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'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY


A rare shroud of precious stones designed to protect and glorify a king in the afterlife will be on view at China Institute Gallery’s new exhibition, Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou from May 25 – November 12, 2017. More than 76 objects originating from royal tombs dating from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 8 CE) will be exhibited in the U.S. for the first time.

'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY

Ranging from terracotta performers to carved stone animal sculptures, the objects are extraordinary testimony to customs and beliefs surrounding life and death during the Western Han Dynasty, one of China’s golden eras. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated bilingual catalogue.

In 201 BCE, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty knighted his younger brother as the first king of the Chu Kingdom, which was centered in Peng Cheng, today’s Xuzhou, in northern Jiangsu Province. Ruling under the emperor’s protection, and given special exemption from imperial taxes, elites in this Kingdom enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Twelve generations of kings lived, died, and were buried in sumptuous tombs carved into the nearby rocky hills.

Although many of the tombs were looted over the years, numerous treasures were discovered in later excavations testifying to the Chu kings’ affluence as well as their beliefs in immortality and the afterlife. One of the most stunning finds was an elaborate jade burial suit, assembled from thousands of pieces of jade, the precious stone adored by the Chinese since the Neolithic period as an auspicious material that could ensure immortality.

'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY

Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou is curated by Li Yinde, Director Emeritus of the Xuzhou Museum, and directed by Willow Weilan Hai, Director of China Institute Gallery. The exhibition will travel to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from December 2017 – April 2018.

“People during the Han Dynasty regarded death as birth and longed for immortality,” said Willow Weilan Hai, Director, China Institute Gallery. “To prepare for the afterlife, they constructed their tombs to be eternal residences. The exhibition is a rare window into the extraordinarily accomplished Han civilization through these remarkable objects of the highest artistry. We are most grateful to the Xuzhou Museum.”

Together with Rome, the Western Han capital, Chang’an in present day Shaanxi Province, were the two largest cities in the ancient world. Poetry, literature and philosophy developed and flourished during the Western Han Dynasty. Among the accomplishments of the Chinese people during the Han Dynasty were the developments of paper, sundials, and astronomical instruments. Today, the majority of the population in China is descended from the Han people, the single largest ethnic group in the world.

'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY

Exhibition Highlights

Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou is divided into four sections.

The King’s Guards will explore the sculptures of the guardians of the kings, including soldiers and a warrior on horseback that were made to protect the kings in their afterlife. The Chu Kingdom was known for their brave and skillful cavalry troops. One earthenware figure of a warrior on horseback was excavated from a pit with about 2,000 terracotta warriors at Shizishan, located about 400 meters away from the tomb of the king. The horse has the inscription “feiji” relating to the fierceness and swiftness of the Chu Kingdom’s cavalry troops.

Dreams of Eternity will focus on the jade burial suit, which fully covers the body with jade tiles. The suit was excavated in 1994–95 in Peng Cheng and consists of 4,248 tiles, more than any other jade suit discovered to date. One of the earliest ever made (ca. 175 BCE), it is bound with a rare gold thread, a signifier of the highest rank. According to the excavation records of tombs from the Chu Kingdom in Western Han Dynasty, only kings and queens of Chu used jade suits with gold thread for their afterlife. Silver and copper thread were used for those of lesser rank. The jade used in the suit in the exhibition is known as Khotan, one of the most precious forms of the gemstone.

'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY
'Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty from Xuzhou' at the China Institute Gallery, NY

Other objects found near the kings in their tombs include a charming stone sculpture of a leopard. It was common practice for Western Han emperors and kings to raise and train leopards and tigers to assist in hunting. An earthenware figurine of a dancer may be a vivid portrayal of the performers in the palace of the Chu Kingdom, designed to entertain the king during his afterlife.

Rapt by Jade will survey the importance of jade during the Han Dynasty. An intricately carved jade pendant with an S-shaped dragon has a hole drilled below the dragon’s eye may have been used to tie the piece on the body as a form of jewelry to protect its owner. During the Han Dynasty, jade was also ground into a power to be used as medicine.

Life in the Afterlife will focus on the many everyday objects used in the afterlife ranging from bronze vessels and bathing objects to belt buckles.

Source: China Institute Gallery [May 24, 2017]
TANN

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