Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens Abstract

Princely treasures and imperial expansion in Western Han China (2nd – 1st c. BCE)

Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens
École pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

The princes of the Western Han imperial family had monumental tombs built for themselves on their fiefs. After their death a part of the prestige goods in their possession or given at the funerals were buried with them. These objects and the inscriptions they often bear are our main source on the collections – or more precisely the treasures – of the Chinese princes during the 2nd and 1st century BCE.

I shall first deal with the main categories of luxury items which were collected, that is exceptional pieces made in the imperial, princely or private workshops, antiques, and exotic objects from outside the empire (or their copies); I shall then show how these collectables were acquired and how they were used.

In a second part, I shall return to the problem of the exotic objects and themes in the 2nd c. princely collections. I shall deal more specifically with long distance exotica from the West and, more briefly, with «exoticism of proximity », that is to say the impact of territorial expansion on the princely treasures.

The nobility at the beginning of the Han received and looked for exotica from the West, harness fittings and ornaments in bronze and precious metals in the style of the nomadic horsemen, but also Parthian or Hellenistic silverware that the Chinese nobility adapted to its own taste. The Chinese high society of the time appreciated also animal motifs and iconographical formulae borrowed from the steppes of Central Asia. The nobility’s workshops copied these motifs and sometimes integrated them on purely Chinese objects. I shall deal with some of these themes and try to show that the objects in steppic style found in Han princely tombs of the 2nd c. BCE were inspired by ancient pieces made in the second half of the 3rd c. BCE, a century that has seen such a cultural intermingling within Inner Asia.

It seems that if the « other » from the faraway might fill the dreamlike horizon of the Han nobility, it was not the case of the barbarian of the recently colonized nearby. The impact on princely courts and Han imaginary of territories which have been conquered between 138 and 90 BCE did not amount to much. The Han princely burials contain no object from the cultures which entered the Chinese orbit at that time.

The 2nd century and, to a lesser extent, the 1st century BCE, were exceptional periods of intense competition between princely fiefs and between these courts and the imperial palace at the capital. The princely treasures played a great part in the competition of splendor through which each asserted his status. This period of prodigality and competition for prestige and power lasted until the emperors put an end to the wealth and arrogance of the princes they had settled as feudatory kings.