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.
The Han Dynasty, like the Zhou before it, is divided into two distinct periods, the Western Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) and the Eastern Han (23-220 A.D.) with a brief interlude. Towards the end of the Western period, a series of weak emperors ruled the throne, controlled from behind the scenes by Wang Mang and Huo Guang, both relatives of empresses. They both exerted enormous influence over the government and when the last emperor suddenly passed away, Mang became ruling advisor, seizing this opportunity to declare his own Dynasty, the Xin, or “New.” However, another popular uprising began joined by the members of the Liu clan, the family that ruled the Han Dynasty, the Xin came to a quick end and the Eastern Han was established in its place with its capital at Loyang (Chang’an, the capital of the Western Han, was completely destroyed).
However, even as Chinese influence spread across Southeastern Asia into new lands, the Eastern Han Dynasty was unable to recreate the glories of the Western Period. In fact, this period can be characterized by a bitter power struggle amongst a group of five consortial clans. These families sought to control the young, weak emperors with their court influence. Yet, as the emperors became distrustful of the rising power of the clans, they relied upon their eunuchs to defend them, often eliminating entire families at a time. During the Western Han, the Emperor was viewed as the center of the universe. However, this philosophy slowly disintegrated under the weak, vulnerable rulers of the Eastern Han, leading many scholars and officials to abandon the court. Eventually, the power of the Han would completely erode, ending with its dissolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Three Kingdoms.”
Today, when we think of mirrors, we think of a thin layer of reflective metal, usually a combination of tin and mercury, covered in a layer of protective glass. However, the modern mirror was an innovation of 16th Century Italian craftsmen. Before that, since ancient time, mirrors of highly polished bronze were used. Bronze mirrors themselves were introduced into China during the 6th Century B.C. They were used not only as functional articles but as sacred objects filled with their own powers. The custom of placing mirrors in a tomb originated around the 4th Century B.C. The Chinese believed that mirrors had the ability not only to reflect, but also to radiate light, and thus illuminate the tomb for eternity. Often multiple mirrors were entombed, not alongside the other funerary objects, but close to the body of the deceased.
During the Han Dynasty, the iconography of the decorations that adorn the backsides of mirrors was inextricably linked to their philosophical beliefs and perception of the universe. For instance, on this example, echoes of this symbolism are visible. The outer flat rim symbolizes the heavens while the four stylized dragon heads may represent the four cardinal directions and the quadrants of the universe. A hole has been drilled into the large central boss. A chord would have been wound through here to serve as a handle. We can imagine a gorgeous young princess holding this mirror in her hands almost two thousand years ago. She would have gazed into the finely polished surface and saw her own image reflected. While her own beauty would have surely pleased her, perhaps her was even more admiring of the stunning decorative motif that embellishes the back.