The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China features over 250 treasures in jade, gold, silver, bronze and ceramics and is an important exhibition of ancient royal treasures ever to travel outside China. Discovered in the royal tomb of the early Han Dynasty, as well as bounty happened upon in recent decades in the tombs of Zhao Mo, ruler of a semi-autonomous kingdom South of the Han Empire, this exhibition relates the story of the quest for immortality and struggle for imperial legitimacy in ancient China’s Han Dynasty. Previously displayed in two separate museums in China, the catacombs’ contents have been united for the first time at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, permitting visitors to compare and contrast the two ancient powerhouses.

The arrangement of the exhibition loosely replicates the layout of the palatial tombs as they were formerly designed. Upon entering the darkened rooms, visitors are immediately confronted by a “guardian”: a terracotta cavalryman placed two millennia ago in the original entrance to protect from intruders both physical and spiritual. Other sentinels of varying sizes line the threshold, their facial expressions and frozen postures disconcertingly sharp given the amount of time elapsed since they were created. Visitors are then guided through these menacing bouncers into the deeper chambers of the tomb proper, discovering the contents of interred bathrooms, armouries, kitchens, salons, and finally, the insides of burial chambers themselves.

Much of the exhibition’s clout derives from the brilliance of its layout, the curator having seemingly swallowed whole the maxim demanding that the earlier the historical period represented, the more effort required to immerse the visitor within it. The stultified atmosphere of the rooms, their burgundy walls and oppressive quietness, generate an elegiac ambiance that lends considerable authenticity to the objects on show. In effect, we become the intruding archaeologist, the ‘evil spirit’ against which trove after trove of treasure-chest was emptied to ensure immortal wellbeing.

The overarching impression is that of variety. This is less a burial site than an Aladdin’s cave, the contents of which would surely rival many of the discoveries made in Egypt. A remarkable proportion of the treasures are masterpieces of craft and aesthetic achievement, including notably a stunning gilt bronze pillow inlaid with jade and an enigmatic collection of dancing stone women, captured mid-sway. Another highlight is the “dew cup” found by Zhao Mo’s interred body, a delicate tubular beaker intended to collect precipitation, believed to be the elixir of life. Yet the exquisite is presented alongside the prosaic – there is also, for example, a toilet, in fact the very first toilet ever discovered in an Ancient Chinese tomb. Passing from this eerily familiar sight through to the kitchen area, we find a steamer, a meat hook and – curioser and curioser – a ginger grater, all implements required by the dead leader’s servants to sate their master’s hunger. A number of human skeletons – including that of a hapless cook – were found alongside the artefacts, suggesting that servants and concubines would be buried alive with their leader in order carry on serving him in the immortal realm.

The exhibition is impressive not merely for the splendour and rarity of its artefacts, but also for the weight of its historical implications. By laying out the disparate tombs’ contents side-by-side for the first time, the relationship between the Han Empire and its vassal, the semi-sinicised Nanyue kingdom, is made tangible. The resonances between the two jade suits presented – one belonging to the imperial family, the other to Zhao Mo – attest to the efforts taken by the Nanyue leader to style himself as Emperor-proper. Happily, no prior knowledge of Ancient Chinese history is assumed and visitors’ ability to contextualize the power struggles and artefacts is deftly guided by the checkpoints on the walls, which supply the intellectual texture of the exhibition.

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, 05-05-2012 until 11-11-2012, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB.

Excavation – Xuzhuo (pottery figures)
Terracotta warrior pits from Shizishan
Photo courtesy of Xuzhou Museum

Text: Leaf Arbuthnot