Saturday, September 26, 2009

Han Dynasty Mawangdui Excavation Exhibit Makes Last Stop in Santa Barbara

I wish this exhibit had been open when I was down in Los Angeles last month. Although Lady Dai, one of the best preserved mummies in the world and the Mwangdui tomb's famous occupant won't be on display (she is carefully conserved and housed at the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha), 70 objects of exquisite lacquerware, a 2,000 year-old silk robe worn by Lady Dai, a medical text written on delicate silk fabric and finely detailed figurines of household servants and muscians found among more than 3,000 artifacts discovered when the tomb was originally unearthed in 1971 are showcased in the exhibit.

[Image - Wooden figurines of musicans playing reed wind instruments called yus and plucked-string zithers (178-145 BCE). Image courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art]

The Han Dynasty period, 206 BCE - 220CE, considered one of the most important periods in Chinese history, included the invention of paper and construction of the Silk Road that eventually would lead to trade with the Roman Empire. It was founded by a rebel peasant leader named Liu Bang, who would become the Emperor Gaozu.

Reading the records of the grand historian of the Han Dynasty, I couldn't help but notice a parallel between the relationship of Liu Bang and Xiao He, a local man of letters, who would later become his prime minister, and Octavian (Caesar Augustus) and his general Marcus Agrippa, although the roles were somewhat reversed. In the case of the Han emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu), the emperor was the military strategist while his minister, Xiao He, was the man behind the scenes who raised money and recruits. In the case of Augustus, his general/admiral Marcus Agrippa was the military mind who engineered Octavian's victories while Octavian supplied the money and recruits. In each case, however, neither Xiao He nor Marcus Agrippa ever moved to challenge their liege lord. Each became wealthy and powerful in their own right and their support was crucial to the success of each emperor's reign. But each man seemed to be satisfied to be the man behind the scenes rather than the man holding the wolf's ears (so to speak).

Liu Bang, the only emperor besides Zhu Yanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, that rose from a modest background, also possessed a healthy dose of common sense that served him well in the administration of a contentious collection of fiefdoms formed after the fragmentation of the Qin empire. I particularly like the story related by the grand historian about how Liu Bang handled an angry mob of his generals who were dismayed by Liu Bang's promotion of his minister, Xiao He, to the first position in his court.

"The king of Han, now emperor, considered that Xiao He had achieved the highest merit and hence enfeoffed him [gave him a fief] as marquis of Zan with the revenue from a large number of towns. But the other distinguished officials objected, saying, “We have alI buckled on armour and taken up our weapons, some of us fighting as many as I00 or more engagements, the least of us fighting twenty or thirty. Each, to a greater or lesser degree, has engaged in attacks upon cities or seizures of of territory. And yet Xiao He, who has never campaigned on the sweaty steeds of battle, but only sat here with brush and ink deliberating on questions of state instead of fighting, is awarded a position above us. How can this be?"
'Gentlemen,' the emperor asked, 'do you know anything about hunting?'
'We do,' they replied.
'And do you know anything about hunting dogs?' 
'We do.'
'Now in a hunt,' the emperor said, 'it is the dog who is sent to pursue and kill the beast but the one who unleashes the dog and points out the place where the beast is hiding is the huntsman. You, gentlemen, have only succeeded in capturing the beast, and so your achievement is that of hunting dogs. But it is Xiao He who unleashed you and polnted out the place,and his achievement is that of the huntsman.' - Records of the grand historian: Han dynasty by Ch’ien Ssu-Ma, Burton Watson

If you have a chance to see the Han exhibit in Santa Barbara, don't forget to explore the museum's excellent permanent Asian art exhibit. It, too, contains some beautiful artifacts from the Han period like this figurine of a female dancer and musician playing a Qin zither from Sichuan province (25 -220 CE) that I photographed there.