Exhibition: The Search For Immortality- Tomb Treasures of Han China, Fitzwilliam Museum
Robert Scanes explores the Fitzwilliam's ancient Chinese treasure trove
by Robert Scanes
Wednesday 9th May 2012, 16:53 BST
It is a matter of great pride to the city and the University of Cambridge that the most significant exhibition of ancient Chinese art to be held outside China since the visit of a selection of terracotta warriors to the British Museum in 2007-8 should be held here. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s latest exhibition, “The Search For Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China” opened on 5thof May to much pomp and consists of 350 well-collated grave goods from several royal tombs of the Han dynasty dating to the 400 years spanning the year 0 AD.
In working your way through the exhibits one mirrors the path of moving through a Han tomb, moving closer to the king’s coffin and jade burial armour. The first room manages the incredible feat of striking the viewer with the splendour and exotic atmosphere of this tomb type, whilst presenting the complex geographical and political structure of ancient China. To condense the complexity down into this space yet retain the vital details and display it all was clearly quite a task.
The displays show principally gold, silver and bronze metalwork, largely terracotta ceramics and of course China’s favourite rock - jade. The jade items on display here are of global significance due to their quality, even ignoring their provenance and great age. Unfortunately, jade is difficult to display and looks best in the hand so some pieces appear poorly lit; perhaps an inevitability given the number of pieces, better lighting and perhaps mentioning its cultural significance to Chinese people earlier in the exhibit would go a long way.
The traditional discussion of the development and significance of ancient bronze shapes is largely ignored, which is probably for the best - key details are present when necessary about the importance of certain forms, but tawdry specifics are left to the mind of the specialist. The overflowing symbolism present in certain pieces is left largely unexplored, probably due to a lack of space but this is a great shame. The spiritualism and mythology is intriguing, but is left up for your own personal interpretation, such as the taotie figures which permeate the entire exhibition which aren’t even mentioned by name. Equally, I felt the notable absence of the craftsmen’s story; it is only alluded to in passing- to all but a connoisseur these objects could have fallen fully formed from the sky.
The great joys of this exhibition come right at the end, and for me it’s the combination of everyday objects like the toilet with the extravagant luxuries such as the mat weight and belt plaques. The gold belt plaques illustrate metalworking virtually unparalleled in the ancient world as well as the great mix of artistic styles coming from cultures near and far. For me there was a small explosion of joy when I reached the last cabinet of the displays and saw that in the reuse of jade armour suits, even ancient Chinese royalty had to make cut-backs.
In short this exhibition is a much needed escape to the Far East for exam term and one not to be afraid of due to its seemingly esoteric contents. Be sure to catch it by 11th November.