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.
This three-part steamer (alternately known as a Yan or Xian) was discovered buried alongside an important member of the Han Dynasty social hierarchy. The raised tripod vessel at the bottom would have been placed atop a fire as water boiled inside. The steam would rise upwards through the grated opening of the middle vessel, where it would cook the contents housed inside the upper two portions. The top piece served to trap the steam inside and thus quicken the cooking process. No doubt modern culinary techniques have altered little from this centuries old device. However, this work is not remarkable so much for the sophisticated culinary culture of the Han, as much as for the beauty and sophistication of the design. Rarely does the amount of unfired pigment that grazed this Yan survive the ravages of time and the stresses of excavation.
Wonderful red and white highlights give an elegance to the otherwise dull gray surface. Swirling foliate patterns cover the sides of the upper parts while the tiered elevations of the tripod are embellished with alternating red and white bands. Such a glorious utensil surely would have been a treasured possession. However, this Yan was not interred with its owner as a sign of wealth. Instead, this steamer was expected to continue cooking meals in the afterlife. The Han believed that the afterlife was an extension of our earthly existence. Thus, it seems logical to reason that as we require food to nourish our bodies on earth, we will require food to nourish our souls in the afterlife. This Yan was created to steam eternally, ushering the deceased into the next world. The bountiful feast that this Yan symbolizes continues throughout eternity. Today, we marvel at this work both for its historical and cultural significance as well for its overwhelming beauty.