This is an account of a trip to Memphis my wife and I made several years ago. It’s relevant for the simple reason that it was my first real introduction to the artifacts and history of ancient China, and at least some of the interest I’ve developed over the years for Asian themes can be traced directly to it. Not to mention stories like “Golden Bell, Seven, and the Marquis of Yi,” (Black Gate, Nov. 2000) “Palace of the Jade Lion” (coming up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies next month) and my Mythopoeic Award finalist novella, The Heavenly Fox. Sometimes research is an Adventure.
The drive from Jackson to Memphis is only 200 miles. It just seems longer because the only things breaking the monotony are trees, swamp, and kudzu. We arrive at the Cook Convention Center tired yet cranky. Since this is my fourth trip to the Memphis exhibits we only get lost once. Not bad considering that, in downtown Memphis, it is illegal to turn left. ‘s true.
Carol buys the tickets while I try to shake off a bad case of road fuddle and we go to the holding pen. Ok, it’s really a nice large airy corridor where you wait until the scheduled tour time to begin. The corridor contains an historical timeline of China on one wall, and on the other, among photos of the Great Wall, several actual bricks from the wall. They’re temporarily mounted on the corridor wall and meant to be touched as well as looked at, so we do. Very calming influence, those bricks. Mellow. I’m not so cranky now. We watch a short film on the history and background of the Chinese Imperial Tombs exhibit, then pick up our pre-recorded tour guide tapes (starring the inestimable Leonard Nimoy) and begin. Well, almost. My tape’s not rewound. I hit rewind and stand with my back to the wall looking at the first display until the narration catches up.
I’m not going to describe everything we saw because it would be a book and there’s already one written on the exhibit. But I will try to hit the highlights. The very first display as we entered the exhibit was a pair of (and few other words describe them adequately) magnificent shizu, spirit guardians in the form of a male and a female lion. They are carved of white marble and stand nine feet high, and weigh about 19,000 lbs each. Such guardians were used to protect the road to a royal tomb or temple, called a “spirit way” or “sacred way.” They were designed to keep back evil spirits, but they seemed friendly enough to us. They were not anatomically correct. The way you tell them apart is that the female lion has a cub under her left paw (keep the little sucker in line) and the male has a ball sometimes referred to as a pearl, but it’s pretty clearly a toy ball under his right paw. It was thought such would keep his fierceness in check by giving him something to play with. Carol suggested that the male watching the cub for a while would serve the same purpose and give the female shizu a break. They just smiled. Or maybe they were showing their teeth.
We took leave of the guardian lions and walked through a short corridor of funeral bronzes. These were miniature horses and riders and chariots, identified by ideograms as belonging to a Han dynasty general named Zhang. At first the actual horses and chariots (and servants) would have been buried in the tomb. With the rise of Confucianism by the end of the Warring States period (before the first Emperor), that practice had given way to burying replicas of the servants and horses and chariots and whatnot. There were, as we were to soon discover, exceptions.
Part II: As Below, So Above. Or: Dying in a Material World
We exited the corridor and came to the first main display. This was (some of) the tomb furnishings of a noble called “The Marquis Yi of Zeng.” Yi ruled a province during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and was a contemporary of Confucius, so this was a very early period tomb. It was also a time when the Confucian idea of using replicas to symbolize actual possessions and servants had not yet taken hold, and whoever said “You can’t take it with you” did not consult the Marquis Yi: he not only could take it with him, he bloody well did. There were over 10,000 bronze and jade artifacts found in his tomb, scores of musical instruments, plus the coffins of twenty-one concubines and serving girls. Fortunately neither Yi nor his unhappy ladies were part of the display, but some really incredible art disguised as everyday items were. There was a bronze wine jar over four feet high and about three across, with lovely relief work all over it. It bore the inscription “For the Perpetual Use of the Marquis Yi.” There was also an open-work bronze wine-cooling vessel called a pan. Also a large bronze cooking bowl and spoon, likewise marked “For the Perpetual Use of the Marquis Yi.” There was a cooking brazier and pot with whale-tailed dragons surrounding the rim, marked likewise.
Moving away from the wine jars (Three all told, very large and ornate, plus wine paraphernalia. The Marquis clearly liked his wine as well as his music and his concubines) we came to what was, for me, one of the neatest objects on display: a bronze stand for a set of musical stone chimes. If you’ve never seen one of these, there are several types, some holding just one chime, or with bronze bells instead of chimes (the chimes are carved of stone and look a little like a fat asymmetrical boomerang). The basic design is a simple two tiered rack, with a set of chimes on each. These tiers were fitted with bronze dragon heads, the whole thing in near perfect preservation. The two stand supports were something extra special. These were in the shape of a creature that had the body and (long) neck of a bird, the feet of a turtle, and a dragon’s head. The dragon’s head was like none I’d ever seen in Chinese art: it looked like a cross between a goggle-eyed snake and something drawn by Tenniel in a Lewis Carroll book. Beyond that it defies description, but was completely wonderful. Pure whimsy. The one on the right had lost its tongue over the years, but the other still had its long, leaf shaped tongue sticking out puckishly, and on the tongue was a familiar ideogram. You guessed it: “For the Perpetual Use of the Marquis Yi.”
There was nothing to indicate whether these items were specially made to be buried or were simply the things Yi had owned and loved and took with him to the grave, but by now I was beginning to think these constant reminders of ownership might be a little like having your name written on your underwear for eternity. And far away in a sick and twisted corner of my mind I wondered if anyone thought to check the coffins of those twenty-one unfortunate concubines for a certain ideogram. Say it with me now: “For the Perpetual Use of the Marquis Yi.” I also picture their vengeful ghosts basically kicking his ectoplasmic ass throughout eternity. I’ll hold onto that thought.
Part III: Of Horses and Heaven
We left the Marquis Yi display and entered an area that was decorated in the style of a room in a royal tomb complex. It was square, symbolizing Earth, while the adjoining room was round, symbolizing Heaven. In the square room were a mixture of artifacts from several different periods. There was the Dragon and Phoenix crown of an Empress (Ming dynasty 1368-1644 A.D.) done with gold figures attached to a headdress made of kingfisher feathers lacquered and appliqued. The effect was a lot like turquoise or lapis, which is what I thought it was made of at first. This way the effect is the same and it’s much lighter, which I assume the Empress would appreciate during those long courts.
There were multiple jade artifacts, including a belt and numerous pendants, exquisitely carved with dragon and phoenix and cloud motifs, but what got my attention was another funeral bronze, a large horse from the Han Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). The Great Wall had been built to keep out the steppe peoples (of which the Mongols were merely one example) but the Chinese had gone for the northerners’ horses in a big way. A special breed was called “heavenly horse” and most of the Han bronzes are meant to represent it. This particular example is standing as if tensed to rear up at any moment. There’s a great feeling of motion and power captured in this bronze. One ear is flat, another sits upright almost like a spike. The mouth is open wide, the head is angular and abrupt, partially stylized but it captures the life and movement of the animal as well or better than any more life-like rendering I’ve ever seen. It made a great contrast with the Tang (pronounced “tung”) Dynasty pottery horse nearby that was made almost 1000 years later. This horse is very naturalistic, and sedate. It stands still, head slightly bowed, serene.
Time to talk about the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) artifacts a bit. The Tang Dynasty is considered by many to be China’s Golden Age, and the pottery figures seem to back that up. There’s a refined artistry about most of the Tang figures, starting with the horse I mentioned earlier, through the temple guardian figures: a camel, a winged beast with the head of a man, a supernatural warrior called a “Heavenly King” (Deva) and (oddly enough), a well-dressed Court Official (Note: I guess they figured that, if the Heavenly King with his armor, fierce expression, and Phoenix helmet wasn’t enough to frighten the bad spirits away, call in the bureaucrats). These were done with a three color glaze that was dripped on the figures before they were fired. Sort of made them look like watercolors left in the rain, but a very nice effect.
Next were the Yang ladies. They were called that because of the Lady Yang Guifei, imperial consort to the Tung emperor Xuanzong. He purportedly was infatuated with the lady to such a degree that ruling his Empire took second place, and the Lady Yang herself took over many of his duties behind the scenes. Unfortunately her enemies eventually conspired to have her strangled, leaving the Emperor inconsolable. Lady Yang was apparently a very “Rubenesque” woman, and set the style of feminine beauty for many years. The three Yang style pottery figures had very round faces and wore long flowing robes and curly toed shoes. Their eyes are shown closed, their expressions serene, their posture graceful.
When we think of treasures we think of gold and silver, and there were certainly plenty of examples of both (did I not mention the gold bowl in the Marquis Yi exhibit? Darn thing weighed over four pounds, not counting the spoon) but as you may have guessed in my opinion the bronze and pottery artifacts were much more impressive. Which leads me to another of my favorites: the Tang Dynasty Zodiac animals. These twelve figures are just over a foot tall each and represent each aspect of the Chinese Zodiac (Dragon, Dog, Goat, etc). They are shown with human bodies and animal heads. They wore flowing robes, with arms folded and hands tucked in sleeves. They were a delight. Whoever made them clearly had fun doing it. There was a great sense of respect and humor in the figures’ expressions; the tiger and the snake especially wouldn’t have been out of place in a Warner Brother’s epic.
Part IV: The Jade Man, The Silver Woman
We’re about to leave the square room of the tomb complex and go to the round (“heavenly”) chamber, but there was one more artifact I wanted to mention first. This was a gilt reliquary mounted on a carved stone base. This was an object used in Buddhist ceremonies, representing a Lamaist Pagoda on a sacred mountain. It had a gilt cover representing the dwelling place of the Buddha, and occupied by small figures of the Buddha and his Veda guardians. At each corner of the base was a porcelain jar for holding medicinal herbs. It was a lovely piece of work in itself, but I had a strange experience when I approached it. I had the sudden image of a man with a shaved head, holding three sticks of incense, bowing three times toward the reliquary. It was as much feeling as an image, gone in an instant, but for that moment I felt as if I was the one making obeisance to the shrine. If it’s true that venerated objects retain some of the spiritual power that they’ve been exposed to, then, without being too woo-woo about it, maybe that was what I felt. Or maybe just my imagination gone berserk again (it happens). Weird.
Ok, we enter the round room and there is the Jade Man. Actually it’s the burial shroud of Prince Liu Sui of Liang, Han Dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that jade had magical properties, including the preservation of bodies. About a score of these suits have been excavated, so you may have seen pictures of one. It’s essentially a full body covering made of rectangular pieces of jade sewn together with gold, silver, or bronze thread. Prince Liu Sui’s suit uses gold. It’s complete with jade gloves, jade boots, and a jade facemask with jade nose. The body was completely covered. If I remember right, by the end of the Han period the practice had been abandoned as too wasteful (and it didn’t seem to work anyway).
Sharing the symbolic tomb with Liu Sui was the burial shroud of the Princess of Chen (Liao Dynasty 907-1125 A.D.). Besides jade, gold and silver were also said to have had the power of preservation, so the princess was buried in a padded shroud covered with silver mesh. It apparently worked as far as the shroud was concerned–it was well preserved. The Princess didn’t do as well, being reduced to a few teeth and part of a skull by the time her tomb was excavated. The shroud indicated a fairly small woman, but the gold mask that was placed over the face of the body looked more like a Yang-style lady, nearly round. The eyes of the mask stare out, calmly, the face is expressionless.
Part V: On Guard Forever or “The Emperor wants me to do what?!!”
We exit the Circle of Heaven and proceed down a corridor to the symbolic heart of the Imperial Tombs of China exhibition: the terra cotta tomb warriors of the Emperor QinShiHuang. QinShiHuang wasn’t an emperor, he was the emperor. The first true Emperor of All China. He was the one who overpowered every other region, bringing about the end of the Warring States Period of Chinese history. The modern name “China” is even derived from Qin (pronounced “chin”). His dynasty only lasted about fifteen years, but the Empire he creatd pretty much stayed together with temporary lapses–during the succeeding dynasties.
QinShiHuang’s tomb was rediscovered in 1974 by some peasants digging a well in Shaanxi province. The burial pit covered at least 5 1/2 acres (I say “at least” because they’re not sure they’ve found it all yet–NOTE: in 2012 they’ve discovered at least 76 more). The entire Necropolis including walls and standing wooden buildings was supposed to have covered 22 square miles. The pit contained over 8000 pottery figures of warriors, charioteers, and horses. The warriors were in perfect battle formation, as confirmed the military texts of the time that have survived. They were originally brightly painted and carried real weapons of bronze (swords, spears, falchions, halbards, crossbows), many examples of which survived. A spearpoint and a long straight-bladed sword blade of bronze were on display. The fittings had all rotted away, but the blades were in an incredible state of preservation, and, after treatment, gleamed like new steel.
It was also reported in the “Basic Annals of Qin” that the tomb itself was boobytrapped with spring loaded crossbows set to go off if the tunnels were disturbed. Since the actual burial chambers have not yet been excavated, no one knows for sure, though it was also reported that the tomb was in fact looted soon after the fall of the Qin dynasty. Also note: the terra cotta figures were included instead of real people because the custom of human sacrifice was dying out by this time. It wasn’t completely dead. The “Basic Annals” lists a report that the orginal craftsmen who created the tomb traps and such were sealed in the tomb to help keep the secrets safe.
There were four of the tomb warriors present, including a foot soldier, two officers, and a general. All of the figures are shown with brigandine armor (bronze or leather scales); rank was indicated by the type (or lack) of head covering, as well as ornateness of dress. The general was 6’2″ and looked larger. All the faces were very individual and expressive. The heads were done separately and then attached later, but the bodies were created from the same basic shape and then further molded/ individualized before being put in the kiln. Across the corridor was a chariot horse (full size, gad) rendered with the same great artistry.
The last part of the exhibition was a recreation of a throne room from the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) It was full of marvelous stuff as you can imagine. Particularly striking (no pun avoided) were the freestanding bell and chime frames. The construction was different of course, being in gilt wood instead of bronze, and they were much larger (7-9 feet high at least) but the same basic design appeared in the Marquis Yi’s stone chimes from 2000 years earlier. These had a phoenix and dragon design throughout, and the chimes were made of several pounds of jade each. They could be played only when the emperor was present.
The throne was more like a loveseat, of wood lacquered in gold. This gave it a more reddish-coppery hue than what you normally think of as “gilt.” Carved with dragons, of course, but there was a surprisingly playful quality to the sculpture, with dragons entwining on the arms and frame and climbing over the back of the throne as if they were playing chase and tag like impudent children while the Emperor brooded his broods and decreed his decrees.
There were several robes on display, of silk and satin with dragon, phoenix, and bat motifs in gold, blue, yellow, and black (bats were thought to be a sign of good fortune). The guide book only mentioned one of the robes having the bats, but Carol says they were on all of them (Being a weaver, she paid close attention to the textiles). Calling them gorgeous is true enough but lame, so let me just say that, yep, they were suitable attire for the Emperor and his Lady. Not bad duds at all.
Besides the robes and jewely and cloissonne cranes and ceremonial weapons, there also a pair of really interesting supernatural critturs called luduan. These look like a cross between a pot bellied stove and a gorilla. There were done in brass partly covered with blue and green cloissonne, and had big grins that wrapped halfway around their heads. According to legend, these creatues had the natural ability to distinguish between good and evil upon hearing them, and they had ears shaped like funnels to indicate to all present that they Missed Nothing. Personally, I wouldn’t trust the pair of them as far as I could throw them, but then I wasn’t the Emperor
So much for Saturday. Sunday brought a trip to the renovated Memphis Zoo and an exhibit of Chinese Art (private collection) at the Pink Palace, but this has gone on long enough as it is. Hope it was occasionaly interesting.
Ah, dear, dear Richard, this brings back SO many memories of trips to Memphis in childhood with my grandmother, as a college student with my friends, then later with my husband when on staff at MSU! This China exhibit was truly a feather in the cultural cap of Memphis! Wonderful job you did here of including us in your tour! Thank you!