“Age of Empires” is a show of emperors, soldiers, and bureaucrats; glimpses of the lives of ordinary people are almost entirely missing. (In this, it may not be too different from any other museum blockbuster, though the omnipresence of death — compounded by an exhibition design of black walls and targeted pin lights — makes this a more somber outing than most.) An exception can be found in a Han-era brick, about a foot and a half long and loaned from the Sichuan Provincial Museum in Chengdu, which depicts a rare, haunting scene of salt production. There is something disconsolate in the faded, humped forms of workers toiling over salt wells and evaporation pans, a submerged world straining to be seen through the rock.
When the exhibition strays from imperial pomp, it is to highlight the peaceable accretion of other cultures and places into the Chinese worldview. Parthian coins from Central Asia sit beside beaded necklaces from India, the distinct bronze-casting of southwestern China, and the pervasive motifs of the nomadic peoples forever shading the Chinese frontier as found in turquoise headdresses, gold belt buckles, and bronze ornaments for harnesses. Under the unsubtle subhead “One Nation, Many Cultures,” this last part of the exhibition depicts a multicultural empire, open to the world, stable and harmonious under the beneficent rule of its imperial autocrat.
There is no denying the remarkable forms of state centralization developed by the Qin and Han dynasties, nor the diversity of their subjects, nor the great scope of their trading networks. But the siren song of modern nationalist ideology is ever present. Whether intentionally or not, the show appears to parrot the public messaging of the current Chinese state in its insistence on the unbroken, immemorial continuity of Chinese governance, on a diverse body politic docile beneath the rule of law, and on a nation at peace with its neighbors and open for business.
The full article is available in Even no. 7, published in summer 2017.