Immortality: the notion that one lives on past this life, thus helping us mere mortals digest the fear and grief brought on by death. Heavy investments of inestimable wealth into the unwavering belief that the afterlife exists has produced hugely lavish art, including majestic sculptures, tombs and precious artifacts.
The Han Dynasty, China’s second imperial family as of 206 BCE, was one such group of believers. The enormous wealth that awaited family members upon their passing would surely make one relish the chance to expire. Intricate burial chambers, kitchens, concubines and rooms crammed with the most precious of gems were just the tip of the iceberg, with reports of sacrificing the servants of certain VIPs to ensure they weren’t left alone in the afterlife. (Let’s hope you read the small-print of that employment contract).
Practices such as coating the body in jade was a technique used for the prevention of ‘demon’ attacks (i.e. the natural decomposition) and has left us with some stunning art. This jade suit, from 2nd century BCE, is from the tomb at Xuzhou and consists of 4000 jade pieces:
In today’s society, as I remain caged within the confines of what is arguably new-age greed, insolence and skepticism, my initial thought was “what a waste”. Those jade pieces (as well as the rest of the gold, silver, bronze, elephant tusks and ceramics accompanying the corpse) would surely better serve someone still living. Considering belief in the afterlife was a spiritual matter, did it really concern the physical body to this expensive extent?
Of course, it’s easy to mock the conventional sentiments of the past from our perch at the peak of scientific knowledge, but, on second thought, perhaps we aren’t so different. Would we be comfortable burying our relatives without a funeral? Maybe, like us, the ‘no expense spared’ mantra we apply to the newly deceased is really more for the comfort of the living, who can revel in the knowledge that their loved one is enjoying the lap of luxury somewhere.
Preparing for immortality: superstitious mumbo-jumbo or money well spent?
If you want to learn more the ancient Chinese tombs, visit The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, London. Entry is free. Alternatively, pick up our Chinese Porcelain ebook, for some further insight into Chinese artist heritage.