In the first exhibition of its kind, the Fitzwilliam Museum will relate the story of the quest for immortality and struggle for imperial legitimacy in ancient China’s Han Dynasty.
The spectacular objects in this exhibition bring to Cambridge the finest treasures from the tombs of the Han royal family."—Dr Timothy Potts
The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China (May 5-November 11) will feature over 350 treasures in jade, gold, silver, bronze and ceramics in the largest and most important exhibition of ancient royal treasures ever to travel outside China.
The Han Dynasty established the basis for unified rule of China up to the present day. To maintain this hard-won empire the Han emperors had to engage in a constant struggle for power and legitimacy, with contests that took place on symbolic battlefields as much as on real ones. While written accounts provide an outline of these events, it is through the stunning archaeological discoveries of recent decades that the full drama and spectacle of this critical episode in Chinese history has been brought to life.
Timothy Potts, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, commented: "It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Han Dynasty in the formation of a Chinese national culture and identity. At the time of the ancient Romans, the Han emperors were the first to unify a large part of the regions we now know as China under a sustained empire, which they ruled virtually unchallenged for 400 years.
“The Han Dynasty gave its name to the Chinese language, its script and the vast majority of the Chinese people. It was arguably the defining period of China’s history and the point of genesis for the China of today.
“The spectacular objects in this exhibition bring to Cambridge the finest treasures from the tombs of the Han royal family, the superb goldwork, jades and other exquisitely crafted offerings the kings chose to be buried with on their journey to the afterlife. For their artistry, refinement and pure beauty they rival anything from the ancient world."
This pioneering exhibition will compare the spectacular tombs of two rival power factions: the Han imperial family in the northern ’cradle’ of Chinese history, and the Kingdom of Nanyue in the south, whose capital in modern-day Guangzhou formed the gateway to the rich trade routes of the China Sea and Indian Ocean.
Objects from these tombs have never before been displayed together as a single exhibition. Through the exhibition it is revealed how, in both life and in death, Empire and Kingdom played a diplomatic game of cat and mouse, one to assert its supremacy, the other to preserve its autonomy.
Protected by clay guardians and surrounded by jade and gold, the monarchs’ tombs were palaces fit for immortals. Each tomb was a symbol of power and majesty, designed to ensure that its owner continued to enjoy in the afterlife the same comforts and privileges afforded to them in life. In showing these two tombs together, The Search for Immortality sheds new light on a critical period of China’s early history. The exhibition will only be seen in Cambridge.
Curator of the exhibition, James Lin, commented: "It is immensely exciting that we are able to compare these unique discoveries from two rival kingdoms for the first time in Cambridge, as the archaeology allows us to tell a story that textual evidence simply does not reveal.
“It is known from written records that the first Han Emperor and the first King of Nanyue vied with each other for power and legitimacy in southern China; this exhibition shows how the struggle to be known as ’emperor’ in the southern borderlands continued into the second generation of the Nanyue kingdom, an episode mostly passed over in the historical chronicles.
“Through a direct comparison of the tomb treasures from the Han imperial family with those of the second king of Nanyue, Zhao Mo, the exhibition shows how the latter’s funerary splendour continued to be styled on that of the Han heartland, often reaching the same level of exquisite artistry. This provides a new perspective on the Han period and how the imperial family continued to exert its influence, through both arms and art, to maintain control of their vast empire."
Founded in 206 BC, the Han Dynasty followed the collapse and disintegration of the Qin Empire, which had been established only fifteen years earlier by China’s First Emperor, Qinshihuangdi. Except for a brief interruption in 9-25 AD, the Han emperors were to rule much of China for the next 400 years until 220 AD.