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.
This extensive variety of this stunning collection is equaled only by its rarity. A splendid example of mingqi, literally translated as: “items for the next world,” this dining set was specifically commissioned for use in the afterlife. During the Han era, the ancient Chinese believed that the afterlife was an extension of our earthly existence. Thus, logically, as we require wood and drink to nourish our bodies while on earth, we would require the same to nourish our souls throughout eternity. This unrivaled collection attest both to the wealth of their deceased owner as well as the familial piety of his ancestors who commissioned the many works. With such an extensive set, surely the soul of the deceased would be well provided for.
While similar collections have been discovered, rendered in a variety of media, this set is unique both for the breadth of forms and for the uniformity of medium and style. Featuring food and wine vessels, bowls, dishes, plate, and serving ladles, this set still retains most of its original bright red pigment, making the set that much more astounding. Some of the bowls are adorned with marvelously detailed handles in the form of dragon heads. Gorgeous Tao Tieh masks, depicting stylized dragon heads holding handles in their mouths, decorate the side of a large bowl. This set presents us with a magical picture of the sophisticated culinary and ceremonial traditions of ancient China. However, furthermore, this collection symbolizes the spiritual and philosophical beliefs of the Han Dynasty. Overall, this set is a testament to the enormous cultural wealth, history, and heritage of China.