What: Entombed Treasures: Funerary Art of the Han Dynasty
Where: International Museum of Art & Science, 1900 Bicentennial
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Call: (956) 682-1564 or www.imasonline.org. General admission is charged. Admission is $1.00 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Thursday
The Chinese Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 AD, reaches out to McAllen in this rare exhibition of Han funeral art at IMAS. Similar to the Pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico at that time and the earlier Egyptian culture, tombs of important people were stocked with whatever the deceased might need in the next world. Striking earthenware ceramic representations of the deceased's attendants, animals, and granaries are among the tomb objects that are currently on display.
Funeral beliefs/rites were always significant in the ancient world, but by the first century BCE in China, tomb furnishings had escalated into representations of houses in case the deceased failed to make it to the otherworld (yes, this was considered possible). Tombs were made of brick and stone slabs, and symbolically furnished. The goods left in the tombs were made to accompany the dead and provide them, symbolically yet realistically, with some of the pleasures they had enjoyed in life.
Much of what archaeologists know about ancient China comes from these tombs. The figurines found in the tombs provide details about actual lifestyles and bring us face-to-face with the Han people. The “Pair of Standing Female attendants” represented a wealthy lifestyle. Their dress is upper class, but their slightly reverent position reveals their lower station in life. The holes visible in the hand areas indicate that they were carrying wooden staffs of some kind.
“Warrior on Horseback” probably came from the tomb of a respected warrior. The painted decoration on his horse symbolizes lavish trappings; the open mouth would have held leather reins. This object would have been what we now think of as “mixed media.”
Lifelike earthenware models, which are found in abundance in the Han tombs, replaced the earlier custom of burying humans, animals and expensive goods. A lively artisan trade was created for the production of these objects. Two “Vessels in the Shape of a Silkworm Cocoon” are interesting in that one is bronze and could have actually been used to hold oil, while the other is an earthenware copy, which has no practical function and exists solely for the symbolic afterlife. The cocoon shape represented an important source of wealth; cocoons were even used as a form of currency.
It is rare for IMAS to be able to present exhibits with this kind of historical significance. The surfaces of the pieces are very fragile due to age, and much of the decoration has flaked away. But there is still enough visual information to tell us something about Chinese life 2,000 years ago. And the shapes of the Han ceramic horses are wonderful.
As part of SAMA’s permanent collection, Entombed Treasures is on special loan from the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Nancy Moyer, Professor Emerita of Art from UTPA, is an art critic for The Monitor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org