Age of Empires: Chinese Art, Qin & Han Dynasties at The Met

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Han Chinese

Kneeling Archer (detail) Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Earthenware, H. 491?16 in. (122 cm) Excavated in 1977, pit no. 2, mausoleum complex of Qin Shihuangdi (d. 210 B.C.), Lintong, Shaanxi Province Photo: Courtesy Qin Shihuangdi Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong

The Han Chinese and the Dynasty known as the Qin (Ch’in) while short in duration (221 – 206 BCE) was very important in China’s cultural evolution and history. So thoroughly did they establish what would become known as Chinese culture, the word Han became the identifying word for someone ethnically Chinese.

The Han dynasty that followed the Qin would become one of the longest of China’s major dynasties (206 BC – 220 AD). It had two distinct periods; the Western or Former Han (206 B.C.–9 A.D.) and the Eastern or Later Han (25–220 A.D.). Their rulers went to extraordinary lengths, creating tombs that resembled underground palaces, where they could live on for eternity and safeguard their souls.

A landmark exhibition Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.– A.D. 220) showcasing more than 160 ancient Chinese works of art, will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from April 3 – July 16, 2017.

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Model of a Multistory House, Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25–220) Earthenware with pigment, H. 68? in. (175 cm), L. 34¼ in. (87 cm) Excavated in 1988, Jiaozuo, Henan Province Photo: Courtesy Henan Museum, Zhengzhou

Many works have never before been seen in the West before and the display will focus on the unprecedented role of art in creating and confirming a new and lasting Chinese cultural identity, while examining ancient China’s relationship with the outside world.

The works will include rare ceramics, metalwork, textiles, sculpture, painting, calligraphy, and stunning architectural models drawn from 32 museums and archaeological institutions in the People’s Republic of China.

The first section showcases the Qin dynasty, displaying a spectacular group of uniquely individual terracotta warriors made for China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, will be on display. His tomb is still under excavation near Xi’an, China.

His great achievement was lengthening and consolidating the great wall of China and it marked the limit of his empire to the north.

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Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Earthenware, H. 491?16 in. (122 cm) Excavated in 1977, pit no. 2, mausoleum complex of Qin Shihuangdi (d. 210 B.C.), Lintong, Shaanxi Province Photo: Courtesy Qin Shihuangdi Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong

Some 7000 warriors will be displayed carrying some of the real weapons the army used to guard the Emperor. Replicas of two half-life-size bronze chariot teams, will also demonstrate the dynasty’s formidable military power.

Known best in the west by the Latinized version of his name Confucius, the Great Master of Chinese philosophy as he was known, had a vision of a stable society one in which men lived in harmony. He advocated that people generally should try to better themselves through education; his many observations contributing much to eastern and, when known, western ideology.

Confucianism together with all other non-Legalist philosophies however, was suppressed during the reign of the Qin dynasty in China by the First Emperor, as well as by later early Han dynasty emperors.


Inscriptions from the Stele of Mount Yi (front) Date of stele: Song dynasty (960–1279) Calligraphy after Xu Xuan (916–991) Ink on paper, 60 x 31¼ in. (152.4 x 79.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Seymour and Rogers Fund, 1977 (1977.375.7a, b) Photo: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qin Shi Huang was the first Chinese sovereign to proclaim himself “Emperor”, after unifying China in 221 BC, which is the year generally taken by Western historians to be the start of the “Qin dynasty” which lasted for fifteen years until cut short by civil wars.

The invention of paper during the Qin dynasty would facilitate an ability to record facts and great moments of ceremony or ritual.

This is when the recording of China’s standard histories began and a government department became responsible for keeping a day to day account of the present dynasty, while writing the official history of the previous one.

The Qin also marked the beginnings of a tradition in classical literature.

A recently discovered semi-nude performer whose anatomical accuracy unprecedented in Chinese art brings to mind Greco-Roman sculpture first introduced into Central Asia by Alexander the Great will be on show.

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Chariot Model (Modern Replica after Qin Originals) Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Bronze with pigments, H. 59 in. (150 cm) Photo: Courtesy Qin Shihuangdi Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong

Jason Sun, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art in The Met’s Department of Asian Art, noted “The Han Empire represents the ‘classical’ era of Chinese civilization, coinciding in importance and in time with Greco-Roman civilization in the West. Like the Roman Empire, the Han state brought together people of diverse backgrounds under a centralized government that fostered a new ‘Chinese’ identity. Even today, most Chinese refer to themselves as the ‘Han people’—the single largest ethnic group in the world.”

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Strongman Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Earthenware, H. 61 3/4 in. (156.8 cm); W. at shoulders 29 1/2 in. (74.9 cm); W. at waist 20 1/2 in. (52.2 cm); Wt. 456.4 lb. (207 kg) Photo: Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ceramics one of the most admired art forms of China has long indigenous traditions. Greater artistic expression was only possible as technology advanced in kiln building and by potters gaining complete control of the ‘fire’. Both conditions prevailed in China.

During the first century wood charcoal fuelled foundries and a technique of harnessing hydraulic energy for working bellows in foundries was invented and design was influenced by exposure to other cultures via trade with Persia, India, Greece, Rome and Syria.

The Silk Road is a term that best describes the network of ancient trade routes that linked the west with countries in the east including Japan and China. They diversified as they passed through India to meet at Constantinople (Istanbul) and then merged into a melting pot of various trading ports sited around the Mediterranean.


Cowry Container with Bulls and Mounted Rider Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) Bronze, H. 19¾ in. (50.2 cm), Diam. 9? in. (25 cm) Excavated in 1956, tomb no. 10, Shizhaishan, Jinning, Yunnan Province Photo: Courtesy Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming

Travelling 7000 kilometers Chinese merchants moved a trickle of Chinese export wares regularly and their arrival in Europe provided an opportunity to establish a continuing dialogue between peoples of different cultures.

Chinese potters gathered ideas and many different decorative elements became integral to an ever-increasing ceramic design repertoire. Pottery from this period is decorated with geometric designs arranged in bands round the body and neck.

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Pair of Finials in the Shape of Mythical Beasts Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Gilt bronze inlaid with glass, each 10? x 3½ x 1? in. (27 x 9 x 3 cm) Unearthed in 1972, the Second Brick Factory site, northern suburb of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province Photo: Courtesy Xi’an Museum

Today the most famous Emperor of the Han dynasty would be its founder Liu Bang. The Han dynasty’s careful consolidation of the Qin Empire brought into play an extraordinary era of prosperity and the power, wealth and belief in the afterlife by the Han elite.

This will be reflected in an array of ornate ritual vessels, including sets of musical instruments, refined lacquer wares and splendid silk textiles. A meticulously rendered sculpture of a rhinoceros clearly modelled on a living animal offered as tribute for the royal menagerie will be sure to delight.

The exhibition features a burial suit for a Han princess made of more than 2,000 jade pieces (jade was believed to purify and preserve the body from corruption).

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Rhinoceros Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), 2nd century B.C. Gilt bronze, rhinoceros 7¾ x 3¼ x 3? in. (19.8 x 8.4 x 9.8 cm) Excavated in 2010, tomb no. 1 (Liu Fei, prince of Jiangdu, d. 129 B.C.), Dayunshan, Xuyi, Jiangsu Province Photo: Courtesy Nanjing Museum

Precious objects used to furnish the tombs as well as an array of tomb figurines, a second group of terracotta and wooden warriors who are smaller in size but of growing importance for combating nomadic tribes. A large stallion cast in bronze will represent the 1,000 tall and powerful or ‘heavenly horses’ Emperor Wu of the Han received after the War of the Heavenly Horses 104-101 BC.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

The Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties

April 3 – July 16, 2017

The Met Fifth Avenue, New York

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