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  Field Notes From
Han Dynasty



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From Author

Mike Edwards



Han Dynasty On Assignment

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O. Louis Mazzatenta



Han Dynasty On Assignment

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Robert Clark




In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Meaghan Mulholland (top), Bronwyn Barnes (center), and Robert Clark


 

Han Dynasty

Field Notes From Author
Mike Edwards

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    In recent years the Chinese government has built handsome museums to house some of its treasures. They're first class, on par with the world's best, and they made my search for the Han particularly enjoyable.
    Foremost among these is the huge, 700,000 square foot (65,000 square meter) Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xian. Among the displays are 6,000-year-old pottery, exquisite porcelain, and a selection of the life-size terracotta warriors from the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, who unified China in the second century
B.C.
    The new provincial museum in Xuzhou displays a burial suit made of jade wafers, such as those that encased princes of the Han dynasty. Another fine new museum, in Zhengzhou, boasts a model of the first seismograph, a fat bronze barrel with levers that responded to a tremor by dropping a ball from a dragon's mouth into a toad's mouth. But what I liked most in this museum were the painted clay dogs, symbolic goods placed in tombs to accompany the deceased to the next world. Some looked like ferocious watchdogs. Some seemed to smile, as if they were pets. And some, I suppose, were for neither watching nor petting, but—alas, alas—for food.


    On the drive back to Zhengzhou after visiting an underground tomb, our van passed many small farms. Farmers are always interesting, so I asked my local guide, a provincial employee, to stop so I could talk to one or two. Silence. The van sped on. I asked again. "Not in the program," he said. "You mean that in Henan province a journalist can't talk to a farmer?" "Not in the program." In other words, since I hadn't requested a farm visit in advance, along with my other visits, I wasn't going to meet a farmer in a spontaneous roadside stop. Of course, had I asked beforehand, the authorities would have chosen the farmer and probably instructed him on what to tell me.
    I was fuming when I got to my hotel. So I found a Chinese student who spoke English, hired a taxi, and rode ten miles (16 kilometers) out of town. And there I spent a pleasant hour talking to a rice farmer beside his paddy. It wasn't a sensational interview; he didn't say anything that would have embarrassed the local officials. But for me, it was a small victory, scored over minions who still lived in China's cautious past.


    The sedan chair was still an occasional sight in China just 60 or 70 years ago. An enclosed seat between two long poles, it was surrounded by a whiff of elegance, if only because it required two (or sometimes four) sets of legs for locomotion, instead of the single set of a rickshaw.
    "Old people still like the sedan chair," says Wu Zaixing, who makes them in the city of Quanzhou, but solely for metaphysical transport.
    Mr. Wu's sedan chairs are about four feet (one meter) long, fashioned of bamboo slivers and sheets of bright paper. They symbolize comfort after death and a grand journey to another world. When someone dies, the family of the deceased comes to Mr. Wu's shop to buy goods to accompany the departed one. He also offers bamboo and paper automobiles, refrigerators, and TV sets. At the crematorium they rise in smoke along with the departing  soul.
    Mr. Wu had to stop making grave goods in the 1970s during the nightmarish Cultural Revolution, when even a faint show of opulence could get you sent to do hard labor. But today the grave goods business, an ancient tradition, has—shall we say?—returned from the dead.


   


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