Museum Qualities

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This space problem may have led to the decision to begin the show at what is surely the end: The court furnishings of the Shenyang Palace. Most of this imperial court furniture from the Qing Dynasty dates from the period of 1736 to 1795, making it the newest stuff in the show. Other items in this section include lovely silk embroidery, cloisonne animals and birds, and lacquer-and-gold-leaf furniture. There are even giant ceremonial parasols and fans that were carried by members of the emperor's retinue.

If the decision to begin with the Shenyang palace decorations was a logistical compromise, it's also a way to get viewers hooked. The accessible and easy-to-appreciate palace suite is guaranteed to appeal to the wide range of visitors such a popular show as Imperial Tombs will attract. And the pieces that follow have a much quieter appeal--perhaps because, unlike the Shenyang decor, they were actually taken from tombs.

Like other ancient peoples, the Chinese developed an elaborate approach to burial rites. They believed they could take it with them, and they did, sometimes taking horses, hounds, even wives and concubines. Plenty of inanimate objects also went along for the ride--and many of them were to die for, in more ways than one.

In 1978 archaeologists digging in the town of Leigudun found a great number of bronze vessels (nearly ten tons' worth, making it the largest such stash ever found in any royal Chinese tomb), along with lacquered wood, jade jewelry and even a few pieces of gold (a material rarely used by the Chinese) that date from the Warring States period of 475 to 221 B.C. Many of these pieces bear the inscription "For the perpetual use of Marquis Yi of Zeng."

Lucky Yi--these symbolic articles have endured beautifully in the couple of millennia he's had them at his disposal. The extremely rare "Hu," a pair of monumental wine vessels still together with their "Jin," a presentation tray on which they sit, are--if Marquis Yi will excuse the expression--drop-dead gorgeous. The blue-green color of the patina of antiquity is almost too exquisite to bear. The works from Yi's tomb are the most important and complete inclusions in Imperial Tombs.

Also in the '70s, archaeologists came upon the tomb of King Cuo of Zhongshan, another product of the Warring States period. King Cuo's tomb was larger than Yi's, but it had been looted repeatedly, and many of its treasures had already been lost. Fortunately, those that survived include some of the most fabulous things Cuo took with him to the other side: wonderful mythical animals in bronze with gold and silver inlays, and verdigris bronze items such as a pair of gigantic tridents and a remarkable basin with a hawk finial.

Leaving the third floor, the viewer moves to the second by escalator and through an elaborate maze of taped-off corridors. The second floor features many of the most famous articles in the show, beginning with the pottery army of Emperor Qinshihuang, the First Emperor of Qin, who ruled from 246 to 210 B.C.

The '70s were obviously a busy time for Chinese archaeology--that's also when the tomb of Qinshihuang was unearthed. This discovery, made by a peasant digging a well, has been heralded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. The peasant man stumbled onto 8,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers, horses and chariots. Only a handful have been included here, but even these few reveal the expert ceramic artistry that was obviously prevalent at the time. No one interested in ceramics should pass up the opportunity to see them.

The next section of the show briefly surveys the Han, Tang, Liao and Ming dynasties, in the process bringing us from 206 B.C. to 1644 A.D. This part of the exhibit features bronze miniatures from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) that depict a royal funeral procession. Among the small parade of mounted cavalry men and carriages is a "Bronze Chariot With Ax Bearer" which indicates that General Zhang, the occupant of the tomb from which it was taken, had the power to carry out executions in the hereafter. Also dating from the Han Dynasty is the breathtaking "Jade Burial Suit With Gold Threads," which is one of only two dozen known to exist. This one was made for the Prince of Liang.

In the galleries devoted to Tang Dynasty tombs (618-906 A.D.), the influence of trade, especially with India and Persia, is seen in the ceramic figures, particularly in the poses they strike. Included are a signature Tang horse, a camel and, more unusual, three painted ceramic figures that depict zaftig women, said to embody the feminine ideal of the Tang. There are only a few items representing the Ming Dynasty, which reigned from 1368 to 1644. But one of them, the crown of Empress Xiaoduan--made of rubies, sapphires, pearls, gold and, believe it or not, kingfisher feathers--well expresses that period's flamboyant approach to the visual arts.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia