In Depth

Age of Empires: Ancient Chinese artefacts to go on display

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will host the exhibition of 2,000-year-old pieces, including the terracotta army

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will explore early Chinese culture with an unprecedented exhibition of ancient artefacts, many of which have never before been displayed in the west.

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC-AD 220) will give a comprehensive insight into these monumental periods in the country's history. The dynasties shaped society, art and political thought, put in place legal codes, standardised currency and measurements and – most importantly – a consistent written language.

The display opens with an exploration of the short-lived Qin dynasty, showcasing one of China's most famous and important historical treasures – the terracotta army. Excavations at the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor unearthed 7,000 of these fascinating warriors, and here a group of the figures – along with some of the real weapons with which they were armed – will be shown alongside replicas of bronze chariot teams, highlighting the empire's military prowess.

A two-part section on the Han dynasty reveals the wealth experienced by society's elite, and later the outside influences that crept into the culture of this sprawling civilisation. Intricate lacquer ware, colourful and luxurious silk textiles and adorned musical instruments exemplify the opulent Han lifestyle, while similarly extravagant items were buried with them for the afterlife. A highlight is a lavish burial suit built for a Han princess comprising more than 2,000 pieces of jade. The precious stone was chosen to signify purification of the body and protection from corruption. Also featured is an array of tomb figurines, which took the place of living attendants to forever serve those who had passed.

The impact of nearby Persian and Hellenistic kingdoms comes through in towering stone sculptures featuring a crouching lion – a creature not native to China – and fluted columns adorned with dragons. Meanwhile the influence of maritime trade, which created a route into China for spices, gemstones, glasswork and metalwork from South and Southeast Asia, is exemplified in animals carved from orange-hued carnelian and necklaces made from amethyst, aquamarine, beryl and rock crystal. A number of groups also managed to retain their own distinctive culture under Han rule; one such is the Dian people, and a number of bronze ornaments will be on display depicting their distinct festivals and rituals.

The exhibition closes with a look at the important role the spirit world played in society, in a time that predates the arrival of one of China's dominant religions, Buddhism. Prized pieces include a bronze money tree sculpture on which coins "grew", a painted pottery lamp adorned with birds, animals and supernatural beings, as well as a large stone tomb gateway symbolising the deceased being guided to the afterlife.

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC-AD 220) is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave, New York, from 3 April to 16 July; metmuseum.org

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