Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Original Hoarders

I recently visited the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana for an exhibit called “Warriors, Tombs, and Temples: China’s Enduring Legacy.” I was excited about the visit for two reasons; first, I kind of forget the Bowers Museum exists, since I usually head to the Getty when I’m in a museum-going mood, and whenever I do go, I am always reminded of what a wonderful museum it is (although too expensive to visit often). And second, I really don’t know anything about Chinese history or culture and was excited to learn some new things from the exhibit.

What drew me there were the famous life-size terra cotta warriors, but other than that I wasn’t sure what to see or expect. The exhibit was organized chronologically and walked visitors through three of China’s most important dynasties—the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties—and it did this through the treasures found in imperial tombs and temples.

I liked that the exhibit started with the terra cotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty because I was eager to see them first. Over 8,000 soldiers have been excavated in the pits, but only a few were on display (obvi). They are from the mausoleum complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, which is regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. When I looked closely, I could still see some of the ancient paint on the warriors’ faces and garments. Every single warrior was painted and looked unique; studies show that eight face molds were used and then clay was added to provide individualized facial features. There were also kneeling archers on display—so intricately created that I could see details of their braids, clothing, fingernails, and even the tread on their shoes. There was also a life-size horse that was originally attached to a chariot, looking ready for battle. I was struck by how well-preserved these ancient figures were. Can you imagine what this army must have looked like in antiquity? Wow…

As we walked through the Qin Dynasty into the Han Dynasty, I noticed a marked difference in the terra cotta warriors from the tomb compound of the Han emperors (Gaozu and Jingdi)—they were smiling! They’re also about 1/3 life-size, so they were very cute, especially compared to the macho life-size mean-looking Qin Dynasty warriors. Did you know that women were known to dress as male warriors in the Han army? Mulan was the most famous—she took the place of her aging father and became a war hero after 12 years of service. Other objects from the Han tombs included figures of a dancer and an attendant. The figures were so detailed and in antiquity would have worn silk and hemp clothing. Great care was taken to make them as authentic as possible to be effective protectors and companions in the afterlife. The objects from the Han Dynasty painted a vivid picture of the peace and prosperity of the time.

Lastly, the exhibit leads to tomb treasures from the Tang Dynasty, a rich time in Chinese history because of the wealth brought into China from the Silk Road. The Tang Dynasty marked a golden age of poetry and the arts in China. There were a lot of interesting artifacts in this section of the exhibit, including a mural depicting a polo match, which struck me as being so odd. I thought polo was just western prepster nonsense. But apparently the ancient Chinese courts fancied it as well, after it was imported from Persia. There were also gold, silver, and jeweled treasures from the treasure-crypt of the Famen Monastery, a Buddhist site that was sealed in 874 and rediscovered in 1987. The site was founded with the historical Buddha’s finger bone, and the reliquaries are on display. By the way, did you know that Buddhism was imported to China from India?!

So, why did the Chinese stuff their mausoleums with so many things? Why did they hoard all this amazing treasure in their tombs and stuff it in with their dead? These objects were meant for protection, companionship, and entertainment for those in the next life. They ensured a comfortable, safe, and extravagant afterlife. It’s amazing how much insight we can gather from looking at these artifacts about ancient China—how they fought, what they wore, how they entertained, what they valued, their religious beliefs, even their humor.

The Chinese believed in ancestor worship and that people still existed even after death and needed to be buried with objects they'd need for the afterlife. Reverence was expressed by burying them with proper rituals and symbols and objects to attract good fortune. I wonder what I would want buried with me if I believed as they did…

I wish I had taken pictures, but you'll have to just go yourself to experience the exhibit, which runs through March 4th…get your tickets here.

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