Following its terrific Vermeer show, which broke visitor records last year, the Fitzwilliam launches another potential blockbuster today – the largest and most significant exhibition of ancient royal treasures ever to travel outside China. The subject is the fight for imperial legitimacy conducted by the Han dynasty, which established the basis for a unified China and ruled the country for four centuries, from around 206BC to AD220, giving its name to the Chinese language (“Hanyu”) and script (“Hanzi”), and defining Chinese culture. Contemporaneous with the Roman empire, the Han is considered the classical period of Chinese history, and its sculptures, jewellery and craftwork, many excavated in the past two decades, are of a superb quality and refinement. Like any imperial rulers, the Han leaders also constantly felt the need to assert their authority, symbolically and militarily, in death and in life. Among the greatest treasures from the period therefore are those from two spectacular tombs belonging to warring factions in the north and the south, brought together for the first time here.
The exhibition follows the layout of the funerary goods, recreating a sense of walking through the tombs: pottery guardians with bronze weapons greet you, you then proceed to the main chambers, peopled by pottery officials, servants, dancers, musicians, and musical instruments, before reaching the inner sanctum of the burials of the monarchs. Here is the stuff of fairy tale: armour suits made from thousands of plaques of polished, fitted jade sewn together with gold and silk thread; jade vessels to ward off demons or promise immortality, such as a cup to catch the morning dew; exotically decorated gold belts, seals and jewellery – a dragon pendant, an animal mask – and objects considered necessary for everyday existence in the afterlife: a toilet, a ginger grater. Thus the Han emperors, dreaming of eternal power, left a fragile legacy of lasting beauty.