Prof Lillian Tseng Reviews the Met's "Age of Empires" Exhibition in The Art Newspaper

By Maggie Pavao

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties, synthesizes new archaeological discoveries with in-depth research performed over the last 50 years and introduces a transformational era of Chinese civilization to a global audience. The exhibition was reviewed in The Art Newspaper by Professor Lillian Tseng, who discusses the importance and the influence of the outside world on the objects displayed in the show. For example, she cites inspiration from the eastern Mediterranean and West Asia:

The controversy aside, China was interacting with the outside world long before the first emperor. At the Met, objects displayed on the walls that flank the strongman illuminate this interaction. A ceramic cup from between the fourth and third centuries BC has rare blue and purple glazes invented by the Chinese, but its tall, cylindrical shape is reminiscent of cups used in the eastern Mediterranean. More material evidence, dated to the Han Empire that succeeded the Qin, follows in the rest of the exhibition, like a silver box retrieved from a princely tomb in 2010. The lobed design on the silver container and its lid had been a decorative motif popular in West Asia since the 6th century BC. 

Artisans in ancient China were more interested in zoomorphic designs than anthropomorphic motifs. Art historians used to believe that the introduction of Buddhist art from India from the first century AD gave rise to the sculptural representation of human figures in Chinese art, but the excavation of the terracotta army dispelled that belief. Scholars have since considered the life-size terracotta army as indigenously Chinese, especially because they were mass-produced in modular fashion. 

Prof Tseng also illuminates the reasons for why the terracotta army, many of which are half naked, would be part of the funerary design for the first emperor. She notes a recent proposal that "these figurines, which include both heavy and lean body types, are soldiers performing physical exercises to strengthen for battle."

Read more about Lillian Tseng's research here and visit the Met's Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynastiesmajor international loan exhibition featuring more than 160 ancient Chinese works of art—including renowned terracotta army warriors, until July 16th.