The Imperial Pretender

At the same time as the Han were establishing themselves as Emperors, Zhao Tuo, a former commander in the army of the First Emperor, created the independent state of Nanyue in 204 BC.  Its capital Panyu is modern-day Guangzhou (Canton) and was then, as now, a busy commercial port and perhaps an eastern terminus of the ancient maritime Silk Route.

In 196 BC Emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han Dynasty, sent an envoy demanding that Nanyue’s founding king, Zhao Tuo, submit to his authority.  Zhao Tuo agreed and Nanyue was granted formal status as a vassal state of the Han Empire.  Yet only a year later, having gained the allegiance of two neighbouring states, Zhao Tuo declared himself Emperor.  After two years of conflict, Zhao Tuo once more ‘submitted’ to the Han ruler, though both he and his successors continued to style themselves ‘Emperor’ at home, using the lesser title of ‘King’ only in their dealings with the Han court.

The Search for Immortality compares the tomb of Zhao Mo, Zhao Tuo’s grandson and successor from the Southern Nanyue kingdom, with the astonishing finds from the northern Han tombs of the Kings of Chu, a branch of the imperial family that had been granted this kingdom by the Emperor.

This is the first time such a comparison of the splendour and treasures of these two sets of rival tombs has been made, helping to show with material evidence how the struggle for power in the Nanyue Kingdom continued.  The second King of Nanyue, Zhao Mo, continued to call himself Emperor in his own lands a generation after his grandfather swore fealty to the Han, but Zhao Mo never proclaimed open war like his grandfather despite his desire for authority.  This demonstrates that there must have been a highly complex diplomatic relationship between the two kingdoms, with a variety of levels of displays of power on both sides to maintain the status quo.  As mighty and wealthy as the Han Emperors were, maintaining strict order over such a vast Empire was a remarkable challenge that continued throughout their dynasty.

The importance of the artworks and precious artefacts found in the tombs of the Han royalty and those of the Nanyue King in terms of describing the on going relationship between these two ruling dynasties cannot be underestimated.

These rival tombs both show astonishing finds of exquisite artistry, but those from the less powerful Nanyue kingdom have a very different look and feel to those of the Han.  The artefacts that are from Nanyue are styled in the manner of the Han, but are recreating the artistry in their own fashion using fewer, and sometimes less glamorous resources, such as reused jade disks.

The treasures also provide powerful clues to the broader context of what could have been going on between the two states.  Evidently there was great investment in Nanyue into the creation and importation of precious objects.  In the Han period, military force was not the only way for displaying power.  The exchange of precious gifts of great artistry via the means of cultural diplomats was also a means of conveying the strength of your territory.

The objects in the tombs of these two areas paint a picture of a vast and culturally diverse Empire, with influences from the outside world coming in both from overland trade to the North and through the maritime routes to the South.  Maintaining a balance and understanding between these two centres of power such a great distance apart must have been very difficult – the evidence from the treasures they left behind give a greater understanding of how this balance could have played out.

The delicacy of the relationship that must have existed between the Han Empire and the Kings of Nanyue is shown in the final end of Nanyue Kingdom.  Not long after the death of the second King Zhao Mo (122 BC) pro and anti-Han factions at the Nanyue court erupted in a coup that inspired the then Han Emperor Wudi to invade and absorb Nanyue entirely in 111 BC.