November 11, 2012
James Lin, exhibition curator
One of the things that intrigues me most about the items discovered in the tombs of the Han is the story that they tell – not only of the search for immortality, or to display each King’s incredible lasting might and wealth, but also the need for the most basic material comforts in the afterlife. Every physical need that would need to be catered for is represented, sometimes in very mundane items. One moment you are looking at a remarkable terracotta dancing figure, the next you are examining a ladle of the type you might find in your own kitchen.
Of course there are also the wow items, the beautiful jades and gold-work. My list of favourite treasures in the show reflects this remarkable characteristic of Han tombs; they contain both the most sublime treasures and the most humble objects.
Only by seeing both together can you get a true impression of what life was like in Han royal courts over 2000 years ago.
Top 5 highlights not to miss:
1. Jade suits
The two jade suits are definitely the stars of the show; both because they are so rare and because they are so beautiful. The suit from Xuzhou is the most beautiful, the jade is exquisite and it is really the best jade suit ever found. The suit from Nanyue is incredibly striking; the red silk thread is very unusual making this object one of a kind.
2. Ginger grater
This is a real window into daily life over 2000 years ago and it is the earliest such item ever found. It is both functional and beautiful as well as being the type of object you could very easily imagine using today. I really want one for my kitchen and I would have loved to have made one as a recreation object, but we couldn’t find a suitable company to make it for the show.
This is another glimpse of daily life at its most humble – what makes it remarkable is that the design really hasn’t changed for squat toilets in China in over 2000 years. If you go into rural China you will still find latrines that look just like this.
4. Gold buckle
This is one of the most exotic items in the exhibition. The design isn’t Chinese at all but Mongolian. The buckle is from the Mongolian steppes and one of the many items in the exhibition that show that China was not insular during the Han period but in fact had many trade and cultural links with the outside world.
This is exceptionally rare as only 5 jade coffins have been found so far. The one in our exhibition is the largest and the only one yet to be fully reconstructed. It is a very imposing and impressive object and as an artefact it is essential for revealing what Han burials were like.