Spanning four centuries, the Qin and Han dynasties were pivotal to China's long history. Taken together, they represent China's "classical" era, coinciding in time and importance with Greco-Roman civilization in the West. The short-lived Qin (221–209 B.C.) and centuries-long Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) established the political and intellectual foundations followed by all subsequent Chinese dynasties, and the impact of the artistic and cultural efflorescence that occurred during this time continues to resonate into the present day. Perhaps most crucially, it was during this period that people of diverse backgrounds were brought together under a centralized government and began to see themselves as sharing a new, specifically Chinese identity.
This landmark exhibition traces an age of unparalleled transformation in China, from the rise of the Qin dynasty in the late third century B.C. to the triumph of a unified state in the first century A.D., when Han institutions became deep-rooted across this vast, regionally diverse empire. Featuring unprecedented loans from museums and institutions throughout China, including recent archaeological discoveries displayed here publicly for the first time, the exhibition also highlights the fascinating results of China's frequent and close contact with other cultures over the transcontinental Silk Road and across maritime trade routes in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Qin state emerged in the ninth century B.C. as a minor fiefdom of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–771 B.C.), but by the late fourth century B.C. had become a formidable regional power under the guidance of its visionary chancellor, Shang Yang (ca. 395–338 B.C.). In addition to implementing land reforms, resettling sparsely populated areas, and restructuring the social hierarchy, the Qin state consolidated its military might, extending training and service requirements to every able-bodied adult male. By the time King Ying Zheng (259–210 B.C.)—the future Qin Shihuangdi, or First Emperor of Qin—ascended the throne in 247 B.C., the Qin had become unstoppable. They went on to conquer each of the rival states that remained after the fragmentation of the Zhou, officially unifying the country under its rule in 221 B.C.
Ying Zheng, having achieved unprecedented authority over a vast territory, not only gave himself the grandiose new title of "emperor" (huangdi) but also divided the empire into commanderies (roughly equivalent to provinces) under his centralized rule, an imperial mode of administration that would be emulated by all future Chinese dynasties. To enforce unity, he instituted policies such as the standardization of weights, measures, coinage, and, above all, the written language, creating a universal Chinese script. He also oversaw major advances in the arts of war—embodied by his dazzling army of terracotta warriors—and embarked on construction of the Great Wall. Together, these innovations established the foundations for a stable, secure state and a flourishing material culture.
The Han dynasty, which established its rule in 206 B.C. after defeating the Qin, adopted and adapted its predecessor's policies, with the aim of further consolidating the power of the state. In addition to carrying forward the institution of the emperor as the supreme governing authority, the Han institutionalized a centralized administration directly under imperial supervision. They also implemented a unified legal code, regulated taxes to encourage economic productivity and population growth, and continued the major public-works initiatives of extending the Great Wall and building a network of roads to reinforce the country's defenses and integrate its infrastructure.
During the late second century B.C., the state embarked on an ambitious expansion plan, dispatching diplomatic emissaries and expeditionary forces to foreign lands; launching major offensives into the steppes and setting up garrisons along the Silk Road as far west as Central Asia; subduing ethnic groups in the south and southwest; and establishing commanderies (similar to provinces) in newly seized territories.
Accordingly, the Han Empire, with territories equivalent to about two-thirds of modern Europe, enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity. This wealth is exemplified by the lavish and technically sophisticated works of art excavated from royal and elite Han tombs. In addition to revealing the extravagant lifestyles and exotic tastes of Han aristocrats, these works underscore the Han belief that life did not end at death but continued into the eternal world.
The expansion of the Han Empire led to increased contact with foreign lands through diplomacy and trade. The result was a flourishing in commercial and cultural exchange, which took place over the famed continental Silk Road and across a vast maritime network connecting the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf.
Works in this last section of the exhibition demonstrate the diversity of material culture that thrived under the Han, as well as the era's unprecedented prosperity. Influences and inspiration came from the south and southwest regions of China, home to non-Han ethnic and nomadic groups, as well as from the rest of Asia and from Europe. Evidence of such confident cosmopolitanism found expression in diverse styles of architecture, in meticulously crafted luxury items and personal adornments, and in objects of devotion that speak to a plurality of religious practices.
The Han Empire reached its apex in the early years of the Common Era, when its territories stretched from China's eastern coast to the far western Pamir Mountains, and from the Mongolian steppes to the South China Sea. It was during this period of military, political, and economic might that the Han nurtured what is perhaps its greatest achievement—a new sense of a common "Chinese" identity among the diverse peoples and regions that made up this vast, multivalent state.
Kneeling Archer (detail). Chinese, Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, H. 49 1/16 in. (122 cm). Qin Shihuangdi Mausoleum Site Museum, Lintong