If given the opportunity, would you live forever? It was certainly a desire of the ancient Chinese, who plotted their burial tombs as elaborate afterlife playgrounds with pavilions, large security forces made of clay, horse-drawn chariots, precious stones and jade figurines. Death was believed to be a continuation of life, with all the comforts of the earthly home. The rulers of China during the Han dynasty built magnificent tombs with every conceivable luxury, including bathroom utensils.
Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers a remarkable window into ancient Chinese burial rituals following the discovery of nearly 100 tombs in the mid-20th century in northern Jiangsu Province. In 201 B.C.E., the first emperor of the Han Dynasty knighted his younger brother as the first king of the Chu Kingdom, which was centered in what is now Xuzhou, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai. Elites in this kingdom enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, and 12 generations of kings were buried in monumental tombs carved into the rocky hills nearby. The excavation of these tombs yielded an astonishing number of sumptuous objects which are now on view in this exhibition.
The centerpiece of Dreams of the Kings is a 2,000-year-old, life-sized jade and gold burial suit, meticulously assembled from more than 4,000 pieces of jade linked together with gold wire. Jade is China’s most precious material and has been exalted in that country since the Neolithic period as having deep spiritual significance associated with the afterlife. It was only during the Han Dynasty that it was used to completely encase the body to reflect the belief that the body would not decay if encased in jade. Jade burial suits were extremely expensive to produce and encouraged tomb looters, prompting a late Han emperor to prohibit jade burial suits. None dating later than Han have ever been found, and the jade suit in this exhibition is the finest to have survived from ancient China.
Dreams of the Kings is divided into three sections: Court Ceremony, Feasting, Dance, and Ritual; Warfare and Authority; and Jade for Eternity. The first section displays a remarkable selection of ceramic figures of dancers and musicians, including an elegant, swaying dancer throwing her long sleeves in wild abandon, as well as a huge gilt bronze basin that reflects the importance of personal hygiene in ancient China. Warfare and Authority features a full suit of iron armor, along with miniature versions of the famous Terracotta Warriors.
But the jade burial suit is the star of this show, laid out in its full glory in the Chinese Temple, the dimly lit ambience evocative of the tomb. The notion of jade as the embodiment of moral virtue is expressed with many exquisite jade pendants and other burial jades placed nearby.
An interactive element with photographs of the excavation and other contextual images allows visitors to imagine entering the actual tomb of the King of Chu and exploring its different chambers, such as treasuries, ceremonial chambers, and functional spaces including a kitchen and bathroom.
90 pieces from the Nelson-Atkins celebrated collection of early Chinese art from the Shang (16th century — ca. 1046 B.C.E.) to the Han (206 B.C.E. — 220 C.E.) dynasties will be displayed in adjacent galleries, including the world-famous jade bi ritual disc along with many other exceptional pieces.
Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity opens at the Nelson-Atkins Dec. 16 and closes April 1, 2018. For tickets, visit www.nelson-atkins.org.