A monstrous face spans an entire ax blade, with protruding eyes, uplifted eyebrows, and a gaping mouth with serrated teeth. Weighing 5 kg, this imposing blade from a Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.) royal tomb site in Shandong Province, China, was used in sacrificial rituals to slaughter prisoners of war; found at its side were three bronze vessels and 28 human skeletons.

In the Shang court, kings acted as intermediaries between heaven and earth, consulting with their ancestors before making any decision. Their people believed them to be imbued with the power to divine the future due to this direct line of communication with the dead. Bronze artifacts, such as the ax, were key to ancient rituals and thus emblems of a king’s power.

Bronze-casting techniques were first developed in China around 2000 B.C. and reached a high level of sophistication during the Shang Dynasty. “Prized Treasures of Chinese Art from the National Museum of China,” an exhibition showing at the Tokyo National Museum till Feb. 25, displays bronze objects that have been unearthed from royal tombs — including goblets, wine containers, cooking pots, bells and masks — as well as a dizzying overview of other prized tomb artifacts on loan from the National Museum of China in Beijing.

Rarely shown collectively outside of China, such an exhibition is, in both its time span and wealth of artifacts, an extraordinary introduction to China’s ancient wonders. These items are among some of the finest examples of Chinese funerary art from the Neolithic Period of 4000 B.C. to the Five Dynasty Period of the 10th century, and range from jade objects and bronze vessels to terra-cotta figurines and gold jewelry. All are artfully decorated to evoke the wealth, sophistication, and authority of ancient China’s rulers and aristocrats.

“The 61 pieces on display have been carefully selected from the Chinese national museum’s vast collection,” says Nobuyuki Matsumoto, head curator for Asian art at the Tokyo National Museum. “They are exquisite examples of the sophisticated handiwork and artistic production of China’s craftsmen.”

Though it was common in Shang times for loyal servants, along with sacrificial victims, to be buried along with their king in the funerary chambers, following the introduction of Confucianism as the official political ideology in the second century B.C. the practice was discontinued. Confucianism emphasized hierarchy, ritualistic behavior and harmonious relations, and focused on acts in this lifetime rather than concerns about appeasing spirits in the afterlife. Consequently, human sacrifice was replaced by the use of surrogate attendants created from pottery figurines. These figures were styled in the fashion of actual people who served in the court.

The middle hall of the exhibition includes displays of clay mortuary figurines dating to the Qin (221-206 B.C.) and the Han dynasties (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). As the bronze artifacts provide insight into the roles of former rulers, the terra-cotta figurines reveal clues about beliefs later Chinese had about their afterlife. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a Han Dynasty pottery figure excavated from a tomb in Sichuan Province. In contrast to the famed terra-cotta armies, which were mass-produced in molds, this 55-cm-high mortuary figurine of a storyteller was handmade by a craftsman.

The figure is half-naked, dressed in baggy pants and about to strike a drum with a stick while kicking out his right foot as if he is dancing along with the rhythm of the drumbeat. His gigantic smile tells of his joy and exuberance. Storytellers and entertainers of the Han Dynasty such as this one often belonged to non-Han Chinese tribes and traveled along the Silk Road from place to place. They were invited to perform in such esteemed locales as the emperor’s court and palaces of the nobility.

Starting in the Han Dynasty, mortuary architecture became more embellished. Grandiose tombs were built with vaulted ceilings, multiple chambers and long passages for a dramatic approach to the main coffin chamber. The tombs were typically constructed of brick and stone, and the walls, pillars and doors were elaborately carved or painted with pictorial scenes. The most elaborately designed tombs were built during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906).

In the last room is a beautiful white marble relief of a deity, originally one of a pair placed at the entry gate to the tomb of Wangchuzi (A.D. 863-923), a high-ranking military official in Hebei Province in the late Tang Dynasty. Standing on a red ox, the daunting guardian holds a sword and is dressed in armor. The remarkably well-preserved relief is painted in reds, greens, blues, purples and gold. His job was to protect the deceased from evil spirits, displaying ferocity and strength as he stood atop animals or demons. The curator, Matsumoto, chose to place the guardian close to the exit of the exhibition in order to leave departing visitors with a vivid impression of the inhabitants of the spirit world of ancient China.

“And we hope that the guardian deity will watch over the exhibition and protect its contents,” he added with a smile.

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