The overextension of the labor force during the Qin Dynasty would result in a popular uprising against the empire. In 206 B.C., Liu Bang, a Qin official, led an army composed of peasants and some lower nobility to victory and established his own Dynasty in place, the Han. However, unlike the Qin, the Han would unify China and rule virtually uncontested for over four hundred years. It is during this time that much of what is now considered to be Chinese culture was first actualized. The bureaucracy started under the Qin was now firmly established. The vast lands of China were now under the firm grip of a central authority. Confucianism became the state ideology although the worship of Taoist deity remained widespread, both among the peasants and the aristocracy. Ancient histories and texts were analyzed and rewritten to be more objective while new legendary myths and cultural epics were transcribed.
The Han era can also be characterized as one of the greatest artistic outpourings in Chinese history, easily on par with the glories of their Western contemporaries, Greece and Rome. Wealth pouring into China from trade along the Silk Road initiated a period of unprecedented luxury. Stunning bronze vessels were created, decorated with elegant inlaid gold and silver motifs. Jade carvings reached a new level of technical brilliance. But perhaps the artistic revival of the Han Dynasty is nowhere better represented than in their sculptures and vessels that were interred with deceased nobles. Called mingqi, literally meaning “spirit articles,” these works depicted a vast array of subject, from warriors and horses to ovens and livestock, which were buried alongside the dead for use in the next world, reflecting the Chinese belief that the afterlife was an extension of our earthy existence. Thus, quite logically, the things we require to sustain and nurture our bodies in this life would be just as necessary in our next life.
Used for holding wine or water, this bronze Hu is an outstanding
specimen of Western Han bronze ritual vessels. The bronze industry flourished
during this period as the state pursued policies to expand and develop the
manufacture of bronze pieces. This vessel reveals the aesthetic qualities and
ancient prescriptions placed on reproducing canonical forms of "the golden
age". This Hu is adorned with three horizontal bands and two
circular handles attached to the body and decorated in Taotie motif. Its
body is full, contracting sharply at the base and gently at the neck where the
short neck and slightly flared mouth is formed.
The origins and significance of the Taotie, an
important mythical animal motif that has evolved from ancient times, still
evades scholars who believe that the enlarged eyes of the beast represent its
protective and propitious power. The belief that drinking from the ancient
bronze wine vessels would bring auspicious fortune pervaded, adding to the
mystery and sense of empowerment attached with collecting bronzes throughout the
ages. Bronze wares were included among the items that were interred with the dead
to comfort them in their afterlife. During the Han Dynasty, bronze Hu
became a favored item in this practice as well as in other ritual sacrifices.
This bronze Hu carries the charm and mystery of the Han who prized bronze
for its ritualistic properties and confirmation of social status. We may only
wonder whose hands it has passed.