H-Net — Age of Empires- Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 3 – July 16, 2017 — 2017-..


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H-Nationalism
Citation: Cristian Cercel.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 3  July 16,
2017
. H-Nationalism. 04-07-2017. https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/discussions/174816/age-empires-chinese-art-qin--
nd-han-dynasties-metropolitan-museum
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
1
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 3  July 16, 2017
Discussion
published by
Cristian Cercel
on Friday, April 7, 2017
H-Nationalism would like to thank Diana Muir Appelbaum for her review of the exhibition, Age of
Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C. A.D. 220), the first of its kind to appear
on H-Nationalism.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Metropolitan Museum of Art,
April 3  July 16, 2017.
Zhixin Jason Sun.
Age of Empire
s: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties.
Metropolitan Museum of
Art. 2017. 268 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1588396174.

In
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties
, a major exhibition on display at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through July 16, Zhixin Jason Sun leads a team of
curators who argue that:
It was during this period (221
BCE
to 20
CE)
that people of diverse backgrounds were brought together
under a centralized government and began to see themselves as sharing a new, and specifically
Chinese identity. 
Zhixin Jason Sun, the Brook Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art at the Met, lays out support for this
fresh appraisal  of the role of Qin and Han in shaping Chinese civilization using recent
archaeological finds on loan from regional authorities and museums in China. He expands on the
argument in his essay The Making of China: The Establishment of a Lasting Political Paradigm and
Cultural Identity during the Qin and Han Dynasties 
,
in the exhibition s published catalogue.
Perhaps because he knew that he would be dealing with skeptics like me, Zhixin Sun places a display
of
wuzhu
coins near the beginning of the exhibition. Round, with a raised rim and a square hole in the
center, they are two thousand years old; they were made in imitation of 2,200 year old Qin dynasty
banliang
coins. To my untrained, Western eye, the coins look unmistakably Chinese except that the
inscription is not in familiar
hnz
, but, rather, in a Qin seal script already archaic in the Han period
except when it was used to make a statement about cultural continuity on coins and seals. This choice
of lettering is interesting in a discussion of identity because one of the most important Qin reforms
was standardization of written characters across the realm. Here Zhixin Sun cites the distinguished
Sinologist, Michael Lowe:
Without the Ch in (Qin) reform & it is inconceivable that China s political unity could long have
survived. Of all the cultural forces that have made for political as well as cultural unity, there is little
question that the uniformity of the written language (in contrast to the diversity of the spoken
dialects) has been more influential than any other. 
H-Nationalism
Citation: Cristian Cercel.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 3  July 16,
2017
. H-Nationalism. 04-07-2017. https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/discussions/174816/age-empires-chinese-art-qin--
nd-han-dynasties-metropolitan-museum
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
2
Newer logograms would replace the Qin characters, but China s written language would remain
standardized, making the written word intelligible to literate men whose spoken languages were
mutually unintelligible during each of the dynasties under which China was unified following
fragmentation into warring states and foreign conquest. China managed time and again to reunify
with a success that Charlemagne could only envy. Not that Charlemagne s opinion mattered any more
than the opinions of Han Chinese women ever did. Nor, come to that, does the exhibit raise the
question of whether China s illiterate males during any century saw themselves as sharing a Chinese
identity.
The map of the enormous Qin Empire on the wall of the Museum came as a pleasant surprise. I had
been dreading a repetition of the maps used in the Met s 2005 blockbuster,
China: Dawn of a
Golden Age, 200  750 AD
(roughly Jin  Tang), showing a China whose modern borders have been
fixed since the year 1. The 2017 maps, showing that borders shift as empires evolve, are a welcome
upgrade.
The objects on display support the assertion of a cultural identity two millennia deep, at least among
the upper classes. In room after room of remarkable displays  mostly of material from recent
excavations that few American Sinologists will yet have had the chance to see, Chinese clouds float in
stylized curls, dragons undulate, and charioteers race across surfaces of bronze, ceramic, and jade
objects. Terracotta Tang dynasty figurines elegantly play the zither and dance, their signature sleeves
trailing gracefully as they move. Except, of course, that these are Han dynasty entertainers (objects #
59-63). The argument for continuity of identity made here on the basis of artistic continuity entices.
The Curators have also sought out and included evidence of foreign cultural influences on Chinese
art. Object #26, a bronze figure resting on his bent, right knee and wearing a hat that resembles a
type of headgear known as the Macedonian or Phrygian helmet  is dated to the 5
th
- 3
rdBCE
century. It
was found in Central Asia, and curators assert that it may testify to a possible route for the
transmission of Hellenistic art to China. A 1
st
or 2
nd
century Hanging Lamp in the Shape of a
Foreigner  (#120) shows non-Chinese features includ(ing) deep eye-sockets, a high-ridged nose, and
curly hair which is tied into a high knot. In keeping with native Southeast Asian dress, he wears only
a loincloth.  The bronze figure hangs, his hollow body an oil reservoir for the lamp he holds,
suspended in time from three chains that in their turn hang from a domed disk suspended by a chain.
Despite the figure s Southeast Asian look, the form is Greco-Roman, which points to the influence of
the ancient Mediterranean.  Certainly this and other objects remind us that China was in contact
with other civilizations, in both the west and the Indic south. But this hanging figure is described as a
unique object in Chinese archaeology, the only known example to have such chains.  In the context
of the exhibition, it and the handful of other foreign-inflected objects seem less to show influence, 
than to underline how little China borrowed in terms of style from the foreign cultures with which it
was in contact.
Han and Qin China did, of course, rule a great many subaltern populations conquered in imperial
expansions. The exhibition treats objects made by Dian, Yue, and Qiang craftsmen much as the
Chinese imperial center has always treated conquered peoples: by shoving them aside. A handful of
display cases containing artifacts made by conquered peoples is on your left, as you follow the
mainstream of Han Chinese history through a door and into a dramatic room showcasing Han
architectural legerdemain. The showstopper here is an elaborate ceramic funerary model of a Han
H-Nationalism
Citation: Cristian Cercel.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 3  July 16,
2017
. H-Nationalism. 04-07-2017. https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/discussions/174816/age-empires-chinese-art-qin--
nd-han-dynasties-metropolitan-museum
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
3
mansion; it is taller than I am. (#128) It is the eye candy in a display of Qin/Han architecture that
persuades by showing the continuity of built tradition.
The claim that Chinese political and cultural identity has been continuous for two thousand years
depends, of course, less on artistic style than on such things as the unified writing system; the Han
standardization of the Confucian canon; and the Qin/Han creation of a centralized, bureaucratic, non-
feudal political system. To this museum reviewer, however, Zhixin Jason Sun s grand, artistic
argument for the Quin/Han creation of a new, and specifically Chinese identity looks awfully
persuasive.
Diana Muir Appelbaum


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