National Museum of China exhibits rare collection of relics from Qin and Han dynasties

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/18 17:48:39

The Han Dynasty Gilt Bronze Human-shaped Lamp Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of China


A Han Dynasty jade shroud sewn with gold wire Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of China


A Qin Dynasty terracotta archer  Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of China

A Han Dynasty jade seal inscribed with characters that read "Seal of the Empress" Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of China

After taking New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art by storm for the past few months, a rare collection of relics from China's first two unified empires, the Qin (221BC-206BC) and Han (206BC-AD220) dynasties, have returned home to go on display at the National Museum of China (NMC) starting from Sunday.

Featuring classical standing and kneeling terracotta warriors unearthed from Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum in the 1970s and a legendary jade shroud found in the tomb of Han Dynasty princess Dou Wan, NMC's Exhibition of Qin and Han Civilization will give visitors a chance to view selected exhibits previously shown at the Met exhibition Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties from April to July. The Met exhibition received more than 160,000 visitors during its first two months, according to a report from art website Art China.

Instead of copying the Met edition, the NMC exhibition, sponsored by China's Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), is mixing up its presentation and catalogue, the exhibition's curator Shan Yueying told the Global Times on Sunday.

Not a copy

Targeting local visitors, who are more familiar with the history of these two empires than their US counterparts, the exhibition is displaying 170 sets (300 individual items) of major archaeological relics, ranging from sacrificial vessels to weapons, on loan from more than 30 museums and archaeological institutions across China, including a dozen newly introduced treasures that did not appear before at the Met show, Shan said.

While the relics' artistic features seemed to be Met exhibition's major focus, "the Chinese show includes more historical details to meet the demands of Chinese visitors, who already have good understanding about the two dynasties," Shan told the Global Times in an interview.

"A simple visual display is just not enough," she said, explaining that the exhibition is divided into seven detailed sections.

More details

While a terracotta horse and four warriors make for a grand entrance at  the Prelude section, the exhibition's first official section Political and Military Achievement starts with a series of Qin relics - such as coins, weights and measures, and military weapons - that demonstrate Emperor Qin Shi Huang's efforts to unify the nation.

The next section, Never-ending Happiness, puts on display a stunning collection of relics once used in the royal court, including elegantly-shaped Han Dynasty lamps and wine vessels and a series of adorable funerary pottery figures.

Section four, Serving the Dead as if Alive, presents Qin and Han burial culture, while the following Diverse Culture and Exchanges on the Silk Road sections showcase the dynasties' advanced technologies and trade with foreign nations. The End section, same as the Met show, closes the exhibition with the gilt bronze mirror inscribed with four characters: zhong guo da ning (Lit: Middle Kingdom Great Peace).

For those seeking even more detailed information about the exhibits besides what is provided at the exhibition, every display case features a QR code. By scanning these codes with a mobile phone, visitors will be able to access audio recordings which will delve further into the history of these objects.

Shan noted that currently the museum is still working on finishing the recordings and estimated they should be made available online starting next week.

Highlights of the show

Shan noted that prominent features of the Qin and Han dynasties include  increased centralized power, a more advanced feudal bureaucratic system and a diversity of culture. Many of the new exhibits chosen for the NMC exhibition are perfect examples of these historical characteristics, she explained.

In addition to high-profile relics such as the well-known Han Dynasty Gilt Bronze Human-shaped Lamp, whose image often appears on the covers of Chinese middle school history textbooks, a dozen lesser-known objects are making an appearance, including a 10-square-centimeter paper map of the Western Han (206BC-AD25) Dynasty and a tiny jade royal seal that is believed to have belonged to Empress Lü Zhi, the ruthless wife of Liu Bang, founder and first emperor of the Han Dynasty.

Tiny and unappealing as they may appear, these small items have huge historical significance.

"We went through a great deal of effort to put the paper map on display," Shan told the Global Times, explaining that the map is significant as many people believe paper did not appear until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).

Out of all the different sections, Shan said that she finds the Serving the Dead as if Alive section "the most interesting part of the exhibition."

The Qin and Han people's beliefs in life after death led to grand funerals with a large number of sacrificial items at that time.

"Just looking at their sophisticatedly designed sacrificial items - the ancient Qin and Han people's creativity and imagination will amaze you," said Shan.

"It is a mind-blowing exhibition, and this is the first time that I saw such a huge number of exhibits in real life," a 50-something visitor told the Global Times at the exhibition.

"I think the exhibition could be moved to Europe, so people there can be inspired by the fact that China completed unification thousands of years ago," she said.

Exhibition info:

Time: September 17 - November 30

Location: Gallery S7, National Museum of China, Beijing

Tickets: Free, but limited to 3,000 daily

Newspaper headline: A tale of two empires

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