My Favourite Artifacts From China
NSFW: Contains dildos
Han Dynasty (2nd Century BCE – 3rd Century CE) double-dong dildo. Made from bronze, unearthed from the tomb of Liu Sheng (also called Prince Jing of Zhongshan) who died in the year 113 BCE. It is believed that this item was used by his concubines and not the Prince himself, but that;s really just an assumption. Other bronze dildos and dildo-holders have been unearthed from the tomb; bronze may have been used because of its antimicrobial properties.
Liu Sheng and his wife, Dou Wan, were buried in elaborate jade suits designed to keep them “immortal” – to prevent the decay of their soft tissues. Jade plugs were inserted into the orifices (including the nostrils and ears). Liu Sheng and Dou Wan’s jade funeral suits are each comprised of nearly 2,500 small pieces of jade sewn together with thread made of gold and silver, and are intact in China’s Hebei Province Museum even though their coffins and corpses decayed long ago. The World’s Most Vintage Pants were discovered in Yanghai, western China, in 2013 and findings published in 2014. Aside from being the oldest trousers ever discovered, these pants are super-fancy because the fabric forming them was never actually cut. They were woven on a loom to the exact size and shape of the man who wore them, a 40-year-old horseman who lived around 3000 years ago. These pants are made of wool, which was spun into fine yarn then woven into intricate decorative patterns. The skill involved demonstrates the wealth of experience in domesticating animals for their coats, and textile technology, which was already present in this culture. (Spinning yarn is tricky, okay, I’ve tried.) The researchers who discovered these pants noted that use of trousers is an important development in horseback transport, and that “trousers are and essential part of the toolkit with which humans improve their physical qualities”.
So, if you’ve seen the show Monkey Magic back when it was on TV, or you really liked The Hobbit, or you’ve done any research into the introduction of Buddhism to China, you will probably appreciate the story of Xuanzang, who was basically the Tang Dynasty’s own Bilbo Baggins. A bookish, quiet fellow with little use for adventure, he grew up striving to become the best Chinese Buddhist he possibly could. That was difficult at the time because China’s version of the Indian Buddhist sutras were in nearly the same state in which we find most of the Christian New Testament today: the victims of countless translators of varying skill levels, all working on separate sections in wildly different languages, trying to recreate sacred texts in their own image, over the course of centuries. Xuanzang lamented that it was practically impossible to come across unadulterated Buddhist scriptures in 7th century China, separated by nearly a millennium and many thousands of miles from the Buddha himself.
The story goes that after having a vivid and prophetic dream (possibly involving Gandalf), he set off on foot to India, to retrieve the teachings of the Buddha and bring them back to his homeland to enlighten his people. He had to sneak out of China because there was a war on, but whatever, he had scrolls to collect. It took him about eight years each way. On the way back, he was riding an elephant across the Indus river (when in India…) and a sudden storm blew the precious sutras he was carrying into the biggest fucking river in the subcontinent.
This painting, from a cave in Dunhuang, is believed to depict Xuanzang’s reaction when he realised he had to pack up his party, go all the way back, and get a bunch of new sutras.
“Ughhhhh. Suffering comes from desire. Suffering comes from desire…”
This adventure not only succeeded in bringing Buddhism to China, leading to the creation of the Shaolin and Zen schools among others, but Xuanzang’s account of his trip – Record of the Western Regions – inspired the epic Chinese folktale Journey to the West, a rich blend of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian teachings, featuring the King of the Monkeys. You should read it.
Or watch the TV show. Whichever.
Finally, and I will concede that this is a very recent artifact and doesn’t really fit with the theme so far, this is the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when the Chinese army moved against student protesters. The Chinese government still denies the enormity of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which saw hundreds (possibly thousands) of civilians murdered for protesting government corruption, censorship of the press, and widespread inequality. The “Tank Man” was listed in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century”. Also, he got up and stood on the actual tank. What a fuckin’ boss.
Photograph by Jeff Widener
References and Further Reading:
Kenny Mencher Art History: Han Dynasty