When I was going through some of my old files looking for something else, I stumbled upon a report I wrote several years ago about a trip my wife and I took to Memphis to the see the “Imperial Tombs of China” exhibition. Since that was the trip that inspired one my favorite early stories, “Golden Bell, Seven, and the Marquis of Zeng,” I decided to reprint the trip report here. It’s pretty long, so I’m going to break it up over the next few days.
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.
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.
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 out of Lewis Carroll. 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 set of ideograms. 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 set of ideograms. (Oh, hush. You know you were thinking it.)
End Part 1.