Introduction

The National Gallery of Victoria holds Australia’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Chinese archaeological treasures, which consist of jades, bronze mirrors, ritual bronze vessels, pottery vessels and figurines dating from the second millennium BC to the sixteenth century AD.

From ancient times, the Chinese have been searching for longevity (eternal youth) and immortality. The idea that, by consuming good food, herbs and minerals, and doing breathing and meditation exercises, one could prolong life and become immortal spread widely in the centuries following the early Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). A realisation that one could extend one’s years but not prevent ultimate death was compensated by the belief that there is an afterlife or life after death. In the afterlife jade was believed to prevent the deterioration of the part of the soul (po) that remained with the body after death, while another part of the soul (hun) was believed to rise to a higher plane.1See Stephen Little, Realm of the Immortals: Daoism in the Arts of China, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1988.

The world of the dead was conceived as parallel and coexisting with the world of the living, and the afterlife was seen very much in earthly terms. The deceased was buried with material provisions such as food, clothing and household utensils. Descendants looked after their deceased ancestors through regular sacrificial offerings. In return, it was believed the ancestral spirits would safeguard the welfare and fortune of their descendants. It was therefore considered inauspicious to disturb ancestral and imperial tombs, in particular, which were believed to influence the fortunes of the entire nation. Like dwellings for the living, tombs were situated in accord with the principles of geomancy (fengshui, wind and water) to harmonise with the life force of nature and bring good fortune to the living.

The ancient custom of burial was perpetuated by Confucianism, an important school of moral and political philosophy based on the teachings of Confucius (c.551–479 BC), established in the Han dynasty as the philosophy of the state. Confucius said: ‘Serve the dead as one serves the living, and serve the departed as one serves those who are present; this is the height of filial piety’.2Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), quoted in Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Derk Bodde (trans.), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1952, vol. 1, p. 359. The Confucian virtue of filial piety (respect and devotion to one’s parents) was seen as the starting point of all virtues.3See Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture [4th edn] Macmillan, London, 1964, pp. 565–74.

 

Offerings to the deceased

As early as Neolithic times (c.8000–2000 BC), offerings of pottery vessels and stone tools or weapons were placed in graves to accompany the deceased to the afterlife. In the Shang dynasty (c.1600–1027 BC) precious bronze ritual vessels, weapons and jades were buried with the deceased. Animals and even human beings were sacrificed in the tombs of deceased great rulers as a provision for the afterlife. This practice became gradually less common in the Eastern Zhou period (770–221 BC) and was abandoned by the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 8). Human beings, animals, precious and utilitarian objects were replaced with ceramic replicas. A whole repertoire of mingqi (utensils for the spirits of the dead) was produced solely for burial. Lead glaze, which was potentially poisonous for the living, was used only for funerary wares.4See Jao Tsung-I, Chinese Tomb Pottery Figures, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 1953, pp. 1–13; Terukazu Akiyama et al., ‘Neolithic culture to the T’ang dynasty: Recent discoveries’, in Arts of China, vol. 1, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1968, pp. 141–8.

The use of mingqi was sanctioned by Confucianism, as Confucius said:

He who made mingqi knew the principle underlying the mourning rites.

They are complete (to all appearance), yet cannot be used.

Alas! If objects used by the living are provided for the dead, would not this lead to the burial of the living with the dead?5Liji (The Book of Rites) [c.2nd century BC], in James Legge (trans.), The Texts of Confucianism, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 27, Clarendon, Oxford, 1885, pp. 172–3; Fung Yu-lan, pp. 345–6.

The Confucian rationale underlying this practice reflects a philosophical rather than a religious approach to death. It was intended to satisfy both the emotional and the intellectual needs of the living, as Confucius explained:

In dealing with the dead, if we treat them as if they were entirely dead, that would show lack of affection and should not be done; or, if we treat them as if they were entirely alive, that would show lack of wisdom and should not be done.6Fung Yu-lan.

The Tomb Gallery and its transformation

In 2003 when the NGV was reopened after four years of renovation, its Chinese collection of archaeological objects was housed in the Tomb Gallery, designed by the Italian architect Mario Bellini. At its centre lay a square enclosure, evocative of the four directions of the Chinese universe, with free-standing walls that housed archaic jades and bronze vessels in wall cases. Adjoining it were two dragon-like, undulating walls, also fitted with wall cases for displaying pottery vessels. Between the two walls were cases showing pottery figurines representing officials, court ladies, guardians, foreigners, attendants, horses and riders, camels, oxen, pigs and mythical animals.

In late 2008 the NGV initiated a project of renewal and renovation of the Tomb Gallery that aimed to provide more historical information and context for the objects and thereby bring them to life. China is fortunate that her history of thousands of years is preserved in underground tombs, of which many remain undisturbed and only a few have been excavated. The treasures buried therein provide valuable information that is not found in written documents. These objects are tangible evidence of the everyday and courtly life of ancient China.

 

Unfolding Chinese history

To enhance our understanding of the works on display, didactic wall texts now explain the history of the collection and the rationale behind the buried treasures as provisions for the afterlife. These are supported by quotations from the Chinese Classics, rendered in the original Chinese language with English translations. Furthermore, a chronological chart outlining the history of China and parallel events in the Western world is displayed next to the entrance.  History unfolds in the form of maps, with brief texts on each dynasty and diagrams of tombs on a continuous panel that covers three of the walls and is read from right to left like a Chinese horizontal handscroll.7Text and historical maps adapted from Dorothy Kushler & Prof. William Watson, China: Time Chart from 1500 B.C., Time, London 1973; Lu Yuangao, Kan Bantu Xue Zhongguo Lishi (Learning Chinese History by Looking at Illustrations), Xingqiu Publishing House, Beijing, 2009. It begins with a misty passage and moves in parallel time to the works in the wall cases opposite. The wall panel is punctuated with enlarged images of the iconic works on display, thus making reference to and creating a dialogue between the historical information and the actual works of art. The names of the dynasties are indicated by Chinese characters that show stylistic developments from the seal script to the regular script. The cursive script which evolved from the regular script is illustrated by calligraphy of the monk Huaisu of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906),8See Huaisu, Autobiographical essay, 777 AD, handscroll, ink on paper, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Calligraphy in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1973, plate 4; see also Robert L. Thorp & Richard Ellis Vinograd, Chinese Art & Culture, Harry N. Abrahams, New York, 2001, p. 217, fig. 6-33. reproduced in subtle light blue as a backdrop to the illustrative materials of the Tang dynasty. This masterpiece of calligraphy is echoed by the light blue landscape of mountains and streams that concludes the handscroll-like wall illustrations.9See landscape painted in cobalt blue on a Chinese porcelain jar of the Ming dynasty, late 14th – 15th century AD, Felton Bequest, 1927, NGV (1874-D3), illustrated in Mae Anna Pang, Mountains and Streams from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2006, p. 28, fig. 8.

The graphic information in the wall panels does not compete with but, rather, it harmonises with the works on display and enhances the viewer’s enjoyment and understanding. It is painted in subtle earth colours of brown and peach (fruit of immortality) and nuances of blue and grey, which echo the tri-coloured glaze of the Tang figurines. The composition is intricate and rhythmical in the placement and balance of forms in space, which gives it the flowing movement of a musical composition.

Ceramic figurines are displayed in independent cases in the space between the two undulating walls, which display floor-to-ceiling, cloth reproductions of magnificent wall paintings from two important Tang dynasty tombs. These paintings not only relate to the figurines on display but also serve to envelop the viewer in the art of particular tombs.

Wall paintings of attendants and hunting scenes from the Prince Zhanghuai’s tomb (c.AD 706–711)  are reproduced to relate to the ceramic horses, riders and camels in the collection. A diagram of the prince’s tomb is illustrated in the wall panel.  Prince Zhanghuai, the second son of Emperor Gao Zhong and Empress Wu, became crown prince in AD 675 but in AD 680 he was removed from that rank. Four years later, at the age of thirty-one, he was ordered to commit suicide by his mother, Empress Wu (r.AD 684–705), but was reinstated and buried posthumously in AD 711.10This tomb was excavated in Shaanxi province between July 1971 and February 1972; see Tang Lixian Mu Bihua (Wall Paintings in the Tomb of Prince Lixian of the Tang dynasty), Shaanxi sheng Bowuguan (Shaanxi Provincial Museum), Wenwu, Beijing, 1974.

The wall painting of a scene of female attendants from the tomb of Princess Yongtai, dated AD 706, is also reproduced on the inner undulating walls.11The tomb of Princess Yongtai, a granddaughter of Empress Wu, was excavated between August 1960 and April 1962 in Qianling, Shaanxi Province; see also Terukazu, p. 131, fig. 230. The female attendants, tall and slender with a quiet elegance, are similar to one of the seated Tang figurines on display (fig. 2).12See Seated female figure, Tang dynasty, AD 700–750, Shaanxi Province, North China, earthenware, coloured pigments. Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938, NGV (3684-D3). This slim and elegant court lady represents the ideal of feminine beauty at the end of the 7th century – early 8th century. Her head, neck and hands were originally painted and the pigments have vanished. Her costume in ‘three-colour’ glaze shows central Asian influence. She is wearing the so-called cloud-walking shoes.

A handscroll attributed to Zhou Fang, Ladies with flowers in their hair, which depicts beautiful, voluptuous court ladies dressed in sumptuous robes and wearing hair ornaments, is reproduced on a wall opposite the Princess Yongtai painting (figs 1 & 2).13See Zhou Fang (attributed to), Ladies with flowers in their hair, Tang dynasty, late 8th – early 9th century AD (10th-century copy), ink and pigments on silk, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang, China, illustrated in Richard M. Barnhart et al., Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Yale University Press/Foreign Language Press, New Haven/Beijing, 1997, pp. 80–1, fig. 74. In the early eighth century the ideal of feminine beauty changed from being tall and slim to plump and voluptuous, which is also illustrated by a figurine of a sensual court lady in the NGV collection (top image).14See Standing female figure, Tang dynasty, 8th century AD, Shaanxi Province, North China, earthenware with remaining white slip, gift of Yamanaka & Co., 1939, NGV (4651-D3). This court lady represents the ideal of feminine beauty of the early 8th-century Tang China, made famous by Yang Guifei, the favourite concubine of the emperor. She is plump and voluptuous, with a very stylish coiffure and wearing pointed shoes. The original pigments have disappeared leaving traces of white slip. The original surface of the brightly painted figure has disappeared, leaving only traces of white slip, but rich pigments of the handscroll give us a glimpse of the figurine’s original vibrancy.

This Tang ideal of beauty was immortalised by Yang Guifei, the femme fatale who in AD 745 became the favourite concubine of Emperor Xuanzong (AD 713–56) and subsequently shook the Tang empire. Their tragic love affair was eulogised by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (AD 772–846) in his epic narrative poem Changhen ge (Song of unending sorrow), written in AD 806.15See Cyril Birch (ed.), Anthology of Chinese Literature: Volume 1: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, Grove, New York, 1994, pp. 281–4. The emperor in his dotage fell so madly in love with Yang Guifei, with her youth and musical talents, that, apparently, he neglected his official duties. When rebellion broke out in AD 755, the emperor had to flee from Chang’an, the capital, with his magnificent court. Shortly after setting out for Shu, now Sichuan province, the emperor was forced by his discontented soldiers to have his beloved concubine executed, as she was blamed for the catastrophe. The emperor reluctantly gave in and presented her with a scarf to hang herself. A section of this poem is reproduced on one of the walls in its original Chinese text with English translation.

Conclusion

The Tomb Gallery has been transformed into a dynamic space that is exciting and informative. The appreciation of the works on display has been enriched and enhanced by including information on Chinese beliefs, history, paintings, drama and poetry. At the same time the graphics on the walls have become works of art in themselves. Through these dynamic changes the viewer is able to travel back to the world of ancient China, in both time and space.16As curator of the project, I was very fortunate to have the support of the NGV Deputy Director, Frances Lindsay, and the opportunity to work with Daryl West-Moore, Manager of Exhibition Design, who initiated and supervised the project, and designer Jenny Yang, whose creativity, knowledge and dedication has transformed the Tomb Gallery into a dynamic space.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes

1 See Stephen Little, Realm of the Immortals: Daoism in the Arts of China, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1988.

2      Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), quoted in Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Derk Bodde (trans.), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1952, vol. 1, p. 359.

3      See Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture [4th edn] Macmillan, London, 1964, pp. 565–74.

4      See Jao Tsung-I, Chinese Tomb Pottery Figures, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 1953, pp. 1–13; Terukazu Akiyama et al., ‘Neolithic culture to the T’ang dynasty: Recent discoveries’, in Arts of China, vol. 1, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1968, pp. 141–8.

5      Liji (The Book of Rites) [c.2nd century BC], in James Legge (trans.), The Texts of Confucianism, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 27, Clarendon, Oxford, 1885, pp. 172–3; Fung Yu-lan, pp. 345–6.

6      Fung Yu-lan.

7      Text and historical maps adapted from Dorothy Kushler & Prof. William Watson, China: Time hart from 1500 B.C., Time, London 1973; Lu Yuangao, Kan Bantu Xue Zhongguo Lishi (Learning Chinese History by Looking at Illustrations), Xingqiu Publishing House, Beijing, 2009.

8      See Huaisu, Autobiographical essay, 777 AD, handscroll, ink on paper, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Calligraphy in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1973, plate 4; see also Robert L. Thorp & Richard Ellis Vinograd, Chinese Art & Culture, Harry N. Abrahams, New York, 2001, p. 217, fig. 6-33.

9      See landscape painted in cobalt blue on a Chinese porcelain jar of the Ming dynasty, late 14th – 15th century AD, Felton Bequest, 1927, NGV (1874-D3), illustrated in Mae Anna Pang, Mountains and Streams from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2006, p. 28, fig. 8.

10      This tomb was excavated in Shaanxi province between July 1971 and February 1972; see Tang Lixian Mu Bihua (Wall Paintings in the Tomb of Prince Lixian of the Tang dynasty), Shaanxi sheng Bowuguan (Shaanxi Provincial Museum), Wenwu, Beijing, 1974.

11      The tomb of Princess Yongtai, a granddaughter of Empress Wu, was excavated between August 1960 and April 1962 in Qianling, Shaanxi Province; see also Terukazu, p. 131, fig. 230.

12      See Seated female figure, Tang dynasty, AD 700–750, Shaanxi Province, North China, earthenware, coloured pigments. Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938, NGV (3684-D3). This slim and elegant court lady represents the ideal of feminine beauty at the end of the 7th century – early 8th century. Her head, neck and hands were originally painted and the pigments have vanished. Her costume in ‘three-colour’ glaze shows central Asian influence. She is wearing the so-called cloud-walking shoes.

13      See Zhou Fang (attributed to), Ladies with flowers in their hair, Tang dynasty, late 8th – early 9th century AD (10th-century copy), ink and pigments on silk, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang, China, illustrated in Richard M. Barnhart et al., Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Yale University Press/Foreign Language Press, New Haven/Beijing, 1997, pp. 80–1, fig. 74.

14      See Standing female figure, Tang dynasty, 8th century AD, Shaanxi Province, North China, earthenware with remaining white slip, gift of Yamanaka & Co., 1939, NGV (4651-D3). This court lady represents the ideal of feminine beauty of the early 8th-century Tang China, made famous by Yang Guifei, the favourite concubine of the emperor. She is plump and voluptuous, with a very stylish coiffure and wearing pointed shoes. The original pigments have disappeared leaving traces of white slip.

15      See Cyril Birch (ed.), Anthology of Chinese Literature: Volume 1: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, Grove, New York, 1994, pp. 281–4. The emperor in his dotage fell so madly in love with Yang Guifei, with her youth and musical talents, that, apparently, he neglected his official duties. When rebellion broke out in AD 755, the emperor had to flee from Chang’an, the capital, with his magnificent court. Shortly after setting out for Shu, now Sichuan province, the emperor was forced by his discontented soldiers to have his beloved concubine executed, as she was blamed for the catastrophe. The emperor reluctantly gave in and presented her with a scarf to hang herself.

16           As curator of the project, I was very fortunate to have the support of the NGV Deputy Director, Frances Lindsay, and the opportunity to work with Daryl West-Moore, Manager of Exhibition Design, who initiated and supervised the project, and designer Jenny Yang, whose creativity, knowledge and dedication has transformed the Tomb Gallery into a dynamic space.