No one does epic better than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It brought Pergamon to New York last spring and got the balance of giant and delicate right. It flew in medieval Jerusalem, and kept its multicultural sprawl intact. Now, in the exhibition “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220),” it brings us China becoming China in a big-picture take as strange and warm as life.
We love life, of course, all the details: sparrows in the forsythia; books and lamps and late-night coffee; the voice of a friend on the phone. The ancient Chinese loved it, too, and wanted it to last forever. China’s first emperor believed it might.
He viewed death as a kind of power nap, from which he’d awake refreshed in a tomb that was like an earthly home, but better, more fun. He designed his mausoleum as an underground Mar-a-Lago, with countless pavilions, great feng shui and a major security force. For light, there were candles, the most expensive money could buy, guaranteed to keep burning after he’d moved in — he died in 210 B.C. — and the doors had shut for the last time.
Those lights are still burning in the Met’s hypnotic, glow-in-the-dark exhibition of 160 objects from 32 museums in China, which opens on Monday. Of the museum’s several presentations of Chinese antiquities over the past 20 years, this one is probably the most dramatic visually and the most accessible emotionally. There’s a certain amount of the type of art the Met is too comfortable with: imperial bling. But here even this material feels purposeful, because it dates from a time in China when the idea of empire and corporate branding through art was experimental.
By the third century B.C., the long-lived Zhou dynasty had run its course, and turf wars broke out among smaller regional states. One of those states, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced CHIN), overcame all rivals and brought much of China under one rule for the first time. It did this partly through armed strength, but also through a sort of management savvy taught in business schools today.
The Qin ruler, born Ying Zheng, decided that the most effective means of control was to promote team spirit: Get everyone on the same civic page, and keep them there. To that end, he instituted a unified currency and a single standard of weights and measures. He decreed the use of a universal written script, which let him control the political conversation. And he initiated construction of the Great Wall, a brick-and-mortar statement of Us versus Them.
The effect of all this was to create a rudimentary sense of shared identity within a diverse population; a sense of Qin-ness or — to use a modern English word that may derive from Qin — Chinese-ness.
The M.B.A. thinking worked, or did for Ying Zheng himself. He became the first Chinese ruler to assume the heaven-kissed title of emperor — Qi Shihuangdi, or First Emperor of Qin — and built a tomb near Xian, in northwestern China, to match its grandeur. We have only written accounts of what’s in the tomb (the pavilions, the candles; it’s never been excavated). But its presence yielded one of the late-20th-century’s great art historical finds when, in 1978, on a tip from local farmers, archaeologists uncovered an army of some 7,000 life-size terra-cotta figures buried nearby.
Five of those figures, four standing, one kneeling, open the Met show (along with two modern reproductions of buried chariots found with them). They, or their like, have been endlessly circulated for display, but they’re still magnetic, with their blocklike bodies and personable faces, mold-cast and customized. Even more striking, and less familiar, is another figure found in a different part of the tomb site, this one a beefy court entertainer, nude to the waist, with every fold of flesh and swell of muscle precisely rendered.
There was no precedent in China for any of this, the scale, the naturalism. So what was the source? Historians point to a likely one: the Hellenistic art that was introduced by Alexander the Great to Asia — at Pergamon, for example — and filtered over trade routes to China. Whatever its origins, the new sculpture adds another facet to the profile of Qin-ness: cosmopolitan taste.
But for all its innovations, or maybe because of them, Qin rule was brief, 15 years. The emperor spent a lot of time on the road, surveying his domain but also on a quest for life-extending elixirs. His sudden death unleashed an opera-worthy drama of assassinations, suicides and civil war, until another imperial power, called Han, took its place, and held it more than four centuries.
Han artists built on Qin precedents in art, but with adjustments. For a while they maintained an interest in realism, but seemed to shift the emphasis from the human figure to the natural world. The big personalities in Han sculpture in the show are animals: horses as majestic as gods; elephants, foreign to China, closely observed. Even common barnyard creatures — chickens, goats and pigs — are portrayed with empathy; you can almost hear them clucking and snuffling.
The Han further refined the policy of centralized imperial rule and expanded its reach outward, globally, evident in the steady increase in material richness and variety seen as you move through the show, past granulated gold work, amethyst necklaces and luxury textiles brought overland and by sea from Afghanistan, India, Persia, nomadic Eurasia and the Mediterranean.
Some of the most exotic items are from China itself. An eye-stopping, fantastically sophisticated bronze cowrie shell container, swarming with tiny figures in what looks like a raucous Bruegelesque market scene, was produced by the Dian culture in what is now Yunnan province, people that Han court records referred to as “southwestern barbarians.”
Was that imperialism or provincialism speaking? They can be the same thing. And they can equally motivate people to shape an exclusive group identity. The Han were intent on doing so, though this didn’t prevent them from borrowing heavily from other cultures, including their immediate predecessors.
As with the Qin, Han society, at least at elite levels, focused on the hereafter. Most items in the Met show came from graves. Many objects were specifically for funerary use. Like much art everywhere, the underlying inspiration was political and personal. Art promoted and shored up the hierarchies on which a culture was built. It also answered to a human need to keep life going.
The Han elite spared no expense to ensure their continuance. The survivors of a Han princess named Dou Wan encased her corpse in a jumpsuit made from 2,000 jade plaques linked with gold threads, jade being a stone thought to have preservative properties. The suit is in the show, and as we approach through a passageway in Zoe Florence’s theatrical exhibition installation, it looks like a sleeping extraterrestrial, a space traveler patiently waiting to be beamed up.
Yet everything in the surrounding galleries seems designed to anchor the traveler to life on earth: a little hand-warmer in the form of a carved jade bear; a silk pillow woven with the words “extend years”; a vogueing earthenware dancer with ankle-length sleeves; and a jeroboam-size wine jar that, when discovered in 2003, still held Han wine. There’s even a luxury high-rise, or a model of one, and lamps to light it, including one shaped like a tree sprouting ducks and dragons like spring buds.
At the end of the show — organized by Zhixin Jason Sun, a curator of Chinese art at the Met, assisted by Pengliang Lu, a curatorial fellow — there’s a low closed door, carved from stone, made for a tomb, and painted with figures that could be earthly or celestial. If you passed through the door, which life would you be entering, or leaving, and is there a preference?
An answer may lie in an object hanging on the exhibition’s exit wall. It’s a round gilt-bronze mirror with an inscription embossed on its rim: “May the Central Kingdom be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.” Central Kingdom meant China. And for the Qin and the Han, wherever you went, in this world or the next, you were there.