Two thousand years ago, the great Han empire dominated Asia. When Emperor P'ing-ti
ascended the throne, he changed the reign name to Yuan-shih ("The Beginning").
By coincidence, the first year of "The Beginning" happens to be the first year
of the first millennium AD in the Western calendar. Since the Han dynasty spanned the 200
years before and after the start of the first millennium, Han art and culture provides an
ideal opportunity to look in retrospect at this glorious epoch from two millennia ago.
The Han dynasty was founded by Liu Pang, a commoner who became known as
Emperor Kao-tsu. Taking up arms, he rose as leader and eventually ruled the land, unifying
all of China. Settling in the area of Ch'ang-an, his capital was located in China's
interior. A wise ruler, he rewarded those who had assisted him with rank and title,
thereby retaining central authority. In the Western Han (the first half of the dynasty),
the forty years of rule under emperors Wen-ti and Ching-ti were recognized for the
laissez-faire attitude of Taoism that effectively guided the court. The longest reign was
54 years by Emperor Wu-ti. He both capably ruled at home and expanded the boundaries of
the Han, sending generals to fight along the western borders and opening up the route to
Central Asia. He also had Han rule expanded into the south and into the southwest.
In 9 AD, however, Wang Mang usurped the throne and established a new
dynasty called Hsin, which lasted for only 14 years. The dynastic revival of Emperor
Kuang-wu-ti succeeded in restoring Han rule. To proclaim the power and prestige of the Han
dynasty, Kuang-wu-ti presented in 57 AD a chop to the area of what is now Japan.
Afterwards, Emperors Ming-ti and Chang-ti followed the teachings of Confucius and ruled
for 30 years (58-88). During the reign of Emperor Ho-ti, Ts'ai Lun is credited with the
invention of paper, which had a major impact on the development of scholarship and
culture. A literary genre known as fu rose in this period and conveys the majesty and
grandeur of the great Han.
Dominating the period, a unique style of art also emerged. The works
that survive in collections and the many that have been unearthed in recent years include
jades, lacquerware, ceramics, bronzes, textiles, paintings, wooden slips, wall art, stone
carvings and sculpture, and bricks and tiles. In terms of jades, the most representative
items here include; a pi disc, a set of jade pieces, a jade-decorated sword, a cup, a
cicada amulet, a pig-shaped carving, and a jade suit sewn together with gold, silver, and
copper. Lacquerware was popular in the everyday life of the upperclass. The most common
forms here include a wine container, a food vessel, a case, a winged-cup, and plates and
basins. Ceramics include a celadon bowl and container as well as items in yellow and green
glaze, a pot, a miniature tower and animals, and figures. Bronzes were not as common as in
the previous Shang and Chou dynasties, and the techniques for making them less refined.
However, in addition to the production of wine vessels, mirrors, and weapons, we also find
the technique of gilded bronze on, for example, a lamp, horse, po-shan incense burner, and
belt hook. Seals made of bronze were reserved for the use of the emperor and major
officials. The simple and steady manner of seal carving in the Han dynasty became a
standard followed by later generations.
The precious collection of Han artifacts in the National Palace Museum
is most noted for its bronze mirrors and seals; jade pi discs and pendants, as well as
cicada- and pig-shaped carvings; and ceramic figures, pots, miniature towers, and animals,
such as horses, oxen, and dogs. Tiles and "pictorial" bricks, although materials
associated with architecture and tombs (respectively), also reveal the beauty of visual
art and design in the Han dynasty. In order to spread knowledge of Han art and culture,
the Museum has especially chosen 250 of the finest Han works from the collection for
exhibit. At the same time, visitors can also appreciate the 252 works from the ancient
states of Ch'ang-sha and Nan-yueh (contemporary with the Han) on loan from museums in
mainland China. Overall, they present a picture of the Han period before and after the
turn of the first millennium AD, offering a mirror to the arts, crafts, technology and
culture of this golden age.
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