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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

Art for the Afterlife: Chinese Tomb Culture

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Unknown artist, China: Storage jar, Neolithic period, Gansu Yangshao Culture, Machang phase, c. 2330–2055 BCE; earthenware with mineral pigments; 16 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; on long-term loan from Warren King.

Unknown artist, China: Musician, Han dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE; earthenware; long-term loan from Warren King.

Unknown artist, China: Dancer, Han dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE; earthenware; long-term loan from Warren King.

Unknown artist, China: Groom, Tang dynasty, 618–907; earthenware with lead glaze; long-term loan from Warren King.

Unknown artist, China: Horse, Tang dynasty, 618–907; earthenware with lead glaze; long-term loan from Warren King.

The objects in Art for the Afterlife, a section of the exhibition Parting the Curtain in Gallery 4, include some of the oldest on view at the Berkeley Art Museum—yet they appear as pristine as if they were made yesterday. How is it possible that ceramics crafted by hand over four thousand years ago can be so complete in every way? The answer lies partly in the reason they were made, but also in the way they were preserved. These Neolithic Chinese storage jars, dating to the twenty-fourth century BCE, are among the earliest forerunners of the Chinese tradition of objects placed in tombs. They were preserved through the centuries in burial sites in Western China, artifacts of a culture that takes its name, the Gansu Yangshao Culture, from the Gansu region, where this type of warm buff brown-bodied pottery with geometric designs was originally discovered in the early part of the twentieth century.

It was initially believed that this pottery was made exclusively for burial; the distinctive pattern of black and reddish-purple linear designs with a characteristic “sawtooth” line was dubbed the “death pattern.” Later archaeological discoveries disproved this assumption, as objects of similar size and type were found in village domestic sites as well. Upon further archaeological work it became apparent that there had been a progression of cultures in this region, one distinct from the other and identifiable by specific types of pottery shape and design. It also became clear that cultures related to those found in Gansu extended to the west and east into the central Yellow River Valley, helping to form the cradle of Chinese civilization.

What is most remarkable, beyond the simple existence of remnants of this ancient culture, is the beauty of the hand-painted decoration on the upper portion of the vessels. Strikingly symmetrical, especially when viewed from above, the designs are a combination of crossing and swirling patterns that exhibit a love of and desire for beauty in early Chinese civilization. The vessels vary in height from a few inches to over eighteen inches; they show no signs of being wheel thrown, but rather were built using the coil technique, in which clay is rolled into long snakes that are joined and pulled together to create a vessel shape. They were then paddled and beaten into the thin-walled jars we see today. If you were to reach into one of these vessels, you would feel the very distinctive work of the hand of a potter from four thousand years ago.

As Chinese civilization grew in sophistication, so did the burial sites and their contents, from low-fired clay storage jars to elaborate fully glazed figures. The gradual move to sculptural forms in ceramics was largely the result of the growing Chinese belief in the afterlife and the resultant need to surround the deceased with objects equal to or better than those obtained during one’s lifetime. Thus began the practice of creating objects specifically for burial, objects of considerable beauty and craftsmanship that were seen only at the time of interment and then buried for eternity.

In the southern part of China during the Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE), sculptures were frequently made to resemble figures from court life, including entertainers and musicians such as those depicted in several works on view. It is likely that these objects were originally painted with a chalk-like pigment, which has now fallen away to reveal the low-fired red clay body.

Advances in ceramic production and the development of lead-glazed wares led in time to more sophisticated and durable sculpture. During the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618–906) there was increased interest in decorating tombs with numerous ceramic goods in lavish displays of wealth. The sculpture of a groom with hand in air next to a pair of brown and yellow lead-glazed horses in the exhibition would have been part of a larger retinue accompanying the deceased in the afterlife.

Objects in the Art for the Afterlife section of the gallery are on loan through the generosity of Warren King.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art