Much of what archaeologists know about ancient China comes from tombs. The figurines found in the tombs provide details about daily life which cannot be found in the ancient texts: the actual look of people’s clothes, hair styles, the details of a soldier’s armor, and so on. The figures found in the ancient tombs can bring us face-to-face with the people of these times.
The goods left in the tombs were made to accompany the dead and provide them—symbolically yet realistically—with some of the pleasures that the people had enjoyed in life. Today many of these items are displayed in museums as works of art.
The Han dynasty, considered to be one of China’s longest and most powerful dynasties, began in 206 BCE when Liu Bang became emperor. He established a strong centralized bureaucracy which served as a model for China’s imperial rule until the early twentieth century. The favored religion of the Han dynasty was Confucianism as it promoted a social and political framework for a centralized government with an emphasis on loyalty to the emperor.
Tombs are homes for the dead and as such the tombs of the Han dynasty replicated many of the features of the dwellings of the living. The tombs of earlier periods were simply small compartments placed at the bottom of deep pits.
Shown above is a drawing of an earlier tomb.
In the second century BCE, the tombs of King Liu Sheng and Princess Dou Wan, his wife, were hollowed out cave complexes which were filled with a spectacular array of grave goods.
By the first century BCE, the tombs were clearly modeled on the houses for the living. The tombs are made of brick and stone slabs which provided mural surfaces upon which scenes were engraved. Scholar-officials at this time preferred tomb art that indicated rank and inspired awe. In addition, some of the art made statements about issues relevant to the public.
Shown above is a drawing of an above ground, masonry-lined tomb.
Shown below are some of the items recovered from Han Dynasty tombs (1st and 2nd century BCE) which are on display in the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
Shown above is a pigpen.
Shown above is a game board (six sticks) and two players.
Shown above is a model of a stove.
Shown above is a model of a well. Models of wells are common in the Han Dynasty tombs and they indicate the importance of access to water for both rural and urban households. This example is somewhat unusual in that it combines the model of a well with a storage jar below. The jar may be meant to represent the well shaft.
Shown above is a wine storage vessel. This type of painted earthenware jar was made exclusively for use as tomb furnishings. The jar, whose shape derives from bronze vessels, was fired at low temperature and was thus not waterproof. It could not have been used to store wine in real life.
Like the wine storage vessel, the cocoon-shaped bottle shown above was made exclusively as a tomb furnishing.
The black earthenware amphora shown above has bronze studs.
During the Han Dynasty, wealthy Chinese were fascinated by innovative forms of lamps and censers. In the duck censer shown above, incense would have been placed in the belly and plumes of smoke would waft out of its beak.
The universal mountain censer shown above embodies the Han Chinese ambivalence toward mountains as both sacred abodes of magical spirits and terrifying haunts of fierce beasts. Incense smoke would waft up through the openings in the mountain scenery carrying supplications from the mundane world to the spirit world.
Oil lamps, like the one shown above, were essential furniture in the Han Dynasty tombs. They provided light for the soul’s path to the afterlife. The earthenware lamp shown above is probably a replica of an elaborate original in gilt bronze.
The multistoried towers, such as the one shown above, first appeared in the Han Dynasty tombs from 25 to 220 CE.
Shown above is a male attendant figure from the Han Dynasty. The cap and costume identify him as a member of the upper class, but the slight bend of his torso suggest that his role in this tomb was an attendant figure.
The entertainer—an itinerant talker and singer who accompanied himself on a small drum—is found in many tombs. The entertainers are always depicted as corpulent, perhaps the only figures in Chinese art to be shown in this fashion.
The tortoise is a sacred creature as it lies beneath the cosmic ocean, supporting the axis of the universe on its back. The giant tortoise blends the mundane and the spiritual, making it the perfect companion for a journey to the afterlife.