Whether you’re a fan of history or art, the more than 160 examples of ceramics, metalwork, textiles, sculpture, and painting (to name just a few media) on view in Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) are sure to wow. Illustrating two of the most pivotal periods in Chinese history, these elegant objects were drawn from 32 museums and archaeological institutions in the People’s Republic of China, and a majority of the works have never before been seen in the West.
For those interested in learning more about the objects on view, our exhibition catalogue offers expert scholarship paired with 290 full-color illustrations to get you started.
Looking to learn even more? Our Book Buyer, Lauren Gallagher, shares her expert insights into some of the best books related to the exhibition, whether you’re preparing for your Museum visit or want to share Age of Empires with the youngest art lovers in your life. Read our interview below, and click here to shop our Age of Empires exhibition store.
Age of Empires features such a diverse range of objects, many of which are iconic and have been written about in dozens of books. How did you select the key topics for the book assortment?
China looms large in global history, from myths and legends to inventions such as gunpowder and paper—both of which forever changed the global landscape. China’s engineering feats are equally famous, and the Great Wall was mobilized under the Qin dynasty (which also built some 4,000 miles of roadways). The exhibition features an array of incredible objects from the Qin and Han dynasties, noting how the Han dynasty can be seen to hold a similar influence in the East as the Greco-Roman empires had in the West, unifying varying states and establishing a longstanding identity for its people. While the exhibition focuses on these two great dynastic empires, it has great scope. Given China’s undeniable stamp on the world, I tried to find titles that would appeal to customers interested in the broader story and influence of China, from cuisine and lore to its history.
I’m really excited about the books you’ve selected that speak to Chinese culture. Can you tell me about the importance of these titles in providing modern and historical context to the art in the exhibition?
There are many powerful symbols represented in the artifacts in the show, and in providing some titles on myths and legends, such as Moss Roberts’ Chinese Fairy Tales & Fantasies* and on symbols such as C.A.S. Williams’ Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs,* the thinking was to offer resources for this rich folkloric history. Today we live in a world of “content,” with many of us scrolling thoughtlessly through miles and miles of images and text. Images flash by us and we don’t think much about deeper connotations. Certain images, objects, and animals—in both Eastern and Western art—used to communicate particular things. When looking at artifacts that fully utilized a visual language, we sometimes need a translation to revisit the original meanings. We now live in a hyper-literate society compared to times past, and much of this visual language is not in our vocabulary anymore. I tried to bring in some books on symbols and myths to help visitors tap into these layers of meaning. The more than 2,000-year-old Chinese horoscope tradition is another example of this, hence our inclusion of Shanghai Press’s Complete Guide to Chinese Horoscopes.*
*These titles are available in our exhibition store only
Can you tell us a bit about the children’s books on offer?
Several titles in the children’s assortment, such as the bilingual Ming’s Adventure series, come from a publisher which was founded on the mission of broadening the cultural exchange between East and West. Topics such as the Great Wall and the warriors are of great curiosity for children. Through the narrator, a young boy named Ming, readers are given a great introduction to these topics in picture-book format. Facts are kid-friendly, and DK’s Eyewitness series continues to offer engaging, informative material, with essential facts presented alongside illustrations and crisp photographs, providing a museum-like, tactile experience, with some objects similar to those seen in the exhibition.
Can you tell us about a few of your favorite titles?
I think chopsticks are the most elegant food utensil known to man; no surprise that they feature on the cover of Phaidon’s latest monolithic title in its long line of beefy cookbooks. The authors have extensive knowledge of Chinese food and culture: Kei Lum Chan’s father was a food critic for a Hong Kong newspaper, and he wrote a 10-volume tome covering China’s most classic cuisine. China: The Cookbook covers the eight major culinary regions of China, with extensive introductory notes on food’s resonance in social culture, the different histories of regional cooking, and an overview from ancient times to today. The design is great: sturdy enough for the kitchen and, with its fantastic photos and gold edging, beautiful enough for the coffee table. Best of all, the recipes have been tested.
The exhibition and its catalogue bring together the latest research and insights regarding one of the most formative eras in China’s history, and truly is a monumental achievement. Many of the artifacts have never been out of China before, and the exhibition itself is partially due to The Met’s close collaborations and strong relationship with China, which began in 1980. The photographs are fantastic and fresh, and the artifacts cover a range of media we tend to think of in regard to Asian art: bronze, jade, lacquer, the earliest paper, and of course, ceramics.
The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture
The Age of Empires exhibition features a veritable zoo of creatures. An adorable rhino and an elephant bowing his head to his groom are just two. Dragons, beasts, roosters, bulls, bears, birds, pigs, and other creatures are a delightful aspect of the show. This book—available only in the exhibition store—is a scholarly publication on the prevalence and complexities of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic imagery in the Chinese tradition from the Bronze Age to today.
This all-in-one kit invites imagination and exploration. Including paintbrushes, watercolors, a pad of paper, and an instruction book with 10 projects, this is an exciting way to introduce children to Chinese brush art. The ink stick and stone give children a chance to try their hands at creating animals and flowers in this ancient style.
Many of the antiquities on view in Age of Empires are made of earthenware, including the prized warriors. From terracotta to the fine bone porcelain, which Europeans spent countless years trying to imitate, the history of Chinese ceramics is a part of global history. The Met’s extensive collection of Chinese ceramics spans 5,000 years and provides the key reference points in this exemplary, easy-to-read introduction to the evolution of China’s ceramic arts.
Aimed at the general reader, this is a bit like the DK Eyewitness series but for grown-ups or advanced teenagers. From ancient history to feudal days, the dawn of Buddhism, urban planning and public works, to inventions, architecture, and art, this book covers all the bases and gives readers facts in an easy-to-reference format.