Heightened receptivity: Steppe objects and Steppe influences in royal tombs of the Western Han Dynasty.

Author:Kost, Catrin
Position:Essay
 
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Tombs of the kings of the Western Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.-9 C.E.) often contain burial items that are related to the material culture of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe. These artifacts are usually interpreted in a general sense, for instance as a sign for the fascination of the Han elite with the exotic. A closer analysis of relevant finds, however, shows different strategies of dealing with foreign influences. While the exchange with the empire's northern neighbors is evidenced through goods for which identical excavated parallels from the steppe exist, the royal tombs of the Han also contained items that resemble and reference steppe motifs and objects but were clearly produced locally and for local consumers. Especially the latter type of artifacts can thus not simply be interpreted as the passive byproduct of exchange relations. Instead, we have to acknowledge that design, production, and usage of these objects were based on conscious decisions. Based on the insight that objects always have a social function, this article argues that the Han elite not only appropriated steppe influences and motifs but also strategically (re)produced and integrated them into their world in order to redefine, enhance, and strengthen their position within their social framework.

A culture takes in what it is ready for... The state of the recipient, not the status of the donor, is the crucial element in reception. (1) From 2009 to 2011, the Nanjing Museum conducted rescue excavations of the Western Han dynasty (202 B.CE.-9 C.E.) tombs at Dayunshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Xuyi County, Jiangsu province) and uncovered a mausoleum precinct of the feudatory kings of the kingdom of Jiangdu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] In total, three main tombs (M1, M2, M8), eleven attendant tombs, two chariot-and-horse pits, and two weaponry pits were excavated. The main burials, although heavily looted, still contained an impressive amount of funerary goods. Tomb 1 alone yielded more than 8,000 objects and more than 100,000 banliang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] coins. Although none of the seals or inscribed vessels excavated mentions the name of the tomb owner, the presence of a jade suit and a jade coffin--burial goods used exclusively by members of the imperial family--as well as inscriptions referring to the year 128 B.C.E. suggest that the tomb occupant is Liu Fei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (169-128 B.C.E.; r. 153-128 B.c.E.), the first king of Jiangdu and one of the older brothers of Emperor Wu of Han [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (156-87 B.C.E.; r. 140-87 B.C.E.).

Among the most striking features of this mausoleum precinct are burial goods that are material proof for far-reaching cultural contacts, for instance to modern-day Iran, southwest China, and northern Vietnam, but also to South Asia and other areas which could be reached through maritime trade routes. Other finds show clear connections to the material culture of the mobile-pastoralist groups of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe. Dating to a period when the Chinese empire had entered a phase of frequent exchange in different forms with the steppe confederation called Xiongnu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Chinese sources, the presence of these goods comes as no surprise. In fact, Liu Fei's grave is only one of a number of royal graves whose burial items display steppe influences. These present themselves in different ways; on the one hand, the exchange with the empire's northern neighbors is evidenced through the display of goods for which identical excavated parallels from the steppe exist. With their decoration comprising depictions of real animals and composite creatures--sometimes shown individually, but also standing in groups or even fighting each other--these are visually salient. The royal tombs also contained objects that resemble and reference steppe motifs and items but were clearly produced locally and for local consumers. The latter type of artifacts can thus not simply be interpreted as the passive byproduct of exchange relations between the Han and the northern mobile-pastoralist groups. Instead, we have to acknowledge that design, production, and usage of these objects were based on conscious decisions.

The different strategies for dealing with the influx of foreign elements raise questions about the underlying motivations of the recipients. While it is generally accepted that objects always have a social function, recent publications have emphasized that the way "foreign" objects, people, and ideas are viewed, received, and treated strongly depends upon the context in which cultural contact happens (Ulf 2009, 2014; Rollinger and Schnegg 2014). Based on these insights, I propose that the steppe and steppe-style objects in the tombs of the Western Han dynasty kings and their consorts are more than just a sign for the general fascination of the Han elite with the exotic or their eagerness to be recognized as equal to their mounted neighbors (Rawson 2012). Instead we should see the artifacts in relation to the interaction between the Han empire and their northern neighbors but also the specific situation of the kings, which influenced the social and individual needs of this group.

Following a brief introduction to the historical context, I will give an overview of relevant sites and finds, illustrating different ways of integrating influences from the steppe. Focusing in more detail on a specific group of objects and the knowledge we have about them from written sources, I argue that the Han elite was especially receptive to influences from the steppe. They appropriated foreign objects and motifs and consciously integrated them into their world, which partly also gave rise to a change in social practices. I thus propose that the Western Han dynasty kings used steppe and steppe-style objects strategically to redefine, enhance, and strengthen their position within their social framework.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

The Formation of the Han Dynasty and the Installation of the Kingdoms

The emergence of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) is closely connected with the history of the preceding Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.). After the death of its first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in 210 B.C.E., the empire, which had been unified a mere eleven years earlier, quickly became unstable. The ensuing revolts led to the final collapse of the dynasty, marked by the execution of the second emperor, Qin Ershi Huangdi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in 207 B.C.E. and the destruction of the capital the following year. For the next four years, two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Liu Bang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], fought for supremacy over the empire during the so-called Chu-Han Contention [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Their struggle was not decided until 202 B.C.E., when Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu in the Battle of Gaixia [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], adopted the title "emperor" huangdi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and chose Chang'an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as the capital for his empire.

The Han dynasty is often rightly seen as a golden age and as a dynasty that initiated various developments, thus laying foundations that were to influence China and its culture for a long time. (2) Its founding, however, brought a return to already existing models of government. Liu Bang largely adopted the bureaucratic system of the preceding Qin dynasty and thus divided his realm into commanderies jun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and counties xian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] One difference to the old system was that he formally acknowledged the existence of kingdoms guo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] within the empire. Initially these were ruled by former companions who had supported his cause, by men who had been positioned to hold conquered territory, or by already existing kings, (3) who were spared from elimination since they agreed to submit to Liu Bang's authority.

Starting from 202 B.C.E. and until his death in 195 B.C.E., however, the new emperor Han Gaozu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] began removing the kings then in power (4) and gradually replaced them with members of his family, making his brothers and sons "kings" zhuhouwang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Probably counting on his kin, clearly identifiable by the surname Liu, to support him, their military weakness must also have made them attractive candidates for these posts, as they could be easily removed as soon as there was no longer any need for them.

For the next few years the emperor spent little time consolidating his empire as he was constantly engaged in armed conflicts with the kings. In 195 B.C.E., during the battle against Ying Bu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], king of Huainan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 202-195 B.C.E.), he was struck by an arrow and died the same year. At the time of his death, the empire comprised ten kingdoms (Fig. 1A), nine of which were ruled by members of the Liu family. (5) Together with the fifteen commanderies existing by then, the kingdoms formed the major administrative units of the empire and employed a simplified version of the court administration. (6)

While the kings seem to have been fairly independent and enjoyed great privileges in the first years, both the location of their kingdoms in the east of the empire, far away from the capital, and the fact that these formed one big block whose size exceeded that of the fifteen commanderies posed a risk for the fragile empire that Gaozu left behind. The years following his death thus brought great changes for the kings and saw the beginning of a longer phase, in which the size of the kingdoms was constantly reduced and the rights of the kings curbed. Various measures were employed to achieve this, such as centralizing the collection of taxes, reverting lands to imperial control or dividing them among the...

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