Gong hei fat choi! Chinese New Year and the Terracotta Warriors

Gong hei fat choi! Chinese New Year and the Terracotta Warriors

The most important holiday for Chinese around the globe is undoubtedly Chinese New Year. In this blog, Rebecca Rice, curator of Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, explores objects in the exhibition that connect to the themes of Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year

We’re excited to be hosting Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality during Chinese New Year in 2019. This year the celebrations began on 5 February, with the new moon, and continues until the full moon arrives with the festival of lanterns.

Chinese New Year’s origins are, like Passover or Easter in other agrarian cultures, rooted in a celebration of spring. In preparation for the new rice season, celebrations and preparations were undertaken to ensure a prosperous year.

These rituals were as important in death as in life. It is thought that figures such as this gorgeous painted maid were buried with rulers to ensure seasonal rituals were carried out properly in the afterlife.

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Painted maid, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), painted pottery, 47 x 15.5cm, Han Yangling Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Traditional customs

Chinese New Year is an important time for families to gather together, to honour household and heavenly deities, as well as elders and ancestors. Food is very important to the celebrations and many Chinese families gather together to feast on New Year’s Eve. People eat long noodles to symbolise long life, and dumplings to symbolise wealth.

Maybe some of the remarkable vessels in Terracotta Warriors, such as this inlaid tureen or gui, might have been used to offer food to an ancestor over 2,000 years ago.

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Tureen (gui) with lid, Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), bronze, inlaid with gold and silver, 15.5 x 19.2cm. Mizhi County Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Perhaps this elegant flask, hu, may have held wine for feasting.

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Flask (Hu), Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), bronze, 34cm high. Fengxiang County Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

The Chinese zodiac

One of the most well-known things about Chinese New Year is that it signals a year of a new animal from the Chinese zodiac. This year we transition from the year of the dog to the year of the pig. Here are a selection of Chinese zodiac animals that are in Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Let me know if you can find any others on your visit to the exhibition!

Rat

The jury’s out on what this fascinating gilt bronze headstall actually represents, but one possibility is a rat. The headstall was part of a horse’s bridle harness, and the carefully crafted nature of this object suggests how important horses and their adornment were in ancient China.

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Headstall ornament, Warring States period (475–221 BCE), gilt bronze, 5.7cm. Fengxiang County Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Ox

This cast bronze belt buckle depicts bulls – close enough to an ox? Belt plaques with figurative representations of animals like this were widespread among nomadic peoples from the northern steppes. They may have reached China as trade or spoils of war.

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Belt plaque with wrestling bulls, Han dynasty (206 BCE – 221 CE), bronze, 8.1 x 12.6cm. Shaanxi History Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Tiger

I’m year of the tiger (I was ‘discovered’ in the same year as the First Emperor’s terracotta army – I’ll leave you to do the math on that!). One of my favourite objects in the exhibition – also one of the oldest – is this bronze tiger, which dates from the Western Zhou dynasty. I’m constantly stopped in my tracks by the thought that over 3,000 years ago, a craftsperson lovingly conceived and created this tiger, so delicately holding a cub in its mouth.

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Tiger mother with cub in its mouth, Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE), bronze, 10 x 20cm. Baoji Bronze Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Rabbit

I’ve yet to locate a rabbit… Can you find one?

Dragon

One of the only mythical creatures in the Chinese zodiac is the dragon. This hollow paver is decorated with a picture of the azure dragon of the east, one of the four cardinal emblems. The paver comes from Maoling mausoleum, an imperial structure built for Emperor Wu of Han, the seventh Han dynasty emperor, who reigned an amazing 54 years from 141-87 BCE.

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Hollow brick with dragon pattern, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), pottery, 38 x 64.7cm, Maoling Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Snake

This belt hook with a snake’s head is cast from solid gold. From above, the surface is also decorated with six more coiled snakes.

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Coiled snake-shaped belt buckle, Spring and Autumn period (771–475 BCE) gold, 1.4 x 2.6cm. Baoji Archaeological Team. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Horse

Horses were of great importance in ancient China, both in warfare as well as in industry and production. It’s not surprising then, that horses, both real and terracotta, accompanied the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, into his tomb.

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Chariot horse, Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), pottery, 166 x 193cm. Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Goat

This pottery goat is one of hundreds buried with the fourth Han dynasty Emperor, Emperor Jing, at Han Yangling Mausoleum. Domesticated animals were included to provide the emperor with food supplies in the afterlife.

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Pottery goat, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), painted pottery, 26 x 38cm. Han Yangling Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Monkey

Like the rabbit, monkeys are scarce in Terracotta Warriors. But what is that long-legged, tailed creature clambering onto the roof on the remarkable carved and painted tomb gate? Could it be a monkey?

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Tomb gate (detail), Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE), carved and painted stone, Suide County Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Rooster

This charming rooster is an absolute delight. According to legends, roosters could protect against evil spirits. However, like the goat above and the dog below, it was made for the Mausoleum of Emperor Jing to keep him well-fed in his afterlife.

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Pottery rooster, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), painted pottery, 16 x 16cm, Han Yangling Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Dog

In many cultures, dogs are considered the truest of friends. Dogs and pigs were the earliest domesticated animals in ancient China.

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Female dog, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), painted pottery, 21 x 31cm. Han Yangling Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Pig

This year is the year of the pig, the 12th and last animal of the Chinese zodiac. The pig is a symbol of prosperity and wealth. This jade pig is crafted with the utmost simplicity, with just a few cuts creating contours suggestive of its form.

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Jade pig, Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), jade, 6 x 2.6cm. Xi’an Museum. Photo by Qiu Ziyu, courtesy of Shaanxi History Museum

Gong hei fat choi!

We wish you all the best for a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year! Look here for events relating to Chinese New Year at Te Papa. To find out more about visiting Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality, visit Te Papa’s website.

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