Precious Artifacts, Once Buried with Chinese Rulers, on View Downtown

Top: This white Khotan jade burial suit, stitched together with gold threads, was found during a 1990s excavation and shows unusually refined craftsmanship. Lower left: Earthenware warriors found in a pit about a quarter of a mile from a Chu king's tomb. Lower right: A figurine of a calvaryman with the word "feiji," meaning flying horse or rider, inscribed on the horse. All photographs courtesy of the Xuzhou Museum.

Jul. 03, 2017

The kings of the Han Dynasty, once rulers of a vast stretch of northwestern China, expected to enjoy their cossetted lives for eternity. Entombed in palaces carved deep into mountainsides, they awaited their reawakening amid their jade and gold treasures—surely never imagining that the objects interred with them, handiwork of mere artisans, would instead be granted immortality.

Over 2,000 years later, 7,000 miles from their home, a collection of these splendid artifacts are now on display in "Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity," an engrossing show at the China Institute, 100 Washington St.

Since their first discovery by archeologists in the 1800s, 18 mausoleums of Chu kings and queens have been discovered in these subterranean complexes that were marvels of engineering ingenuity and skill. Although their entrances were sealed behind tons of rocks, grave robbers eventually plundered nearly all the tombs. Nevertheless, thousands of artifacts remained.  

All of the show's objects are from the Xuzhou Museum, which holds a vast collection of materials made from jade. They were chosen by China Institute's director, Willow Weilan Hai, a former archeologist, who notes that the stone is still a favorite among Chinese.


"Jade is the one material that embodies values of our culture," Hai says.  "Jade looks very soft, yet inside it is very hard." Chinese do not like appearing very aggressive, she notes, but admire inner strength. Jade was also believed to have special mystical powers that could ensure immortality.

In order to assure the royalty's smooth passage to the afterlife, the deceased was fitted with a head to foot suit made of jade. The suits for kings and queens were tied together with threads of gold; lesser rank dignitaries had suits stitched with silver or copper thread.

A king's jade burial suit, one of the highlights of the show, had been dragged by grave robbers from its tomb chamber. Stealing the gold threads that held the pieces of the suit together, they left behind the suit itself—4,248 pieces of fine jade.

The tomb, dating from approximately 175 BCE, was discovered by excavators in 1994 and the suit meticulously restored by the Xuzhou Museum.

Other examples in the show of jade artistry are a jade-studded "pillow" that belonged to the emperor's personal chef (according to Hai, he might have sacrificed himself in order to continue serving his master), numerous jade pendants with intricate carvings, and a jade chalice.


The imperial capital of Chang'an competed with Rome as the largest city in the ancient world. Under the rule of the Han kings, the arts bloomed, and the tombs contained numerous earthenware figurines of musicians and performers. On display is a graceful dancer caught mid-step, her long sleeve flowing in front of her, a woman plucking a zither, others playing wind instruments.

Like all dynasties, the Han empire needed a military force to keep a grip on its power. Accompanying the kings into the afterlife were armies—made from terra cotta—that usually stood guard in covered pits alongside the mausoleum. In one, some 2,000 such figures were found, in battle formation, complete with infantrymen, chariots, pack drivers, and generals.

For Hai, the show is about more than objects, but about humankind's search for eternal life.

"Such a dream, from antiquity to this day, from east to west, has been pursued unremittingly," she writes in the show's excellent catalogue. How lucky we are that the Han kings had such dreams, filling their afterlife homes with treasures that would one day travel through space and time to land in Lower Manhattan.

"Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity" can be seen through Nov. 12 at the China Institute, 100 Washington St., 2nd fl. (temporary entrance: 40 Rector St.) Visitors need a photo ID to enter the building. More information here.

Mon–Fri: 10 am–5 pm; Thurs: 10 am–8 pm, free, 6–8 pm; Sat: 11 am–5 pm

$10; seniors and students, $5; under 16, free