“Search for Immortality” Tomb Treasures of Han China – Review by Yinsey Wang

One of the most remarkable exhibitions of Chinese artefacts outside China graces the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until 11th November 2012. Lovers of, and newcomers to Chinese history will be mesmerised by this lucrative and luxurious display of treasures from the tombs of the Han imperial family (in the northern “cradle” of Chinese history) and Nanyue kingdom (positioned in the south, the Guangzhou area).

By Yinsey Wang – Arts and History Correspondent 

The Han tombs on display were excavated near the Han lineage’s hometown of Xuzhou, away from the traditional place of burial near Chang’an (modern day X’ian). The members of the Han dynasty and Nanyue Kingdom were embroiled in a struggle for power, contesting dominance over the trade routes in the South China Sea.

Golden age of Chinese history 

Although the first King of Nanyue submitted to the rule of the Han, the tombs of the family reveal a continued resilience; the second King tended to style himself as an Emperor with many of the objects naming him and alluding to his grandeur as such. Of course, the Han Dynasty emerged victorious in its historical treatment as the “golden age” of Chinese history and through their absorption of the Nanyue Kingdom via an invasion led by Emperor Wudi in 111 BC.

Gold belt plaque

The Han Dynasty’s rule was defined by meritocratic government; artistic cultivation; long-distance trade; Confucian philosophy; and the conception of a “semi-divine” right to rule by the Emperor (known as the “Mandate of Heaven”). Today, the word hanren (“Han people”) is often used synonymously to refer to the Han ethnic majority of China, and the word hanyu (“Han language”) can be used synonymously to refer to the Chinese language. It is clear that the dynasty’s legacy remains an important part of the modern consciousness of the Chinese people.


Appropriately named “Search for Immortality”, the collection houses over 350 pieces. It belies the royals’ obsession with everlasting life after death. The tombs were constructed to resemble palaces and were complete with everything the royals would need in the afterlife, including their favourite objects and many faithful subjects (that were sacrificed for the purposes of following their rulers in death).

Other mystifying stories unveil themselves as one explores this impressive range of masterpieces, ranging from pottery dancers and musicians crafted elegantly with endearing bodily and facial expressions; an early ginger grater amongst other interesting kitchen tools; a gold seal belonging to the Marquis of Wanqu; demon-expelling jade artefacts; and exquisitely crafted gold belt buckles. The most impressive pieces include two immaculately restored burial suits made of individually sewn-together jade plaques.

The exhibition’s layout was innovatively structured to mimic that of the original tombs themselves; the lighting in particular was well-suited to illuminating the details of the intricate jade and gold pieces; and the descriptions provided were informative and succinct. Highly recommended is this opportunity to experience the splendour and magnificence of this ancient empire and discover why its influence on Chinese culture and history has been so great.

“Search for Immortality” will showcase at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Open now until 11th November 2012 Admission is FREE

For more information, please visit: www.tombtreasuresofhanchina.org 

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