sandstone is particularly noteworthy. Shaped like a traditional Chinese casket, it depicts narrative scenes from the life of the Buddha in relief on two sides. The scenes include portrayals of the Buddha’s disciples, flying deities and musicians. The scene on one of the long panels shows disciples gathered around the Buddha himself, who is in a reclining posture. This posture indicates the Buddha’s advanced spiritual state of nirvana at his death.

This exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to view at close range these rare artifacts and archaeological finds, both from the Buddhist tradition and from funerary art. The items tell us a story about the daily lives and the values held by China’s ancient rulers, and also reveal the richness of Buddhist art and its impact on Chinese culture.