The overextension of the labor force during the Qin Dynasty would result in a popular uprising against the empire. In 206 B.C., Liu Bang, a Qin official, led an army composed of peasants and some lower nobility to victory and established his own Dynasty in place, the Han. However, unlike the Qin, the Han would unify China and rule virtually uncontested for over four hundred years. It is during this time that much of what is now considered to be Chinese culture was first actualized. The bureaucracy started under the Qin was now firmly established. The vast lands of China were now under the firm grip of a central authority. Confucianism became the state ideology although the worship of Taoist deity remained widespread, both among the peasants and the aristocracy. Ancient histories and texts were analyzed and rewritten to be more objective while new legendary myths and cultural epics were transcribed.
The Han era can also be characterized as one of the greatest artistic outpourings in Chinese history, easily on par with the glories of their Western contemporaries, Greece and Rome. Wealth pouring into China from trade along the Silk Road initiated a period of unprecedented luxury. Stunning bronze vessels were created, decorated with elegant inlaid gold and silver motifs. Jade carvings reached a new level of technical brilliance. But perhaps the artistic revival of the Han Dynasty is nowhere better represented than in their sculptures and vessels that were interred with deceased nobles. Called mingqi, literally meaning “spirit articles,” these works depicted a vast array of subject, from warriors and horses to ovens and livestock, which were buried alongside the dead for use in the next world, reflecting the Chinese belief that the afterlife was an extension of our earthy existence. Thus, quite logically, the things we require to sustain and nurture our bodies in this life would be just as necessary in our next life.
The Han Dynasty, like the Zhou before it, is divided into two distinct periods, the Western Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) and the Eastern Han (23-220 A.D.) with a brief interlude. Towards the end of the Western period, a series of weak emperors ruled the throne, controlled from behind the scenes by Wang Mang and Huo Guang, both relatives of empresses. They both exerted enormous influence over the government and when the last emperor suddenly passed away, Mang became ruling advisor, seizing this opportunity to declare his own Dynasty, the Xin, or “New.” However, another popular uprising began joined by the members of the Liu clan, the family that ruled the Han Dynasty, the Xin came to a quick end and the Eastern Han was established in its place with its capital at Loyang (Chang’an, the capital of the Western Han, was completely destroyed).
However, even as Chinese influence spread across Southeastern Asia into new lands, the Eastern Han Dynasty was unable to recreate the glories of the Western Period. In fact, this period can be characterized by a bitter power struggle amongst a group of five consortial clans. These families sought to control the young, weak emperors with their court influence. Yet, as the emperors became distrustful of the rising power of the clans, they relied upon their eunuchs to defend them, often eliminating entire families at a time. During the Western Han, the Emperor was viewed as the center of the universe. However, this philosophy slowly disintegrated under the weak, vulnerable rulers of the Eastern Han, leading many scholars and officials to abandon the court. Eventually, the power of the Han would completely erode, ending with its dissolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Three Kingdoms.”
Juizhous, bronze wine tables of this type, are extremely rare. While similar works in green-glazed ceramic, imitating bronze originals, are more frequent, they are often discovered only with a few of the cups surviving. To have a complete set, intact, in bronze is exceptional. This masterpiece, however, is exceptional even amongst other similar bronze examples. The legs, shaped like horse hooves, which support the table, are unusual. The vibrant red pigment that adorns the inside of the cups is phenomenal. The rich patinas that graze this set are quite varied due to their location. Discovered buried inside a tomb, this wine tasting set clearly played as important a role in the afterlife as it did in this world.
This set reveals as much about the sophisticated social customs of the Han Dynasty as it does about their spiritual beliefs. Clearly, the joys of life, including the enjoyment of wine, continue on into the next world. This set was not interred with its owner as a memorial to his wealth, but as a functional tool meant for use in the afterlife. In fact, this table and these cups were forged by a master to survive throughout eternity, as they seemingly have. While we gaze upon this set and hold the cups in our hands, raising them up to our lips, we are transported back in time. We repeat the same actions that occurred almost two millennia ago. Yet, the action of drinking would have continued into the afterlife and beyond. Thus we can hold these cups and imagine saying a toast, to the original owner of this set, who continues to treasure this remarkable work of art from the next world as we do in our own.