Tomb Treasures: Discussion

Summary

In Tomb Treasures, we look at how ceramics buried in tombs tell us about the beliefs of the people who lived during the ancient Chinese Han (206 BC–AD 221) and Tang (AD 618–907) dynasties.

Objectives

Students will:

  • develop broader knowledge of everyday life in ancient China and beliefs about the afterlife;
  • distinguish between customs practiced by different social classes in China;
  • compare beliefs about the afterlife in other cultures in the ancient world and those in the present day;
  • use art objects as primary resources for understanding Chinese society and history

Time Requirements

1 class period; additional time for research and reports

Discussion Questions

In Tomb Treasures we look at how ceramics buried in tombs tell us about the beliefs of the people who lived during the ancient Chinese Han (206 BC–AD 221) and Tang (AD 618–907) dynasties.

The ancient Chinese believed that it was important to honor the emperor and also to honor one’s parents (this belief is still very strong in many Asian countries today). This belief carried over into death. The ancient Chinese believed that when a person dies, his or her soul lives on in two separate parts: the po and the hun. The po stays with the corpse in the tomb, while the hun travels off in search of Paradise.

Thousands of years ago the Chinese began burying objects to comfort the po in the grave. These included everyday objects the deceased may have enjoyed in life. The tombs of wealthy aristocrats or the imperial family may also have included the bodies of horses, servants, soldiers, and precious objects. Later, the dead were buried with the ceramic representations of these things—sometimes many hundreds of them.

Even today, in the People’s Republic of China and in Chinese communities all over the world, paper versions of objects important to the deceased are burned during ceremonies honoring them.

Read and display or ask students to read the Tomb Treasures narrative.

What concepts of the afterlife do these ceramic artworks convey?

  • The afterlife would be something like daily life for the deceased.
  • Horses were important for warfare and hunting.
  • Camels were important for carrying trade goods.
  • Music, entertainment, and sports were enjoyed.
  • Tradition was important—the ceramic vase would remind the family and the spirit of the deceased of traditional bronze vases.

What does the production of hundreds of ceramic objects for a grave say about a society? What does it mean when some people have special burials and others don’t?

  • That some parts of society had more than they needed to survive and could spend excess resources on special objects that would be buried in graves.
  • If there weren’t excess resources, that it might have been so important to make a good impression in the afterlife that people did without things they needed to include ceramic objects in graves.
  • That the society was divided into classes and some people—such as the emperor—were considered more important than others.
  • The culture would have developed special technologies to create these objects in large numbers.

What other culture have you studied that put a special emphasis on the afterlife? Ask students to discuss: is this because the afterlife was so important or is it because these graves are some of the only things we have left of these cultures?

  • Ancient Egypt
  • Maya
  • Inca

Activities

Form teams to research and report on the ideas about the afterlife in the following cultures:

  • India
  • Egypt
  • Persia and Babylon
  • Greece
  • Rome
  • Maya
  • Native American cultures
  • Central Asian cultures such as the Scythians

Compare grave goods with objects found in Chinese tombs: what other cultures included ceramics? Elaborate tombs? Valuable objects made with gold, jade, and other precious materials? What relationship did these practices have to everyday life? What cultures do we know less about because climatic conditions did not allow graves to be preserved (tropical lands in Africa and South America, for example).

Students may also wish to report on contemporary funeral practices, maintaining respect and sensitivity to all beliefs about the afterlife. For example, the Ga people of Ghana in Africa carve coffins that represent some aspect of the deceased—a fisherman might be buried in a giant fish! Examples can be seen online at the website for the National Museum of Funeral History

Students’ essays should include reflection on the questions they discussed above:

  • What might a society’s values be if it lavishes resources on funeral practices?
  • Do some people have special burials while others don’t? How is this determined? Social class?
  • Religious beliefs? Cultural traditions?
  • What beliefs do the culture hold about the afterlife?

List of Objects for Section 1

Acrobat figurines
Han dynasty (207 BC–AD 221)
Unglazed earthenware, traces of pigment
Approx. 8 in. tall
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1996.44.4A-H

Bactrian camel figurine
Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)
Earthenware, iron oxide lead glaze (sancai)
32 in. high x 9 in. wide x 24 in. deep
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1997.69.76

Horse statue
Han dynasty (207 BC–AD 221)
Unglazed earthenware, traces of pigment
56 in. high x 48 in. deep
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1997.69.74

Polo player figurine
Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)
Unglazed earthenware, traces of pigment
11 in. high x 12 in. wide x 3.5 in. deep
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1999.59.54

Figurines of dancer and musicians
Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)
Earthenware, lead glaze (sancai), paint
Dancer: 5.25 in. high
Musicians: 4.5 in. high
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1997.69.105 A-D

Wine jar (hu)
Han dynasty (207 BC–AD 221)
Unglazed earthenware, paint
14 in. high
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1996.44.12

Guardian figurine (lokapala)
Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)
Earthenware, lead glaze (sancai)
31.75 in. high
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1997.69.25