Saturday, 7 July 2012

REVIEW: THE SEARCH FOR IMMORTALITY - TOMB TREASURES OF HAN CHINA

I recently visited an exhibition called The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, which is on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until November 11. The exhibition features over 350 treasures in gold, jade, bronze and ceramics excavated from the royal tombs of the Han Dynasty (c. 210 BC - 189 AD).

According to the Museum website this is the first time artefacts from different kingdoms and the Han imperial court have been brought together, making it one of the most important exhibitions of ancient Chinese life ever to come to the UK. As this BBC News feature suggests, it covers a seminal moment in the history of Chinese cultural development. It is a fascinating glimpse of a society in flux, and well worth seeing if you get the chance.

Here is a video of the exhibition recorded by another visitor:


Here is an extract from my write-up of the exhibition (the full version can be read here at Culture Wars):

"Why did the Emperors of the Qin and Han dynasties obsessively pursue immortality? It would be a relatively simple question if there existed at the time some uniform body of authoritative ideas on such matters. But the centuries that mark China’s transition from a loose confederacy of feudal kingdoms into an empire were marked by tempestuous struggles over the appropriate operating principles for a historically unprecedented political entity.

The ancient Chinese saw man ‘as being made of a body joining two souls together. Whereas the hun soul came from the sky and returned to it, the po soul derived from the earth and fell back into it’. John Keay has written of the First Emperor that, ‘A ruler’s first responsibility was to his lineage - past, present and to come. In honouring his ancestors he anticipated his becoming one of them and so demonstrated the legitimacy of his succession and that of his heirs’. In other words, it was believed that one’s safe passage into the spiritual realm was facilitated by assistance from ancestral spirits, which was secured by observing the ancestral rites: ‘Ancestors were cherished not just as loved ones but as progenitors deserving of the Confucian respect due to all parents, and as intermediaries in any dealings with the spirit world.'"

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