Cambridge can be proud that the Fitzwilliam has just opened one of the most glamorous and important exhibitions anywhere in Britain this year with the largest display of imperial tomb treasures ever to leave China.
“The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China”brings together over 350 precious items of jade, silver, gold, bronze and ceramics from the empire that ruled China 2,000 years ago and laid the foundations for the Chinese state and civilization. The exhibits range from tiny, beautifully wrought gold seals shaped like tortoises through swords and to breathtakingly elegant ceramic tomb figures, representing those who are serving the royal departed in the afterlife.
But the centrepiece of the exhibition are the two amazing burial suits, made of thousands of plaques of polished jade, one sewn together with gold, the other with red silk thread. So perfectly finished and impregnable do they appear it is easy to do a double-take and think you are seeing a being in a sci-fi space odyssey movie. The exhibition is laid out to give a sense of entering the burial chambers of the royal kings so that you see things in the order they would have been seen in the journey to the inner sanctum where the ruler’s body lay.
The importance of the exhibition goes beyond the purely spectacular, however, and is also an example of cutting-edge research, incorporating the archaeological discoveries of recent decades. Contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, the Han had engaged in constant power struggles with rival political factions within its borders. What the exhibition brings together are tombs from the imperial Han royal family in the northern heartlands of Chinese history and the Kingdom of Nanyue, which had its capital in modern Guangzhou on the South China coast.
As explained by the exhibition curator Dr James Lin, we know from the written records that the first Han emperor and the first King of Nanyue vied with each other for power and legitimacy in southern China. What this exhibition shows is how this struggle continued into the second generation, when the funerary splendour of the next Nanyue king was styled on that of the Han heartland. In other words, the struggle for symbolic power and legitimacy continued beyond the grave. The artefacts show what the texts did not tell us. This stunning exhibition is not to be missed!
The exhibit is on until 11 November 2012.