The Fitzwilliam Museum’s latest groundbreaking – in more ways than one – exhibition hits town this month. The Search For Immortality: Tomb Treasures Of Han China tells the story of the great Chinese Han dynasty in the form of more than 350 treasures crafted from jade, gold, silver, bronze and ceramics that together comprise the largest and most important collection of treasures ever to have travelled out of China. The exhibition’s curator James Lin spoke to Explorer about the significance and splendour of the exhibition.
What is the exhibition about?
“The exhibition displays the royal tomb treasures from two kingdoms from the Chinese Golden Age Han dynasty (206 BC-AD220): the Chu kingdom in eastern China where the imperial family came from, and the Nanyue kingdom in the south. The Nanyue kings were vassals of the Han but wanted to style themselves as emperors within their own lands. Their search for power is displayed through the manner of their burials. Both royal families were obsessed with obtaining immortality and the exhibition shows the treasures they created to achieve eternal life. All the objects large and small are spectacular – this exhibition will be like nothing seen before in the UK.”
This is the biggest exhibition of its kind ever to leave China – why is it happening in Cambridge?“We have been working with the two partner Museums in China, Nanyue and Xuzhou for a number of years. I have been able to work very closely with my colleagues in China visiting the tombs and collaborating on research into the artefacts – so this exhibition really is a joint endeavour between the Fitzwilliam and the two museums in China. Also the exhibition is a big part of the cultural celebrations for the Olympic Games and it is one of the events in the London 2012 Festival.”
The title says it is about the Search for Immortality – what ancient Chinese secrets of ‘immortality’ are featured here?
“In the Han Dynasty a special significance was attached to the precious stone jade. It was believed to ward off the demons that caused the body to decay. The Han emperors used jade in a variety of ways to preserve the spirit eternally. The body was covered in ornamented jade, and for the highest members of the royal family a full jade body suit would be constructed. Even in life jade was used to create elixirs of immortality; the exhibition features a jade cup that was used to catch morning dew that would have been drunk to preserve eternal life. There is also a pestle and mortar with minerals that would have been used to create alchemical potions.”
What are the most spectacular objects in the show?
“I think different people will be impressed by different items – some of the smallest items on display such as tiny goldwork pieces and jade carvings are astounding for the level of detail the craftsmen could produce over 2000 years ago. The two jade suits and the jade coffin are very large and remarkable. People will also be keen to see the clay warriors and dancers that would have guarded the tombs, these are up to half a metre tall.”
What would you say are the most bizarre objects in the show?
“The Han believed that every material comfort enjoyed in life needed to be represented in the tomb, which led to some items that today we might find very weird to be buried with! These include a stone toilet and cooking equipment such as a ginger grater, steamer and a meat-hook.”
The Search For Immortality: Tomb Treasures Of Han China, 5 May-11 November, Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, T: 01223 332900 www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk